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William Hogarth and copyright
Notes from Jenny Uglow's Hogarth: A Life and a World (Faber & Faber, 1997)
William Hogarth, art, intellectual property, copyright, printing, London
Saturday, April 02, 2005 03:19 GMT

The artist William Hogarth (1697-1764), like a number of the men around him - such as actor David Garrick, and authors Samuel Johnson and Henry Fielding - was at the heart of London's eighteenth-century public life, and had intense opinions about it, which were expressed not only in his images but in his membership of charities and associations and in his legal lobbying. This is a sketch of Hogarth's ideas on society and the public, in particular with respect to copyright, which was key to them.

Hogarth's family was educated but intensely poor. His father's various attempts to make money out of schooling and educational pamphlets failed, and he found himself imprisoned for many years for debt. He died broken and almost pathologically obsessed with his inability to publish his dictionary; the young Hogarth carried with him an enduring hatred of all the monopolists who were able to cheat or sideline small-time producers like his father.

William secured a silver engraving apprenticeship through his family and began to engrave plates and tankards etc. He soon moved, however, into the engraving of book illustrations, shop advertisements, and social caricatures. He was supremely talented at this latter form, producing overflowing scenes of London life whose dense meaning is difficult to read for our generation used to visual meaning unfolding in time.

In a startlingly ambitious expansion of his talents, he taught himself to paint and made his name with a series of six paintings, still famous today, The Harlot's Progress, which showed an innocent country woman arriving in London and descending into prostitution, prison and death.


The form was one of his own invention: the "Progress," a series of linked pictures that drew out a social stereotype (the harlot) into a tragic biography of naivety and need surrounded by indifference and evil interests. It was a form he would repeat with such series as The Rake's Progress and Marriage a la Mode.

In each of these cases, Hogarth painted a set of unique, original paintings from which he then engraved a plate that could be used to produce an unlimited number of prints. His revenue came mainly from the prints, that were sold to the public in large numbers. He was unshamedly commercial in his approach to the sale of these prints, advertising them in the London papers and devising all kinds of schemes to maximise his returns. An essential part of securing these returns was the introduction of a copyright bill which Hogarth devised in association with other young artists in 1735 (when he was 37 years old). At the end of these notes comes Jenny Uglow's narrative of the formulation and introduction of this bill.

This bill needs to be understood in the context of a number of significant social and intellectual trends of the time (which are perhaps all the more significant when we reflect that Hogarth died only just before the constitutional formulations of "America"). Hogarth was ambitious and money-minded, and was sickened with jealousy for those who made more money than he; but this ambition could never eclipse his suspicion and contempt for the injustices and absurdities of establishd interests (and his satire of the classical, "Palladian" forms that were their aesthetic), nor take away from him his genuine identification with the poor. He was an enthusiastic participant in the london tavern and coffee house scene, and instigator of a rowdy dining society (the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks); such institutions were the "Chat Rooms" and "Blogs" of the day - as Addison's new bourgeois journal The Spectator commented in 1711,

"Sometimes I am seen thrusting my Head into a Round of Politicians at Will's, and listening with great Attention to the Narratives that are made in those little Circular Audiences. Sometimes I smoak a pipe at Child's; and whilst I seem attentive to nothing but the Post-Man, overhear the Conversation of every Table in the Room."

Hogarth shared in a faith widespread in his entrepreneurial, middle-class world in the power of trade and conversation. Almost neurotically patriotic, his early work, in particular, is keen to idealise the social variety and exuberance that he saw as the best signs of British liberty; and he fought hard (and unsuccessfully) against the establishment of the Royal Academy of Art which would represent a state take-over of the existing public academies run by the artists themselves. Though he eventually secured a court position and painted official pictures of royal events, Hogarth remained always confident - and sometimes brash - in the expression of his middle-class self, and his most striking portraitwas of a self-made sailor, entrepreneur and philanthropist who is depicted endearingly uncomfortable in the aristocratic settings of the painting.

