Columbus and the Egg

In today’s blog, Collections Assistant Hannah White examines a painting from the Warrington Museum & Art Gallery collection entitled ‘Columbus and the Egg’, a copy after a work William Hogarth (1697-1764) by Warrington artist Thomas Robson (1798-1871). The theme of this blog has been chosen to coincide with the anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing on the northern coast of Hispaniola, on 5 December 1492.

Columbus and the Egg

 The egg has always been a significant symbol, it reminds us of the joy to be held in the emergence of new life, a symbol of fertility and of hope, particularly poignant at this time. In some Asian cultures the egg is seen as a symbol of luck and wealth.

In today’s blog, we are going to look at a painting in our collections which features eggs, the artwork was gifted to the museum in 1877. The oil painting ‘Columbus and the Egg’ by the Warrington born artist Thomas Robson (1798-1871) (shown below), captures the famous explorer Christopher Columbus seated at a table surrounded by a group of men, all of whom appear to be in deep discussion. In front of him is an egg sitting on one end, to which he is pointing. But what is it about the egg that is capturing this group’s attention, and haven’t we seen this same composition in another artwork before?

Oil painting ‘Columbus and the Egg’ by Thomas Robson (at Warrington Museum and Art Gallery)

The same scene was originally depicted in an engraving ‘Columbus Breaking the Egg’ by William Hogarth (1697-1764), the important painter and engraver who specialised in satirical portraiture. It was issued as a subscription ticket for Hogarth’s book on art entitled ‘The Analysis of Beauty’. A note below the original print (not visible here), informs the reader that the price of Hogarth’s book will be raised once the subscription is over – that being 5 shillings on subscription and 5 shillings on delivery, with the price rising to 15 shillings for those purchasing once the subscription period had finished.

Hogarth’s original engraving of Columbus Breaking the Egg

What is this scene telling us? 

The factual accuracy of the story pertaining to this scene is unclear. However, it is thought to originate with the Italian historian and traveller Girolamo Benzoni. In his book History of the New World, published in 1565, Benzoni provides some context to this scene:

“Columbus being at a party with many noble Spaniards, where, as was customary, the subject of conversation was the Indies: one of them undertook to say: —”Mr. Christopher, even if you had not found the Indies, we should not have been devoid of a man who would have attempted the same that you did, here in our own country of Spain, as it is full of great men clever in cosmography and literature.” Columbus said nothing in answer to these words, but having desired an egg to be brought to him, he placed it on the table saying: “Gentlemen, I will lay a wager with any of you, that you will not make this egg stand up as I will, naked and without anything at all.” They all tried, and no one succeeded in making it stand up. When the egg came round to the hands of Columbus, by beating it down on the table he fixed it, having thus crushed a little of one end; wherefore all remained confused, understanding what he would have said: that after the deed is done, everybody knows how to do it; that they ought first to have sought for the Indies, and not laugh at him who had sought for it first, while they for some time had been laughing, and wondered at it as an impossibility.”

Columbus was demonstrating the well-known saying ‘it’s easy when you know how’. The original engraving by William Hogarth was never intended to be a piece of fine artistic achievement, its main purpose was satirical. Hogarth expected a similar reaction to his new book as Columbus had received for his explorations. Hogarth drew parallels with the explorer, proclaiming that he had too discovered a ‘New World’, that being one within the sphere of art not geography. Hogarth expected the art connoisseurs to mock his new thesis in which he refers to the serpentine “Line of Beauty”.

Plate from The Analysis of Beauty by William Hogarth showing serpentine lines

Hogarth also strengthened his connection to Columbus visually within Columbus Breaking the Egg, through the depiction of two eels in a bowl in the centre of the table. Their bodies are demonstrating the “Line of Beauty” coiling around a pair of eggs. This “Line of Beauty” is seen further in the twisted tablecloth and in the blade of the knife.

There is also a very clever reference in the artwork’s composition to Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper with the bowl of eels and eggs replacing the Holy Communion.

Close up of The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci

So, what happened to the original copperplate of Hogarth’s Columbus Breaking the Egg. Well, gladly it managed to survive the First World War, later to be sold to Charles Scriber’s Sons in 1921 and then to a private collector.

Why do we think that Thomas Robson copied Hogarth’s Columbus Breaking the Egg?

Robson was an important artist during the 19th century and provided valuable examples of many of the old masters. But perhaps, the most significant factor in the discussion about why he may have chosen to copy Columbus Breaking the Egg, is when we discover that Robson’s mother was reported to be a descendant of William Hogarth. Thus, Robson may have had a personal connection to both Hogarth and his engraving, upon which Robson would base his study.