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Charles Williams (?) Industry & Idleness, Published by S.W. Fores (?) c.1820. 

Here we have a later and much amended version of William Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness series. Attribution is difficult as neither of the plates is signed or dated, the original publication lines having been replaced by a note in contemporary handwriting which reads “Pub’d by S.W. Fores, No. 50 Piccadilly”. The dealer who sold them to me had dated them to 1795 but the paper, use of letterpress text and clothing of the protagonists, all point to a publication date which is closer to 1820. The images themselves are not signed but the style of the engraving, particularly the use of heavy cross-hatching and slightly off-kilter body proportions, is close enough to that of Charles Williams to allow a tentative attribution to be made.

Hogarth’s original version of Industry and Idleness tells the tale of two apprentice weavers, Francis Goodchild and Thomas Idle, who come from identical backgrounds but go on to take rapidly diverging roads through life in mid-eighteenth-century London. Goodchild serves as a rather sickening advertisement for the benefits of hard work and clean living, while poor Tom Idle’s life of gaming, whoring and petty crime is brought to an abrupt conclusion by the hangman’s noose. It is a solidly bourgeois morality tale, conveyed with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer blow and carefully calibrated  to appeal to a newly emerging market of middle class consumers. It’s also arguably one of Hogarth’s most conservative works. The series conveniently avoids confronting the realities of a world in which talent and hard work counted for little in comparison with birth, wealth and connections, and at heart seeks only to encourage the poorer classes to obey their masters and accept their station in life.

Fores’s version of Industry and Idleness deviates from the original in a number of important respects. Firstly, the twelve prints of the original series have been condensed down into a more cost-effective set of six images on two plates. Secondly, the pictures are now accompanied by six lines of simple rhyme, reminiscent of that used in William Hone and George Cruikshank’s satirical pamphlets of 1819-1821. Thirdly and most importantly, the character of Tom Idle has been recast as an upper-class yob who squanders his fortune and brings ruin on himself. This change alters the whole tone of the story, giving it a far more satirical and subversive edge. While Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness encouraged middle class viewers to focus their attentions on their work and the church, Fores’s version invites them to contrast the standards by which they led their lives with those of the upper-classes who presumed to rule over them. In this respect the prints can perhaps be seen as part of the process which Vic Gatrell dubbed ‘the taming of the muse’, whereby the dour middle-class values of Victorian England gradually asserted themselves over the aristocratic libertinism of the earlier Georgian age.

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