To mark the anniversary of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous (albeit in somewhat woozy style) today’s picture is a cautionary visual demonstration of the perils of booze. Its title is A Midnight Modern Conversation; its subject is a Georgian drinking party in full swing; and it was painted by William Hogarth in about 1730.
This vigorous and unruly picture marked a turning point in the artist’s early career. Up until the late 1720s the young Hogarth had principally concentrated on establishing himself as a painter of portraits. His speciality had been the well established genre of the “conversation picture”, in which members of the gentry or aristocracy are shown sipping tea and complacently chatting among themselves. Hogarth had injected his own brand of robust vitality into this stiflingly conventional art form by introducing wild pets and mischievous children who threaten to upset teatables, knock over ornaments or otherwise cause disturbance. Such forcefully unconventional portraiture impressed his contemporaries but left the more perceptive among them suspecting that Hogarth’s true vocation lay elsewhere. Horace Walpole thought face-painting was perhaps “the most ill-suited employment imaginable to a man whose turn was certainly not flattery, nor his talent adapted to look on vanity without a sneer.”
A Midnight Modern Conversation proved Walpole’s point and set Hogarth on the road to both fame and (by the standard of most eighteenth-century English painters’ incomes) fortune. As its title suggests, the artist looked back to the tradition of the conversation picture when he painted A Midnight Modern Conversation. But he did so only to turn that tradition on its head – almost literally, in the case of the sprawling figure centre stage – and in so doing created a new kind of topical, comic English art. The painting is, so to speak, an anti-conversation picture, and not just in the sense that everyone in it seems far too drunk to communicate. All the norms of conversation painting have been meticulously reversed: the perpetual placid teatime of convention has become (as the clock on the sidetable indicates) a riotous four o’clock in the morning; alcohol is swigged instead of Darjeeling; and the usual well-behaved rows of genteel,glassy-eyed English mannequins have metamorphosed into a motley crew of ranters, bores, jesters and dozers. Hogarth’s theme is not the imperturbable grace and goodness of an England built on land and trade, but the vomitous excess of a nation addicted to claret, punch and porter.
A couple of years after he painted A Midnight Modern Conversation, the artist had the work engraved and mass-marketed as a black-and-white print. It was inscribed with a caption indicating that its satire was general rather than specific: “Think not to find one meant Resemblance there / We lash the vices but the persons spare.” In fact, several of the figures were spitting images of certain very particular “persons”. The man of the cloth ladling punch was identified by Mrs Thrale as Dr Johnson’s reprobate first cousin, Parson Cornelius Ford. According to the author John Ireland, who had researched the matter, the bleary-eyed lawyer sitting to the parson’s left was, “a portrait of one Kettleby, a vociferous bar-orator, who, though an utter barrister, chose to distinguish himself by wearing an enormous full-bottom wig.” Other real-life characters may include the man in the white night-cap, said to be a bookbinder and publican called Chandler; the reeling drunk in the foreground, supposedly a doctor friend of Hogarth’s; and the prostrate man almost out for the count at his feet, who has been tentatively identified as the prizefighter James Figg (hence the patches on his head).
All of which suggests that the caption to the print was a tardy and unconvincing attempt at a retraction, and that the original painting may have offended someone important, perhaps even a potential patron or client (Hogarth had a habit of biting the hand that fed him). None of that affected sales of the engraving, which was a popular success, largely because its release coincided with the passage through parliament of a bill increasing excise tax on alcohol. The bill was much disliked, not only because it made beer and wine more expensive but also because it was seen as a thoroughly un-English restriction of liberty – an unwelcome step in the direction of Spanish or French absolutism. So it seems likely that many of the people who bought their own, black-and-white copies of A Midnight Modern Conversation, saw the image not as an anti-drinking satire but as a roustabout defence of lusty English “freedom”.
Perhaps, in fact, it always had been a little bit of both. Hogarth’s own drinking exploits were legendary, which suggests that his attitude to all-night carousing was ambivalent to say the least. He knew the pleasure of the party, as well as the pain of the hangover, and chose to paint the moment when one is shading into the other. Spirits are still high but (as that great pile of empty bottles indicates) a very bad headache is just around the corner.