I love a good mystery.

And history is chock full of them. My wife, in tune with my Clio-esque geekness, blessed me with a Christmas gift – an actual William Hogarth print from 1758! But then her purchase became something else: truly, that gift that keeps on giving. Yep, in this case, my new print came adorned with a bit of a mystery.

First, I love Hogarth – one of the best and most consistent satirists of his time: Marriage à-la-mode (1745), Industry and Idleness (1747), The Gate of Calais (1749), Beer Street & Gin Lane (1751), and his Humours of an Election (1755) are among his most acclaimed works. Studying Hogarth’s paintings and prints opens a door bringing into view numerous issues, worries, and concerns of mid-eighteenth-century England. Hogarth was the Stephen Colbert of his time.


A “normal” or the most common depiction of Hogarth’s “The Polling” as found on the internet. (Click for larger view)

The print my wife graced me with (thank you, babe!) was The Polling, the third in a series of four engravings reflecting the wild and wooly parliamentary elections of 1754. “Man can sink much below the Dignity of human Nature, and dishonour the Species he should adorn;” described Emanuel Collins who covered the elections, “but none can fall so low as those whom Title and Office have placed in superior Stations.”[1]

William Hogarth must have agreed. He completed four oil paintings commemorating the 1754 election the following year: An Election Entertainment, Canvassing for Votes, The Polling, and Chairing the Member. Taken together, these paintings (Humours of an Election) lampooned what were regarded then as Britain’s most corrupt election to date. In 1758, Hogarth created engravings of those paintings and a London firm known as “Le Cave” put them to print.

A zoom in on the

A zoom in on the “soldier” attempting to vote in the 1754 election (and an empty pocket).

But this is where the mystery begins.

In an attempt to look up the valuation of the The Polling print, I came to notice that nearly all of the etchings shown on the internet appeared a bit different than mine. Different. That can’t be good. Thoughts of my wife getting rooked ran through my head. How can the print that my wife purchased for me be different? Was the etching that she graced for me a forgery?

I arrived at this point of questioning because of the “soldier” shown attempting to vote at the far left. Most of the engraved prints that depict this farcical scene (ballots were not secret back in the day, in order to vote one had to sign their name: the soldier has a hook for a right hand, and no hand or hook for the left: thus the unfortunate hilarity) show a prominent pocket on the soldier’s jacket. But it’s just that, a big empty pocket. My print, the one my wife gave to me as a gift, uh-oh, there’s something certainly prominent poking out of that pocket. What gives? Why the difference?

1754 painting, The Polling, by William Hogarth.

1754 painting, The Polling, by William Hogarth.

To answer this question, I remembered that these etchings were paintings first. Within a minute or two, the internet provided me with large and very detailed jpegs of Hogarth’s 1754 painting The Polling. In the full-color oil painting, the jacket is red which suggests to us that the soldier’s handless state (and one leg missing) came from being, well… a soldier. But with an etched print, there is no color save black and white. There is no colorful clue as to how this wounded individual attempting to cast his lot came to be peg-legged and handless. Thus, if your only experience with The Polling was in etched form – and a colorless print at that – the satire falls a bit flat. The only joke available via this black and white purview is that a man without hands attempting to exercise his franchise simply … cannot. No hands, no signature; no signature, no vote. At least with the benefit of the color-filled oil painting, we know this gentleman is wearing a soldier’s jacket and thus likely was wounded in the late war of the Austrian Succession. We learn from Nicholas Roger’s latest work, Mayhem, that the military drawdown after that war was not a peaceful one, filled with (ahem) domestic “mayhem” as soldiers and sailors fell on hard times. Perhaps Hogarth endeavored to make a comment upon this with his oil painting? If so, the wounded veteran of the War of Austrian Succession disappears without his red jacket: and in the etched prints the color red is voided. Nonetheless, like the oil painting, most prints of The Polling show the pocket of the jacket to be empty.

But not mine.

In fact, what sticks out from the soldier’s coat pocket changes entirely the meaning of power of the print! Oh, dear…

So here is the mystery: why does the print I now own (and hanging at the end of the hallway) have an out-of-pocket experience whereas most others do not? Is my print a forgery?

A further close up showing something protruding from the

A further close up showing something protruding from the “soldiers” jacket, a document in fact with an intriguing title.

In an obscure book of 1891, I finally found a partial answer to the riddle. According to its author, Austin Dobson, there were three print runs of the The Polling. The first appeared on the 20th of February in 1758. Each print run, though, was slightly different. The first is “without the writing,” the second added a “title and publication line” and “is dedicated to Sir Edward Walpole.” And lo and behold, it was the third print run “where the words “Militia Bill” appear on the coat of the maimed elector.”[2]  It appears that my wife purchased the 3rd edition of The Polling.

But by adding the words “Militia Bill” to the print run, the messaging Hogarth intended changes. The lack of a red jacket suddenly renders this voter unidentifiable. Only by the words “Militia Bill” can we take a stab at the identity of the disabled elector: let’s see… “Militia Bill” sticking out of his jacket pocket… no hands… peg-legged… he must be … a Militia man!

With this added pocketed document, we now have a serious historical telling beyond what William Hogarth may have thought prudent.

It certainly is scandalous.

You see, in the 1754 election, tensions were beginning to rise between France and Britain. In fact, in colonial America, blows between the two nations had already taken place at the periphery (think George Washington losing at Fort Necessity). This would soon become the Seven Years’ War. Thus, some politicians in England ran on the patriot strand of raising a militia to defend England from a possible French invasion. England’s king, however, George II (born and raised in Hanover, Germany), was determined to defend England with hired Hessian troops.

By early 1756, the Militia Bill was making its way through Parliament. George II, however, had ordered the Admiralty Office to dispatch a small fleet of tenders to the Elbe in early April, to pick up some 3,000 German troops, their horses, equipment, and supplies.[3] The Militia Bill was narrowly defeated. Only in 1757 did the Militia Bill pass.

Having the “Militia Bill” sticking out of a wounded (and quite possible) militiaman’s pocket during the third printing of this etching in 1758 – well, a whole new satirical statement is made.

[1] Emanuel Collins, Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (Bristol, UK: Farley, 1757), 20.

[2] Austin Dobson, William Hogarth (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1891), 291.

[3] Noteworthy – while the king’s transports headed to the Elbe in early April to pick up German troops to defend England (controversial at the time); a small, dilapidated, and undermanned fleet in Portsmouth was ordered to the Mediterranean without tenders or hospital ships and short over 700 men. This was Admiral John Byng’s fleet sent to defend Minorca.