Today we’re looking at baby carriers in William Hogarth’s The March of the Guards to Finchley from 1750.
The March of the Guards to Finchley, depicts a fictional troop of buffoonish British troops in Tottenham Court Road, in London, on their way to fight the Jacobean forces in the uprising of 1745. It’s an example of Hogarth’s genius for moralistic satire on Georgian society; Hogarth held a mirror up to the british army, who prided themselves on their discipline, showing them their vices and many people, including King George II were offended by the portrayal.
Hogarth’s assistant, Luke Sullivan, created the engraving of the painting, and subscribers could purchase a copy of the engraving for a price of seven shillings and sixpence and for an additional three shillings, subscribers were entered into a lottery for the original painting. As the lottery deadline approached there were still 167 unsold entries, which were purchased by the Foundling Hospital, which won the original painting, where it still lives to this day.
William Hogarth and his wife Jane were unable to have their own children and so turned their hearts towards supporting the Foundling Hospital, of which William was a founding governor. He set up an art gallery at the hospital, making the Foundling Hospital one of the most popular charities of the time.
The infants in the foreground get an adult’s eye view of the events that are happening around them, safe on the backs of their caregivers (note: the pram (stroller) as we would recognize it has yet to be invented, not that one would be able to get around in a crowd like this with one) The chaotic scene presented in the painting has been compared to the depiction of the British army in “Tom Jones” a novel by Henry Fielding, a friend and contemporary of William Hogarth and his work is referenced elsewhere in the painting as we’ll get to in a moment.
The baby to the left of the center stares at a soldier who is caught between two women. The one to the left is a ballad singer, with a basket full of printed ballads to sell, including God Save the King; she’s touching her heavily pregnant belly, looking pleadingly at the solider. The other woman, her back to us, is seemly dressed in the dark robes of a priest, as she winds up to hit the solider with a rolled up Jacobite newspaper. Based on this analysis, the solider represents England in the conflict, the ballad singer are the protestants Hanoverian loyalists and the other woman the catholic Jacobites. If George II had taken a moment to consider this, he’d have realized Hogarth was a loyalist. With this interpretation, the infant, the future of the nation, is watching England in a struggle between two political factions that will influence its future life and maybe already has. Other historians have noted that the woman’s pamphlets are a nod to Henry Fielding’s ironic, anti-Stuart weekly paper, The Jacobite’s Journal (published 1747–48).
In the lower right corner of the painting, a woman pours a drink to (an already fall-down drunk) a solider. She wears an oversized redingote and an apron with lots of large pockets so she can carry everything with her hands-free. From high on her back a baby reaches out over her shoulder at the shiny cup, or possibly what is going into it. Maybe this is Hogarth’s way of warning that a baby in this environment is destined to become a boozer, or a thief– or maybe it’s reaching for the man who has fallen. It is not clear how this baby is attached her back*, but clearly, the infant is being supported in a high back carry. The woman, who seems to be quite clever in her choice of clothing (no carry-on baggage charges for her!) may have another pocket or hood in her redingote that the baby is set into.
Towards the center of the painting, we get a full view of an infant carrier made from a natural color cloth tied in a simple rucksack.The baby is entirely supported in the fabric, up to its neck, but it is not held snug against the wearer’s back. There is some drape, created by the top rail (the hem nearest the baby’s neck) being tighter than the body of the carrier fabric. The fabric may be a large fichu, a common accessory for women of the time which was a triangle (or folded square) shawl or a kerchief. To use it as a carrier, the point of the triangle would be either folded up under the infant or secured with passes of the fabric under the baby’s bottom.
Infant carriers such as these would have been ubiquitous in Europe among the working poor, itinerants, and beggars. The use of infant carriers in Europe had been associated with poverty and itinerancy since the medieval era. The ideal was that if an infant had a home, then it should be at home. Yet, the women in this painting needed to keep the baby with them and still get work done. Perhaps they couldn’t afford a place or person to care for the baby while they go out, or aren’t from the area. However, despite the association with poverty infant carriers had, both of the infants look healthy– or Hogarth preferred to paint healthy looking babies.
Hogarth’s painting, though satirical in tone gives us a glimpse of often overlooked history, that of mundane infant care of the working poor. Hogarth was an artist who acknowledged and cared about the most vulnerable in his teaming city. Infant carriers were not associated with any parenting ideology but rather were pragmatic tools, necessary for caregivers who needed to keep babies close and still have their arms free for other work, like serving customers, or for navigating the crowded streets of London– then as now.
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