The Mystery of Masonry Brought to Light by ye Gormagons

A satirical piece of Masonic artwork created by artist and later Freemason, Bro. William Hogarth

William Hogarth (1697-1764) an English painter, printmaker, satirist, social critic and what we would describe today as a cartoonist, was the son of a Latin teacher and someone that included masonic themes in many of his works. But something that makes him really interesting as a Masonic artist is that he lived and worked during a period in English history that spanned the birth of organised Freemasonry in England and the founding of the worlds first Grand Lodge.

His first Masonic work as an artist however is believed to have been created before he himself was a Freemason.  “The Mystery of Masonry Brought to Light by ye Gormagons” is a satirical piece and one that is very much a piece specific to his time. 

First published in December 1724 it makes light of the conflict and struggle for power that had developed in the Grand Lodge when Philip, Duke of Wharton, a past President of one of the notorious Hell-Fire Clubs and a recognised and self-declared Jacobite, was controversially elected the 6th Grand Master rather than the re-election of the previous incumbent the Duke of Montagu. This lasted only a year however before the Early of Dalkeith was then elected in his place, resulting in Wharton storming from the Grand Lodge and threatening to withdraw his supporters.

In an attempt to pre-empt any nonsense or retaliation by Wharton, members of the Craft announced a hoax formation of a competing organisation called The Ancient Noble Order of Gormagons which had “recently arrived in England having been founded by the Emperor of China”. The intention to discredit Wharton by implication and ridicule; however it seems to have back fired a bit, as Wharton is attributed as being a founder of “The Society of Gormogons” note the slightly different spelling, which spread throughout England and although there are little records, appears to have survived at least until the end of the century as a rival organisation to Freemasonry.

As any cartoonist today would, William Hogarth exploited the situation in his work and depicts the alleged mockery of the Freemasons by the Gormagons. Using caricature to illustrate the tension.

The engraving depicts a procession emerging from a tavern, the likely meeting place of any Masonic Lodge at this time. All though Masonic processions were relatively new and had only really emerged in the early 1720s the had been embraced by the Craft and were not uncommon in London at this time.

The procession is headed by an elaborately dressed man meant to represent the Chin Quan Kyoto the 1st Emperor of China accompanied by the Sage Confucius and two mandarins each looking particularly graceful, composed and wise as members on the Ancient and Noble Order of Gormagons, compared the slightly mad looking Freemasons behind them.

A dancing monkey is seen just behind, dressed in the apron and gloves of a Freemason, the literal metaphor of ‘aping’ or mocking Freemasonry.

Central in the scene we see a man in the guise of an “old gentlewoman” meant to represent the antiquity of the more traditional operative masonry, sitting upon a ladder, balanced upon the back of a donkey. This is believed to be the 3rd Grand Master and Newtonian Cleric Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers - with Reverend Dr. James Anderson, author of the first book of the new Constitutions published just a year earlier and who worked closely with Desaguliers on this, dressed in his apron and gloves, stretching between the rounds of the ladder to kiss his bare backside implying the Scottish Presbyterian Reverend’s subservience to him and to Freemasonry.

Detail of “The Mystery of Masonry Brought to Light by ye Gormagons” etching by English artist and Freemason, William Hogarth showing Rev’d James Anderson, Philip Duke of Wharton and Grand Master John Theophilus Desaguliers.

The ladder represents that of Jacob’s Ladder, common in Masonic symbolism and found on the tracing board of the 1st degree. It’s a prominent emblem of moral, intellectual and spiritual progression, used here to imprison Anderson. Despite the proportions and spacing being wrong, Hogarth has cleverly shown the seven rounds of the ladder symbolising Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, Justice, Faith, Hope and Charity.

A mallet and square, sit within a bucket alongside a mop, hanging from the donkey and the Tyler armed with a drawn sword in the doorway of the Tavern. This is evidence of Hogarth’s knowledge of the workings of a Lodge despite not a member himself at this time. The satirical suggestion that a mop and bucket were working tools, in reference to the time when the Tyler would mop the floor to remove the chalk markings drawn to mark out the lodge and as a sort of early Tracing Board.

Behind the donkey we find the Duke of Wharton dressed as the character Don Quixote, with full armour and again wearing masonic apron and gloves as he appears to be directing the proceedings holding up his shield. A subtle bit of symbolism exists here in the form of the aprons. 

Wharton represented the new order, the maverick, a switch from those that focused on the more traditional rituals of the operative Masons towards those like Wharton and his associates who saw Freemasonry as little more than a drinking club. If you compare the apron of the Duke of Wharton, above the knee and with the cords tied at the rear, with that of James Anderson and the Monkey in the more traditional operative style, longer and tied at the front, it represents the struggle that was going on within Freemasonry at this time between the more traditional operative and the newer speculative.

Bro. William Hogarth the Freemason

As a craftsman who has served an apprenticeship as a silver plate engraver. Hogarth could definitely identify with the operative aspects of Masonry on which the speculative Craft in England based its 3 degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason.

There is no exact date of Hogarth’s initiation into Freemasonry, however he does appear as one of the nine members at the Lodge meeting in the Hand and Apple Tree in Little Great Queen Street, Holborn when it was consecrated in November 1725. It’s possible that Hogarth was admitted prior to the consecration and could have been one of the first new members of this Lodge however this can’t be said for certain.

Later when this lodge was erased, Hogarth became a founding member of Corner Stone Lodge, meeting at the Bear and Harrow tavern on Butcher Row. This lodge amalgamated with St. George’s Lodge in 1843 and is now the St. George and Corner Stone Lodge No. 5.

It’s likely that Hogarth’s career as an artist and a Freemason were influenced by his father-in-law, artist and Freemason Sir James Thornhill whose daughter Jane married Hogarth in 1729.

The minutes of the Grand Lodge of England state the Hogarth officiated as one of the Grand Stewards of the Assembly and Feast on in Mercer’s Hall April 17, 1735 having been appointed in the March of 1734; and during a meeting on April 17 1753 he was one of twelve stewards toasted for services to their Lodge. The Stewards’ Lodge No.117, later the Grand Stewards’ Lodge, met every three months at the Shakespeare’s Head tavern in Covent Garden and still possesses the “Hogarth Jewel” which he designed for all Grand Stewards to wear.

This may have been Hogarths first Masonic engraving, however there would be many others to come featuring prominent Freemasons and with Masonic themes such as Night from the Four Times of Day series, The Sleepy Congregation, The Free Mason’s Surpriz’d and the Secret Discovered. I look forward to returning to Hogarth and looking at some of these in the future.