William Hogarth – The Distressed Poet

by Michael
(London, UK)

William Hogarth – The Distressed Poet….I am interested in this painting because I have driven past Hogarth’s country residence many times. The interesting point is that it is no longer in the country but firmly inside what might be called central London on the A4 going west towards Heathrow airport.

The A4 is a very busy road and a dual carriageway. The house is marked by the blue flag. If you click on the flag you can see a video on Hogarth.

View Hogarths House in a larger map

Here is the painting. The reason why it is on this site is because of the cat in it!

William Hogarth – The Distressed Poet (painted 1729-1736) – These pictures are in the public domain due to the passing of time

William Hogarth (10 November, 1697 – 26 October, 1764) is well known English artist, satirist and critic. He was born in London (Bartholomew Close) and died in London where he is buried (St. Nicholas’s Churchyard, Chiswick Mall). Both places are not far from each other. He was a London man, it seems. There are a lot of people who spend their entire lives in London and why not. It is all there.

The painting is of a poet (naturally he is poor and financially stressed). He is struggling to compose. How did he make a living? Once again the depiction of the cat is rather stylised. This seems to be the case fairly often with painters of this era.

The cat is meant to have kittens around her but I can’t see them. Her tail is striped which is not unusual but the markings are too well delineated to look natural. She is white with a symmetrical black marking on her forehead and ears. This cat looks like a Turkish Van and may well be a cat of that breed. At the time there was no cat fancy and the concept of purebred cats and stud books (records of lineage) were not even a dream.

However, the Turkish Van is an ancient cat breed (evidence going back to 1600-1200 BC). The only problem is that the first Turkish Van cat was supposedly imported into England in 1955! So the cat in the painting is either an unreported earlier importation (not impossible I would have thought – Hogarth was connected and well off and may be painting his cat!) or it is simply a stylised version of the cat. Perhaps the painting was based on a cat that either was or looked like the Turkish Van that Hogarth had seen.

One thing goes against it being a Van. The conformation is too British moggie and not elegant enough for modern breeders. But perhaps the original Van looked like this. Cat breeders have tended to breed their own ideas of what a cat’s shape should be into cat breeds.

The Following is a verbatim transcript of an article about this painting published in 1902 and is therefore in the public domain due to effluxion of time. If not I argue fair use.

“….it was given by Hogarth to a Mrs. Draper, at whose death it was bought for five guineas by a solicitor named Ward. On his death the picture became the property of Lord Grosvenor, with whose descendant, the Duke of Westminster, it remains. The painting is full of amusing satire, cleverly interwoven with pathos. The scene is that of the Poet’s humble garret-humble in many senses of the word, for the plastering on the walls is cracked and fallen in a score of places. He, poor man, enveloped in a dressing-gown, seeks inspiration by candle-light in order to finish a poem on ” Riches.” Inspiration, apparently, is not easily attainable, even with the assistance of Bysshe’s “Art of Poetry,” which is part of a library of four volumes. With grim irony a map of the ” Gold Mines of Peru ” is immediately over his head. A copy of the ” Grub Street Journal” lies on the floor, together with his sword and coat, the latter forming also a bed for the cat and kittens. Near him sits his wife, mending the Poet’s nether garment ; a careful, thrifty soul, ” the most loveable figure that ever Hogarth drew,” who looks up with some surprise at the entry of an irate milkwoman, who with tally extended demands payment of her score. But payment seems a remote contingency under the circumstances, for the open larder is empty, save for a prowling mouse ; and to add to the domestic misfortunes, the. piece of meat, heedlessly left upon a chair, is being stolen by a dog. The creditor’s shrill tones wake the infant, whose cries, joined to the disputation, wellnigh distract the votary of Parnassus. On the wall at the left hand hangs the wife’s long, hooded cloak. Above the mantel is a set of circular mirrors,’ and on the shelf itself, a loaf of bread, a book, the teapot and cups, and a sauce-pan. Several other details will be noticed, such as the empty pewter, etc. The whole scene is evidently typical of many such in real life. It not infrequently happens, even in these times, that an author’s subject is foreign to his experience. And, after all, with such a theme as Riches, our Poet has magnificent exercise for his imaginative powers.

