William Hogarth's Topographies


Hogarth’s engagement with various aspects of topography extended beyond travel literature and antiquarian pursuits to the science and art of perspective, a practice critically linked to the representation of landscape and place in British art. In 1754, the artist and theorist Joshua Kirby (1716–1774) commissioned Hogarth to design a frontispiece for his book, Dr. Brook Taylor’s Method of Perspective Made Easy, Both in Theory and Practice, one of the most influential treatises on perspective published in England. Hogarth produced an intricate satirical landscape that flagrantly transgressed some of the most basic rules of perspectival composition as it was understood and practiced during the artist’s lifetime.  

Kirby based his method on the work of Dr. Brook Taylor (1685–1731), a British mathematician who authored in 1715 the first notable treatise on perspective written in English. The history of the discipline, however, was long and international. In the Western world, Florentine humanist Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) is often credited as the first to codify modern perspective in the early fifteenth century. In Britain, Taylor’s book was preceded by numerous others that appeared at least since the second half of the sixteenth century and aspired to improve the study of mathematics in the country.

In his Method of Perspective Made Easy, Kirby introduced basic principles of geometry and optics, while also providing his readers with simplified methods and models to draw correct perspectival compositions. Although professional artists were his primary audience, Kirby addressed the treatise to “any Gentlemen” interested in the “polite amusement” of drawing. In so doing, he gestured to the pervasive application of linear perspective beyond artistic practices, including the design of ships, land surveying and landscape design, military and engineering drawing—especially the planning of fortifications. Perspective was taught in military and artistic academies alike—at times by the same professors. The list of subscribers to the book is a testimony to the wide range of interest in the topic, as it includes several distinguished artists such as Arthur Devis (1712–1787), Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), and Samuel Scott (1701/2–1772), the sculptor Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702–1762), as well as a shipbuilder, engravers, clergy, a writing-master, a drawing-master, carvers, and architects. A few years after this publication, Joshua Kirby was appointed tutor in perspective of the young Prince of Wales (future George III).

With his satirical frontispiece, which directly addresses the crude amateurism of painting in his country, Hogarth hinted at a more general sentiment that British artists might lack the rigor of their continental counterparts, partly because of their informal training. The sudden increase in interest for perspective studies in Britain during the mid-eighteenth century coincides with animated debates around the creation of an artistic institution modeled on the French Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. The Royal Academy eventually opened in 1768 and included in its charter a professorship in perspective.

This section of the exhibition places Hogarth’s frontispiece for Kirby within the frame of perspective practice in Britain as well as related artistic debates and controversies on the best methods to rigorously represent space in two dimensions. 

Luke Sullivan after William Hogarth
Etching and engraving, State 1
From Joshua Kirby, Dr. Brook Taylor’s Method of Perspective Made Easy…
Published 1754
The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Hogarth’s landscape includes a host of illogical spatial relationships, exaggerating the abberrations caused by the ignorance of perspective rules in order to stress their importance. An angler in the foreground casts his line for fish in the middle ground while an intrepid hunter on a barge fires his gun at a swimming swan even as his line of vision is obstructed by the pier of a bridge between them. The innkeeper on the right lights the pipe of a wanderer standing on a distant hill by simply bending out of her window. A row of trees planted on the flank of the hill increase in size rather than diminish into the distance. The vanishing points of pavement bricks at the bottom of the prints inversely converge toward the viewer’s space instead of the pictorial (rounded) horizon line. In the background, both ends of a church are made visible by the elbowed delineation of its structure, which appears to float partially on the water. A blurry and non-mimetic reflection further confuses the relationship of the building to its environs. Under the image, the caption warns: “Whoever makes a Design without the Knowledge of Perspective will be liable to such Absurdities as are shewn in this Frontispiece.” 

A second edition of Joshua Kirby’s Dr. Brook Taylor’s Method of Perspective Made Easy, Both in Theory and Practice would be published only a year later, and in a more luxurious folio edition in 1765. In his Graphic Illustrations of William Hogarth (1799), Samuel Ireland included a copy of this picture which he renamed Satire on false Perspective—the title that will be used hereafter.

