The Arts of Memory and William Hogarth's Line of Beauty

By Mazzaro, Jerome | Essays in Literature, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

The Arts of Memory and William Hogarth's Line of Beauty


Mazzaro, Jerome, Essays in Literature


In a rejected passage of The Analysis of Beauty (1753), William Hogarth describes how "in the beginning" a great part of his time was spent copying coats of arms on silver plate and how he determined not to "continue copying objects but rather [to] read the language of them (and if possible find a grammar to it)." He would carry no pencil or sketchbook. Nor would he draw "upon the spot, whatever [he] wanted to imitate." Instead, he would "collect and retain a remembrance of what [he] saw by repeated observations only trying every now and then upon [his] canvas how far [he] was advanc'd by that means." Occasionally, as a contemporary of his observed, Hogarth might "draw something with his pencil on his finger-nail" as a memorandum, but generally he adhered to the resolve. In his Introduction to the Analysis, Joseph Burke suggests a possible connection between this method of composition and mnemonic system and what, in The Art of Memory, Frances Yates describes as "the classical Art of Memory ... referred to by Cicero in De Oratore and by Quintilian in his Institutes, and ... fully expounded in the pseudo-Ciceronian Ad Herennium." More recently, Derek Jarrett has proposed a link between the practice and the work of Jan Comenius (1592-1670), whose primers on language, Janua linguarum trilinguia (1631) and Orbis sensualium pictum (1658), deeply affected the language teaching of Hogarth's schoolmaster father. Translated into English as The Gate of Languages Unlocked (1650) and The Visible World in Pictures (1664), the texts revolutionized the learning of Latin by dramatizing the tongue through pictures illustrating Latin sentences and accompanying the sentences with translations.(1)

The Comenius method does resemble that described by Yates as deriving from the Ad Herennium. In that classic text, one, having to learn the line of verse "Iam domum itionem reges Atridae parant," is advised on the basis of sound resemblance to link the phrase "domum itionem reges" to "Domitian-Reges" as a vividly imagined bloody confrontation between the noble Rex and plebeian Domitian families. Rather than a strikingly evocative phrase, striking pictures mark the Comenius method, and instead of an order or sequence for assembling parts along architectural, numerical, or musical lines, orthography and grammar are used. Hogarth's exposure to the method may be inferred not only from the vocabulary of language and grammar that he adopts in describing his practice of composition but also from the account he gives of his early schooling. "When at school," he reports in an autobiographical fragment, "my exercises were more remarkable for the ornaments which adorn'd them than for the Exercise itself[.] I found Blockheads with better memories beat me in the former [the exercises] but I was particularly distinguished for the latter." Jarrett remarks that Hogarth's gaining "distinction rather than punishment for his 'ornaments'" would be in keeping with Comenius's principle of dual and equal emphases and teaching "by word and image simultaneously."(2)

Hogarth's work as an engraver and artist would also have exposed him directly or indirectly to Alberti's advice in Della pittura (1436) to use "a veil, or reticulated net" to divide his designs for easier composition. This practice of partition was standard advice in arts of memory texts to speakers wanting to command lengthy passages. The divisions created by the fabric's intersecting parallels for easier command of perspective and technique would map spaces comparable to the places or loci of two-dimensional artificial memory structures like that which Yates reproduces from Johannes Romberch's Congestorium artificiose memorie (1533). (See figure 1.) However, what for Romberch are areas given over to the control of fixed familiar tokens associated with a courtyard, library, and chapel, are now vacant spaces into which may be fitted the individual outlines of foreheads, noses, cheeks, chins, and all other outstanding features. …

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