Great works: The Graham Children (1742) by William Hogarth

National Gallery, London

A strange celebration that is also, perhaps, at least in part, not a celebration. This group portrait of the Graham children – their father was George II's apothecary - freezes the blood even as it pleases. And perhaps teases, somewhat ghoulishly. Its title seems blameless enough, blandly descriptive as it is. And yet, in the light of all that we know and see here, it also seems to brood ominously over those gentle, childish smiles.

The children themselves are perfectly – if not grandly – poised in this act of self-presentation, skirts or knees spread, in a mood of slightly understated contentment. And yet we feel that there is precious little genuine vitality here – or, if there is, it is of a painted, porcelain variety, rather unconvincing and somewhat manufactured. What is more, we are not profoundly convinced that the children are really linked in any way, by blood, friendship or tender feeling.

The painting's mood seems so evanescent, so tenuous. Each one seems like an entire, complete individual portrait of a ghostly semblance of a child, sufficient unto itself. In spite of the fact that the eldest holds the hand of her little brother, they show no evident tenderness for one another. Each one looks like a beautiful cut out, dropped into a pre-existing scene of slightly ominous domestic harmony.

Wherein lies that ominousness though? The symbolism of the details weigh heavy upon us. There is, for example, the bird cage at which happy Richard Graham, playing his little organ, glances up, pleasingly, momentarily, diverted. What he does not see is that at his back a tremendously bead-eyed cat, paw about to ramp its body up onto the top of the chair's back, seems about to snuff out the bird's life. In fact, it seems so eager to do so that this animal's vitality makes it the only truly pulsing thing in this entire painting. Everything else is slightly abstracted, slightly posthumous in feel.

And, in part at least, this is in fact a tribute to the dead. The youngest child – little, bonneted and be-skirted Thomas in his pretty pram – had died even before Hogarth finished the painting. See how the pram's wooden handle has fallen to the ground, as if giving up the ghost. It is as if Hogarth wants us to know, none too subtly, that death is everywhere in this picture, that the enduring frozen sweetness of this scene is also a profoundly melancholy one.

There are even more pointed references to death. Raised up behind (and to the left of) the head of the eldest child stands a small golden figure of cupid holding a scythe, symbol of death, and beside Cupid, an even smaller hour glass, through which the sands of time sift, remorselessly. Then there are those shiny apples in front of Thomas. They too will pass away.

And it all takes place inside an interior of such perfectly protective and seemingly prosperous bourgeois respectability that we can scarcely credit that death will pass through this door, too. Albeit on a small scale, and even gilded, and borne proudly, like a kind of fluttering pennant, by the god of love.

About the artist: William Hogarth (1697-1764)

Born in Bartholomew Close, London, William Hogarth was the son of an impoverished teacher of Latin who spent time in the Fleet Prison for debt, and founded a coffee house at St John's Gate where only Latin was spoken. It was a commercial failure. A Freemason, William married Jane Thornhill in 1729, the daughter of Sir James Thornhill, also an artist. The childless couple fostered foundling children, and took a keen interest in the affairs of Captain Coram's Foundling Hospital.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before