Samuel Ireland after William Hogarth
False Perspective Exemplified
In Graphic Illustrations of Hogarth, from Pictures, Drawings, and Scarce Prints in the Possession of Samuel Ireland
Published 1794
The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Samuel Ireland (1744–1800) owned what he presented as Hogarth’s original drawing and sketch in oil—both of them lost to us—for the frontispiece to Kirby’s treatise on perspective. “I am informed,” writes Ireland, “it was made in the presence of Mr. Kirby and others, at the house of a common friend. The design is very different from that which has been published, and in some respects may claim a preference, as the absurdity meant to be ridiculed is carried to a still greater extent. The scene is supposed to be in Africa from the sooty complexions of the two damsels who are angling by the side of the river: this idea is farther corroborated by the introduction of the story of Dido and Æneas, who are represented almost naked, while the natives are full cloathed in the European style.” Although the African location might be questioned, this other version offers a more comprehensive approach to perspective. It is here associated with navigation, with the under-scaled ship passing behind the arch, light and shadows with the sundial, architecture, as well as war—the woman is not lighting the pipe of a wanderer but handing a glass to a soldier—and even death and the gallows in the background.

Jacob Larwood (pseudonym of J. van Schevichaven)
“The Complete Angler”
Plate V (detail)
In The History of Signboards: From the earliest times to the present day 
Published 1866
The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

The prominence of the two anglers in a print illustrating the precepts of a perspectival treatise is intriguing. One might suspect a pun on the double meaning of the terms “angling” and “line” which correlate fishing and geometry. Hogarth might also have drawn his inspiration from more mundane images available in daily city life. London was the artist’s muse; an acute urban observer and uncompromising mapper of the social landscape around him, he found inspiration as he roamed the streets. The History of Signboards, a thorough inventory of public signing since antiquity, published by J. C. Hotten in 1866, is an invaluable source for reconstructing visual details of this cityscape. Among its many illustrations, the book includes the signboard of a shop specializing in fishing paraphernalia that strikingly resonates with Hogarth’s False Perspective. Jacob Larwood, the author of the text, states that this “Complete Angler was the usual sign of fish-tackle sellers in the [eighteenth] century.” Hogarth, who occasionally produced shop signs himself, certainly took inspiration from the characteristic naïveté of such popular iconography to lampoon the inconsistencies of perspective drawing.

Brook Taylor
Figure 23
In New Principles of Linear Perspective, or, The art of designing on a plane, 3rd edition
Published 1749
Yale Center for British Art

Dr. Brook Taylor published a first edition of his method of linear perspective in 1715. The title page declared the discipline “necessary for Painters, Architects, &c. to Judge of, and Regulate Designs by.” Taylor’s dry mathematical prose and complex geometrical demonstrations, however, perplexed most of the artists he was hoping to reach. Four years later, he published New Principles of Linear Perspective. Although it remained largely inaccessible, the second edition was slightly enlarged, with further explanatory text and most particularly with additional illustrations. Figure 23, for example, illustrates “the manner how the Reflection is found in the Looking Glass of the Picture on the Eazle.” Despite a clear desire to make this demonstration appealing to painters, the two dense pages of explanations that accompany the image obfuscate more than clarify principles for the novice. To remedy Taylor’s esoterism, several authors, and artists in particular, wrote texts intended to make this method more accessible. In 1749, the mathematician John Colson (1680–1759) published this revised edition of Taylor's New Principles, and Joshua Kirby’s book inaugurated a tradition of manuals “after Brook Taylor’s method” that appeared regularly for more than a century. By declaring Taylor as the founding figure of perspective in Britain, these authors deliberately diminished the worth and importance of earlier perspectivists whom they nonetheless relied on and often quoted in their texts. Taylor’s book was translated into Italian and French during the 1750s, a testimony to its enduring reputation among international experts.

