William Hogarth - The Portrait Of Captain Thomas Corman
( Originally Published 1902 )
The Portrait of Captain Thomas Coram represents Hogarth's highest achievement in direct portraiture. It is a large, full-length picture, and for colour and composition bears favourable comparison with the work of any contemporary portrait-painter. Its execution was a labour of love, in which the artist, as he himself tells us, wished particularly to excel. Hogarth's friend-ship for Captain Coram was one of long standing; allusion has already been made, in the biographical portion of this essay, to the practical manner in which the painter seconded the efforts of the philanthropist. His gift of this portrait to the Foundling Hospital was only one of many services rendered to that institution.
Captain Coram had acquired riches as a trader to the colonies, and the direction in which he sought their charitable disposal was that of rescuing some of the abandoned infants who were every year left to perish of cold and starvation. The result was the Foundling Hospital, originally located in Hatton Garden, and now occupying the well-known site in Guilford Street. For seventeen years its founder laboured to obtain State recognition of the charity, and at length, in 1739, it was incorporated by Royal Charter.
In Hogarth's picture the Captain is represented in uniform, seated. The background is formed of two subjects, divided by a centre column. On the left hand is a seascape with trading vessels, indicative of his source of wealth ; on the right, a withdrawn curtain discloses a maternal figure with a child at her breast, typifying its result. Captain Coram grasps the seal of the Charter, which lies upon a small table against which he rests his arm. His cocked hat is at his feet, and on a step below are a revolving Globe, an album, and a letter addressed to himself. The face, set in a white, curly wig, reproduces in expression the benevolent kindness of the good man's disposition. It is not too much to say that this portrait is in every way worthy of its subject, and served excellently to cement the mutual regard existing between the two men.
So many references have been made in these pages to Marriage à-la-mode that it will probably suffice to describe in detail the picture reproduced. It has been pointed out that this series is Hogarth's masterpiece, and there can be little doubt that of the six paintings Scene II., the one here illustrated, is the best.
Viscount Squanderfield—for as yet he has not inherited his earldom—returns to his home after a night's dissipation, the nature of which may be partly surmised from the broken sword upon the floor, a woman's cap which protrudes from his pocket and forms an attraction for the lap-dog, and the generally dishevelled condition of the nobleman himself. His coat is unfastened, his hair hangs loose for want of a ribbon ; there is about his whole appearance an air of neglect and untidiness. Flinging himself into a chair, in an attitude of sprawling indolence, his hands deep-thrust into his breeches pockets, the Viscount gives himself up to what are evidently unpleasant reflections. Certainly Hogarth never painted anything finer and more expressive than this pallid figure. As we look at him his dejection seems positively to deepen, so admirably delineated is the thoughtful misery of the features. The presence of his wife has no apparent effect upon his torpor ; he is so unconscious or regard-less of her that he does not even remove his hat. The lady sits at the other side of the fireplace, divided from her lord and master by a small circular table bearing the remains of an early breakfast. Her attire also is en déshabillé, consisting of a loose gown and dressing jacket and a pretty cap. She holds in her right hand a little pocket mirror, and at the moment depicted gives a sidelong glance at her husband and barely stifles a yawn of fatigue. She, like him, has been dissipating. Music and gaming have been the staple recreations, if we may judge from the violins and case, and the music book, which lie on the floor by an upset chair, and the strewn cards at the foot of the column behind her. A book, " Hoyle on Whist," lies open where it has fallen. The puritanical steward, whose literary taste shows itself in the work on " Regeneration " in his coat pocket, has tried to enlist attention for his accounts. Failing in this errand he leaves the chamber, with a gesture expressive of outraged righteousness, and with all the bills unpaid—save one, which reposes in solitary state upon his file. Beyond the archway a tired, yawning servant makes slow order of the displaced furniture ; he is too sleepy to detect the imminent danger of a chair which has come in contact with the candle flame.
Let us glance at the apartment in which this scene is being enacted. It consists practically of two rooms, divided by a classical archway supported on either side by paired marble columns. The foreground is richly carpeted, and is extravagantly decorated according to the ill-taste of the time. Note the extraordinary ornamentation, including fishes and a china cat, upon the clock, the hands of which point to twenty minutes past twelve. On the mantel-piece, and partly hiding a picture of Cupid with bagpipes (surely a satire on William Kent or some such worthy) is a marble bust with the nose repaired, the central object in a collection of idols, toads, and various monstrosities. In the other part of the room the pictures display a singular incongruity of taste—or rather, singular until we read its significance as a comment upon fashionable life. One canvas is veiled, save for a small portion which discloses a naked foot ; while immediately beyond are full-length paintings, apparently of the four Evangelists !