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Hogarth’s The Marriage Settlement: A Cautionary Tale of Two Lawyers

Hogarth’s The Marriage Settlement: A Cautionary Tale of Two Lawyers

William Hogarth,  Marriage à la Mode  1,  The Marriage Settlement,  c. 1743, oil on canvas, 69.9 x 90.8 cm, The National Gallery, NG 113.

William Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode 1, The Marriage Settlement, c. 1743, oil on canvas, 69.9 x 90.8 cm, The National Gallery, NG 113.

The first painting in Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode series, The Marriage Settlement, lures the viewer to the tableau as a participant in the negotiation of the marriage contract in which the son of the cash-poor Earl of Squanderfield will marry the wealthy Alderman’s daughter.  The subjects of the marriage contract, the son and the daughter, are secondary players in this scene, sitting away from the negotiating table.  Looking down upon the marriage’s beginning, the grisly paintings on the wall foretell the suffering and death leading to the marriage’s tragic end. 

Many scholars view The Marriage Settlement as Hogarth’s call for marriage reform, such as that leading to the Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753, which aimed to ensure marriage as a voluntary compact between husband and wife.  But Hogarth’s moral warning does not end with marriage. His depiction of the two attorneys in the painting, one looking out the window and the other conspicuously flirting with the daughter, exemplifies the need for reform within the legal profession.  Legal reforms contemporaneous to The Marriage Settlement sought to improve the quality and social standing of attorneys, but the problems relating to the presence of numerous unqualified attorneys, as noted by contemporary writers and modern historians, still remained.  With the concurrent unsuccessful legal reform, Hogarth’s The Marriage Settlement illustrates the harm of unqualified and impudent attorneys and the need for lasting change within the legal profession.  

William Hogarth,  The Painter and his Pug,  1745, oil on canvas, 90 x 69.9 cm, Tate.

William Hogarth, The Painter and his Pug, 1745, oil on canvas, 90 x 69.9 cm, Tate.

Hogarth & Marriage à la Mode

Formally trained as an engraver, William Hogarth (1697-1764) taught himself painting and would sell on subscription engravings he made of his own paintings.  Hogarth insisted that his “modern moral subjects” painting series, his more popular works, were not caricatures but instead revelations of the characters’ true natures.  (O'Connell 2003).  His success as an artist was due in part to his skill in creating compositions that were clear and easily read despite the multiple levels of meaning.  Hogarth’s work, thereby, illustrates his ability to tell a story without words.

Eighteenth-century artists including Hogarth portrayed various social issues in their works that appealed to the growing middle class and the newly wealthy who sought to build an art collection to match their recently obtained social status.  (Templin 2009, 54).  Engravings of paintings available for sale enabled messages in the artwork to reach a larger audience.  (Templin 2009, 49).  The greater availability and accessibility of engravings may have led to public support for social reform and legislation, including the marriage laws.  (Templin 2009, 93). 

While Hogarth had engraved his earlier series himself, he traveled to Paris to hire engravers for Marriage à la Mode, published in 1745.  The Marriage Settlement (oil on canvas, 1743) is the first painting in the Marriage à la Mode series, depicting the formation of the marriage contract.  The scene shows the conclusion of negotiations between the Earl of Squanderfield (seated on the right) and the alderman (seated in the middle of the painting) over the marriage of their children.  The Earl of Squanderfield needs money to fund his extravagant lifestyle while the alderman, a rich merchant, seeks a higher social position for his family.  Squanderfield’s attorney looks out the window holding the plans for the Earl’s new mansion.  The alderman looks over the contract although his gaze his more directed toward the money on the table, hesitating about parting with so large a sum.  Off to the side of the painting, the children, the subjects of the contract, exhibit either indifference or misery about the proceedings.  The son, dressed in the latest Parisian fashion, has a black spot on his neck indicating he has syphilis.  The attorney, Silvertongue, is “consoling” the alderman’s daughter.  In subsequent paintings, the daughter and Silvertongue conduct an affair that ends with the death of the son, daughter, and Silvertongue.  The chained dogs at their feet symbolize the ill-matched and loveless marriage while the grisly paintings on the wall foretell misfortune and violence. 

The Eighteenth-Century Lawyer & Marriage Settlements

At the time Hogarth was painting Marriage à la Mode, various efforts were attempting to address the legal and social problems arising from a number of unqualified persons acting as attorneys.  (Lemmings 1998, 217); (Robson 1959, 8).  The absence of any oversight or accountability within the profession fueled instances of malpractice or at the very least, left some without effective legal advice.  Seeking reform from within the profession, a group of attorneys established in 1739 the Society of Gentleman Practitioners in Courts of Law and Equity as a means of raising the status of lawyers in society. At the first meeting, the members “unanimously declared its utmost abhorrence of all male [sic] and unfair practice, and that it would do its utmost to detect and discountenance the same.”  (Robson 1959, 20).  With voluntary membership, however, the Society struggled with a low number of participants and correspondingly little influence in pursuing change. 

