This article originally appeared in The Mandala Magazine (2:1), July 2011
The Hand of Isaac Fawkes:
Quicker than Hogarth's Eye?
Isaac Fawkes is the earliest professional magician about whom we know anything substantial, and the sparse historical record is top-heavy with praise. He is “the famous” Mr. Fawkes, who “performs… most surprizing Tricks by Dexterity of Hand.” He undertakes “Curiosities no Person in the Kingdom can pretend to show like himself.” He has “had the Honour to perform before his present Majesty King George” and other high-falutin’ types, and has done so to “great Applause.”
For those who know the business, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the reviewer who authored most of this praise was… Isaac Fawkes. As the research of Ricky Jay, Edwin Dawes, and especially Richard H. Evans has shown, Fawkes was a relentless self-promoter who issued a flood of publicity. Newspapers were fresh and abundant in the early 18th century, and people high and low would gather in London’s countless coffee houses to read the daily news, bicker over the issues, and click the occasional AdSense link. What were these ads like? In a typical one, Fawkes trumpets his own success at the box office and defies other magicians to match his fiscal feat: “The famous Mr. Fawks, as he modestly stiles himself, has since Bartholomew and Southwark-Fairs, put seven hundred Pounds into the Bank” and he “may certainly challenge any Conjuror of the Age to do the like” (Paulson 80).
All this publicity made “Fawkes” a household word in London, and the magician’s presence every year, year after year, at those two great fairs kept him in the public’s eye. To spark and sustain the interest of the upper classes, he also performed at fashionable venues such as the Long Room at the Opera House, the James Street Theater at the Old Tennis Court, Haymarket, and near St. James’s Park (During 82).
Apart from the time and place, this profile is starting to sound familiar! Tireless in generating publicity. Self-aggrandizing. Defiant toward his peers, if indeed he recognized any. Openly boastful about his bookings and earnings. Performing for crowds and crowns. Ricky Jay is right— Isaac Fawkes was an 18th-century Houdini! (Fawkes even died young at the peak of his fame.)
To be fair, Fawkes was not the only promoter of Fawkes. As early as 1726, one writer observed that “when you first saw the famous Fawkes perform his Dexterity of Hand, I doubt not but it appear’d wonderful, that a Man’s Actions should be quicker than your Eyes” (Jay). And in 1746, fifteen years after the magician’s death, the buzz had not abated: “Fawkes, one of our modern Conjurers… after having anointed himself with the Sense of the People, became so great… that he amassed several Thousand Pounds to himself” (During 84).
Every coin has two sides, and not everyone who kept an eye on Fawkes was a fan. Foremost among the unenchanted was the artist William Hogarth, one of the most astute observers of early and middle 18th-century London. At least twice, Hogarth refers to Fawkes in his graphical parodies of contemporary taste and behavior: most prominently in one of the first prints of Hogarth’s career, Masquerades and Operas (1724), and again in Southwark Fair (1733), a print from the moment when Hogarth’s own fame was cresting. In both images, Hogarth presents the conjurer’s feats not as great theater, but as a symbol of decadence.
Hogarth was no stranger to the variety arts. Born “in the shadow of St. Paul’s” in 1697 to a family dwelling in Bartholomew Close, just off Smithfield, Hogarth literally grew up a stone’s throw away from the annual Bartholomew’s Fair. This event, like Southwark Fair, featured “waxworks, rope-dancing and music-booths, conjuring tricks, acrobats and drolls” as well as gamblers, prostitutes, and rowdies. “Laughter and humiliation, illusion and reality merged in the flesh. Bearded women… and freaks mingled with the costumed devils and heroes of the plays” (Uglow 14). Indeed, in the year of Hogarth’s birth, the Lord Mayor of London took official action to quell the “obscene, lascivious and scandalous plays, comedies and farces, unlawful games and interludes, drunkenness etc.”— but this ordinance could not withstand the sheer momentum of the irrepressible annual festivities, which soon resumed. London was gonna party like it was 1699.
In light of this background, we might have expected Hogarth to be more sympathetic to the charms of a carnival and its conjurer. After all, in an autobiographical note in his book The Analysis of Beauty (1753), Hogarth recalls that “Shews of all sort gave me uncommon pleasure when an Infant and mimickry common to all children was remarkable in me” (Uglow 13). And even in his maturity, Hogarth was capable of pulling stunts that call to mind the seedier side of the Fair. For example, on a drunken walkabout with friends in 1732, Hogarth decided to critique the clergy by defecating on the doorstep of a church, to the delight of his equally besotted walking buddies (Uglow 223). But Hogarth wasn’t sympathetic to Fawkes and the Fair. The more Hogarth learned about the ways of the world— especially the ways of people in power— the more he began to use the duplicity of masks and magic as symbols of hypocrisy and corruption.
