My Daily Art Display for today will look at the fifth painting in a set of six by William Hogarth, entitled Marriage à la Mode. Today’s painting is subtitled, The Bagnio. For anybody who has just come to this page, I suggest you flick to My Daily Art Display of May 4th as that looks at the first painting of the set and as the six paintings are telling a story in chronological order that is where you should start this pictorial soap opera about the Earl of Squander and his young bride. The title of the Hogarth painting today is The Bagnio. In England, bagnios were originally used to name coffee houses which offered Turkish baths, but by 1740, which was around the time Hogarth painted these pictures, they signified places where rooms could be hired “with no questions asked”, later they became houses of prostitution.
Yesterday we looked at the fourth painting in the series, subtitled The Toilette and we learnt for the first time that the relationship between the Countess of Squander and her lawyer, Silvertongue was not as pure and business-like as we first believed. They were arranging to go to a masquerade together and we learnt that the anonymity that these soirées provided guests, allowed them to behave as flirtatiously as they liked without fear of their identity being known.
The scene of the painting today is set in a dimly lit room in the Turks’ Head Bagnio, which actually existed in London at the time of Hogarth, in Bow Street, Covent Gardens. Hogarth identifies the establishment by showing a bill on the floor next to the upturned table in the far left foreground of the painting. Silvertongue and the Countess did go to the masquerade but instead of her returning home she has decided to accompany her lawyer to the bagnio to consummate their sexual desires. We know they attended the masquerade as their masks lie discarded on the floor. The floor is also strewn with discarded clothes, the two masques and their bags and it is obvious the two lovers were in great haste to make love. However for the lovers the night of passion turned out to be an unmitigated disaster as somehow the Earl of Squander, her husband, had found out about their secret assignation and had burst in on them whilst they were carrying out their dastardly deed. It makes you wonder whether the Earl himself had been using the bagnio for his own forbidden pleasures and the landlord had said something like “I see your wife and her lawyer are here tonight”. Ok, that is stretching the imagination too far, but somehow he found out about this tryst.
An ensuing sword-fight broke out between Silvertongue and the Earl. Unfortunately for the Earl, whose life had been spent gambling, drinking and fornicating, fencing had not been his forte and the result of the short-lived duel ended with him receiving a fatal wound to the heart. Silvertongue now fearing the consequences of his action drops his bloodied sword, which we see on the floor, and decides to vacate the room through the window without stopping to get dressed. The Countess racked with guilt, falls to her knees at the feet of her dying husband begging forgiveness. The sound of the commotion has alerted the landlord of the establishment who bursts through the door with the Night Watch to investigate. This is the scene we now see before us.
As ever, I get great pleasure in looking at the detail in paintings rather than just standing back and having a cursory glance at a work. I think we owe that to the artist, who has spent so much time on the details and shouldn’t we try and get into the head of the painter and try and rationalise the details he has meticulously added to his masterpiece?
We are given a rear-view of Silvertongue in the left background, disappearing out of the window in his night shirt. There is something quite comical and ludicrous about his pose and maybe it was Hogarth’s intention to cast him as a fool.
On the rear wall hangs a tapestry. It is a woven depiction of the Judgement of Solomon, which if you remember tells the story from the bible which was about his judgement on the parenthood of a baby between two women claiming the infant as theirs. His judgement was that the baby should be split asunder, giving half to each mother. Hogarth probably added this as a backdrop to this painting as a reference to the destructive split of the marriage between the Earl and the Countess due to their self-centred life choices they had made which resulted in the ruin of both their lives.
Hogarth must have had a sense of humour for look on the back wall at the framed three-quarter length picture of a prostitute, which has been placed on the tapestry in such a way that the legs from part of the tapestry scene look to be those of the prostitute! The bedclothes lie ruffled on the bed which leads us to believe that the Earl had entered the room and caught the lovers in flagrante delicto.
From what Hogarth depicted in this painting, we can have no doubt that the final painting, which we will look at tomorrow, is not going to have a happy ending.