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  • image P73
SM P73. ©Sir John Soane's Museum, London.Photo: Art UK

William Hogarth (1697 - 1764)

The Humours of an Election III: The Polling


Oil on canvas

Height: 102.2cm
Width: 131.1cm

Museum number: P73

On display: Picture Room
All spaces are in No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields unless identified as in No. 12, Soane's first house. For tours https://www.soane.org/your-visit

Curatorial note

An Introduction to The Humours of an Election
Paintings in series
The Humours of an Election, (1754-55) comprises just four paintings, unlike the earlier series also owned by Soane, A Rake’s Progress (1734), which has eight scenes. Larger and infinitely more assured works, An Election is widely thought to be the most finely painted of Hogarth’s series of ‘Modern Moral Subjects’. In his Autobiographical Notes, Hogarth claimed credit for inventing, in the 1730s, the genre of painted pictorial sequences that told a story: ‘[I] turn[ed] my thoughts to still a more new way of proceeding, viz painting and Engraving moder[n] moral Subject[s] a Field unbroke up in any Country or any age.’ They were innovative because the pictorial narratives showed aspects of contemporary eighteenth-century life in series, though there were Italian engraved precedents. The Humours of an Election was the last of these series that Hogarth painted and its subject matter - the corruption endemic in the eighteenth-century electoral process - is part of an established history of political satire in Britain.1

From painting to engraving
As with A Rake’s Progress the paintings of An Election were essentially preparatory works for engravings which Hogarth sold in sets, a lucrative practice. But the fact that they are so highly finished suggests that he hoped to sell them independently. The subscription for An Election was announced in March 1754 and the first plate advertised as ready for subscribers in February 1755. Dissatisfied with his own attempts to engrave the first scene, he employed French engravers and the last three plates were not issued until 1758. In February 1757 Hogarth announced in The London Evening Post that he was ‘obliged to inform the Subscribers to his Election Prints, That the three last cannot be publish’d till about Christmas next, which Delay is entirely owing to the Difficulties he has met with to procure able Hands to engrave the Plates.’2

Purchase and location
Like many of Soane’s purchases, The Humours of an Election had a significant provenance that enhanced the paintings’ value in his eyes.3 They previously belonged to David Garrick, one of the foremost Shakespearean actors of his day, whom Soane greatly admired, becoming a founding member of the Garrick Club.4 The paintings’ elaborate Rococo style frames are fine mid-eighteenth-century examples. It is not known whether they were commissioned by Hogarth himself, or by Garrick. If the latter he may have consulted Hogarth as the two were great friends. If the former the frames could be tentatively attributed to the only framers documented to have worked for Hogarth, the Gossett family, either Gideon Gossett (fl. 1744 - d. 1785) or Isaac Gosset (1713 - 1799), as their elaborate form is more consistent with French Huguenot carvers than English artisans.5

Soane bought An Election in June 1823 from the sale of the effects of Mrs Garrick at Christie's. John Britton recounted the story of the purchase in 1827: ‘This set of pictures ... was purchased by Mr. Garrick of the artist, under peculiar circumstances, for a small sum, - about two hundred pounds, and bought by Mr. Soane at the dispersion of that eminent actor’s effects, in June 1823, for £1,732. The learned and accomplished auctioneer [James Christie the Younger], when he knocked down the lot, neatly and appropriately remarked to this effect: - "As Returning Officer, I have the honour of declaring John Soane Esq. is the successful candidate in this warmly contested Election"’.6 The purchase price of £1,650 guineas, or £1,732 10s 0d reflects the very fine standard of the paintings. By comparison Soane would purchase the house at 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 14 October 1823 for less, just £1,480.7 It is tempting to believe that the large canvases in their grand frames were at least partially responsible for Soane’s purchase of number 14: there was no obvious place for such large works elsewhere in his house and his first action was to build the Picture Room to the rear of the property, where the paintings still hang to this day in their original positions on the north and south planes.