The engravings of The Distressed Poet differ slightly in some of the details. In the first impression (1736) the Poet is writing on “Poverty”; a picture of Curll, the notorious bookseller, being thrashed by Pope (see ” The Dunciad “) occupies the wall in place of the Gold Mines ; and the Poet’s library is larger by two volumes…”

It comes from this webpage to which I am indebted: http://www.oldandsold.com/articles29/hogarth-6.shtml (new window)

From William Hogarth – The Distressed Poet to Cats in Paintings

Comments for
William Hogarth – The Distressed Poet

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Oct 18, 2010 i have an original of the distressed poet. any offers?
by: David Clarke

i believe this original and unique, if you are interested then pleas get back.d.c

Sep 15, 2009 History of so called natural cats
by: Michael

Finn, the history of the Turkish Van, the Turkish Angora, the Japanese Bobtail, the Russian Blue, the Siamese, the Abyssinian to name some are really uncertain or lack clarity, I believe.

By the way the Boucher painting has been published in a way where comments can’t be made, which I regret but I can’t always publish using visitors’ forms as there are technical issues. But I do like the feedback as we can all learn together I think.

Sep 15, 2009 Exotic imports or stowaways
by: Finn Frode, Denmark

Hi Michael. There’s nothing wrong in emphasizing evidence that supports your case. I did the same when I prefered to look at the cat as a tortoise – and I’m not even a lawyer. 😉

The point you make is still very interesting – even more so with that other painting by Boucher showing what appears to be a cat with Aby-ticked fur. I’m no expert but I don’t think that gene would occur naturally in European domestic cats?

Exotic imports or stowaways – you could very well be right that more exotic types have been in Europe for longer than we usually think.

Sep 15, 2009 Hi Finn
by: Michael

Hi Finn, I agree with you except I treated these areas as damage to the painting! This suited my theory 🙂 Although, as you state the history of some of these “natural” and ancient purebred cats is I feel open to discussion being far from 100% certain and it would be great to get some firm evidence of importation into Europe that contradicted the currently accepted story.

Sep 15, 2009 I see tortoise
by: Finn Frode, dDenmark

Hi Michael. I agree that with all that white the pattern tends towards Van, but to me the cat looks more like a tricolor with white. I see blurred orange patches on the back and just over the tail. The two light brown spots on the forehead are probably just shades of the same colour.
To tell the truth I’m not sure where to draw the line between a Van and a tortoise pattern – and especially not if we look at cat appearances in the old days before selective breeding and standards.
But the idea of Van cats in England in the 18th century is not that impossible. They may have been imported as rare, exotic animals along with other goods – or simply sneaked on board ships and worked their way up here.

Btw. there’s another Hogarth cat in a set of engravings of his called “A Harlot’s Progress”. In the third picture a cat is shown in a typical “in heat” pose. The cat has a very similar pattern, so maybe it’s the same?

Sep 14, 2009 I think I see it
by: Michael

Kathy, thanks for your comment. I think I see it at last! It is a bit of a puzzle. At one stage I thought I saw a mouse….

Sep 14, 2009 i see them
by: kathy

If you look real close you can see the kittens. It looks like one is nursing and the other one looks like it might be being groomed by the momma. Very interesting painting. I love art and when i was younger i wanted to be an artist. Only it seemed like i couldn’t draw anything but animals.

Sep 13, 2009 Hi Ruth
by: Michael

Thanks Ruth. I find these paintings interesting because very subtly they inform us a bit about our relationship with the domestic cat before anyone was reporting on it.

When the cat shows started in England (these were the first in the world) at Crystal Palace in the late 1800s journalist wrote about cats but before that there would seem to be very little. The history of the British Shorthair (a moggie before a show cat) is a good thread along which the cat fancy history can be traced.

Paintings shed some light on that dark history!

Sep 13, 2009 Very interesting
by: Ruth

Michael you do write such very interesting articles ! I really enjoy them.
I can see one kitten,light coloured, it’s suckling the mother cat and her tail end is draped over it.There may be another tucked in further down her body but I can’t be sure.
Can you see them now ?? Or is it my imagination ? ha ha

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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