On William Hogarth

By Christian Kile

‘He was not really a cynic or a misanthrope; he was a pugnacious individualist with a strong sense of moral justice and a love-hate of the human animal.’ Essayist Charles Lamb about William Hogarth (1697-1764)

William Hogarth retains his popularity today as a painter, draughtsman and master storyteller, triumphing in his endeavour “to treat my subjects as a dramatic writer: my picture is my stage and men and women my players.”

Besides the meticulous characterisation, satire and narrative detail that define so much of his work, his idiosyncratic interpretation of beauty’s attributes in his treatise The Analysis of Beauty and the prescient ‘impressionistic’ element of The Shrimp Girl painting, audiences today appreciate the self-made artist behind them, of whom Charles Lamb said: ‘Perhaps next to Shakespeare, the most inventive genius which this island has produced.’

To some extent his rise mirrored that of other upwardly mobile professionals who were able to take advantage of a rapidly developing economy. Indeed, he was happy in his later years to accept Royal patronage when he became Serjeant Painter to the King in 1758. But within a short time the position was tainted by a new political populism and Hogarth ironically found himself on the wrong side and was viciously ridiculed.

Then, as Hogarth’s fame declined and his desperation increased to have the Establishment acknowledge the status of the ‘Comic Muse’, he crossed swords with Joshua Reynolds, founder and first president of the Royal Academy. By now criticisms about the ‘ugliness’ of Hogarth’s work had truly taken hold, as it was clearly at odds with the Establishment’s ‘Grand Style’ of painting promoted by Reynolds.

One should not assume that Hogarth was adept only at satire. His acute observation of people can be seen in his lesser-known individual society portraits, a thoroughly conservative form of painting, as his depiction of Miss Mary Edwards in the Frick Collection demonstrates – the memory of which persists from my visit to New York four years ago.


Miss Mary Edwards, 1742, Oil on canvas, The Frick Collection

Hogarth lived through a time when Britain was becoming a dominant force in painting, the development of its distinctive tradition coinciding with the island’s growing commercial power.

In contrast, France, with its decadent monarchy, was seen as ceding its position of cultural supremacy, a situation that Hogarth played on. In his earlier years he deliberately distanced himself from what he saw as French and Italian affectation. New groups intent upon acquiring art, often prints, were forming and Hogarth benefited from this. Works were not only visible in shops but also advertised in newspapers. This coincided with the periodical novels appearing towards the mid-18th century.

O the Roast Beef of Old England ('The Gate of Calais') 1748 by William Hogarth 1697-1764

O The Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’), 1748, Oil on canvas, Tate

Concurrently the ‘modern’ novel was evolving. Although not wildly popular today, the novels, Pamela and Tom Jones, are still read. ‘Turgid’ is a typical response to Richardson’s novels nowadays. But though these stories may not appeal stylistically, in common with Hogarth, the subject matter was relevant to the middle class.

During the previous two centuries, much of the nation had little or no access to art, a legacy of the Reformation. Hogarth was pivotal in rectifying this. He was popular because his work was and remains accessible – people who say they do not usually go in for art typically find something to appreciate.

A less severe Goya, Hogarth relished exploring, observing and criticising his society. Moral instruction and critiques of human folly are expressed through paintings and prints, shot through with his characteristic humour. This occasionally gives way to a more ruthless satire on poor conduct, a theme that has come to define his better-known works.

Hogarth’s images elicit the depravity and schadenfreude borne out of the 18th century social climate: such as the abject failure of a man foolishly adopting the behaviour of a higher social group and ruining his life utterly and the two ladies of leisure observing inmates for entertainment in the Rake’s Bedlam scene.

Hogarth recognised that mistakes and failures could be rich subjects for artists desiring to secure a place in history. Just think of his cycles created in the 1730s and 40s: A Harlot’s Progress, A Rake’s Progress, Marriage A-la-Mode, and Industry and Idleness, all of which have retained their appeal and remain among his most admired works.


A Harlot’s Progress (plate two), 1732, Etching and engraving, The British Museum

For those who thought Hogarth revelled in the degradation he depicted, Henry Fielding had a ready answer: ‘We are much better and easier taught of what we are to shun, than by those which would instruct us to what to pursue…We are more inclined to detest and loathe what is odious in others than to admire what is laudable…On which account, I esteem the ingenious Mr. Hogarth as one of the most useful satirists any age hath produced…’.

