'enough to make a man deaf to look at'

Updated: Sep 27, 2019

I’ve returned recently from a few days’ work in Nottingham that might be called ‘access work’. While I’m sure the project was well-intended it made me think more about this kind of work and the relationship behind it between social intention and finance.

     Putting aside a wealthy audience, today it’s not easy to secure funding to produce, for example, a composition or theatre piece. An application that highlights access will be more attractive to a board. This is a good thing. That is, in as much as that is the intention: access. Often it feels like an afterthought—worse, a disguise. Access is one of the big issues for Music today. The issue is very complex and very sensitive and very deserving of more than a blog post, which is why I’ve commissioned this wonderful engraving especially to represent this very contemporary issue. Please address letters of complaint to

William Hogarth

Hogarth Lane,

      Great West Road,

      LONDON

            W4 2QN


***


On the roof of a noisy pewterer’s the silhouettes of two cats face one another, backs arched. On the street below a man grinds a cleaver: at his feet barks a dog, and next to the dog a boy is hitting a drum. Some other boy is urinating: he seems to be still but at the end of a cord tied around his waist is secured something like a piece of tin. A girl watches him head-on, stunned: were she not so shocked perhaps she would be using the rattle in her hand. Above the girl’s head a woman holds a sheet of music entitled ‘The Ladies Fall’: she is singing, and the baby she cradles cries. A man with a goatee accompanies her on the oboe, as does the parrot on the lamppost. It seems everything is making noise: a man on a horse strains to blow a hunting horn; another shouts his wares; one rings a bell; another hammers the paving. In the background a flag flies above the church—if the bell is ringing it’s probably a feast day. Of course we’re in London.


There is another character: he raises his hands to his ears to avoid the sound of the street. There is a bow in this right hand. He—a musician—is the subject of this chaotic scene although he does not occupy the visual centre of the print. The enraged musician overlooks the scene, framed by the sash window that we imagine he has opened in frustration. He is the only character inside. His bow points towards a poster affixed to the outside of the building: it advertises ‘The Beggar’s Opera’.

      The Beggar’s Opera was performed for the first time in London in 1728 and was revived in 1742. It featured new music woven with top hits arranged for the production. It ran very successfully. This print was designed, engraved, and published by William Hogarth in 1741. It’s ‘enough to make a man deaf to look at’, wrote Henry Fielding.

      Presumably the enraged musician is trying to prepare for a production. Near his music stand is a quill in ink. This isn’t simply a rank-and-file musician: this represents an authorial hand. And here is Hogarth’s moral: the author of The Beggar’s Opera, who ‘serves’ the beggars, isn’t exactly affirming the beggars.



There is another character: she raises her skirt to avoid the piss on the street. There is a bow on her right shoe. She—a milkmaid—is not the subject of this chaotic scene although she does occupy the visual centre of the print. The milkmaid looks out from the scene, framed by her crisp white skirt and a large pail of milk which she supports with a strong left arm. She is the only character who acknowledges the viewer. In a certain sense she exists as a parallel to the enraged musician, heightening the contrast between ugliness and grace. The fundamental aspects of a musician the enraged musician abandons in his protest are found instead in the milkmaid. She is both in the scene and outside the scene, responding to it yet communicating with the viewer.

      But the moral of the print is clear without her. In fact in a preparatory work in oil (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) she doesn’t feature. Yet here she is both the visual centre of this chaotic scene and the graceful heart of this chaotic subject. Her composition seems to me a very personal addition. In later engravings—even respectable examples such as by T. Cook (1797)—the essence of her character is not captured. This does more than show Hogarth’s comparable skill: The Enraged Musician is an exceptional example of Hogarth’s work that surpasses even the complexity of his satire. It was intended as part of a collection of three prints, following the publication in 1741 of a print entitled The Distrest Poet. The third was to be about a painter but it was not completed. The Enraged Musician stands fine alone.

Stephane Crayton