It would be difficult to write about animals in Georgian London without going head to head with William Hogarth’s iconic Second Stage of Cruelty (1751). This was the first source I grappled with ten years ago, I have stared at it for hours since, and it plays a central role in City of Beasts.
But what does it show? Well, Hogarth’s antihero Tom Nero has graduated from torturing cats and dogs in the First Stage of Cruelty to becoming a London hackney coachman. Things aren’t going well: he’s shown whipping at the head of his collapsed horse, having worked it to exhaustion. Close by, a Smithfield drover beats his sheep and a horse-drawn dray is about to crush a small boy playing in the street. There’s also an overburdened donkey and if you squint you can just about make out a bullock tossing a man into the air. As with many other Hogarthian scenes, there’s a lot going on here but the artist leaves no doubt that animals were not just ubiquitous in his city, they were influential actors. Don’t forget that Hogarth was born in the shadow of Smithfield Market in 1697, so he saw his fair share of animal life growing up.
Over the last twenty years, quite a few historians have scrapped over the meaning of this image. Some have used it to argue that Hogarth was part of a new wave of sympathy for animals which intensified in the second half of the eighteenth century. But others have suggested that Hogarth was less interested in cruelty to animals than the impact of spiralling immorality on people (in the next stage, ‘Cruelty in Perfection’ Nero brutally murders a young woman). I offer my view about this in the book but for me there are even more interesting things to consider about this image.
I’m fascinated by the details because Hogarth does not do random! City of Beasts considers these alongside dramatic, previously overlooked evidence of tangible human-animal interactions drawn from newspapers, court cases, parliamentary records and other sources. The artist has inspired me to ask, and hopefully answer, lots of intriguing questions such as:
Why is the drayman sat on his vehicle? Why did Hogarth choose this vignette?
Why is the drover so angry? What was it like to move livestock across the city?
How did men and horses cope with London’s increasingly busy streets?
Why are all those people chasing the bullock & what does this tell us about the city?
How fair is Hogarth’s biting criticism of the men who worked with animals?
Sorry to tease, but for all the answers and a lot more besides, you’ll have to grab a copy of the book.