cartoons

London: The Cartoon Museum Redux

This is my last museum post for the foreseeable future, based on a visit I made a month ago before everything started to close down, but I would like to continue my weekly posts – I’m not going to kid myself into thinking they’re boosting anyone’s morale (other than maybe my own), since I’m quite a negative individual at the best of times, but I think it’s good to stay in the habit and keep myself occupied. And I have settled on a topic – if you’re a regular reader, you may have seen me reference my summer of backpacking around Europe back in 2007, and though it was definitely a mixed bag, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that trip ultimately changed the course of my life. Well, now that I’ve got nothing better to post about, you’ll get to relive it all with me, starting next week (assuming you come back then)! And I do hope everyone is managing to stay well out there!

 

I first visited the Cartoon Museum (not to be confused with the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum in Columbus, which I have been to loads!) very early on in my blogging career, almost exactly seven years ago (Diverting Journeys turned seven in March), and I hadn’t actually been back there since, though I’d seen on various Museums Association newsletters that they were temporarily closed whilst moving to a new location, and then had re-opened in said new location (with a new curator who seriously looks about twelve. I mean, I’m probably just getting old and she’s actually well into her twenties, but I don’t understand how people that young get curatorial jobs. Really grinds my gears after the struggle I’ve had getting any kind of museum job) only a few months ago. Having seen most of the temporary exhibitions that I wanted to see at the time (wish I’d seen them all now!), I thought I might as well go check out their new set-up.

 

Normally, when a museum moves location, I would hope it was because it was an upgrade, but this was definitely a downgrade. They moved from their lovely ground floor location in Bloomsbury to a dingy basement just off Oxford Street (I guess it’s technically Fitzrovia, but that is far too posh a name to describe the museum’s locale. Also Oxford Street is hell and best avoided at all times, not just when social distancing). This place seriously felt like a concrete bunker, and there was what I assume was an uncovered sewage pipe just above our heads so that we got to listen to the atmospheric sound of running water (which really made me need a wee) for the duration of our visit. I can’t actually find a reason given anywhere why they moved, but now that I’ve seen it, I assume it was to save money, because there’s no way the rent on this place could be as high as the old location. The £8.50 admission price, a full three pounds higher than when I visited seven years ago, also seems to confirm that view, and I guess instead of being harsh on them, I should just be glad they still exist in some form. Art Pass members do get in for free, so I can’t really complain about the admission fee since I didn’t have to pay it.

  

I was keen to see the Cartoon Museum in March because of their temporary exhibition “Hail to the Chief: Brief Lives of America’s Best and Worst Presidents,” which ended in early April (I guess? I don’t really know what’s happening now). I can look at presidential caricatures all day long, particularly of the current Satsuma-in-Chief, and Martin Rowson’s drawings, which come from Andrew Gimson’s new book on the presidents (which I couldn’t resist buying from the gift shop, though I found upon reading it that it was absolutely riddled with factual errors (for example, it claimed Lincoln was assassinated by a “Robert Booth.” Don’t editors exist anymore?)), were pretty great, even though only a few of them were featured in the exhibition (they were all scrolling on a TV screen in the gallery, but I lost interest in standing there and watching them all because it was taking too long).

 

The other temporary exhibition at the time of my visit was “Dear Mr. Poole,” which was meant to run until 28th June (again, I don’t know what the plan is now). This was a collection of cartoons and sketches given to Phillip Poole, who sold pen nibs at his shop in Drury Lane (shown above), and befriended many artists and cartoonists over the years, who sent him personalised drawings and letters as a display of gratitude. There were too many famous names here to list them all, but this exhibition took up a substantial area of the museum, and was a treat to look at.

 

The permanent exhibition space was the rest of the (basement bunker) gallery, with framed cartoons from the 18th century right through to the present day crammed into every available space. As I’d come straight from work, I didn’t have the energy to read them all, but it could easily fill hours of your time if you did! I did at least skim every one though, and took the time to read the funniest looking ones. And I can finally show you the parody of Gillray and Rowlandson’s work that I loved so much on my first visit!

