The invention of childhood

Various anecdotes tell of Hogarth's engaging sympathy for children, and his capacity for seeing the world through their eyes. Though this 18th-century English painter was, in this respect, unlike many of his contemporaries, it is his century that has been credited with the ''invention of childhood,'' and from his paintings one might conclude that he was personally one of its foremost ''inventors.''

Children play a significant role (if quite often as hapless victims of cruel abuse) in his ''modern moral'' engravings, making - no less than the dogs that also frequent his satirical world - their own unconscious commentary on the behavior of the adult protagonists. They are also present in his so-called ''conversation pieces,'' or group portraits, as boisterous family members unable to sit still while their parents pose with stiff formality, introducing a note of comic realism to the proceedings. But best of all they appear, as in this picture of Daniel Graham's children, on their own account, either as the only subject of a picture, or as its main focus.

Overall in his works he expresses, though not by direct contrast, his consciousness of the great differences between children of different classes. On the one hand he was well aware of the plight faced by the poor with too many children; he took philanthropic as well as artistic action, becoming a governor of the Foundling Hospital in London, opened in 1739 by Captain Coram, a friend and subject of one of his strongest portraits. On the other hand as a (rather reluctant) ''phizmonger'' - his term for portraitist - he also observed the children of wealthier friends and acquaintances. He can hardly have been unaware , when he painted the Graham children, so bright and fresh-faced and well dressed, that he was recording the privileged and fortunate: These bourgeois children are about as far from being unwanted ''foundlings'' as could be imagined.

Hogarth presents the Graham children not only as very much ''wanted,'' but also as wonderfully self-possessed. In his book ''The Analysis of Beauty'' (1753 ), he was to write sympathetically of the ''awe most children are in before strangers'' and how they could be gently encouraged to stop ''drawing their chins into their necks'' with awkward shyness. No such intimidation or diffidence is apparent here. These children are all confident, alert, delightfully innocent, and open-faced. One suspects they are precisely what Hogarth felt children should be - model children in his eyes. As a group they illustrate a conclusion drawn by a modern historian, Derek Jarrett, that ''an upper or middle class childhood in eighteenth-century England could give a sense of security and well-being that has seldom been equalled since capitalism and bureaucracy changed the face of society.''

Hogarth's frankness, and boldness of style, save him from a sentimental flattery in his portraits of children. Indeed in another example he actually shows how witlessly callous a child can be. In ''The Graham Children'' he clearly delights in the carefree nature of their childishness, but doesn't drown them with sugary affection. The oldest girl looks straight at him, prematurely conscious of adulthood: She is acting the part, surrogate mother to the youngest child. The rest is Hogarthian theatre. The brother cheerfully grinds his hand-organ or ''bird box''; the sister nearest to him, mimicking adult manners, poses rather mischievously as if dancing to his mechanical music. Hogarth seems to know instinctively that childhood is always looking forward, that imposed stillness is short-lived and liveliness and energy cannot be held in for long.

To a girl of 14 who posed for ''The Lady's Last Stake,'' one of his last pictures, Hogarth (ever the moralist) said: ''Take care; I see an ardour for play in your eyes and in your heart; don't indulge it. I shall give you this picture as a warning, because I love you now, you are so good a girl.'' Or that is how she recalled it many years later. He surely said something similar, though unrecorded, to the four good children of Daniel Graham.

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