The political context
The late seventeenth and early eighteenth century saw Britain governed by a constitutional Monarchy. Within parliament Members were aligned with one of two loose ‘parties’: ‘Whig’ or ‘Tory’, unless they were consciously ‘Independent’. In simple terms Toryism became identified with Anglicanism (particularly the high Church with its whiff of Catholicism and inferred Jacobitism) and the squirearchy, a term which describes small-to medium-scale country landowners. Whigs were associated with the Protestant Succession, a policy of taxation, tolerance of religious dissenters, aristocratic landowning families and the financial interests of the wealthy middle classes.8 However, this simplification ignores the fact that during the first half of the eighteenth century these groups were not always clearly defined and their policies were not always as distinct from each other as in modern political parties: alternative or multiple interests and allegiances were possible. For example, whether ‘Whig’ or ‘Tory’, it was not unusual to also be allied to a ‘Court’ or ‘Country’ interest. A ‘Court’ interest in the House of Commons comprised those Members whose first loyalty was to the monarch and his or her ministers, and not to a party or faction. A ‘Country’ interest suggested opposition to the administration and defending the true interests of the kingdom - preservation of liberty and the establishment of frugal and honest government - against the self-interested machinations of corrupt courtiers.9

In addition to ‘parties’ or ‘interests’ the wealth, status and patronage of individual grandees, or kinship groups (many of the ruling families were inter-related) could be what drew MPs to one faction or another in Parliament. Patronage also reached beyond the House of Commons. Patronage and client networks linked nobles wielding national influence and enjoying access to the monarch, to local notables10 and to the common elector. An elector might align himself with the group that could offer him the most in return, be that a position of power within the administration, money, gifts, or simply local employment. With political ideals shifting and multiple interests at play, arguably the most constant element within early eighteenth-century politics was the notion of patronage, which was generally only a step away from corruption.

The Humours of an Election is a satire on the parlous state of the political nation in mid-eighteenth-century Britain, specifically parodying the 1754 Oxfordshire county election. Between 1710 and 1754 Oxfordshire was a Tory stronghold and the two parliamentary seats were not contested. In 1754 two Whig candidates, Sir Edward Turner and Lord Parker, supported by Whig grandees the Duke of Marlborough and Lords Macclesfield and Harcourt stood for parliament against the incumbent Tory MPs, Lord Wenman and Sir James Dashwood. After forty years without contest the Oxfordshire election became a talking point. According to The London Evening Post ‘every British Heart is full of the Oxfordshire Election which is become the chief subject of Conversation in the remotest corners of the Island.’11

In the 1750s votes were made in public and recorded for posterity.12 The right to vote was limited to men, according to specific criteria depending upon whether they lived in a county or a borough. In the counties the ancient forty-shilling freeholder franchise prevailed: the vote belonged to those with freehold property worth £2 [40 shillings] or more.13 In Oxfordshire this equated to an electorate of around 4,00014 and these eligible men expected to have their vote bought by the candidates and their patrons. The Oxfordshire election became a byword for bribery, corruption and foul play. It was ‘probably the most notorious county election of the century: no expense or chicanery was spared by either side.’15 Henry Pelham, then the Prime Minister, ‘with the King’s consent and knowledge’, promised £7,000 towards the Whigs’ election expenses, and the Tories spent over £20,000—of which over £8,000 was raised by public subscription.16

Four stages of the political process
Hogarth captures four elements of the election process in his paintings: the elaborate entertainment of the townsfolk to win their support, the flagrant bribery of the country electors, the shenanigans associated with polling day itself and the ‘chairing’ of the winners through the town. Collectively the paintings depict the chaotic consequences of a political system built on the mutual avarice and dishonesty of both the candidates and the electorate. The pictures are typically Hogarthian: intelligent, intricate and rich with allusion. Yet, despite their complexity, through their use of humour, familiar locations and stereotypical characters, they effortlessly lay bare the networks of patronage and corruption which sustained the eighteenth-century political system.

The Polling
The third scene in the series, The Polling, takes place on the day of the election and depicts the polling booth, a rough wooden construction to which all the electors are coming to publicly cast their votes. The booth is set against the backdrop of an expertly executed landscape, the background and foreground perfectly unified, the atmosphere that of an idyllic spring day, the deep blue sky, white clouds and warm sunlight caressing the group of houses and church in the middle distance and evoking a sense of calm, peace and control that is completely at odds with the scene in the foreground at the poll and background on the bridge.

