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Drawing in the Royal Collection, attributed to William Hogarth but possibly by Phillipe Mercier, depicts a game of hazard.

Falling dice and falling ministers: explaining an artwork in the Royal Collection 

Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

This curious drawing in the Royal Collection, attributed to William Hogarth but possibly by Phillipe Mercier, depicts a game of hazard, the ancestor of modern casino “craps.” An attribution to Mercier is supported by the figure of a young man wearing an order of chivalry (possibly the Garter, although the ribbon is worn over the wrong shoulder) who bears a strong resemblance to Mercier’s portraits of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Mercier was appointed painter to the Prince and Princess of Wales soon after the accession of George II allowed Frederick to set up his own household.

The staffage of the drawing is unusual, given the subject matter. Women as well as men sit at the hazard table, despite the strictures of Richard Steele that throwing dice was not ladylike. Even more remarkable is the clergyman who holds the dice box. Given the august company, he might be a bishop, and in fact, closely resembles Hogarth’s portrait of Benjamin Hoadly, bishop of Salisbury and later of Winchester. There are not many circumstances that would explain how, in the words of Frances Burney, these individuals became so strangely situated.

One such is Twelfth Night, 5 January, as it was observed at court, when the sovereign, Royal Family, and courtiers played hazard for the benefit of the Groom Porter, the court official charged with procuring and dispensing small furnishings. Since these could include cards and dice, the Groom Porter was inextricably associated with games of chance at court, as the final authority, for example, on the rules of games. The drawing may be an unfinished sketch for a painting, never undertaken, to commemorate the revels of a particular Twelfth Night, that of January 1731, whence our story.

The years after the Hanoverian Succession saw a concerted effort to suppress gambling operations, such as tables for hazard and faro, conducted in taverns, coffeehouses, and other public accommodations in London and Westminster. Apart from any moral hazard they posed (and there were admonitions aplenty in print culture), the “silver tables” at Vanderman’s coffeehouse in Covent Garden or at the Phoenix tavern in the Haymarket were competition for the Government’s own gaming operations, the lotteries it used to fund public works, freeing up other revenue to bankroll an expanding military and naval establishment.

Spurred by Charles, second Viscount Townshend, holder of the office that evolved into the Home Secretary, the magistrates of Westminster (where most of these gambling parlors were housed) authorized raids on premises determined to be “common” (i.e. public) “gaming houses” open to all comers in violation of statute. The magistrates were thwarted, however, at every turn by resourceful, well-connected, and above all well-lawyered gambling entrepreneurs, as adept at gaming the system as they were at reaping the benefits that mathematical probability afforded them.

It did not help that gambling went forward with impunity at court, as the royal household was explicitly exempted from all legislation aimed at proscribing or regulating games of chance. Townshend deployed all of the powers of his office to support the prosecution of gaming operations, authorizing the Crown’s attorneys to defend constables at public expense when gaming entrepreneurs sued them, and funding rewards for those who informed on gaming operators. A widely circulated pamphlet recounting the efforts of the Westminster magistrates and the obstacles they faced apparently originated in Townshend’s office.

George I and (briefly) George II were evidently pressed to set an example, and for the decade of the 1720s, hazard was banished from the Twelfth Night revels in favor of ombre, a polite card game played for relatively low stakes. By the end of that decade, however, Townshend had fallen out with the Prime Minster, Sir Robert Walpole, who happened to be his brother-in-law, and by the spring of 1730, Townshend had resigned, returning to Raynham in Norfolk to promote the cultivation of turnips. Raids on gaming venues slowed dramatically, ceasing entirely by 1735. And no sooner was Townshend out of office than hazard immediately resumed on Twelfth Night at court, with the King, Queen, Prince of Wales, and the three princesses winning nearly a thousand guineas among themselves. Hazard continued as the game of preference as Twelfth Night was observed at court for at least the next decade, even after subsequent legislation outlawed it, along with basset and faro, as an illegal lottery.

The sketch in the Royal Collection certainly looks like a study for the sort of conversation piece for which Hogarth was particularly known, and which Mercier was known to have undertaken as well. Assuming that Twelfth Night of 1731 was the intended subject, there may have been any number of reasons that the project was abandoned. Newspaper reports of the revival of hazard at court festivities that week in January appeared in the same issues as accounts of raids on gaming venues; not long afterward, Captain William Bradbury, the recently ousted deputy to the Groom Porter Thomas Archer, wrote letters to newspapers threatening to expose his former employer. It was not the time to draw attention to this sort of courtly practice. What might seem to courtiers to be a harmless seasonal amusement might look to the public like insupportable hypocrisy.

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