Professor Terence Doyle
Like most works of art, William Hogarth’s The Company of Undertakers has hidden depths. The early eighteenth century was a time of increasing freedom of expression, associated with the rise of a thinking middle class in society, after the Revolution of 1688. Hypocrisy in social and moral values came under particular scrutiny; and satire was a popular vehicle for such criticism.
Hogarth had been an engraver of heraldic devices in his early career and in March 1736 published this work, which he offered as a coat of arms for the medical profession (price 6 pence). He originally intended to call it ‘A Consultation of Physicians’, but this and the final title both reflect his cynical view of the medical fraternity. The picture is laid out as an armorial escutcheon and there are important hints to its meaning in the text below it. The description is a satire on what might refer to a conventional coat of arms. It ends with the motto ET PLURIMA MORTIS IMAGO (and the image of death everywhere).
Beareth Sable, an Urinal proper, between twelve Quack-Heads of the Second and twelve Cane Heads Or, Consultant. On a Chief Nebulae, Ermine, One Compleat Doctor issuant, checkie sustaining in his Right Hand a baton of the Second. On his Dexter and Sinister sides two Demi-Doctors, issuant of the second, and two Cane-Heads, issuant of the third, the first one having One Eye couchant, towards the dexter side of the Escutcheon, the second Faced per pale proper and Gules, Guardent.
In the lower part of the picture the twelve physicians in their periwigs (‘twelve Quack-Heads of the Second and twelve Cane Heads Or, Consultant’) are all of unsavoury aspect and each is sniffing the golden head of their cane filled with sweet smelling herbs to counter the miasma issuing from their patients. In the centre is ‘an Urinal proper’ being inspected by two of them while a third, with his finger in the flask, is about to taste the contents.
‘On a Chief Nebulae’, in the clouds above the wavy line in the upper third, are three figures. In the centre facing forwards (‘One Compleat Doctor issuant, checkie sustaining in his Right Hand a baton’) is a cross-eyed person wearing the checked motley costume of Harlequin. This is Sally Mapp, a famous bone-setter of the period; hence her baton is a human bone. The daughter of a farrier, she travelled about London in a coach and four, with outriders and footmen. Dressing her as Harlequin is a reference to the practice of itinerant quacks employing a ‘zany’ or comedian to attract crowds to their sales pitch.
On Sally’s right (Dexter) is ‘Chevalier’ John Taylor, a famous eye specialist of the day. He is portrayed ‘having One Eye couchant’ – one eye is closed and there is one on the head of his cane. The word ‘couchant’ hints at ‘a lazy eye’ and also to the practice of ‘couching for cataract’; an operation where an opaque lens is pushed back into the globe with a needle. Taylor had a conventional medical degree and studied under the surgeon William Cheselden at St Thomas’s Hospital. However, his unconventional and flamboyant lifestyle led Hogarth to include him with the quacks.
On Sally’s left is (the Sinister) Joshua ‘Spot’ Ward, an ex-footman who made a fortune with his panacea called ‘Ward’s Drops’ – which were largely toxic antimony. Ward is a most interesting character. He got the nickname ‘Spot’ from a large birthmark on his face. In his footnote Hogarth describes him in mock-heraldic terms as ‘Faced per pale proper and Gules, Guardent’. ‘Faced’ means looking outwards; ‘per pale’ refers to a vertical line in heraldry; ‘Gules’ refers to the colour red. So the whole line means – on one side of his face a natural colour and on the other red. Hogarth has reproduced this as light and dark shading. Ward was a flamboyant self-promotor who advertised his wares in commercial association with a bookseller. In lieu of payment after successfully reducing George II’s dislocated thumb, he was granted the privilege of driving his carriage through St James’s Park, an honour normally only granted to persons of rank. Alexander Pope wrote couplets about him, and his portrait by Thomas Bardwell now hangs in the Royal College of Surgeons in London.
Quackery was much discussed in Georgian England. Hogarth’s point, however, is that there was little to choose between those medical practitioner whom the establishment labelled as Quacks and the university trained Physicians, either in their self-aggrandizement or their results. That is why he refers to the three practitioners at the top of his picture as ‘One Compleat Doctor issuant.’
In the modern world, both conventional and alternative medicine are big business. The question of the status and relationship of the two is surely just as relevant today as when William Hogarth expressed his opinion.
Professor Terence Doyle teaches in Dunedin School of Medicine and is a doctor at Dunedin Hospital. He is giving a free public lecture called A Natural History of Quackery at 5.15 pm, Thursday 25 August 2016 in the Hunter Centre, Great King Street, Dunedin.