Legislative attempts at reform during this period sought to make the legal profession fit for “gentlemen” and not “drudges”.  (Lemmings 1998, 251).  Legislation passed in 1729 required attorneys to serve a clerkship of five years with a qualified practitioner before practicing law.  (Robson 1959, 12). After five years, the practitioner would examine the attorney and administer an oath. The examination would inquire into the man’s “fitness and capacity to act as an attorney.”  (Robson 1959, 53).  Malpractice continued, however, despite the passage of this reform.  One commentator noted that the 1729 Act “merely detracted from the dignity of the profession, and made it easier than ever before for illiterate and unprincipled men to become attorneys, so that a profession which before 1729 ‘was held in such estimation that it was no disgrace to a gentleman, or to a younger son of one higher born, to be bred to it’ was not despised.”  (Robson 1959, 13). 

Despite the problems plaguing the profession, clients with means sought the services of attorneys to draft and negotiate important marriage settlements.  Eighteenth-century marriages between people of standing were “just like other common bargains or sales, by the mere consideration of interest or gain, without any love or esteem, of birth or of beauty itself, which ought to be among the ingredients of happy compositions of this kind, and of all generous productions.”  (Robson 1959, 92)(citing Temple 1701).  The negotiations and the accompanying written documents were typically long and elaborate to anticipate all possibilities, requiring the services of an “expert” attorney to supervise the process.  (Cowley 1983, 34). 

Hogarth’s Call for Legal Reform: Don’t Listen to Brownnosing, Silver-tongued Counsellors 

Hogarth’s depiction of the two attorneys in The Marriage Settlement reveal the artist’s opinions about the profession and the need for reform.  The painting illustrates potential points of reform spanning from the basic responsibilities of an attorney to the morals, or absence thereof, associated with the profession.

Richard Earlom after William Hogarth,  Marriage à la Mode  Plate 1,  The Marriage Settlement,  1795, mezzotint, 48.8 x 60.6 cm, The British Museum.

Richard Earlom after William Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode Plate 1, The Marriage Settlement, 1795, mezzotint, 48.8 x 60.6 cm, The British Museum.

Attorney as an Agent: Help or Hindrance?

The primary task of an eighteenth-century attorney (similar to today) was to serve as the client’s agent, authorized to act for, or in place of, the client himself.  (Pound 1944, 316).  A significant part of an attorney’s workload during this period involved the administration of landed property, including managing title deeds, transferring inherited property, and the drawing up of marriage settlements.  The functions of an estate agent and legal adviser were thus not clearly separated.  With so many hats, an attorney’s responsibilities and obligations were often indistinguishable, leading to many potential conflicts of interest.  Wealthy clients, like the Earl of Squanderfield, moreover, would engage an attorney as an agent to perform functions that were irksome or too complicated and fell out of the ordinary attorney’s purview and/or skill.  Attorneys in turn exploited the possibilities of being “indispensable,” or so they thought, diluting the integrity of the legal profession and even hindering the attorney’s primary responsibility to act as an agent on behalf of the client.  (Robson 1959, 91).

Hogarth’s depiction of the Earl’s lawyer looking out the window reveals the indeterminate role of an attorney and the consequential harms to the profession.  As he is not participating in the negotiations, the coif-wig and gown serve as the figure’s primary identifier as an attorney.  The lawyer holds the Earl’s plan to rebuild a larger home (“A Plan of the New Building of the Right Honble”) while standing behind and to the right of his “master,” emphasizing this peculiar attorney-client relationship.  Hogarth, moreover, has also depicted both the Earl and attorney with hatchet-profiles, confirming the connection between these two figures.  An x-ray of the painting shows the attorney initially facing inwards instead of gazing out the window.  Hogarth must have thought that it was more effective to depict the lawyer not as dutiful but neglectful and distracted.  (Cowley 1983, 29).  The attorney’s fingers on the plan are also spread in the shape of a coronet in a visual metaphor to confirm the identity of a “foolish but powerful man’s ‘creature’”.  (Cowley 1977, 24).  Hogarth’s depiction of the Earl’s attorney and his relationship with the Earl reveals the attorney’s position more as a servant than as an advisor.  Such a subservient position, according to Hogarth’s depiction, questions the quality of legal “advice” the attorney ever provided to the Earl and represented a pattern across the broader legal profession.

Attorney Origins 

Like his professional responsibilities, the scope of the social status and position of an attorney of this period is also difficult to decipher.  Men from modest means generally became attorneys, as the profession recruited attorneys from clerks and not from younger sons of the nobility and gentry -- those with independent means.  (Pound 1944, 317).  Some viewed the legal profession as a social bridge to a better place in society.  But others criticized the profession for this very reason, viewing the potential for social mobility as a threat to the hierarchical ordering of society.  (Robson 1959, 58).  The social origin and position of attorneys of this period, thus, served as another topic in the debates over reform. 

