Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Hogarth’s ‘George Taylor Triumphing Over Death’ (circa 1750)

This is one of two Hogarth chalk-on-paper designs (the other is here) picturing this handsome eighteenth-century boxer and wrestler. It’s in the Tate, London, and this is what the gallery’s website has to say about it.
This drawing forms part of a design by Hogarth for a tombstone for the famous boxer and prize-fighter, George Taylor. Nick-named 'Taylor the Barber' because of his other profession, he became Champion of England in 1734. From the early 1730s Taylor was proprietor of the Tottenham Court Boxing Booth. He also ran an academy where gentlemen were taught the art of self-defence. Taylor, who clearly had a fine physique, may also have modelled at the St. Martin's Lane Academy, where Hogarth himself taught.
And what a splendid, weird little image it is.

The implication must be that Taylor is so expert a wrestler that he has defeated death. Is that the Last Trump, emerging hornily from the clouds to bring in the end times? Nothing less, surely, would be required. But doesn’t that horn look a little like … a bone? And isn’t there something disconcertingly … sexual about George’s posture? His musculature is so pronounced, and drawn in such an angular, inorganic way, that it seems almost to detach from the flesh: there’s almost a parallel between the solid mass of pectoral muscle, there, and the solid swathe of modesty-preserving cloth about his loins. And his gestures are so angular and awkward (his head at such a dislocating angle, his arms like two branches of a swastika, the twist to his torso, the one leg straight the other tucked away like he’s playing Long John Silver on the stage) its as if his body is trapped in painful mimicry of the skeleton beneath. Does it look to you as if Taylor’s left leg almost extends behind him in skeletal form? Is that some kind of Mannerist visual echo?

Taylor’s knee is penetrating, breaking indeed, the ribcage of the skeleton beneath him. But the skeleton’s left femur, paralleling Taylor’s leg, occupies an almost lasciviously obvious phallic position. The ambiguity it enhanced, isn’t it, by the fact that this is only a sketch: the bare bones, we might say, of a picture.

1 comment:

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