Hogarth's Mackinen Children.

Author:Marks, Arthur S.

The Mackinen Children (Pl 1) is admired as one of William Hogarth's finest full-length portraits, but it has not received any extended consideration. (1) Besides questions about the sitters identities and the work's proper dating, it is appropriate to ask how this richly devised work containing likenesses of a young man and woman at a particular moment in their youth might have been understood in its own time. Although there is only limited documentation for the painting, sufficient information and internal clues exist to permit, indeed even to encourage, discussion on these various points. What emerges as a result is a picture of considerable content and consequence. As was no doubt intended, The Mackinen Children is foremost a portrait, the animated likenesses of some beloved offspring. Going beyond their appearances and depending on the knowledge and experiences that a viewer brought to the work, it also could function for its various audiences, whether for Hogarth as the maker, the sitters, the patron or some other spectator, as a narrative and allegory of some complexity. Drawing upon diverse sources, on an acquaintance with visual, oral, and textual sources, including in this last category scientific writings, literature and most notably emblem books, the artist and his viewers could find in this painting a variety of personal and public moralizing meanings, pertinent presumably to their various lives. (2) At the same time, reflecting a particular situation in British history, it also possessed a highly personal significance for these Mackinens and for those acquainted with the recent record of their clan, Clan Fingon.

Depicted are two adolescents on a terrace adjoining a neoclassical English country house, apparently of no particular identity or location. To the right stands an elegantly clad young man, dressed in breeches, frock coat and waistcoat. He has been reading and his left arm with an opened book in hand is seen extended behind him. Now he is momentarily diverted by the sight of a butterfly about to alight on a potted sunflower. With his free hand he reaches out and seeks to capture the insect. His sudden movement has aroused the attention of his companion, an equally elegantly garbed young woman seated at the left, wearing a pointed bodice, half-sleeves with ruffles, a skirt and apron, and a day cap. (3) Possibly out of her own interest in the butterfly or in response to his pursuit, she abruptly rises from her chair. Portending disaster, the resulting distraction is causing the collection of shells she has been otherwise examining to slide unnoticed from her lap, from the folds in her apron. (4) At the lower right a small dog sits. Likewise, its attention has been arrested by the commotion over the butterfly towards which it now glances. Finally, all are bathed in a pleasant warming sunlight that plays across the scene on what must be a wonderful English summer's day.

Family records identify the subjects as the children of William Mackinen, a planter and lawyer from the West Indian island of Antigua. Members of the Highland clan of Mackinen or Fingon, they traced their lineage most immediately to Donald Mackinen, the second son of Lachlan Mohr Mackinen, 28th chief of the clan. (5) Reportedly, Donald had fled the ancestral home, Strathsaid on the Isle of Skye, following an altercation with his father on the hunting field. Being a younger son, however, it is more likely that, denied any inheritance by the rules of primogeniture, he departed in search of adventure and good fortune elsewhere. Eventually, he found his way to the Caribbean and certainly was settled on Antigua by 1693, the year when the first of his several land grants was recorded. (6) In time Donald became an important local political power, his authority aided by a wealth established from sugar cane, the island's most valuable crop. His status was enhanced by his marriage in or before 1696 to Elizabeth Thomas, daughter of Colonel John Thomas, another sugar planter and leader of the island's militia. To this couple several children were born, different accounts providing different numbers: the primary heir, their eldest son William, the father of Hogarth's sitters, appeared in 1697. Donald Mackinen died in 1720, aged 67, and was buried on the island.

