Stars of Political Cartooning - William Hogarth

Each day this month I will be profiling a notable political cartoonist. Since the choices are vast, I've decided to slim the numbers down a bit and eliminate living cartoonists. Perhaps I will do a current political cartoon stars in the future.

Here's an archive of the artists mentioned already.

Today we look at perhaps the originator of the modern political cartoon.


William Hogarth was born in London in 1697. From a young age, he was an apprentice to an engraver, and soon, he took off on his own, more as a practical engraver than anything else (you know, ads, coat of arms, stuff like that).

Starting in the 1720s until his death in 1764, he was one of the most famous painters in England. In fact, in 1757, he was appointed Serjeant Painter to the King, which meant that he designed all of the Royal, well, anything that needed designing. It was quite a lucrative and honored position.

So yeah, Hogarth was a great painter, and he used his paintings in much the same way that he used his prints, to point out the follies of society through a satirical eye.

That said, I'm going to be focusing on his prints here, because they're more comparable to our modern conception of what an editorial cartoon is.

In fact, Hogarth's first major work WAS a print, rather than a painting, with his 1721 cartoon titled Emblematical Print on the South Sea Scheme, which depicted Hogarth's take on the 1720 Stock Market crash, which was built around people investing too much in the South Sea bubble, a company that seemed to mostly just issue stock.

His pretty straightforward "they all got taken for a ride" analogy might seem quaint now, but at the time, it was not the sort of thing that people would depict in art.

The print was popular enough that Hogarth could have made a fine living just as a print maker, but he used the popularity of this work to enter the world of painting. Later, after establishing himself as a painter, he then used THAT popularity to launch a new business venture, where he would sell prints directly to the public!

These prints would, in some strange way, be greatly similar to comic books, as Hogarth arranged many of them in "sets" that would follow sequentially.

The first was "Harlot's Progress," which (like the others that followed) first began as paintings before Hogarth made prints of the works for sale to the public. Harlot's Progress tells the story of how a woman became, you know, a harlot.

"Rake's Progress" followed up the success of Harlot's Progress with a similar tale of how a man wastes not only his inheritance, not only his own life but also the love of a good woman.

Having shown the world the follies of the lower classes, over a decade after Harlot's Progress Hogarth debuted what may be his finest work, Marriage à-la-mode, which depicts the ill-fated marriage of the daughter of a rich merchant being married off to the son of a bankrupt Earl.

While Marriage à-la-mode may be his best work, Hogarth's most FAMOUS work was still to come, and it would be in the form of one of the most influential political cartoons in British (or American) history, when Hogarth (perhaps as a favor to his friend, Henry Fielding) helped created propaganda for the passing of the 1751 Gin Act with the following posters...

Beer Street

and Gin Lane

Hogarth is pointing out to the people that beer is okay, but Gin and hard liquor leads to awful situations.

Such paintings were a truly shocking sight at the time - look how graphic the Gin Lane poster is! The paintings were so shocking that it was said that Hogarth's posters greatly helped the efforts to pass the Gin Act. Note the lady in the front of Gin Lane who is dropping her baby - that's based on the real life story of a woman who strangled her child so that she could trade its clothes for money for gin. Yee-ikes.

As you have seen so far, Hogarth's paintings are filled to the brim with detail.

This is true for this great piece in a series Hogarth did depicting the "times" of the day.

Here, the King is trying to extinguish the flames of the Seven Year's War while chaos ensues. This was two years before Hogarth died.

As you can see, Hogarth was practically a visionary in the terms of what can be done with prints, and at the same time, he was ahead of his time in the idea of having cartoons go together sequentially to tell a story. Thomas Nast wrote about the great influence Hogarth had upon his work a century later.

Thanks to the following sites for the images used in this piece:

Green Lantern Cover Gives Clear Look at Hal Jordan's New Blackstars Uniform

More in Comics