 

Unlike the old Cartoon Museum, there weren’t any comic strips here, though as I’m not a huge fan of British comics (I don’t understand the appeal of The Beano), to me it wasn’t a major loss. Also unlike the old museum, we were allowed to take pictures of the individual cartoons – at least, there was no sign prohibiting it, and Marcus specifically asked the admissions desk guy if it was alright, and he said yes. I do seem to recall there being more of a narrative to the old Cartoon Museum, but these were all just mashed on the walls in roughly chronological order, but without much commentary (maybe that’s what happens when you hire a twelve year old curator. OK, now I’m just being mean).

 

Although there were still a lot of lovely cartoons here (honestly, probably more that specifically interested me than in the old museum, given the focus is now more on political cartoons), I can’t help but think that in most other ways, the museum has taken a major step down. Like I said at the start, if it was a choice between a downgrade and closing altogether, I am glad they found a way to still exist (and hope they can carry on existing when this is all over), but I think they could have found a way to do more with the space. Even something relatively cheap, like better signage and nicer flooring (at least clean up the stains!), could have gone a long way to improving that bunker feel. I don’t think it’s worth £8.50, but if you have Art Pass, there’s no reason not to come and check it out when/if we’re all allowed out again. 3/5.

Columbus, OH: Wexner Center and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum (Again!)

Every so often, I have one of those posts that is basically just a long angry rant about how much I hate something, and I’m afraid this is going to be one of them. I went back to Cleveland for Christmas, as is my custom, and my mother bought us a night at the BrewDog hotel in Columbus as an early Christmas present (for Marcus, I hasten to add). We drove down early that day so we would have time to see a couple of museums before meeting up with my uncle and his partner for dinner and drinks in the evening (we weren’t going to have time to do anything the next day as we had to drive back right after checkout so I could meet Hanson that afternoon!!), and one of the museums I chose to see, solely because I hadn’t been there before and it was in a convenient location, was the Wexner Center for the Arts, located on OSU’s massive campus. I think the Wex is also a venue for film screenings and performances, but the museum is what I visited, so that is what my ire is directed towards.

I knew we were off to a bad start when we were charged $9 each for admission, despite the website clearly stating it was $8. I didn’t question it because the woman at the admissions desk wasn’t very friendly, but I wasn’t happy. The exhibition at the time of my visit was HERE: Ann Hamilton, Jenny Holzer, Maya Lin and I foolishly assumed that HERE was merely the temporary exhibition, and there were other, permanent exhibitions. Nope, HERE is all that was THERE. The exhibition consisted solely of two rooms with words written on the walls, a room full of marbles, and another room full of tables of copies of images from OSU’s archives that you were meant to tear off and mail to yourself or a friend (it wasn’t clear if postage would actually be provided, and also this was a huge waste of paper). I was annoyed enough at having paid $9 for something that took all of ten minutes to see, but I was about to get even more annoyed.

Do you see all those marbles in the picture above left? They were all glued to the floor in some formation that was meant to look like rivers or some shit, which I guess was kind of cool, but they were just standard glass marbles of no real value, plus they were affixed to the floor, so were unlikely to be disturbed by footfall. Well, I walked to the end of the exhibition and tried to leave by stepping over the marbles at their narrowest point, which was only a few inches wide, because there was no other obvious exit. A guard ran up and started yelling at me and forced me to walk all the way around the exhibition to get out. She was accompanied by not one, but two other guards, all seemingly employed solely to guard the marbles. Although I didn’t say anything at the time, aside from a remark to Marcus about not disturbing the precious marbles, this is where I got angry. Leaving aside the fact that the exhibition probably shouldn’t have led you up on the wrong side of the marbles if you weren’t meant to step over them, or at least have a sign saying as much, I just can’t get over how many security guards this museum had working there to guard what was essentially a valueless artwork.

