Portrait of a Mason-Artist
The great 18th century caricaturist and painter, who delighted and enraged London society, was a noted Freemason, as Yasha Beresiner discovers
William Hogarth's lifetime - between 1685 and 1764 - spanned that period in English history which saw the birth of organised Freemasonry.
His unique chronicle of British society showed London and Londoners at their best and worst, and Freemasonry was an integral part of that society.
To understand Hogarth's involvement with Freemasonry, both artistically as well as personally, we need to appreciate the Masonic environment in those early days.
It is not easy to transport ourselves to 1717 when four Lodges in London united to form what is now referred to as the Premier Grand Lodge of England.
It was then a mere dining and drinking club, one of many similar fellowship societies soon to develop into a respected entity.
First Masonic print
That special environment is manifest in William Hogarth's first print of Masonic interest. It is revealing and appeared prior to his becoming a Freemason in 1725.
Two years earlier, in 1723, James Anderson's first Book of Constitutions was published. It was to become a milestone in several respects. Whilst it established Freemasonry on a strong footing as an institution of consequence, it was also to cause considerable tension and a split in Grand Lodge.
The original founders, who had often been associated with Jacobite inclinations (unjustly and probably because of the 'secret' nature of the Society), saw in the new Constitutions a major deviation from the original genial and sociable drinking and eating club atmosphere the Society had enjoyed.
The dispute reached a head in June of that year when the renegade Philip, Duke of Wharton, a past President of the notorious Hell-Fire Club, a recognised and self-declared Jacobite, was elected the 6th Grand Master in preference to the continued leadership of the Duke of Montagu.
A compromise, which lasted just a year, saw the appointment of John Desaguliers as Deputy Grand Master. A year later, at the 1724 elections,
Wharton was defeated by one vote and the Earl of Dalkeith was elected Grand Master.
In a typical huff, Wharton stomped out of Grand Lodge.
In an attempt to pre-empt any mischief by Wharton, who had threatened the withdrawal of all of his supporters from Grand Lodge, some members of Montagu's faction published, as a hoax, an advertisement announcing the formation of a competing body called The Gormagons.
The simple plan was that the announcement of the formation of this new body, which denigrated the standing of Freemasons, would discredit Wharton by implication and ridicule his competitive initiative.
It is this situation which William Hogarth exploited, as any good caricaturist would today, with Masonry brought to light by the Gormagons.
First published in December 1724, it is a classic Hogarth print that combines the many elements that have made his work unique and depict his genius at its best.
The print is a masterpiece, describing and satirising the circumstances detailed above. Symbolism is rife and the ancient craft of Freemasonry is represented by an old lady riding an ass.
James Anderson (this apparently being the only known image of him), has his face far too close to her backside for comfort, implying the Scottish Presbyterian Reverend's subservience to the Society.
A tall and prominent Duke of Wharton stands in the guise of Don Quixote, directing the proceedings, and behind him a corpulent John Desaguliers appears as Sancho Panza.
The stance is taken from Coypel's popular print selling in London at the time. The monkey in Masonic gear represents the 'aping' of Freemasonry by the Gormagons.
The original advertisement stated that the new Order had recently arrived in England and was founded by the Emperor of China - thus the four Chinese sages leading the procession - an allusion to the public Masonic processions that had just began to appear in the streets of London.
The ladder, bucket and mop, tavern signs and other emblems show Hogarth to be au fait with Masonic matters.
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