This was, perhaps, the most popular of all Hogarth's Prints. The immediate demand for it was so considerable, that Hogarth soon discovered that the Engraving was too faintly executed; and, after taking off a few impressions in red as well as black, he re-touched and strengthened the Plate.
Copies of it, beyond all example, were multiplied on the Continent, particularly in Germany, and even in Russia.
A good but contracted Copy was published, with some Verses engraved under it, called "The Bacchanalians, a Poem addressed to the ingenious Mr. Hogarth." And in Banks's Poems, vol. I. p. 87, the Print is copied as a head-piece to an Epistle to Mr. Hogarth, on this performance.
"A Modern Midnight Conversation, taken from Hogarth's celebrated Print," was acted at Co vent Garden. Under the original Engraving are the following verses:
"Think not to find one meant resemblance here,
We lash the Vices, hut the Persons spare.
Prints should be prized, as Authors should be read,
Who sharply smile prevailing Folly dead.
So Rabilais taught, and so Cervantes thought,
So Nature dictated what Art has taught."
Most of the figures, however, are supposed to be real Portraits, though only four of them can with certainty be identified. The Scenery is a room in St. John's Coffee-house, Shire Lane; and the characters are to be sought for in persons who lived in that neighbourhood.
The Divine and the Lawyer, who appear prominent in the centre of the Picture, were generally supposed to represent Parson Ford (Dr. Johnson's Uncle), and Lord Northington when young. But that Nobleman did not come into public notice till many years after the publication of this Print; and I am enabled, on the authority of the late Sir John Hawkins, to say, that "the Divine was the Portrait of Orator Henley (of Clare Market notoriety); and the Lawyer, of Kettleby, a vociferous Bar Orator, remarkable, though an Utter-Barrister, for wearing a full-bottomed wig, which he is here drawn with, as also for a horrible squint."
The figure leaning: over the Parson was designed for John Harrison, a well-known Tobacconist in Bell Yard, a pot companion of our Artist in early life, and for whom Hogarth designed and engraved a whimsical tobacco-paper. This accomplished Bacchanalian, waving his bumper in the air, having thrown aside his sweltering wig, is zealously anointing the head of the Divine with the oil of cheerfulness; and we may imagine him to be drinking, "Destruction to Fanaticks, and Success to Mother Church!"
The figure smoking, with a night-cap on, and erroneously supposed to have been meant for a Justice of Peace, was in reality a Portrait of old Chandler, a Book-binder in Shire Lane. This is asserted on the authority of honest John Wingrave, who was also a Book-binder, and whose report was confirmed by others, who were acquainted both with Chandler and Harrison. There is a contented snugness in the countenance of Chandler, who has put on his cap to bouze away more comfortably. His cloak, hat, and wig, are hung up near him. His left elbow is supported by the table, and his right by the back of a chair, each hand busily employed with the implements of smoking.
That the Politician in the opposite corner is also a Portrait there can be little doubt. His figure is particularly striking. On the papers which hang out of his pocket are written, "The London Journal," and "The Craftsman;" and so completely is he absorbed in vacuity, that the falling candle has imperceptibly set fire to his ruffles and cravat; whilst another candle has nearly caught the wig of the Divine.
The maudlin wretch, who is addressing the Lawyer, is finely depicted. Vacancy of thought and imbecillity of expression are visible in every feature of his face. He is probably explaining to the Counsellor some knotty point of the Law, or informing him that he has been most cruelly cheated by the long-robed fraternity; that his Attorney is an infernal villain; and that he lost his cause when he certainly ought to have got it. His tale may perhaps be founded on fact; for his appearance indicates that he has certainly been among thieves. The Barrister, deprived by practice of every tender feeling, grins horribly at his misfortunes; declaring, "that he deserved the treatment he had received, for not employing a gentleman in the business. Had you," says he, "given me the management of your cause, right or wrong I should have brought you through the piece."
His neighbour, in a black wig, politely turns his back upon the company, that he may enjoy a sociable pipe unnoticed and undisturbed. With mouth extended, and closefolded arms, another leans, asleep and motionless, in the chair. His wig has forsaken his head, and speech has forsaken his tongue: but, though deficient in articulation, we perceive he is sonorous; and the Artist has so admirably represented him, that we almost think we hear his nasal harmony.
The vanquished Hero on the floor appears to be a Military Officer; his forehead is marked, perhaps with honourable scars.
The company consists of eleven; and twenty-three empty bottles are seen on the chimney-piece, floor, and table. These, added to that from which the Apothecary is pouring the nectar to wash the wounds and cool the head of the Disciple of Mars, prove that this select society have not been indolent. The flowing bowl, Ml goblets, and charged glasses, shew that they are not weary of the sport, though the clock announces the hour of four in the morning—
"What have we with day to do?
Sons of care, 't was made for you."
The clock, too, it may be observed, takes a part in the irregularity of the proceedings, for the hour-hand and the minute-figure display a spirit of contradiction.
Over the chimney-piece a picture is to be seen, which, perhaps, has been a landscape; but, like the understandings of the gentlemen present, is so obscured by smoke and vapour, as to seem a chaos. The fumes of the punch and tobacco, with the effluvia of snuffs of candles sunk into the sockets, must certainly produce a most delightful fragrance.
In this Moral Drama the several stages of drunkenness are finely discriminated, and its effects very emphatically pointed out. The simpleton, who is weeping out his woes to the honest Lawyer, is rendered almost a driveller by the operation of the potent fluid; the Beau sickens under its intoxicating qualities; and the Politician seems arriving at the last stage of stupidity: one is boisterous and noisy; another sinks quietly into the arms of slumber.