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William Hogarth: Satirising 'All is True'

Gemma Sykes takes a look at how artist William Hogarth used the 1727 production of William Shakespeare and John Fletcher's play 'All is True', or 'Henry VIII', to comment on eighteenth century British politics.

Gemma Sykes

William Hogarth (1697-1764) is perhaps most famous for his brutally honest satirical paintings - perhaps you've seen the well loved collection Marriage A La Mode (painted 1743-5) at the National Gallery in London, in which Hogarth chronicles the rise and fall of a newly rich family. However, earlier in his career Hogarth created satirised imagery within the realms of Shakespeare. His friendship with the iconic Shakespearian actor of his day, David Garrick, whom he famously painted in the role of King Richard III, introduced him to the world of theatre, which allowed him to experiment with different ways of mocking the establishment.

The popularity of Hogarth’s painting of his friend David Garrick as Richard III resulted in the production of a widely distributed engraving based on the work. It was common in this period to collect images of Shakespearian actors.

His right hand held up in protest, he slumps to his left on a couch. He wears rich, mediaeval-style clothing, and is in a room which suggests luxury. A  heavy curtain drapes to the left, and a suit of armour lies on the floor in the bottom left corner.

The Marriage of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn by Hogarth (painted 1728-9) can be found in the Royal Collection Trust, or an engraving can be seen on the Tate website. During the years leading up to Hogarth's planning of this painting, the old King George I died, passing his crown onto his son George, who would become King George II, in June 1727. In the same year, actor come poet and playwright, Colley Cibber, staged a successful production of Shakespeare and Fletcher's All is True (Henry VIII) at the Drury Lane Theatre, London. These events influenced Hogarth who chose to use the scene from the play in which Henry VIII marries Anne Boleyn to express his dislike of the Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, and to comment on the succession of the crown.

Colley Cibber
An eighteenth century engraving of Colley Cibber (1671-1757).

Walpole was Prime Minister from 1721-1742, and saw many controversies and scandals during his time in office. He was a deeply unpopular figure. His personal political views were not in line with the majority of the general public but he maintained his power by securing the patronage of monarchs and members of court. There were widespread rumours about his corruption, and many accusations that he accepted bribes which led to his imprisonment in the Tower of London in 1712. In contrast, the unpopularity of Henry VIII's advisor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who features in the play, was on a more private level. He fell from grace for failing to secure Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, thus delaying his marriage to Anne Boleyn. He was accused of abusing his influence over the king and some even suggested that he was working with the French monarch Francis I, so in 1530 he was finally ejected from office.

A nineteenth century representation of Wolsey in the 1869 production of Henry VIII at the Aquarium Theatre, London.

Hogarth is not exactly subtle in comparing the two. He makes it glaringly obvious in his painting by imposing Walpole's own face onto the figure of Wolsey. By comparing them, Hogarth suggests that just as Henry VIII discharged Wolsey in 1530, so King George II should discharge Walpole. Both figures were immensely unpopular. They both faced charges of corruption and were accused of abusing their power. Because there was a new king in 1727, Hogarth used the comparison to demonstrate how a change in monarchy could lead to a change in political figures. Lines beneath his painting suggest that as a new queen (Anne Boleyn) led to Wolsey's demise in the 1500s, so a new king (George II) should lead to Walpole's removal in 1727:

Whilst Woolsey leaning on his throne of State,  Through this unhappy Change foresees his fate

Hogarth bases his work on Shakespeare and Fletcher's play for two reasons. Firstly his audience would have been familiar with the story because of the recent performance in theatres, so the comparisons would have been self-evident. Secondly, using the play allowed Hogarth to remove his image from a specific time period, suggesting that corruption and self-interest had been the downfall of politicians in the past, and would continue to be so in the future.

Sillars's Painting Shakespeare, 2006