William Hogarth’s Satire on False Perspective (1754)

William Hogarth’s Satire on False Perspective, engraved by Luke Sullivan, offers an Escher-like array of impossible lines and vanishing points: a man lights his pipe from a distant candle; a flock of sheep grow bigger as they recede round a corner; a foreground flag disappears behind a distant tree, and many more.

These multiple visual tricks are all jokes to convince the viewer of the necessity of reading and understanding Hogarth's friend Joshua Kirby's book, Dr. Brook Taylor's Method of Perspective Made Easy, Both in Theory and Practice for which Hogarth's image acted as frontispiece.

Kirby, an artist, was, as the title of his own work admits, strongly influenced by the earlier work of the mathematician Brook Taylor. Method of Perspective was instantly popular, with reprints and new editions, and Kirby followed it up with Perspectives in Architecture in 1761. Hogarth too was interested in the mathematical and optical aspects of art. Already famous as a writer, portrait painter, and satirical engraver, in 1753 he published his Analysis of Beauty, in which he plugs Kirby's forthcoming book by explaining that

The knowledge of perspective is no small help to the seeing objects truly, for which purpose Dr. Brook Taylor's Linear perspective made easy to those who are unacquainted with geometry, proposed to be publish'd soon by Mr. Kirby of Ipswich, may be of most service.

Perspective in art was, of course, not new; Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Greek, and Chinese artist had all, to varying extents, used techniques to indicate that one element of an image should be thought of as distanced in space. But a formal exposition of a theory took time to emerge. Euclid discussed matters in his Optics, ca. 300 BC, and the scholar Alhazen advanced his ideas in the eleventh-century Opticae Thesaurus. By the Italian Renaissance, artists like Filippo Brunelleschi, Paulo Ucello, and Piero della Francesca were, in addition to producing masterful artworks with an understanding of perspective at their core, writing treatises on the central concepts: that objects appear smaller at a distance, and that parallel lines appear to meet at a vanishing point on a horizon.

While the content of Kirby's book takes a straightforward approach, explaining, with illustrations, just how perspective works, the frontispiece introduces Hogarth's characteristic mocking outlook towards the errors of the world. As he captions it, "Whoever makes a Design without the Knowledge of Perspective / will be liable to such Absurdities as are shewn in this Frontispiece".

Below, courtesy of Wikipedia, is a list of all the errors highlighted in Hogarth's print:

  1. The man in the foreground's fishing rod's line passes behind that of the man behind him.
  2. The sign is moored to two buildings, one in front of the other, with beams that show no difference in depth
  3. The sign is overlapped by two distant trees.
  4. The man climbing the hill is lighting his pipe with the candle of the woman leaning out of the upper story window.
  5. The crow perched on the tree is massive in comparison to it.
  6. The church appears to front onto the river. Both ends of the church are viewable at the same time.
  7. The left horizon on the water declines precipitously.
  8. The man in the boat under the bridge fires at the swan on the other side, which is impossible as he's aiming straight at the bridge abutments.
  9. The right-hand end of the arch above the boat meets the water further from the viewer than does the left-hand end.
  10. The two-story building, though viewed from below, shows the top of the roof. As does the church tower in the distance.
  11. The barrel closest to the foreground fisherman reveals both its top and bottom simultaneously.
  12. The tiles the foreground fisherman stands on have a vanishing point that converge towards the viewer.
  13. A tree is growing out of the top of the bridge
  14. The vanishing point for the near side of the first building transforms midway down the wall.
  15. The line of trees obscuring the sign are likely representative of how objects should decrease in scale as they move further away, but in this case reversed.
  16. The sheep on the left-hand side increase in scale as they get further away.
  17. The swan behind the boat is larger than the men manning the boat.
  18. The base of the tree on the far left is behind the tree to the right of it, but the canopy is in front of the tree to the right of it.
  19. The left-most barrel appears to be on lower ground than the other two, when they should be on level ground.
  20. The bottom swan is slightly smaller than the cow.
  21. The man with the pipe is taller than the trees.
  22. The tops and bottoms of the windows on the second building have different vanishing points.
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