Perspective (Plate XV)
In Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or, An universal dictionary of arts and sciences
Published 1728
The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

About ten years after Taylor’s revised publication, Ephraim Chambers (1680–1740) included a long and richly illustrated article on perspective in his Cyclopaedia. The author defined it as “the Art of Delineating visible Objects on a plane Surface, such as they appear at a given Distance or Height, upon a transparent Plane, placed perpendicular to the Horizon, between the Eye and the Object.” Figures 1 and 2 from the plate, showing two men looking through a glass pane, illustrate this definition that calls for Alberti’s fundamental definition of painting as “a Window thro’ which I am to view the Story which is to be painted.” The rest of Chambers’s figures mostly concern the perspective constructions of basic geometrical forms and solids. In the lower portion of the plate, several diagrams exemplify the use of perspective for: theatrical sets or “scenography,” the correct representation of shadows, and architectural drawing. Finally, he includes examples of anamorphoses, which are described in a separate entry as “a monstrous projection; or a representation of some image, either on a plane or curve surface, deformed; which at a certain distance shall appear regular, and in proportion.”

Joseph Highmore
[Diagram to explicate the perspectival representation of columns]
In A critical examination of those two paintings on the cieling of the banqueting-house at Whitehall 
Published 1754
The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Only a few months after the publication of Joshua Kirby’s treatise, to which he was a subscriber, the painter Joseph Highmore (1692–1780) published a pamphlet addressing the depiction of columns, a particular issue in perspectival representation. Highmore was a self-taught artist who studied painting in his spare time while he was training as a lawyer, before he finally entered Godfrey Kneller’s academy. In this short text, he focused on Rubens’s paintings adorning the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall. He argued that Kirby was misguided when he claimed in his book that, in some cases, one should trust one’s eye instead of following mathematical rules. According to Highmore, artists should always construct their composition mathematically and around a single viewpoint. He illustrated his argument with a didactic plate showing that the columns should not be represented as parallel to the painted surface (as is the case in the two images P and O on the lower right) but rather subjected to an invisible point of sight (as he corrected on their left). In support, he stipulates: “The Reader will judge better of the Effect, by holding the Prints over his Head, for a few Moments.”

Kirby responded to this Critical Examination in an appendix to the second edition of his perspective treatise published in 1755, and in 1763 Highmore eventually published his own treatise titled The Practice of Perspective, On the Principles of Dr. Brook Taylor.

William Hogarth
Plate I
Etching and engraving
In William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty
Published 1753
The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

In The Analysis of Beauty, published a year before Kirby’s book, Hogarth presented a formulation of his main artistic theories, which he had been practicing for several decades. All of them revolved around the concept of a line of beauty that runs through nature and thereby should dictate artistic compositions. The book was supplemented by two large and intricate prints whose multifarious elements illustrated passages in the text. In the right-hand margin of the first plate, Hogarth presented a diagram with a small boat on a plain surface accompanied by directional lines meeting at a distant point. This illustration is explained in the second chapter dedicated to variety:

"The little ship... suppos'd moving along the shore even with the eye, might have its top and bottom bounded by two lines at equal distances all the way, as A; but if the ship puts out to sea, these lines at top and bottom would seem to vary and meet each other by degrees, as B, in the point C, which is in the line where the sky and water meets, call'd the horizon. Thus much of the manner of perspectives adding beauty, by seemingly varying otherwise unvaried forms, I thought, might be acceptable to those, who have not learnt perspective."

This image of the ship recurs several times in the treatise. Although mainly focused on the representation of bodies, The Analysis also addressed to a lesser extent their placement in space. In a few paragraphs disseminated throughout the different chapters, the book offered remarks that hint at a theory of perspective that is never fully elaborated. 