I don’t talk that much about the museum where I work for various reasons, and I’ve agonised over posting this, but I need to be honest about the realities of working in heritage for myself, my colleagues, and doubtless scores of other people throughout the UK. To say circumstances are not ideal is an understatement. Most of us spend years volunteering before we manage to land what will inevitably be a low-paying job not commensurate with our levels of education (and generally the bigger the museum is, the less they pay because people will settle for anything just for a chance to work there). And once we get that job, we put up with so much crap because we’re relieved that we have paying jobs at last – in my case, working in an office with horrible strip lighting that literally gives me a migraine every time I turn it on, so I have to work in the dark; getting verbally abused by mentally unstable visitors; having to stop what I’m doing fifty million times a day to direct people to the toilets that are just beyond my office (yes, we have many signs pointing the way, but people don’t look at them, and no, I’m not allowed to close my office door, so any member of the public can just walk right in at any time and demand things, yell at me, or make creepy comments); and despite the existence of the public toilets, sometimes even cleaning up after people who puke, pee, or shit inside the museum because our cleaner only comes once a week and we can’t just leave it there (I’m talking drunk adults doing these things, not children). I could say more, but I think it’s better if I don’t publicly post the rest. Now, I have been working in customer service in one way or another since I was 16 (not by choice, but I can’t seem to get a job that doesn’t involve it), so these are more or less all things I’ve had to deal with at some point in the past, as has probably anyone else who works with the public, but when I worked in retail and events, I at least knew there were always security staff on the premises if I needed help. At the museum, we are an entirely female team with no security staff, so we have to deal with any incidents ourselves. We don’t even have front of house staff – our welcome desk is entirely volunteer-run, by one volunteer at a time, and as their manager, I do my best to deal with any issues myself so they don’t have to, which means that even though I technically have an office job, I spend a lot of time in front of house dealing with any problems that occur. And despite all of this, I know I’m lucky to even have the job at all, since more budget cuts are imminent, and the future of the museum is currently very uncertain. So when I look at my working environment, and then I look at a museum that can charge $9 so they can employ three people to guard marbles, I get angry. And then I write a long rant like this one.

I’m going to end that rant there (even though I could go on for longer) but suffice it to say I definitely will not be returning to the Wexner! 0/5. Fortunately, my old favourite, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum, was there to save the day, as it is located in the building right next to the Wexner. Not only is it a free museum, but their temporary exhibitions at the time of my visit were very much up my alley. These were Drawn to Presidents: Portraits and Satiric Drawings by Drew Friedman and Ladies First: A Century of Women’s Innovations in Comics and Cartoon Art.

Any longtime readers will know how much I love presidential history, and I also love political cartoons when done well, and Friedman’s were pretty great. Not only did he draw a portrait of each president for his book All the Presidents (I didn’t buy it because it is literally just pictures of all the presidents) which all managed to be accurate yet hideously unflattering, he also drew cartoons for MAD, SPY, TIME, et al, and many of those were in the exhibitions as well as a whole section devoted to each of the presidents from Reagan through to the current President Fart (as I like to call him). I loved this.

 

I also liked the exhibition on female cartoonists, with works ranging from late 19th century cartoons advocating women’s suffrage to modern graphic novels, and everything in between. Many of them were funny, but there were also some thought-provoking and emotional cartoons, including one about a woman discovering the story of her older sister, who died when the cartoonist was a baby from a scalding accident, and how it affected her mother. I’m not going to go into too much detail on the Cartoon Museum because I’ve blogged about it a couple of times before and I’ve already made this post quite long by including that rant, but it is a fabulous little museum and I highly recommend visiting (and ignoring its neighbouring museum). The current exhibitions are great, but I’ve honestly never seen anything here that’s been a dud.

