- ''Guess at the Rest'': Cracking the Hogarthian Code
In “Guess at the Rest” Elisabeth Soulier-Détis focuses on the serial prints that Hogarth published between 1732 and1747, finding them full of Masonic symbols. These are “too numerous to be discarded as mere coincidence” (19). Furthermore, they are “not just scattered at random” (21) but are intertwined with the biblical and mythological iconographies that are a feature of each narrative sequence. Thus, the presence of paintings on a back wall; or the symbols placed around the borders of prints; or even more obliquely, the ways in which a secular narrative could function as a parody of a biblical source, gain “coherence and unity” (200) when read in relation to Masonic materials. According to Soulier-Détis, Freemasonry provided Hogarth with a means of topically recycling biblical and classical subjects. The main thrust of her argument, however, is concerned with demonstrating how the prints can be understood as Masonic documents that record history and ritual. [End Page 336]
Each series is given a new title that corresponds to its secret Masonic agenda. A Harlot’s Progress is called the “Progress of Early British Masonry,” and the tragic life of a London prostitute is understood as an allegory for the creation of the First Grand Lodge in London. A Rake’s Progress becomes “The Path to Unity between ‘Antients’ and ‘Moderns,’” for it comments upon an internal dispute between two Masonic factions. In Marriage à la Mode (or “The Union of Mercury and Silver”), the doomed marriage of two incompatibles is used to encode another topical debate, this time the relationship between alchemy and Freemasonry. Industry and Idleness becomes “Fake and Genuine Freemasonry,” offering a critique of the fashionable and insincere newcomers who were infiltrating lodges in the 1740s.
That Hogarth was a Freemason is a biographical fact. He joined a London lodge in November 1725, at a time when the movement was becoming fashionable. By 1738 he had risen to a position of authority; his name is listed as a “Grand Stewart” in the New Book of Constitutions published that same year. Becoming a Freemason has been considered an adroit move by his biographers. Mostly, however, any discussion of Hogarth’s Freemasonry has occurred in the context of a small satirical print of 1724 called The Mystery of Masonry Brought to Light by the Gormogons. Apart from several portraits of known Freemasons and a few explicit references to Masonry in a couple of graphic satires published in the late 1730s, the subject has been considered a minor fact of the artist’s early life and has been passed over in silence by scholars.
Therefore, the author’s claim that Hogarth was so immersed in Freemasonry and so “conversant” (14) with its symbology, and that he had its “motifs in mind when holding the burin” (14) is a fascinating hypothesis. She returns us to scrutinizing the prints with an alternative set of questions, although she has a difficult argument to make. In effect, Soulier-Détis is arguing that Masonic symbology is hidden from the general viewer, but that it would have been “clearly visible” (18) to a Freemason, who would have seen the motifs in an alternative context. Visual codes (mostly of a religious and allegorical nature) have protected them, and unraveling them means ignoring the explicit narrative and analyzing numerous details and connecting them into counter-narratives that stand in stark contradiction to established and/or self-evident readings. These peculiar asymmetric relationships between what is visually obvious but symbolically opposite applies in particular to the Harlot’s Progress and the Industrious and Idle Apprentice, because for Freemasons “all the negative signs of poverty, disease and death” would be read “as positive tokens of rebirth and regeneration” (61). Thus, Moll’s tawdry life, her imprisonment, and her subsequent death are understood to encode the triumphant progression of Masonry in England and her accession—as an allegorical symbol for the movement—to the elevated rank of Grand Master. Meanwhile, Frances Goodchild, the good apprentice who works hard...