Monday, April 4, 2011

William Hone (1780-1842)

William Hone (b. Bath 3 Jun 1780-8 Nov 1842)

William Henry Davenport Adams wrote in 1890 about the Old Bailey that “At No. 67, corner of Ship Court (where Hogarth’s father kept a school) William Hone, in December 1817, published his three political parodies on the Catechism, the Litany, and the Creed, for which, in December, he was three times tried (on a charge of blasphemy) and three times acquitted, Hone defending himself on each occasion.” -- A Book about London, London: Henry & Company.

William Hone’s pamphlets had no religious motive, they were politically motivated tracts. The prosecution was brought about by the Vice Society, who also brought suit against Thomas Paine’s earlier tract “Age of Reason.” Hone was acquitted but other publishers who took on the work were not so lucky; three of them served prison sentences of six months each for their issuing of the “Parodies.”

Hone’s most famous work was The Political House that Jack Built which was popular enough to warrant fifty-three editions. Hone was canny enough to make good use of the well-known caricaturist George Cruikshank to augment his text with woodcuts. These tight, spare and simple designs were crucial to the popularity of the work. Hone advertised his works as Woodcut Works. From here I will turn over the telling of the history to Mathew Crowther, who supplied the images >

“After my trials, the newspapers were continually at me, calling me an acquitted felon. The worm will turn when trodden on. One day, when I had been exasperated beyond bearing, one of my children, a little girl of four years old, was sitting on my knee, very busy, looking at the pictures of a child’s book; ‘what have you got there’? said I -- ‘The House That Jack Built’ -- an idea flashed across my mind; I saw at once the use that would be made of it; I took it from her. I said ‘Mother, take the child, send me up my tea and two candles, and let nobody come near me till I ring.’ I sat up all night and wrote ‘The House That Jack Built’”.

The first edition, which was published on 13th November 1819 and just a couple of days before the government passed further legislation to restrict the freedoms of the press, managed to combine a perfectly timed piece of political satire with an unprecedented use of visual images, which caused a sensation in London. Altogether the Political House ran through some 53 editions and 100,000 copies in just a few months.

It’s probably difficult for the modern observer, who is saturated with sophisticated imagery on a daily basis; to appreciate exactly how genuinely shocking the images in the Political House were when first published. When Hone was asked why he had become a satirist he responded by quoting a passage from William Gifford's translation of Juvenal; “The legitimate office of a satirist is to hold up the vicious as objects of reprobation and scorn, for the example of others, who may be deterred by their sufferings; there is in such men a willfulness of disposition, which prompts them to bear up against shame, and to show how little they regard light reproof, by becoming more audacious in guilt: vice, like folly, to be restrained, must be overawed”. This was the principle aim of the Political House; to strip the government and the monarchy of their pretentions and hold them up as objects of ridicule and public contempt.

The denigration of the great and the good had of course been a common feature of eighteenth century satire and Gillray had made a nice living from pillorying the private scandals of upper class London, however what was different and even dangerous about The Political House was that it was aimed at a working class audience rather than the wealthy clientele of the fashionable print shops of the West End. The political classes didn’t mind laughing at each other but the prospect of poor people laughing at them was intolerable. It is perhaps telling that Hone’s pamphlets were commonly referred to as ‘squibs’, a slang term which was otherwise used to describe explosive mortar shells.

Continued in our next: The Real or Constitutional House that Jack Built

* The Dr. Slop in the Dedication refers to Dr. Stoddart, owner of the "New Times" newspaper.

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