The booth is decorated with two flags, the blue Tory flag on the left and the orange Whig flag on the right. The two candidates sit on chairs on the corresponding sides of the booth, elevated slightly above the mass of men standing in front of them under the awning. Between them, the beadle or constable who should be ensuring fair play and an orderly election has fallen asleep. Neither contestant looks particularly content or confident. On the left the Tory candidate pushes back his dark grey wig and scratches his bald head in perplexity whilst looking down at a thick wedge of papers in his hands, the uppermost inscribed ‘Bill’: he is clearly aghast at what the election may have cost him, but his bribes appear to have been effective. Judging by the throng of supporters in plain country clothing adorned with blue rosettes who have already cast their votes and are now talking and drinking together. On the right-hand side the Whig candidate, in his blue coat with fawn trim, sits primly upright, hands resting upon his cane. Staring at him is a red-coated caricaturist with a bag-wig17 who has produced an unflattering sketch of him to the great mirth of two rough looking men. Few in the booth wear the Whigs’ orange colours and the candidate is peering out towards the distant bridge leading into town which appears to be thronged with people on foot, on horseback and in carriages, travelling in both directions, waving both blue and orange flags. Many are brandishing sticks, it is a scene of violence and chaos, one horse’s legs rearing over the bridge’s balustrade. The Whig candidate is surely hoping that some of them are coming to cast their vote for him and wondering at the delay; perhaps more electoral shenanigans are at play and the passage into town has been barred to prevent electors from voting. The scene probably refers to an incident that took place on Magdalen Bridge in Oxford during the 1754 election when a Tory mob engulfed a carriage belonging to a Whig and threatened to overturn it. A Captain Turton broke the stalemate by shooting a Tory chimneysweep dead after which the crowd broke up.18

In front of the polling booth there is a queue of electors arriving to vote who are evidently in no fit state to exercise their judgement, or are arguably ineligible, neither circumstance apparently a concern to the equally duplicitous party agents. On the right of the canvas is a smartly dressed ex-soldier in black waistcoat and breeches and a long red coat, a sword at his waist and a tricorn hat adorned with the Whig colours wedged under his armpit. He has lost both arms and one leg fighting for his country and is taking the oath that he is eligible to vote, but with no right hand to lay on the bible and only a hook in place of his left, there is doubt as to the legitimacy of his oath. Behind the soldier a lively exchange is taking place between two lawyers, presumably representing each of the parties, seeking to promote or defend every remotely viable vote. One, slender and bony-featured, points in anger at the soldier’s hook, apparently deeming it insufficient for swearing his oath. The other, fat and garrulous, throws his hands wide in a gesture of repudiation. Ironically, the soldier is, of all the queuing electors, most fit to choose between Whig and Tory. Behind him a man who has lost his reason and doesn’t know who he is voting for is nonetheless carried on a chair to the poll by a man whose legs are shackled, presumably a prisoner on parole. The criminal wears a long drab coat and the Tories’ blue colours in his hat and is whispering the words of the oath to the simpleton in order for his vote to be registered by the Tory recorder in his grey coat who leans out of the booth to better capture his words. Between the fool’s feet and the booth is an orange rosette, just visible in the shadows indicating that the voter’s preference, had he been allowed to, or capable of indulging it, would have been for the Whig party. Another Whig, wearing an orange rosette, is also carried to the poll, this time by Whig supporters but the grey blue tinge to his face suggests that if he is not already dead, he is certainly dying and in no fit state to vote. The dying man is followed by a blind one, one hand on the shoulder of a young boy who is guiding him, the other holds a stick to help him feel his way, his eyes are clouded, possibly by cataracts. Like the fool who was deceived into voting for the wrong party the blind man, proudly wearing the blue Tory colours on his hat has had those on his coat obscured by the orange of the Whigs and by inference he too cannot direct his vote as he would wish due to his disability. At the rear of the queue is a disabled Tory struggling to climb the stairs. The tips of four staves just visible in the right-hand bottom corner of the painting suggest a physical barrier of thugs ready to prevent too many voters of the ‘wrong’ party – whichever that may be – from reaching the poll.

