Heads of Six of Hogarth's Servants, by William Hogarth
c. 1750-5
oil on canvas, 75.5 cm x 63 cm
purchased by the Tate Gallery 1892

We think of Hogarth as a satirist, a railer against the evils of gin and the society that allows its abuse. Domestically, I think of him with his cap in his self-portrait, perhaps a bit of a curmudgeon, comforted only by his merry little dog. But this study of six heads is one of the greatest witnesses of kindness and sympathy I have ever seen in a portrait.

The six heads are presented fairly neutrally. There is no action, no interaction, and no background, but all is composition. They are six separate portraits, head and shoulders, arranged together. Not sketches, not separate pictures arranged merely for convenience on the one page of paper, but fused as a composite showing Mr Hogarth's house servants.

In the centre is a middle-aged man or older, his butler or some such prime servant. His dress is a darker brown than the common ochre of the others, which with his position makes him stand out a little. They are almost two rows of three, but his elevation into the centre focuses him somewhat. But not too much. There is no Upstairs, Downstairs striving here, no superiority or place.

Hogarth was painting people, not servants. Flesh and blood and moods and attitudes are clearly revealed in these six individuals, most or all of whom would have been lost forever, had they not been employed by such a remarkable painter. This is not "a group of servants", but Anne Kelly, 19, and John Wilton, 56, and... but I don't know their names. I know a lot about them, from looking, but not their names.

Upper left, a housekeeper, late 30s or early 40s, a competent woman who is pleasant to chat to and will get tasks done without too much fuss.

Upper centre, a boy of perhaps 14, a little unsure of what having his portrait taken is to mean. I almost sense his mother's milk still wet on his lips. He remembers his days of play all too vividly and is now embarked on a life of work. He is not treated badly. He is probably a good boy of whom much is expected once he grows into his responsibilities.

Upper right, a man of about 60 or 65 looking the other way, grave but not stern, trustworthy, a comfort to those who need his expertise. A firm mouth, the expressive eyes of an intelligent far-seer. He would work perfectly as an inventor in the Royal Society, or a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Lower left, a pretty woman of 18 or 20, with a very determined lip and chin. You wouldn't want her for an enemy, and depending on what she said when she opened her mouth, you might very much want her friendship. Is she sensible and discreet, or is she fiery-tempered and intractable? The force and intelligence in her look could fit either.

Centre, a man in his late 50s, worn with care, entrusted with responsibility, a good servant and the centre of the household, but his eyes are tired, his mouth droops. I don't think he'll have much fault to find with his junior servants around him, he probably chose them and chose them well, it's just that this is his nature not to be at ease whenever he sees work to do.

Lower right, a woman of about 30, with somewhat sharp features, and perhaps not so bright as the others, but good at what she does, and if she wants to argue about it, in the end she does it well and the others are pleased to have her.

They seem like a family, like people I know, and want to know. Their faces don't have the pasty, bloated, or pinched looks that so many pictures of that age have. (Was it the food? Were they all grossly deficient in vitamins?) These are pink-faced, healthy, so real you could touch them. I wish I could hear them speak.

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