About eight years after succeeding to his father's estates, William Mackinen made an advantageous local marriage. His wife Charity was the second daughter of the then governor, William Yeamans. The pair had four children, and it is the two eldest of these that Hogarth is said to have painted: Elizabeth who was baptized at St John's church, Antigua in May 1729, and her brother, named William like his father and baptized in the same church in February 1732. (7) These details are put forward in various genealogical volumes, reflecting family recollections, and there seems no reason to question them. Similarly, as will be seen, knowledge of various aspects of the family's circumstances lends support to dating the picture around 1747, the time most commonly assigned it in these records, when, like the children depicted, William was probably aged fifteen and his sister eighteen. (8)

Presumably Hogarth executed The Mackinen Children in London and from the life. It could have been done from miniatures sent abroad for that purpose, a not uncommon practice, especially for those situated in places without access to a painter of any decent abilities, such as Antigua. Yet the composition's dramatic and unitary quality together with the sense of location and the solid quality of the likenesses seem to attest to an immediate access to the sitters, though perhaps not for as long as the artist might have preferred. (9) For Hogarth this only could have been obtained in England in his London painting rooms. No documented journey to the capital by the Mackinens is known at this time in the mid-to late-1740s. But this lack of hard evidence should not be regarded as precluding such a visit. For the parents and their sort, wealthy colonial settlers, the occasional voyage 'home', as Britain was commonly referred to, whether for social or commercial reasons was not at all unusual. (10) Similarly, it was far from uncommon for offspring, generally the males, but at times the daughters as well, to accompany their parents or even to be sent unaccompanied to the care of a relative, friend or business agent for further education or professional and business training. In the case of Elizabeth there is also the possibility that, beyond any edifying benefits that might accrue, she, like many young women of her class, would have come in order to widen the pool of possible suitors for her hand. (11)

Just as we do not know the actual circumstances of the commission, the intended destination of the painting also remains unknown. On the likely assumption that it was directly commissioned by the parents or, if they were not present in England, that the immediate patron was someone acting on their behalf, in all probability the portrait eventually returned to the Mackinen home on Antigua, though when is also undetermined. In London, whether available in Hogarth's painting room or subsequently in the Mackinen's chambers during their brief stay abroad, it would have found only a limited audience. Certainly, it is not known to have been exhibited. Once installed back on Antigua, The Mackinen Children was of course available to the family and, other than servants and menials who passed through the house, it would have been seen primarily by other members of the same privileged planter class, who not only would have recognized the sitters, and been privy to their various family dynamics, but were perhaps even sufficiently educated to be capable of distinguishing the different allusions devised for William and Elizabeth's representation, the recreation of which is the task of the present essay. Eventually, probably in the latter half of the century, on the assumption that the painting sequentially remained with the two Williams, it presumably returned to England, for both father and son eventually settled there: the father sometime before 1767, the year he died at Bath, and in the 1780s, William the younger, who in 1757 had married an Englishwoman, Elizabeth Vernon, retired to Berkshire. As for Elizabeth, she married another islander and remained on Antigua until her death, also sometime in the 1760s. (12)

As for the representation, the shells in her lap that Elizabeth has been examining could have been included as a reference to the children's West Indian origins and their current presence on what was for them foreign soil. Pictorially, such accumulations of oddly shaped, colourful and even valuable shells often serve as geographical ciphers, especially for tropical America. They were recognized and appreciated as tangible relics of distant and often curious places. As fitting bits of imported exotica, reflective of a nation's imperial and commercial interests, they appear quite frequently in still-lifes and are included amongst the mirabilia in depictions of Kunst- and Wunderkammern. (13) More appropriate perhaps, in their specificity of reference is the occasional use of shells as an attribute of the Indian Princess who frequently symbolizes America in representations of the four continents (P1 2). (14) Like her and like the shells, William and Elizabeth also might be regarded as rare specimens, curios plucked from a tropical American sea or shore and then sent abroad to be displayed and admired. Certainly, and regardless of whether it was hung eventually in Antigua or Britain, the painting would testify to their exotic origins.

The sunflowers too may signify their distant origins. First introduced into Europe from the Americas by the Spanish in the 16th century, the sunflower, also know as the Indian Sunflower, the golden flower of Peru, or Flower of the Sonne, quickly obtained widespread popularity amongst...

To continue reading

Request your trial