 

Columbus, OH: The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum

dsc09555It’s odd that when I lived in Cleveland, I went well over a decade without visiting Columbus (I went a few times as a child, primarily to go to COSI, but never as a teenager or 20-something), and now I try to go back every time I’m in Ohio, but I suppose the joys of the North Market (I love their Belgian waffles) have won me over, plus my uncle and his partner live down there now, and they have two super cute golden retrievers and know all the best ice cream places in C-bus, so that’s another good reason to visit!  Fortunately (because I can’t drive), Marcus and my brother were also both up for a day trip.  However, me being me, I had to sneak in a museum visit somewhere between waffles and ice cream (it was pretty much a perfect day), and not wanting a repeat of the grim-yet-inconveniently-hilarious Jubilee Museum last year, I did a better job of researching my options this year.  Some of the places that looked interesting (like the James Thurber house) were closed because it was right after Christmas, but the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum, located right on the massive OSU campus, was open, and seemed right up my alley (and interesting enough to not bore my brother).

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Not being a football fan or cool enough to have friends to party with when I was an undergrad (or a grad student, for that matter), I’d never actually been to OSU, but my brother (who is much more popular than I am) had, so he knew roughly where to go (and to get doughnuts from Buckeye Donuts down the street, which was a smart move, even though eating a doughnut right after gorging myself at the market meant I had to unbutton my jeans to make space for everything (TMI?)).  (In fairness to me, I graduated when I was 20, so I wasn’t even old enough to (legally) drink, thus there wasn’t much point in bar-hopping.)  However, as I said, the campus is huge, and was almost empty because it was winter break, so we did initially get a bit lost and had no one to ask for directions, but we eventually figured out that we were looking for Sullivant Hall and managed from there.

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The Billy Ireland Museum immediately won my heart because in addition to the museum being free, there was also a display of free cartoon-themed bookmarks and exhibition programmes (really nice ones!) sitting out on a desk when we walked in, which the student working there urged us to take (he didn’t have to tell me twice!).  To avoid disappointment (or a trip to the Jubilee Museum), be aware that the museum is closed on Mondays, and only open from 1-5 the rest of the week.  The museum consisted of three mid-sized galleries, the first of which seemed to hold highlights of their historical cartoon collection, as well as cartoons from around the world.  Don’t miss pulling out the drawers of the cabinets in here, because they held some of the best stuff, including that cartoon of TR and Taft (above left) and an early drawing from Disney’s Robin Hood (above right), my favourite Disney film!

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They even had some pieces by English cartoonists, like Gillray and Rowlandson, in addition to a selection of non-boring manga (pretty much miraculous in itself, because I hate most manga with a passion).  I do have a general policy where I don’t like comic strips where the people actually look like realistic people (my favourite modern comic strip is Pearls before Swine, in case you’re wondering. I’m basically Rat), so I didn’t spend much time with all the Dick Tracy/Mary Worth type stuff on the walls, but I would take every one of those cat comic bobble hats in that case, and wear them with pride.

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One of the main reasons I wanted to catch the Billy Ireland Museum on this visit was that they had a temporary exhibit called “Windows on Death Row: Art from Inside and Outside the Prison Walls” which sounded really interesting.  I am opposed to capital punishment, as are apparently most cartoonists and satirists (the exhibit only had two pro-death penalty cartoons, because they said that was all they could find), so it wasn’t going to change my mind or anything (though maybe it would give you something to think about if you were in favour of capital punishment?), but the artwork done by inmates was very moving (particularly the painting done by a man who was executed shortly after, and a cartoon by a professional cartoonist who was the recipient of this man’s last phone call, which depicted that conversation), and the statistics were thought-provoking.

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For example, I learned that Ohio has the seventh highest number of inmates on death row of any state (currently 142) and has executed the eighth highest number of people since 1976 (53, which trails behind Texas’s appalling 538(!), but still).  In addition to charts and polls, there were also a number of stories from death row inmates, prisoners serving life sentences, and others in the criminal justice system who had widely varying views on the death penalty, which helped bring some balance into the exhibit. I do think it’s always important to educate yourself on both sides of an issue, even if you don’t agree with one of them, and I think the museum tried their best to make that happen with the captions and other text, despite the obvious anti-death penalty bias of most of the cartoons.

