Katy Barrett (Royal Museums Greenwich)

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Project: The Wanton Line: Hogarth and the public life of longitude

This thesis (completed in 2013) considers the eighteenth-century search for the longitude through Plate 8 of William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, where a ‘longitude lunatic’ seeks to solve the problem on the wall of his cell in Bedlam. In doing so, it answers two linked questions: firstly, how the longitude problem was discussed by the wider British community, and how this affected the actors directly involved in seeking the solution; and secondly, what was so iconic about this problem that made Hogarth place it at the centre of his modern moral series about a young man ruined by London society. The thesis combines considerations of longitude from plays, poems, religious tracts, novels, prints, paintings, correspondence, alongside the archives and instruments that recorded the search by the Board of Longitude. Useful parallels emerge between the Board’s most famous applicant, John Harrison, and William Hogarth’s own career. I open with discussion of the place of the longitude problem, and navigational science more generally, within London life and Hogarth’s works, arguing that London became Hogarth’s ‘ship of fools,’ in need of guidance. I then consider three ways in which longitude was a ‘problem.’ Visually, it presented new challenges about how to communicate contested ideas on paper with words and images, through maps, illustrations and diagrams. These considerations developed alongside contemporary concerns over copyright and patenting. Mentally, longitude highlighted the complex boundary between impossible ‘projects,’ mad schemes and ‘genius’ inventions, raising questions about the status of innovation and originality. Socially, ‘the longitude’ articulated a problematic space between polite and impolite science, which made it a useful concept to negotiate wider contemporary social boundaries. The status of both women and instruments became key to these discussions. In sum, the longitude problem, as the final image, in the final plate of Hogarth’s series, presented a means of orientating a disorientated Augustan society. What we might call the longitude ‘moment’ meant that all of these concerns coalesced into the single image of a drawing on the wall of Bedlam.

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