David Garrick (born in 1717, died in 1779) was the greatest British actor of the mid 18th century. He became famous from 1743 after his outstanding performance as Shakespeare's Richard III. He is shown here in the tent scene before the Battle of Bosworth, haunted by the ghosts of all those he had murdered. This is not just a portrait but also a grand history painting in which Hogarth emphasises England's importance. The artist believed that the great works of English literature could be used to teach a moral lesson in the same way that other painters used scenes from ancient history.
In the painting Garrick's body is contorted into a 'serpentine' line - a stretched 'S' shape that Hogarth considered distinctly beautiful. He later made this shape the basis of his theoretical treatise 'The Analysis of Beauty' published in 1753.
Garrick was involved in one of several prominent trials connected to homosexuality in the 1770s. The debates that emerged in the popular press help to illuminate the social attitudes towards homosexuality at that time. In 1772 Captain Robert Jones, a Lieutenant in the artillery corps of the army best known for popularising figure skating, was convicted at the Old Bailey for ‘sodomising’ a thirteen-year-old boy. The public outcry kick-started the first known public debate on homosexuality. David Garrick found himself implicated in the debate after being portrayed as the dramatist Isaac Bickerstaffe’s lover in William Kenrick’s satire ‘Love in the Suds’ (1772). The rumour emerged because Garrick and Bickerstaffe had been close friends, until the latter was publicly ‘outed’ after an indiscreet sexual liaison with a soldier. Fearing the impact that such a reputation would have on his career, Garrick sued Kenrick for libel. Kenrick was eventually forced to publicly apologise to Garrick but the legal battle and therefore the press coverage continued for many years. According to historian Rictor Norton, the attitudes expressed in the newspapers to both cases ranged from ‘simple stereotypical homophobia (hell-fire rant against execrable sinners), to more complex attitudes which included a defence of homosexuality on the grounds that it was a natural trait’.*
* Rictor Norton, ‘The First Public Debate about Homosexuality in England: The Case of Captain Jones, 1772’, in ‘ The Gay Subculture in Georgian England’, 19 December 2004, updated 10 May 2014. Available online at: http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/jones1.htm