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On a cheerier note, the final room contained “What a Hoot,” an exhibition devoted to the work of Mike Peters.  I can’t say I was familiar with Mike Peters’s work before seeing this (I have seen greeting cards featuring characters from his comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm but The Plain Dealer (Cleveland’s newspaper) never carried the strip when I was growing up, so I’ve never really read it), but I was genuinely “loling” (as the kids say) at some of his cartoons.

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Mother Goose and Grimm is about an old woman and her dog, Grimm, so was sort of Garfield-esque (whether that’s good or bad I’ll leave you to decide), but I think quite a bit funnier, because he detoured into other subjects, including some brilliant punny ones. There was also a whole wall devoted to presidential cartoons (I think Nixon through (shudder) Trump, but there might have been a LBJ one in there?), which I loved, and a number of other political strips that had to do with non-major events that took place before I was born, so I didn’t really know what they were about.   In addition, the exhibit contained some biographical information on Peters’s life.

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After experiencing all those different emotions in a relatively short time (laughter-contemplative sadness-laughter again), I left feeling really impressed with the Billy Ireland Museum.  As my brother said, “It was just the right size,” so that even he didn’t have time to get bored, but there was plenty there to make it well worth a special visit, and most importantly, it showed that cartoons can be so much more than the medium might have you believe at first glance.  It left me wishing there were more free museums on the OSU campus (except for a museum of biological diversity that is only open once a year, I couldn’t find any), because this was so well-done (and also wishing that British papers had a whole comics section like the PD and Akron Beacon Journal still do, because I miss reading them). I’ll post a picture below of the front of the building, so you know what you’re looking for if you go, because I don’t want anyone else to get lost (for real, OSU is the largest university (by enrollment) in America.  It has over 63,000 students!) if you decide to visit, because you really should, if you’re in the area and like cartoons! Don’t miss those Buckeye Donuts either!  4.5/5.

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London: Hogarth’s House

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I know I’ve dramatically slowed my output on here in the past month or so, which was for a number of reasons (back home visiting family, stressing out over getting a visa application together, and sheer laziness), but now that I’m back in London and all the visa stuff is behind me (permanent settlement, woot!),  I’ll hopefully be getting out a bit more in future (although it is winter, and cold(ish) weather also makes me disinclined to leave my flat, so we’ll see).  At any rate, I ventured to Chiswick last week to see Hogarth’s House, which is a free museum, despite the website indicating otherwise.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with William Hogarth, well, why the hell not, he was awesome!  But seriously, Hogarth was a Georgian painter/printmaker/cartoonist who was most famous for his satirical depictions of 18th century life, including Gin Lane and A Rake’s Progress, which are pictured below, and he’s up there on my list of favourite Georgians (as in the era, not the country, obviously).

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(Gin Lane and first plate of A Rake’s Progress, which I confess I picked because the “rake” is still cute and not a dissipated syphilitic yet.)

I guess I should have visited Hogarth’s House before now, but Chiswick is a nightmare to get to from Wimbledon on the Tube (there really needs to be a way to get there on public transport without backtracking towards Central), so I had to wait until I could talk my boyfriend into driving us there (helped along by the promise of some bakery from Outsider Tart, verdict: Snickers blondies=delicious, but their brownies are far too coffeeish for my tastes.  I don’t care what anybody says, adding coffee to chocolate things doesn’t enhance the flavour of the chocolate, it just makes it taste like coffee, which I hate.  Also, what’s with the hipster aversion to signs?  Throwing some labels on your pastries would save your staff from having to explain (with a sigh) what each item is to every customer that comes in.  I’d still go back and try more stuff though).

Although Hogarth’s house was originally situated in bucolic countryside, it’s now next to an extremely busy eponymous roundabout and the A4, and the constant sound of rushing traffic makes it strangely much less atmospheric than historic homes actually in Central London, which at least have the advantage of narrower streets and other similarly aged buildings surrounding them.  This also means that parking is a fair walk away.  Braving these hazards, we managed to make our way down to the museum, which at least still has a garden with a withered, gnarly old mulberry tree (fact: the Hogarths used to make mulberry pie for the orphans who came to stay with them, which must mean that mulberries aren’t poisonous, unless they were running one of those Victorian “wetnurse as a cover for infanticide” scams).

