William Hogarth was appointed Serjeant Painter to the King, a post at the royal court, in June 1757. He succeeded his brother-in-law, John Thornhill, who had resigned through ill health and died that September. John had held the post since 1732 when he in turn had succeeded his father, Sir James Thornhill.
The Letters Patent
A copy of the formal document or ‘letters patent’, recording the appointment, was purchased in 2004 by the William Hogarth Trust for display at Hogarth’s House. The lower edge of the vellum was folded to carry a large seal but this no longer survives. The document uses what we think of as excessively flowery language to record both the end of John Thornhill’s tenure of the post and the appointment of Hogarth in his place. It lists several times all the things for which the Serjeant Painter was responsible and the fact that the annual fee was to be paid to him quarterly.
A connection at court
This was one of the court posts in the gift of the Duke of Devonshire who had been made Lord Chamberlain the previous May. Hogarth already knew the Duke, having painted his portrait in 1741 when he was still Marquess of Hartington. In addition, both Hogarth and the Duke were friends of David Garrick, the actor, and the Duke had inherited Chiswick House by marriage.
The annual fee paid was £10, while the Rat-killer to the King got £48 a year! However, it was worth considerably more because it gave Hogarth a monopoly on the painting and gilding of royal properties, vehicles, vessels, banners and tents. As his deputy oversaw the work, it was not a great burden for him. Hogarth was fortunate to be in office when state funerals and coronations occurred, so extra work, producing ceremonial items and replacing coats of arms, had to be carried out. The result was that his profits were substantial. In that first year he took £400, with nearly £700 in 1758, £947 in 1759 and in 1761, George III’s coronation year, £982. He later estimated that the post contributed about £200 a year to his own income.
Honour or wealth?
Hogarth was pleased with the seal of royal approval which this appointment offered and proud to follow in the footsteps of his father-in-law, Sir James Thornhill, whom he had greatly admired. The new self-portrait he produced in 1758 shows him at work at his easel; when he had this engraved to use as the frontispiece to his folios of prints, a workman’s paint-pot was added behind his chair, acknowledging that this was a practical role rather than a great honour, and his new title was engraved below the picture. He told his friend, James Ralph, an American living on Chiswick Mall, who had helped him with the writing of his Analysis of Beauty, ’till Fame appears to be worth more than Money he would always prefer Money to Fame’.
The William Hogarth Trust would like to thank Archives Libraries & Museums London, Bernard Quaritch Ltd, Blackwell Green, Christie’s and Christie’s Images Ltd, the Friends of the National Libraries, Fuller Smith & Turner plc, Kate Edmondson (conservator) and many individual donors for their support in making possible the purchase, conservation and display of the letters patent