This is how we should understand what Fawkes meant to Hogarth. The satirical prints that were Hogarth’s stock in trade present the carnival as a symbol of indiscipline, indiscretion, or plain old bad taste. He first mentions Isaac Fawkes in 1724, in the print Masquerades and Operas, also known as The Bad Taste of the Town. Let’s survey the scene. Hogarth shows a street running between two theaters. On one side, a crowd of costumed nobles and commoners queues up outside a masquerade hall. The impresario, Heidegger, leans out an upper window and coaxes the revelers in. A satyr and a fool guide them toward the door. Across the street, an equally dense crowd presses into a theater to see an overwrought drama. Above, a banner promotes some over-the-top opera. And in the background, a statue of the foppish architect William Kent perches atop an “Accademy of Art.” In contrast to all this, a worker in the foreground is taking out the trash, wheeling away a barrow full of the neglected works of the great English dramatists: Shakespeare, Jonson, Dryden, and the like.
And where is Waldo? Hanging above the doorway to the masquerade, a conspicuous sign reads “The Long Room. FAUX’s Dexterity of Hand.” Hogarth gives us three clues: the magician’s off-season theater, his name misspelled to ensure a pun on the French word for “false,” and his memorable catch phrase. Hogarth makes the puzzle easy, because he wants us to get it: the trickery of Isaac Fawkes is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with contemporary culture and politics.
Hogarth’s cultural target here is Italian style and those who promote it. Heidegger, the figure leaning out the window, was a key player in the promotion of Italian opera and masquerade balls in London. William Kent and his young patron Lord Burlington, both newly returned from their Grand Tour of Italy, were trying to replace the English Baroque architecture of Christopher Wren and his followers with the style they preferred— that of the Venetian architect Palladio. Adding insult to enmity, Lord Burlington had even marginalized Hogarth’s own teacher, the architect and artist Sir James Thornhill, in the royal court. In Hogarth’s view, Heidegger and Kent were contemptible corrupters of culture. How did he summarize his complaint? He called them illusory, ephemeral, false—Faux!
Hogarth’s political target is Sir Robert Walpole (then treasurer, but eventually Britain’s first Prime Minister) and his colleagues in the world of commerce. A couple of years earlier, a frenzy of speculative investment in the South Sea Company had created a market bubble. At one point, the value of the stock rose so high that the company cockily offered to pay off the entire national debt by issuing South Sea annuities. Needless to say, the bubble burst, fortunes were lost, and the chief malefactors were (what else?) guarded from prosecution by Walpole, who rounded up the usual suspects.
For Hogarth, Fawkes perfectly epitomizes these events. As Paulson explains, “Fawkes… reminded Hogarth of the opera, pantomime, and masquerade, and their disguising or distorting of nature celebrated by noble patrons” (80). Those who promise riches from far off lands tomorrow in exchange for a modest investment, or a hamburger, today…. Those who promise justice while providing cover for their cronies…. Those who displace rich and weighty English drama with flighty Continental nonsense…. Those who invite people to don costumes and behave as they would never do by the light of day…. Well, all those loathsome people are like this Fawkes chap, with his “Trick of raising Money by Legerdemain” (a Miser’s Dream routine performed with an egg bag). Fawkes embodies all that Hogarth finds wrong with popular art and the people who consume it: bombast lures them in, tricky words and actions delude them, and they walk away with something ventured, nothing gained.
A decade later in Southwark Fair, Hogarth again takes a shot at low-brow entertainment as a diluting factor in English culture. Again, he includes a reference to Fawkes, this time the conjurer’s portrait familiar from his signs and advertisements. What’s notable here is the lack of explanation; Hogarth simply expects that the meaning of this image will be clear to his audience. This implies that the meaning Hogarth invested in his references to Fawkes was familiar, intelligible, and shared.
So there’s the other side of the reputational coin. Fawkes had many fans, and none more fervent than Fawkes himself. But not everyone in Enlightenment England was in a mood to celebrate his legerdemain and his income. Even so, I like to imagine what would’ve happened if Isaac Fawkes had been given a chance to reply. He might’ve pointed out, with dexterity of mind, that the most theatrical and deceptive art of all is pictorial oil painting, an illusionistic medium whose foremost English practitioner in their day was none other than William Hogarth. Hocus pocus… and touché!
- David Bindman, Hogarth and His Times, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997
- Simon During, Modern Enchantments: the Cultural Power of Secular Magic, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004.
- Richard H. Evans, Isaac Fawkes: Myth and Legend, 2009.
- Ricky Jay, Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, “Isaac Fawkes: Surprizing Dexterity of Hand”, vol. 2:3 (Fall 1995).
- Ronald Paulson, Hogarth: The ‘Modern Moral Subject’ 1697-1732, vol. 1, New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1991.
- David Price, A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theater, Cranbury, NJ: Cornwall Books, 1985.
- Jenny Uglow, Hogarth, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997.