This characterful depiction of a quarterstaff player by Hogarth almost certainly shows the celebrated pugilist James Figg (1684-1743), who is widely celebrated as the first bare-knuckle boxing champion in England. Hogarth has captured his likeness and character brilliantly in this small-scale portrait, a format in which he excelled. The picture was probably painted as a gift for one of Hogarth’s close circle, most of whom were admirers of the sport.
The painting was formerly identified as a portrait of Figg’s most celebrated protégé, John Broughton. However, Elisabeth Einberg (op. cit.) has pointed out that the sitter’s physiognomy compares more closely with contemporary likenesses of Figg, notably in a mezzotint by John Faber after John Ellys (fig. 1; London, British Museum) and in a drawing by Jonathan Richardson the Elder (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum). The sitter’s identity had clearly been lost quite early on in its history, since it may have been the picture included in 1762 sale of the collection of the celebrated director and theatre manager, John Rich as: ‘A Portrait of Mr Rich’s Gardener at Cowley’, the quarterstaff having been mistaken for a hoe or a rake.
James Figg was born in 1684 in Thame, Oxfordshire, where he fought his first prize-fights and soon caught the attention of Charles Mordaunt, 3rd Earl of Peterborough, who may have brought him to London. He was in London by 1714 where he quickly became an acknowledged master of ‘the noble science of defence’. He started his own school at an amphitheatre in Tottenham Court Road in 1719, and the following year opened a highly successful academy and amphitheatre adjoining his house, at the sign of the City of Oxford, in Oxford Road, which became London’s most fashionable venue for sporting entertainment. Young men were trained there in ‘trials of manhood’ (fighting with fists) and ‘trials of skill’ (fighting using weapons such as the foil, the backsword, cudgels and the quarterstaff); Figg was particularly renowned in the latter. In combat, Figg’s style was characterised by his coolness, resolution, and peerless judgement. Although accurate records from the time do not survive, it is believed that of over 270 fights that Figg undertook during his career he lost only one, when he was beaten by Ned Sutton. He demanded a rematch, which he won.
Owing to Figg’s position as the most respected gladiator of his day, he was much in demand as a teacher. A former pupil, Captain John Godfrey, later wrote: ‘He was just as much a greater Master than any other I ever saw, as he was a greater Judge of Time and Measure’ (J. Godfrey, A treatise upon the useful science of defence, London, 1747, p. 40). In 1729, William Capell, 3rd Earl of Essex, Ranger of St James’s Park and Hyde Park, and a noted sportsman, appointed ‘Mr James Figg, the famous Prize-Fighter’ gatekeeper to Upper St James Park (now Green Park), possibly an honorary post. Figg largely retired from fighting after 1730 and relied instead on his three protégées to bring in spectators: Bob Whittaker, John Broughton, and George Taylor. The latter continued Figg’s business after his death in December 1734. An epigram published in The Gentleman’s Magazine the following year stated: ‘Brave Figg is conquer’d, who had conquer’d all’. Broughton, who followed in Figg’s footsteps, was the first person to codify a set of rules for bare-knuckle contests and his seven rules of how fights would be conducted at his amphitheatre later evolved into the London Prize Ring rules, which are widely regarded as the foundation of modern boxing.
Hogarth’s exceptional talents as a portraitist and as a chronicler of contemporary society are clearly manifest in this work, which gives us both an idea of Figg’s likeness, in the finely rendered features, and a sense of his character, in the wonderfully captured expression. The dance-like pose may refer to the nimble footwork required of a gladiator. The landscape setting was added by Hogarth’s close friend and occasional collaborator George Lambert, who was for many years John Rich’s chief scenery painter at the New Theatre at Lincoln’s Inn Fields and later at The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Einberg (op. cit.) has suggested that the portrait may even be commemorative, with Figg doffing his hat and carrying a quarterstaff as the last act of a prize fight, posed beside a broken tree, the classic symbol of a life cut short.
Figg featured in other works by Hogarth, most notably in Southwark Fair (fig. 2; Cincinnati Art Museum), where he is shown riding into the scene from the left, possibly as a ‘Champion of England’ (since ‘trials of skills’ were perceived as manifestations of patriotic British manhood), riding into the picture to defend Britain against all threats; and as the quarterstaff player soliciting Tom Rakewell’s patronage in Scene 2 of A Rake’s Progress, where he is shown holding two quarterstaffs and frowning fiercely at the French fencing master who is demonstrating his skills next to him. While Figg’s reputation has been somewhat eclipsed by that of Broughton, he remains England’s first pugilistic champion at a time when the sport was first evolving in England and the word ‘boxing’ first came into use.