Paul Sandby
The Analyst Besh—n, in his own Taste
Published [1753?]
The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

The publication of Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty met with a mixed reception and the work was often ridiculed for the intricacy of its prose. While many commentators celebrated this text as a major achievement for British art theory, several competing voices were raised among advocates of a British artistic academy. Hogarth strongly opposed such a system and defended his own informal institution, the St. Martin’s Lane Academy. The artist Paul Sandby (1731–1809)—pro-academy—produced a series of vitriolic prints ridiculing Hogarth’s treatise. In The Analyst Besh—n, a caricatured Hogarth (labeled 1) is represented as horrified by the apparition of the ghost of the Italian artist and theorist Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo (3) holding his influential treatise on the art of painting which he accuses Hogarth of plagiarizing. Joshua Kirby (9) stands behind Hogarth in a similar state of stupor. He is unflatteringly described beneath as “a Disciple droping the Palate and brushes thro’ Concern for his Masters forlorn state.”

King George III (signed G.P.W.)
[Perspective drawing of a classical building with pavilion wings]
Pen and ink over pencil and wash
Published 1760
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022

In 1761, Joshua Kirby published a second book on perspective that focused on architecture. On the title page, the author presents himself as “Designer in Perspective to His Majesty.” Shortly after the publication of his first book in 1754, Kirby started tutoring in perspective the young Prince of Wales, who ascended the throne as George III in 1760. In the book, the plate LXIV representing the façade of a Palladian villa with colonnades was engraved after this drawing by the young Prince of Wales preserved in the Royal Collections at Windsor Castle. Kirby inscribed on the back of the paper: “This Drawing was Designed & Executed for my Book on Perspective, by his Majesty King George the third.” In the accompanying text, Kirby wrote that this plate was the most invaluable part of the book. In addition to perspective, the Prince received instruction from William Chambers (1722-1796) on the elements of architecture and from Stephen Demainbray (1710-1782) on the fundamentals of natural philosophy. 

William Woollett, after William Hogarth
Engraving, State 2
From Joshua Kirby, Perspective of Architecture 
Published 1760
The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Hogarth also designed the frontispiece of Kirby’s Perspective of Architecture. His composition presents a dramatically oblique perspective, following the precepts he expounded in The Analysis of Beauty and according to which the view from an angle is always more pleasing than from the front. The plate includes a prominent column in the foreground whose capital bears the Prince of Wales’s emblems—the coronet and the plume of feathers—as well as the royal star of the Garter. A large ray of sun, probably alluding to the royal munificence, unites the background and the foreground, caressed halfway by the index of a Cupid who gazes directly at the sun with a copy of Palladio’s Architecture open on his lap. The ray falls on a sheet lying on the ground on which are drawn perspectival representations of solids. Next to the paper, a small stone block shows on one of its faces the preparatory spiral engraved to guide its ornamental carving. In the center of the foreground also lies the architectonic sector that Kirby describes in his first chapter. Around this period, Hogarth was making notes for a supplement to his Analysis of Beauty that would exclusively address architecture, but this project was left unfinished at the artist’s death in 1764.

Coda: Transgressing Boundaries

“If I was a sheep, I should be proud to serve the Empire.” So says the apothecary, caricature of a local worthy in Ernst Lubitsch’s class-oriented 1946 comedy Cluny Brown, while contemplating a pastoral landscape of questionnable taste hanging on the wall. The film’s eponymous character is a so-called ingénue, daughter of a plumber who, according to her father, “never knows where her place is.” She moves freely into the various social groups she enters, unaware of the class hierarchy that most of the characters around her would prefer to keep airtight with their respective codes, manners, and cultural references. The intrusion of this figure disturbs the quiet order that was hitherto established from a strict and presumably fixed standpoint.

      The sheep on the left in Hogarth’s Satire on False Perspective do not behave according to the laws of perspective either. While the rule would imply that their size decreases while the flock advances into the distance, it actually increases. The same holds true for most of the figures in the print, which seem to obey their own visual rules or to create their own viewpoint, such as the casks in the foreground which are represented according to incoherent points of sight. Scales are upended, boundaries are transgressed, the gentleman angler crosses over the humble angler to steal his fish—unless, of course, one adopts a different standpoint. In this light, one cannot help but wonder: are these “Absurdities” that Hogarth draws attention to strictly visual? And should they actually be resolved?