To the left of the polling booth is an elaborate coach, carrying Britannia clinging to a strap and clutching at the door as evidenced by her flowing draperies and the Union flag painted inside a cartouche on the coach door, the coach clearly symbolising the nation. It has utterly broken down, its axle snapped cleanly in two, the white Hanoverian horses denoting the monarchy rearing and plunging to no avail. The two coachmen, symbolic of the nation’s parliamentary leaders, are oblivious to the plight of the coach and its passenger, being fully preoccupied with a game of cards at which one is clearly cheating, hiding the three of clubs behind the other’s back. They are incapable of repairing the coach or leading it to safety. The political state is revealed as flawed, broken, corrupt and arguably beyond repair both physically at the poll and allegorically in the guise of Britannia’s carriage.

This catalogue entry was prepared by Joanna Tinworth in October 2021. Sir John Soane's Museum is grateful to Emeritus Professor David Bindman for his peer review.

1 For example a print of 1727 entitled Ready Mony the prevailing candidate, or the Humours of an Election held the General Election of that year to account, BM 1868,0808.3520. The 1734 poem The Humours of a Country Election was prefaced by six scenes depicting its narrative, BM 1858,0417.607. Two of these, like Hogarth’s composition for scenes two and four of An Election, show bribery taking place in front of an inn and the practice of chairing the winning candidates through the town.
2 Ronald Paulson, Hogarth’s Graphic Works, 1989, pp.162-63.
3 See the provenance field for this catalogue entry.
4 Soane also owned Garrick’s copy of Twenty of the Plays of Shakespeare, 1766, SM 1528. It was bought by Soane from T. & W. Boone on 3 May 1823 for £25 4s. plus £1 5s. commission following the Garrick sale on 23 April 1823. (Priv. Corr. XVI.E.5.5). Inscribed in pencil on first free-endpaper in William Boone's hand This Book was the Gem of Garrick's / sale, and doubtless the finest copy / extant. / Only 12 copies were printed on this / Paper. David Garrick's engraved bookplate is in each volume.
5 Christina Scull, The Soane Hogarths, 2007, p.70.
6 John Britton, The Union of Architecture, Sculpture and Painting, 1827, p.55.
7 Gillian Darley, John Soane, An Accidental Romantic, 1999, p.268 and SM Journal 6.
8 https://www.britannica.com/topic/Whig-Party-England
9 D.W. Hayton, Eveline Cruickshanks and Stuart Handley, ed. ‘The Politics of the House’, The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, 2002
10 Jeremy Black, The politics of Britain 1688-1800, 1993, p.26.
11 Mark Hallett and Christine Riding, Hogarth, Exhibition Catalogue, Tate, 2006, p. 228 quotes The London Evening Post, 30 April - 2 May 1754.
12 It wasn’t until 1872 that the passing of The Ballot Act enforced voting in parliamentary and municipal elections by secret ballot.
13 https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/research/constituencies/constituencies-1754-1790
14 Christina Scull, The Soane Hogarths, 2007, p. 25.
15 R. J. Robson, The Oxfordshire Election of 1754, 1949.
16 https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/constituencies/oxfordshire
17 The black, silk pouch or bag is evident. The long hair at the back of the wig was placed in a black silk bag then the ribbons attached to the bag were tied in a bow. Quite literally the rear part of a gentleman’s wig in a bag.
18 Christina Scull, The Soane Hogarths, 2007, p.59.

Provenance help-art-provenance

William Hogarth sold The Humours of an Election directly to his friend, the actor David Garrick.1 Garrick subscribed to a set of engravings of An Election but instead bought the four paintings in around 17622 for the rather low price of about £200.3 Soane purchased An Election from the sale of the effects of Mrs Garrick at Christie's on 23 June 1823. The preamble to the Garrick sale catalogue announces that the effects have been '... brought from the mansion of Mrs Garrick deceased on the Adelphi Terrace and from his villa at Hampton', and mentions 'MORE ESPECIALLY the very famous Original Set of the FOUR ELECTION PICTURES by HOGARTH, the Canvass, the Poll, the Chairing and the Feast, admirable for the variety and strength and spirit of Execution'. In contrast to Garrick around 60 years earlier Soane paid a large sum for the canvases. Soane’s notebook records that ‘At Christie’s bought Hogarth Elect.n 1,650 gns’. The purchase price of £1650 guineas equated to £1,732 10s 0d. Footnotes 1 Hogarth painted a portrait of David Garrick as Richard III (1745), the role that made the then twenty-four-year-old actor famous. The portrait is now in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. The artist and actor became firm friends. In 1757 Hogarth painted David Garrick and his wife, Eva-Maria Veigel. See Elizabeth Einberg, William Hogarth, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, 2016, pp.274-75, 337-38. 2 Bruce Boucher, ‘Soane and Hogarth’ in David Bindman (ed.), Hogarth: Place and Progress, Exhibition Catalogue, Sir John Soane’s Museum, p.19 and Elizabeth Einberg, William Hogarth, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, 2016, p.316. 3 John Britton, The Union of Architecture, Sculpture and Painting, 1827, p.55.


