In Focus: The Hogarth masterpiece which shows that sometimes you need to ‘listen’ to a painting

A small exhibition at the Foundling Museum focuses on one painting — an image that inspires Huon Mallalieu to reflect on Hogarth’s enthusiastic orchestration of sound.

Seven years ago, I argued in Country Life that we should often listen to paintings as well as look at them. From the 15th century onwards, many painters have worked to insert sounds into our minds as well as colours, images and stories.

What I called ‘the conscious manipulation of our imaginations through suggested sound’ is particularly evident in late-16th- and 17th-century Flemish and Dutch art, but it continues, through Courbet, who said that he wanted people to hear the deer moving in his woods and his rollers crashing onto the shore, to Maggi Hambling, who similarly wants us to hear her waves breaking on the Suffolk shingle.

At first, as with Bosch’s literal instruments of torture, suggested sounds made the painter’s intentions clear to illiterate audiences, who ‘heard’ the hellish dissonances or heavenly choirs. Later, contemporaries of such specialists in music-making scenes as husband and wife Jan Miense Molenaer and Judith Leyster may well have been able to tell what tunes and songs were being performed from painted gestures and props.

At the time of my article, I thought that the more overtly loud a subject — say a railway station by William Powell Frith or a cavalry charge by Lady Butler — the more difficult it might be to listen to what we see.

Too much noise could overwhelm the individual sounds. However, this small display at the Foundling Museum, focused on William Hogarth’s The March of the Guards to Finchley, brings the crowded canvas to raucous life.

Detail from William Hogarth's 'The March of the Guards to Finchley'.

Detail from William Hogarth’s ‘The March of the Guards to Finchley’. Credit: The Foundling Museum

It was painted in 1750, five years after the events that inspired it — the chaotic response to Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s march on London during the ’45 Jacobite rebellion.

The action is set on the northern edge of London, where the Tottenham Court Road ran into the country. In the foreground, a milling crowd is studded with drunken and lecherous soldiers, who are mostly reluctant to follow their more disciplined brethren already on the march.

They are attended by all the low-life of the city: prostitutes, ballad-mongers, pugilists, pickpockets, tricksters, piemen, spies and many more. Mother Douglas, the leading bawd of the day, has moved her girls from Covent Garden to service the occasion from a convenient house.

The central group of a grenadier beset by two women, one pregnant and selling sheets of the Hanoverian God Save the King, the other belabouring him with one of her pamphlets, has been interpreted as the tug of divided loyalties.

However, there may be more to be said, as at least one of her pamphlets was anti-Stuart, despite being labelled The Jacobite’s Journal. This was the title of a Hanoverian satire produced after the rebellion by Hogarth’s friend Henry Fielding and deployed as government propaganda.

A soundscape commissioned from the musician and producer Martyn Ware leads us through the throng, highlighting and interpreting the incidents and allusions and revealing ‘how Hogarth orchestrated the natural and man-made sounds of London, to capture the vibrancy and complexity of 18th century life’.

A valuable accompaniment to the main display is a number of alcoves in which headphones, wall-based interpretation and engravings are used to delve deeper into topics and contexts.

On my visit, I coincided with a class of schoolchildren, who were naturally enthused by the performance. This reminded me that, when I wrote about the subject in 2012, I was told of an inner-city class that was asked to describe what it had seen on a visit to the National Gallery. As one child, they responded with the noises they had ‘heard’ in favourite paintings.

In this spirit, it would have been valuable had there been room for a second display here of another ‘noisy’ painting or print — perhaps The Enraged Musician — with a challenge to people to sit in silence with it and note down all the sounds that it made them hear in the mind’s ear.

‘Hogarth & The Art of Noise’ is at The Foundling Museum, 40, Brunswick Square, London WC1, until September 1 — www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk