The plates Hogarth engraved for his prints are at the heart of
a tale that offers insights into the history of British commerce,
the evolution of copyright and the development of printing.
From 1720 until his death in 1764 Hogarth worked to bring his
art to as wide an audience as possible. He published thousands
of prints: individual editions, suites of prints, and bound volumes.
These Lifetime Editions were internationally
recognized and became the works upon which his reputation is based.
Hogarth's first painted his images on canvas and then, working
alone or with the assistance of master engravers, carefully transfered
them to copper plates. The images were rendered with intricate
linework that captured minute details, delicate lighting effects,
and subtle characterizations. When published on large sheets of
heavy laid paper, the images had a broad range of silver-grey tones.
Hogarth fought hard to be compensated for his work. When he began
his career the London print market was dominated by a handful of
printsellers who kept artists at an economic disadvantage and often
financed pirate editions of popular works. Hogarth set up his own
studio but found that before he could publish his prints, his work
was pirated by artists who viewed his paintings and engraved unauthorized
In the early 1700s England did not have a law that protected the
rights of artists. After learning a bitter lesson of piracy, he
withheld publication of the Rake's Progress until he and his fellow
artists lobbied Parliament to pass a new Copyright Act.
Kirkall and others.
When Hogarth died he left his wife Jane over 200 engraved plates.
She supported herself by publishing
In 1780, Horace Walpole, an author and Member of Parliament, wrote
an enthusiastic analysis of Hogarth's work. Five years later John
Nichols published the Biographical Anecdotes of William Hogarth.
He wrote that Walpole's work was "followed by an immediate
rage for collecting every scrap of our Artist's designs". 2
Throughout the 1800s, editions and folios were continuously published
by a series of publishers. In 1789 Jane Hogarth sold the plates
to John Boydell. He published editions
until until 1818 when the plates were bought by Baldwin,
Cradock and Joy who sold them to Henry Bohn in 1835. Over time,
the plates became worn and some publishers hired artists to "restore" the
plates. Often their linework replaced what Hogarth had originally
In the early 20th century many of Hogarth's plates were sold to
the British government. During the first World War they were melted
down and used to make bombs. The remaining plates were sold to
The market for Hogarth's work went beyond the prints published
from his plates. Beginning in the late 1700s and throughout the
1800s books were published with illustrations and commentaries
on Hogarth's work.