John B. Nichols, Biographical Anecdotes of William Hogarth, 1781, revised eds. 1782, 1785
John Ireland, Hogarth Illustrated, 3 vols: 1 and 2, 1791 and 1793 (2nd ed.); 3 (supplement), 1798
John Nichols and George Steevens, The Genuine Works of William Hogarth, 3 vols: 1, 1808; 2, 1810; 3, 1817
Britton, Union, 1827, pp. 40, 53-55
Soane, Description, 1830, pp. 15 and 41
Soane, Description, 1835, pp. 16-17
Peter Quennell, 'Hogarth's Election series', History Today, Volume 3, Issue 4, April 1953 (available online at www.historytoday.com/archive)
Paulson, Ronald, Hogarth: His Life, Art and Times, 1971, vol. II, pp. 191-206 and passim
Bindman, David, Hogarth, 1981, pp. 185-189 and passim
Elizabeth Einberg, Manners and Morals: Hogarth and British Painting 1700-1760, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, 1987, cats. 196-199, pp. 209-215
Ronald Paulson, Hogarth's Graphic Works, 1989, pp. 162-169
Christina Scull, The Soane Hogarths, 1991
Peter Thornton and Helen Dorey, A Miscellany of Objects from Sir John Soane's Museum, 1992, pp. VIII, 44, 126, fig. 38
Ronald Paulson, Hogarth, 1993, Vol. III, pp. 152-184 and passim
David Bindman, Hogarth and his Times: Serious Comedy, Exhibition Catalogue, British Museum, 1997
Lars Tharp, Hogarth's China: Hogarth's paintings and 18th-century ceramics, 1997, pp. 103-105
Jenny Uglow, Hogarth: A Life and a World, 1997, pp. 548-561 and passim
Gillian Darley, John Soane, An Accidental Romantic, 1999
Matthew Craske, William Hogarth, 2000, passim
David Bindman, David Ekserjian and William Palin (eds), Hogarth's Election Entertainment. Artists at the Hustings, exhibition catalogue published by Apollo for Sir John Soane's Museum, 2001
Mark Hallett and Christine Riding, Hogarth, exhibition catalogue, Tate, 2006, cats. 120-123, pp. 228-231
Christina Scull, The Soane Hogarths, second revised edition, 2007, pp. 51-63 and passim
New Description, 2007, pp. 26-30 and 100
Elizabeth Einberg, William Hogarth, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, 2016, pp. 316-324
David Bindman (ed.), Hogarth: Place and Progress, SJSM Exhibition Catalogue, 2019, cats. 52-55
Bruce Boucher, 'Soane and Hogarth' in David Bindman (ed.), Hogarth: Place and Progress, SJSM Exhibition Catalogue, 2019, pp. 17-23
Joanna Tinworth, 'Life in Hogarth's London', Minerva, September/October 2019, pp. 40-45
Jacqueline Riding, Hogarth: Life in Progress, 2021

Exhibition history

Hogarth, Tate Britain, London, 2 December 1971 - 6 February 1972
Manners & Morals - Hogarth and British Painting 1700-1760, Tate Britain, London, 15 October 1987 - 3 January 1988
Hogarth's Election Entertainment: Artists at the Hustings, Sir John Soane's Museum, London, 23 March - 25 August 2001; Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, 6 October 2001 - 6 January 2002
The Soane Hogarths, Sir John Soane's Museum, London, 30 March - 19 June 2004; 26 August 2005 - 25 February 2006
Hogarth, Tate Britain, London, 5 February - 29 April 2007
Hogarth: Place and Progress, Sir John Soane's Museum, London, 9 October 2019 - 5 January 2020

Associated items

P53, series
P56, series
P78, series
P73, series
O2095, provenance

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