A  Work  à  clef  for  Hogarth’s  Last  Works

Hogarth, William (1697 London 1764). Sigismonda (Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo). Three-quarter figure of the richly dressed princess with pearl diadem sitting at the table, pressing with the left the cup with the heart of her lover, whom her father, king Tancred of Salerne, had been killed. At the wrist of the right, supported on the jewel case, pearl bracelet with portrait medallion of the king. Stipple by Benjamin Smith (London c. 1754 – Somers Town, London, 1833) for Boydell. Inscribed: From the Original Picture, in the Collection of Ald. Boydell. / Painted by Willm. Hogarth. / Engraved by Benjn. Smith. / Published June 4, 1795, by J & J. Boydell, at No. 90, Cheapside; & at the Shakespeare Gallery, Pall Mall. / Size of the Picture, 3 Ft. 3 ln. high, by 4 Ft. 2 ln. long., otherwise as above and below. 16⅛ × 17½ in (41 × 44.6 cm).

Nagler, Smith, 11. – Harmonic, wide-margined impression from the plate retouched by the royal engraver James Heath (1757 London 1834) about 1822 (“Even these impressions have become relatively rare today though”, Art Gallery Esslingen 1970; and Meyers Konv.-Lex., 4th ed., VIII [1888], 625: “A fine edition”, esteemed also already by contemporary collectors of the rank of for instance an A. T. Stewart [Catalog of the Stewart Collection, New York 1887, 1221, “fine plates”]). – In the margins feeble foxspots.

Exasperated by the difficulties related to the engravings of the Election set of 1757 Hogarth had intended to restrict himself to portraits thenceforward. Lord Charlemont, however, persuaded him to paint one more comic history, leaving theme and price – “the payment was noble but the manner with which it was given by a note enclosed in a letter was far more pleasing to one of my turn of mind”, so Hogarth himself – to the artist. Sir Richard Grosvenor now would not be inferior to this generous gesture and offered the same price for something comparable to The Lady’s Last Stake, again leaving the motif to Hogarth’s choice.

William Hogarth, Sigismonda

As angered as tempted by the £ 400 a Sigismunda by Correggio he considered false – actually not by this, but by Francesco Furini – had scored, Hogarth decided himself for this very theme, with the intention to show the connoisseurs of his time what quality is. May it be that both James Thomson’s 1745 adaptation of the first novel of the fourth day from Boccaccio’s Decameron popular at London’s theatres and Dryden’s revision “Sigismunda and Guiscardo” in his Fables Ancient and Modern from already 1699 had interested him anyway. Just as it is also said his wife had sat for him, it additionally would reflect the history of his own marriage as it was secretly and against the wish of her father, Sir James Thornhill, who only later became reconciled with his former pupil and now son-in-law.

Despite all pains and time Hogarth spent on it – or probably just because of this and not only for this “grand style of history” not being his way – Sigismunda became no success. Not only the client refused the painting as he could not and would not look at something like this day in, day out. Likewise the opponents of previous battles, Wilkes and Churchill, rushed at it with zeal and spite. What in return finally also lead to Hogarth’s concentric charge John Wilkes and The Times.

Sigismunda, however, remained in the possession of Hogarth who now wanted to have it engraved, but James Basire’s etching was not finished, probably because of Hogarth’s death. Time Smoking a Picture – another mosaic piece in his decades-long fight against the high esteem of “dubious Old Master paintings” (David Bindman, Hogarth and His Times, 1997, p. 113) – served as subscription ticket. The 500 pound requested by Hogarth could not be realized by his widow either and for 56 guineas it finally passed from her bequest into the possession of the Boydells who had Benjamin Smith execute present engraving for the complete edition of 1795 – thus well 35 years after its creation and 30 years after his death – with Hogarth’s note in the lower margin:

“ Let the picture rust, / Perhaps Time’s price enhancing dust, / As statues moulder into earth, / When I’m no more may mark its worth, / And future connoisseurs may risc, / Honest as ours, and full as wise, / To puff the piece and painter too, / And make me then what Guido’s (Reni) now. / Hogarth’s epistle. ”

By the bequest of J. H. Anderdon 1879 Sigismunda finally passed into the National Gallery,

“ where, in spite of theatrical treatment and a repulsive theme, it still commands admiration for its colour, drawing and expression …

“ With the art connoisseurship of his day he was wholly at war, because, as he believed, it favoured foreign mediocrity at the expense of native talent; and in the heat of argument he would probably, as he admits, often come ‘to utter blasphemous expressions against the divinity even of Raphael Urbino, Correggio and Michelangelo’. But it was rather against the third-rate copies of third-rate artists – the ‘ship-loads of dead Christs, Holy Families and Madonnas’ – that his indignation was directed; and in speaking of his attitude with regard to the great masters of art, it is well to remember his words to Mrs Piozzi: ‘The connoisseurs and I are at war, you know; and because I hate them, they think I hate Titian – and let them!’

“ But no doubt it was in a measure owing to this hostile attitude of his towards the all-powerful art dealers that his contemporaries failed to recognize adequately his merits as a painter, and persisted in regarding him as an ingenious humorist alone. Time has reversed that unjust sentence. He is now held to have been a splendid painter, pure and harmonious in his colouring, wonderfully dexterous and direct in his handling, and in his composition leaving little or nothing to be desired … If we regard him – as he loved to regard himself – as ‘author’ rather than ‘artist,’ his place is with the great masters of literature – with the Thackerays and Fieldings, the Cervantes and Molières ”

(Austin Dobson, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911).

Offer no. 14,745 / EUR  225. (c. US$ 272.) + shipping

William Hogarth, Sigismunda (Cook small)

– – – The same in Thomas Cook’s popular later, smaller version. Inscribed: Sigismunda. / Hogarth pinxt. / T. Cook & Son sculpt. / Engraved from the Etching made by Mr. Basire, under the immediate direction of Mr. Hogarth. / Published by Longman, Hurst, Rees, & Orme, July 1st. 1808. Subject size 6⅝ × 6¾ in (16.8 × 17.1 cm).

Corresponding with the unfinished model by James Basire figure and rich garment of Sigismunda in outline. – Side-inverted to the oil. – Cook “made his mark as Hogarth engraver, too, whose complete work he has engraved in copy” (Thieme-Becker) and whose original format he maintained contrary to all later Hogarth editions in his first, earlier edition which did not comprise the present sujet. For some sheets not published by Hogarth himself Cook became their first engraver, just as he also gained approval of a contemporary connoisseur as Maximilian Speck von Sternburg. – Trimmed within the wide white platemark which is weakly browned especially in the upper and right outer part.

Offer no. 14,746 / EUR  89. (c. US$ 108.) + shipping

William Hogarth, Sigismunda (steel engraving)

– – – The same in steel engraving about 1840 after the 1795 above stipple by Benjamin Smith and therefore fully executed as the oil. Inscribed: Sigismunda. 4¾ × 5¼ in (12.2 × 13.5 cm).

Offer no. 14,747 / EUR  56. (c. US$ 68.) + shipping

“ I hereby confirm safe receipt of the two dias you so kindly sent us … Thank you so much for your kind help and splendid service ”

(Mrs. M. K., September 16, 2003)