Jef Page, president of the Ilford Historical Society, will be talking about William Hogarth’s painting The Assembly at Wanstead House at an event organised by Redbridge Heritage Centre this month.
In April 1728, Lord Castlemaine – Sir Richard Child (1680–1750) – wanted to celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary with his wife Dorothy (nee Glynne). Nothing too grandiose, he chose a tea and card party held in the ballroom of his sumptuous palace: Wanstead House. To mark the occasion, he decided to record it by having an up-and-coming artist record the event.
Twenty-five years earlier, to record his betrothal, he paid for portraits of his wife (sadly, sold on before I had a chance to see them) and himself. Looking resplendent in full-bottomed wig and bright-blue silk gown, he looks self-assured. Those paintings were completed by an unknown artist in the circle of famous painter Michael Dahl. But in 1728 he was too old and Lord Castlemaine decided on a young man who was just starting his career: William Hogarth (1697–1764).
The house was completely rebuilt 1715–1722 by Colen Campbell in the new classical style and its palatial grandeur must have impressed everyone. Hogarth’s painting makes the room appear small but in reality the ballroom must have been massive. The furnishings were opulent: the carpet Turkish, tapestries from Belgium, the chandelier, which a servant lights, was massive and the room’s decor was later finished by William Kent, much to Hogarth’s annoyance. But why isn’t Dorothy seated beside Richard – far right, dignified in a red coat? She looks over her shoulder towards him holding up a top card for a winning marriage: the ace of spades. In the centre, the family and guests are playing an unidentified card game, whilst everyone else stands around wondering when they will get a chance to sit down and play. One woman in black is only seen in silhouette, whilst another, far left, at the back, is completely turned around – a real cheat. Another woman standing beside the massive fireplace fans a pack of cards – really bored and fed up. Twenty-five figures in total.
Hogarth was painting in a new style, creating a ‘conversation piece’ where the figures don’t engage with each other. But why did it take three years to complete his first top commission? He may have been distracted by his elopement and marriage to Jane Thornhill in 1728 or perhaps Castlemaine was slow in paying up, so William delayed finishing the work. We know from X-rays that Hogarth repainted Dorothy’s face to make her look younger. Of the young children, far left, the boy beside the most poorly painted dog ever seems to lean on a chair and it’s very dark and sketchy. Did Hogarth stay at Wanstead House to view the furnishings or just visit? We’ll never know.