What great paintings say: Marriage à-la-mode: 2. The Tête à Tête by William Hogarth, c1743–45
William Hogarth’s satirical series provided humour with a serious undertone. Discover the meaning behind his painting Marriage à-la-mode: 2. The Tête à Tête
A quick glance at William Hogarth’s oil on canvas work is enough to tell the viewer that all is not well in this 18th-century aristocratic household. The second in a six-part series, designed to illustrate the disastrous consequences of marrying for money rather than love, evidence of disorder, debauchery and disarray are scattered all around the expensive, yet garishly decorated, room.
“Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode series spoke to the social preoccupations of the time,” says Alice Insley, assistant curator of historic British art at Tate Britain and co-curator of a current exhibition on the artist. “It’s a classic tale of an aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times marrying into a wealthy merchant family who are looking to better their social standing: a marriage of convenience.”
The union is clearly not a happy one. The clock to the right of the mantelpiece shows that it is past midday, yet there is little in the way of household activity. Viscount Squanderfield is slumped in a chair after a night of debauchery with his mistress – alluded to by the dog who is tugging a woman’s muslin cap from his pocket and the lady’s favour wrapped around his fallen sword. The Viscountess, too, seems to be feeling the effects of what, from the scattered cards on the floor, looks to have been a late evening of gaming. Even the servant in the adjoining room, his hair still in rollers, looks half asleep, stretching and yawning.
“This series is one of the finest four examples of Hogarth’s painting,” says Insley, “and follows the couple’s relationship from the brokering of their marriage to the tragic conclusion to their dissolute lives.
“Hogarth made a name for himself with these types of paintings – what he referred to as his modern moral series – and their contemporary themes struck a chord during a period of rapid social change in England.
“The market for art changed a great deal in the 18th century,” Insley continues, “and even middle-class households could afford to line their walls with art, particularly prints, which were also common features in taverns and coffeehouses. It’s no surprise, then, that Hogarth capitalised on England’s burgeoning print-culture, initially painting the works so that they could be engraved, and then selling the engravings to subscribers for a guinea a set.”
With almost every brushstroke, Hogarth painted a story of marital disharmony. The overturned chair and the two violins laying on top of each other suggest that someone has had to leave the room in a hurry and is one of several details – including the Viscountess’ satisfied stretch and side-eyed look of apparent triumph – that indicate that the mistress of the house is also up to no good. Indeed, later in the series it is revealed that she is conducting an affair with the young lawyer, Silvertongue, who brokered the marriage.
All around are signs that this is a couple with more money than taste – from the grotesque buddha, cat and fish pastiche to the mantelpiece crammed with mismatched figurines, to the room’s garish colour scheme. Money, Hogarth seems to say, does not necessarily bring happiness or, indeed, taste.
This article was first published in the January 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine
Charlotte Hodgman is the editor of BBC History Revealed and HistoryExtra's royal newsletter. She was previously deputy editor of BBC History Magazine and makes the occasional appearance on the HistoryExtra podcast