The other aspect of Hogarth's faith in unfettered British trade and conversation concerned improvement and the poor. Not only did his works bring public attention to the plight of the poor in London, but he was involved in the setting up of a hospital for foundlings, where mothers could take babies they could no longer support. As Hogarth became older, it is this aspect of his personality that comes to dominate, and his former love of writhing disorder gives way to a greater horror of indiscipline. This can be seen in the facile moralising of his Industry and Idleness and of course in two others of his most famous works, Beer Street and Gin Lane, where the standard satire of London life seen in Beer Street (wealthy young men drunken and pawing prostitutes) is made to seem positively healthy and desirable in the light of the scourge of gin. These were years of turmoil in London, with large-scale immigration, mass poverty, high rates of violent crime, and, like many others of his day, Hogarth wondered how this underclass could become domesticated and made to serve the righteous interests of the nation. The founding of the Foundling Hospital, after all, was not only a charitable gesture; the argument made to its rich patrons was that foundlings were a waste of British stock that could be used on the ships and in the fields and thus to boost the strength of a nation whose population was in disastrous decline compared to its European rivals.

This, then, is the background to a certain successful, self-confident man in the middle of eighteenth-century London. The legal basis to this success and confidence was the Copyright Act of 1735. Jenny Uglow's (slightly triumphalist) account can be found on pages 268-271, and appears below.

Hogarth's mission to defend the rights and property of British artists carried over into his work as an engraver. The prints of A Rake's Progress had not been issued to subscribers with Southwark Fair that January for two reasons. First, Hogarth had been working on his pictures, adding new characters thrown up by the news. Second, he had plans to beat the printsellers and the pirates
and did not want to release the prints too soon. He had decided to petition Parliament for an Act that would give designers and engravers the same statutory copyright that authors had won in 1709. Working out the details with his friends, Hogarth proposed a Bill that would give them an exclusive right to their work for fourteen years from the time of publication. This would not only mean that they retained the financial rewards now creamed off by the printsellers, but it would also establish a different meaning of 'ownership' of works of art: at last, the engraver could legally 'own' the property produced by his labour. Furthermore, it enhanced the dignity of the work itself, giving the multiple print a similar status to that of the single painting. And it meant that fine prints could retain their integrity and no longer be debased, 'cheapened' by poor copies.

Hogarth put forward his argument in an open letter to a Member of Parliament. He could never write a dry document, and the little pamphlet storms off the page. He blasts at the printsellers, who have fattened on the labour of the poor engravers, working day and night at 'miserable prices'. The tyrants he fights are not rich patrons, or rich artists, but the 'overgrown shopkeepers' who band together in a vicious monopoly: if a printmaker dares ask a reasonable price, the printseller immediately has copies made and sold dirt cheap, to squash his rebellion. Hogarth was not thinking merely of himself but of the problems facing all engravers: the poorer workers who have no shop or studio to show their prints and have to be reliant on the printsellers; and those who are successful but are forced to use their time to act as shopkeepers (if they don't want to be at the mercy of the publishers), rather than work on their art. Many of these complaints were echoed by Vertue in his later note lamenting that engraving was the least profitable of all arts. This was partly, he thought, because of the mass production, 'the necessity of such works being inted on paper. a sheet being of small value - subject to be multiplyed. and consequently more in number so each of less value'. Prints were also often 'marr'd or ill printed' by ignorant workmen. But the worst feature was the way 'the print sellers squeeze and screw. trick and abuse the reputations of such engravers - to raise their own fortune by devouring that of the Sculpture-Engravers'.

Hogarth's open letter, The Case of Designers, Engravers, Etchers etc., made a case for the importance of copyright as a general good, not just an individual benefit. Good-quality prints would raise the artists' reputations, and higher standards of reproduction, he argued, would improve the status of British art in general. Secure in the knowledge that they would reap and keep the rewards of their work, more people would enter the engraving trade; the public would have a wider choice and - in the end - even the printseller would profit.

At the end of 1734 the engravers' petition was drawn up. William Huggins, as a lawyer, tried (not wholly successfully) to ensure that the legal technicalities were correct and in the following February it was presented to Parliament. It bears the signatures of engravers whom Hogarth had known, worked with and drunk with since the 1720S: George LaIllbert, anxious to protect the new engravings of his East India scenes; Gerard Vandergucht, who had engraved many of Hogarth's book designs; John Pine, whose work had brought a new vigour into the British trade; the architect and engraver Isaac Ware; George Vertue, and Joseph Goupy, now drawing teacher to Frederick, Prince of Wales.

