The Election (Part (Part 4. “Chairing the Member”)

The Election (Part (Part 4. “Chairing the Member”) drawn by William Hogarth (1697-1764) and engraved by T. E. Nicholson. Source: Complete Works, facing p. 127. Scanned image and caption by Philip V. Allingham [This image may be used without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose.]

Hogarth's four paintings pillory the much vaunted electoral system, the cornerstone of the parliamentary democracy of Great Britain, by exposing such matters as party violence, bribery, and corruption in the electoral practices, especially prior to the establishment of "Election Committees" under the terms of the Grenville Act (1770). The system of eighteenth-century England, the product of the Glorious Revolution and the defenestration of absolutist King James the Second (Stuart) of 1688, was hardly based on universal suffrage. Women, of course, could not vote, but neither could the majority of British subjects. The British voter was either a "freeman" or a "burgess," each of whom could meet the property qualification of ten pounds. Vote buying was common enough: Sykes and Rumbold, for example, were fined and imprisoned for bribery during the 1696 parliamentary elections, and an elector of Durham in 1803 was fined 500 pounds. Even as late as 1840, voting irregularities compelled the authorities to declare the elections for Cambridge and Ludlow void.

The whole rotten election "progress" culminates in the fourth and final scene, "Chairing the Candidate," in which Hogarth graphs a raucous procession of flags and banners, a shambling brass band with insistent percussion, and the successful candidate's rag-tag supporters, and then, hoisted precariously in a throne-like armchair, the new Member of Parliament himself. As Trussler and Roberts point out,

In this aerostatic voyage there seems to be some danger of a wreck; for a thresher, having received an insult from a sailor, in the act of revenging it, flourishes his flail in as extensive an orbit as if he were in his own barn. The end of this destructive instrument coming in contact with the skull of a bearer of our new-made member, the fellow's head rings with the blow, his eyes swim, his limbs refuse their office, and, at this inauspicious moment, the effects of the stroke, like an electric shock, extend to the exalted senator. He trembles in every joint; the hat flies from his head; and, without the intervention of Juno or Minerva, he must fall from the seat of honour to the bed of stone. Terrified at his impending danger, a nervous lady, who with her attendants is in the church-yard, falls back in a swoon. Regardless of her distress, two little chimney-sweepers upon the gate-post are placing a pair of gingerbread spectacles on a death's-head. Their sportive tricks are likely to be interrupted by a monkey beneath; who, arrayed en militaire, is mounted upon a bear's back. The firelock slung over this little animal's shoulder, in a fray between the bear and a biped, is accidentally discharged, in a direction that, if loaded, must carry leaden death to one of the gibing soot-merchants above. [Trusler & Roberts, 127]

In the left hand register, in the foreground a burly soldier (his trade identified by his uniform coat, hanging on the post behind him), stripped to the waist after a fist-fight, is preparing tobacco for a smoke. Near him, in the background, three chefs (a half-starved Frenchman, a mulatto Englishman, and a middle-aged female cook) are carrying three covered platters to the door of the house for the lawyer's table as he and his party, evidently those opposed to the party of the victor, watch the ensuing chaos with delight from their safe vantage point. The member of this group distinguished by a ribbon Trusler and Roberts identify as the Duke of Newcastle. Behind the procession of the three cooks, a cooper inspects a leaky barrel in order to prepare it for the reception of ale to be poured for the populace as they celebrate the outcome of the election (doubtless they would be celebrating in this manner no matter which aspirant emerged victorious). More liquor is being delivered in another barrel by two men forcing their way through the crowd at the back. The presence of the goose flying above the head of the victor in the electoral contest Trusler and Roberts explicate as a visual parody of an eagle's hovering above the head of Alexander the Great at one of his earliest and most decisive victories in the Persian campaign, at the battle of the river Granicus (depicted by French neoclassical painter Charles Le Brun in "The Passage of the Granicus," 1619.

References

Complete works of William Hogarth ; in a series of one hundred and fifty superb engravings on steel, from the original pictures / with an introductory essay by James Hannay, and descriptive letterpress, by the Rev. J. Trusler and E.F. Roberts. London and New York: London Printing and Publishing Co., c.1870.


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Last modified 20 March 2010