Hogarth’s depiction of Silvertongue, the attorney standing next to the daughter, reflects this uneasiness and ambiguity surrounding the social status of attorneys.  Scholars studying Marriage à la Mode have disagreed about the social status of Silvertongue.  Some have argued that Silvertongue’s position in society as an attorney may have made him worthy of an alderman’s daughter.  (Cowley 1983, 38).  Others have countered that the typical attorney of this period did not have the necessary money or breeding, and thus the Alderman would never have consented to the marriage of his daughter to an attorney. (Egerton 1997, 17).  The later interpretation is consistent with Hogarth’s assessment of Silvertongue’s social position.  The character’s name derives from a lower-class proverb: “A man that hath no money in his purse must have silver in his tongue.” (Egerton 1997, 18).  Without the prestige of wealthy background, the attorney must rely on the power of his own tongue to succeed in the seduction of the Alderman’s daughter.  (Cowley 1977, 35).  But the absence of additional visual cues together with the attorney’s behavior in the scene may have also served as Hogarth’s own commentary on the ambiguous, yet likely reduced, social position of attorneys at this time. 

Poor education & moral character

Many of the issues with the legal profession can be attributed to eighteenth-century legal education, which was broad, utilitarian, and obscure.  (Lemmings 1998, 212).  Education typically involved an apprenticeship to a practitioner to learn the common forms of procedure.  (Pound 1944, 319).  Some attorneys, however, were not as scrupulous as they ought to have been in training their apprentices.  (Robson 1959, 54).  Sir William Blackstone, the English jurist (1723-1780) warned that poor education for attorneys would most likely result in a monopoly of illiterate lawyers.  (Lemmings 1998, 250).  Many commentators of the period noted that this absence of suitable instruction bred conceit and corruption that permeated the profession.  In a contemporary novel, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) depicts the lawyer as the epitome of self- interest and merely the shadow of others.  

Hogarth’s Silvertongue, likewise, exhibits an even lower moral character, imbued with shamelessness.  Silvertongue’s over-familiarity during the tête-à-tête with the daughter questions the quality of counsel he may have given let alone the audacity of approaching a young woman on her day of betrothal.  His facial features reveal what some have referred to as serpentine guile, tempting the daughter to immoral behavior that ultimately leads to her infidelity and even death.  (Cowley 1977, 34). For Hogarth, Silvertongue simply represented the absence of ethics that plagued the legal profession due to the poor educational and moral framework on which the profession rested.  William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), the British novelist, wrote that the moral of Marriage à la Mode was “Don’t listen to evil silver-tongued counsellors”.  For these commentators, the eighteenth-century attorney’s advice was worthless and even detrimental without the proper education and resultant moral character. 

Attorney à la Mode

Hogarth’s The Marriage Settlement and Marriage à la Mode do not serve as enticing advertisements of the virtues of marriage or the legal profession.  While Hogarth’s depiction of lawyers is not flattering to say the least, the paintings do not serve as exaggerated caricatures but sincere warnings about the current state of the legal profession and society as a whole. The presence of not one but two attorneys in this scene emphasizes the pervasiveness of the legal profession throughout domestic life in this period, despite the poor quality of advice originating from these “representatives” of the legal profession.

The story and aesthetics are not the only instructive features, however, of The Marriage Settlement.  Hogarth capitalized on the extensive audience of his works and his skill as an artist to depict a narrative in which the viewers are participants, rendering the work as a call for the viewers to take a more active role in reform.  The work acts as a piece of legislative propaganda depicting the evils of this particular profession.  The Marriage Settlement, thus, serves as not only a window into a private scene but also an artifact of legal reform.



Cowley, Robert L.S. 1977. "A Review of William Hogarth's Marriage a la Mode with Particular Reference to Character and Setting; PhD Thesis." Birmingham, UK: University of Birmingham.

—. 1983. Hogarth's Marriage A-La-Mode. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Egerton, Judy. 1997. Hogarth's Marriage A-la-Mode. London: National Gallery Publications.

O'Connell, Shelia. 2003. Hogarth, William. Grove Art Online. Accessed October 9, 2018. http:////www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000038499.

Robson, Robert. 1959. The Attorney in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Temple, Sir William. 1701. An Essay on Popular Discontents

Lemmings, David, Blackstone and Law Reform by Education: Preparation for the Bar and Lawyerly Culture in Eighteenth-Century England, 16 Law & His. Rev. 211 (1998).

Pound, Roscoe, Legal Profession in England from the End of the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, 19 Notre Dame L. Rev. 315 (1944).

Templin, Benjamin A., The Marriage Contract in Fine Art, 30 N. Ill. U. L. Rev. 45 (2009).



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