In 1735, under a combination of commercial pressure and Hogarth's urging, old rivals were acting as one. Other engravers came forward to give their evidence to the Commons Committee, and the Bill went smoothly through the Commons and Lords. Finally a date was set for the Act to receive the Royal Assent: 25 June 1735. The assent was given, with nice irony, in a flourish of legal French. At the end of April, as soon as the Bill had the essential approval of the Lords, Hogarth rushed his advertisements for A Rake's Prog;ress into the press. On 3, 5 and 7 May, he announced in the Daily Advertiser that the prints would be delayed until 25June 'in order to secure his Property' by the new Act, which would prevent prints

'being copied without Consent of the proprietor, and therby preventing a scandalous and unjust Custom (hitherto practised with Impunity) of making and vending base Copies of original Prints, to the manifest Injury of the Author and the great Discouragement of the Arts of Painting and Engraving'.

He could not win, of course. Such a blazon of defiance roused the printsellers into action. Quickly, they sent scouts round to Hogarth's studio to spy out the paintings of the Rake. They then rushed back to put as much as they remembered on paper. Working from their sketches and muddled descriptions, hired engravers created a sub-Rake before Hogarth's true one appeared. Major printsellers (Henry Overton, the Bowles brothers and John King) placed their own notices in the Daily Advertiser - for 'The Adventures of Ramble Gripe, Esq, Son and Heir of Sir Positive Gripe'. As well as making Hogarth quickly change his hero's name from Gripe to Rakewell, the printsellers' actions made him lash out. On the day of their advertisement he appealed vehemently for support against men 'who are capable of a Practice so repugnant to Honesty and destructive of Property'. All prints that appeared before 24June, he added, would be 'an Imposition on the Publick'. In mid-June, he announced that to protect that public he would have authorized copies made, to be sold at 2s 6d a set through Thomas Bakewell in Fleet Street. Eventually, the subscribers' prints were issued on 25June, followed by new impressions, sold at 2 guineas a set by Hogarth and Bakewell, and finally by Bakewell's cheap, smaller copies in mid-August.

So 'Hogarth's Act' did not solve all his problems, And when it was finally tested in court in 1753, it proved to have certain weaknesses due to technical problems with the drafting with regard to assignees: it was typical ofHogartb, who liked to do everything himself, not to think of the problems that might arise if someone else was doing the engraving for you.28 Nor did his Act protect those who copied old-master drawings or engravings. Nevertheless, he could write defiantly in his autobiographical notes that it had not only scotched piracies but improved British engraving,

'there being more business of that kind done in this Town than in Paris or any where else and as well. Such inovations in these arts gave great offence to dealers both in pictures and Prints.'

The printsellers' habit of living off the ingenuity of the industrious had suffered, and 'if the detecting the Rogurys of these opressers of the rising artists and imposers on the public is a crime I confess myself most guilty'. The significance of the Act had, perhaps, been greater than even he realized. The idea of the original, unique canvas as containing all worth was diluted; mass production was not seen as a slippage, a stigma, but as another legitimate route for an artist to take.

Hogarth was no maverick, thinking up this campaign in an isolated moment of genius. Similar arguments about intellectual and artistic property were going on in several fields in the 1730s. Musicians were worried about pirated scores and plagiarized performances; writers were seeking to extend the copyright through the 'Society for the Encouragement of Learning'; playwrights and theatre managers were arguing against censorship. The theatre, too, faced problems of internal politics and external pressures, of a slightly different nature. While Hogarth was galvanizing the engravers into concerted action, Fielding was also forging a new platform, forming his own company, 'The Great Mogul's Company of English Comedians' (adding ironically, 'Newly Imported'). In February 1735, with James Ralph as partner and a group of young actors, he took over the Litde Theatre in the Haymarket and launched a volley of irregular plays, beginning with Pasquin, a staggeringly successful political farce. Fielding, too, was challenging the Establishment; and the playwrights also laid claim to free expression and the ownership of their talent. When Walpole eventually introduced a Bill to license theatrical performances, Lord Chesterfield declared that the Bill

'is not only an encroachment on liberty, but is likewise an encroachment on property. Wit, my lords, is a sort of property: the property of those who have it, and too often the only property they have to depend on. It is indeed a precarious dependence.'