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The interior of Hogarth’s House is not really “preserved” in the sense that most historic homes are, as in with period furnishings designed to mirror the original contents.  Rather, I believe the general layout of the house is the same, but the rooms are pretty bare, save for a few small cases with personal items, and of course,  Hogarth’s prints hanging on the walls.  There’s a downstairs room with a few computers chucked in the back, and a nook with a pottery display (as seen above), but the bulk of the collection is upstairs.

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The house was surprisingly crowded for such a small museum (there were probably only about ten other people there, but in rooms this size, it made it difficult to navigate around) – I never anticipated Hogarth would be such a big draw of a late Sunday afternoon.  Still, unlike my recent experience in the British Museum (the subject of a future post), I was definitely able to see and enjoy everything.  They had copies of all of Hogarth’s major works; in addition to the two pieces mentioned above, they had Marriage a la Mode, A Harlot’s Progress, Beer Street (the lesser known counterpart to Gin Lane), and The Distrest Poet (which I’m rather partial to, having written an essay about it for my MA.  The original included a piss-take of Alexander Pope).  It was nice being able to look at them in a format big enough that I could actually read Hogarth’s text underneath, though it’s a shame that most of the paintings they had were portraits; the original paintings that he based his etchings on are distributed among other collections, including John Soane’s House and the National Gallery.

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(The Distrest Poet and The Enraged Musician, two of my favourites.  Those are the same faces I pull when someone interrupts me while I’m writing.)

Other objects of note upstairs were some portraits Hogarth did of his sisters, one of his original engraving plates (very cool), as well as the tools he use to etch the design, a few random items of clothing, and a few pug statues and things to represent his beloved dog (who didn’t look like the modern breed of pug, but had a larger body and a less extreme shortened snout, in other words, he was cuter (the dog, that is, I still can’t decide whether Hogarth was attractive or not.  I’m thinking on the rare occasions when he actually bothered to wear his wig, he managed to clean up nicely.  And by clean up, I probably mean he changed his shirt, maybe threw on a bit of powder. Doubt he would have actually bathed)).

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We visited on the last day of the “Hogarth House Christmas,” which basically meant that there were some festive garlands on the fireplaces, and a room had been set aside to the history of Christmas in England.  It was just a series of posters on how Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas Tree and the Yule Log, had come to be.  There was also a small tree decorated with vintage ornaments, which I would love to have.  The room itself was pretty spartan in decoration, however, so didn’t feel terribly Christmassy (what’s with British people skimping on the decorations?  At least get a big tree for the corner or something, since lights are clearly a bridge too far). The gift shop had some postcards, though bizarrely, none of Gin Lane, so I had to settle for The Enraged Musician (not really settling, because I love it).

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(The happy prosperity of Beer Street and the third plate of A Harlot’s Progress wherein she finds herself in slightly reduced circumstances, but the worst is yet to come).

Overall, while I was glad of the opportunity to peruse many of Hogarth’s prints, and some of his personal possessions, ultimately, I felt like there wasn’t enough of Hogarth in the house.  The house seemed torn between being a museum and an historic home, and thus didn’t really succeed at either.  I guess I wanted to know more about the personality of the man behind the paintings, and although they briefly mentioned his marriage, his father’s stint in debtor’s prison, and how he and his wife took in children from the Foundling Hospital, we never heard much about his family, or friends, or interests.  I’m not saying they had to go into prurient detail, but it seemed odd that the home of a man whose work seemed to invite controversy was so sterile.  Honestly, they had more information on later owners of the home, who I’d never heard of and didn’t care about, than Hogarth himself.  What gives?

I’m glad they’ve preserved his house, but I can see a lot of room for improvement.  2/5.

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(Plate 2 of Marriage a la Mode, and the marriage already isn’t working out, and the man himself – self portrait of William Hogarth on one of the rare times he bothered to wig up.  All prints and paintings taken from Wikimedia Commons.)