In Hogarth’s most famous satirical works city life is portrayed as a character in its own right – one that he knew intimately. He was born in 1697 and died in 1764 at his home in Leicester Fields, now Leicester Square and his art is inextricably associated with London. Born and raised there, Hogarth became one of the foremost chroniclers of political, cultural and social eighteenth century life in the metropolis. The settings are numerous and range from the tavern and prison to the upper-crust drawing room, from the street corner to the whorehouse.


Piquet: or Virtue in Danger (The Lady’s Last Stake), 1759, Oil on canvas, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo

Whether politicians or prostitutes, rogues or well-heeled, poor or somewhere in between, they can be found in Hogarth’s work. In his scenes comedy rubs shoulders with tragedy and wit with moral instruction.

William Hazlitt observed: ‘I know no-one who had a less pastoral imagination than Hogarth. He delights in the thick of St. Giles’s or St James’s. His pictures breathe a certain close, greasy, tavern air’. Today, some of his best-known works can be seen close by in The National Gallery and Sir John Soane’s Museum.

Hogarth catered to a varied public: Industry and Idleness and The Four Stages of Cruelty for the lower orders, while The Rake’s Progress and Marriage A-la-Mode served as a reminder that a misguided middle-class, hell bent on individual social ascent, were not beyond retribution. But his series were a warning and erred on the side of instruction rather than offensiveness, for artists do not enjoy losing clients.

A growing portion of society was very much concerned with individual rights and puritan morality; they believed that ambition and spurning vice would lead to riches and fulfillment.

While Hogarth’s work did not slavishly follow this line, he, like his friend, the novelist Henry Fielding, held to this type of morality, which he personally demonstrated by his own industry and diligence.

‘A true English Genius in the Art of Painting has sprung and by natural strength of himself chiefly, began with little and low-shrubb instructions, rose, to a surprising height in publick esteem and opinion.’ noted George Vertue, English engraver and antiquary.

Beginning as a silversmith’s apprentice, Hogarth gained his independence as an engraver and then painter, achieving prosperity and prestige – the very model of the sensible self-made man. One might conjecture that his driving force and adult railing against the ills of society derive from his father’s failed career as a man of letters. When Hogarth was ten, his family began a four-year stint in debtor’s lodgings.


The Rake in Prison (plate seven), A Rake’s Progress; Tom is in The Fleet debtors’ prison, 1735, Etching and engraving, The British Museum

Hogarth revered Milton, Shakespeare and his contemporary Jonathan Swift, whose satires were much more scathing and pessimistic than his own. In turn his own art was admired by prominent figures of the age: Irish novelist Laurence Sterne, actor David Garrick and Swift himself.

At one stage two patrons, Lord Charlemont and Sir Richard Grosvenor offered him the opportunity to produce work on any subject he chose and to name his price. But not everyone was so enthusiastic. Even though politician and man of letters Horace Walpole collected Hogarth’s work, compiling the largest contemporary collection of his prints, he deemed the artist a commoner whose inclusion of the crass and common were subjects too lowly for his tastes. Walpole described the images of Gin Lane as ‘horridly fine, but disgusting’.

But as critic and essayist William Hazlitt pointed out: ‘Criticism has not done him justice, though public opinion has.’

Hogarth epitomised the artist as astute businessman. He was an anti-Jacobite (against the restoration of the House of Stuart) unless the opportunity to gain greater favour presented itself and anti-foreigner, although he did admire examples of continental art.

Practically, he pushed for a copyright law to prohibit the pirating of engravings, specifically to protect his own. The situation had reached such a pitch that pirated prints were known to be pirated again. This law was passed in 1735 with Hogarth retaining his new prints until then – among them A Rake’s Progress.  Seamlessly he switched between painting and engraving, whichever offered the best prospects, as well as proving an effective way to advertise his offerings.

Hogarth’s cycles of oil paintings were troublesome to sell, whereas his printed scenes proved extremely popular, A Harlot’s Progress in particular: whoredom, it makes clear, results in suffering and death, not a meal ticket. The descent of the Harlot or Mary Hackabout takes six scenes compared to the rake’s eight.

Scene one already presents us with a procuress, while a figure in the background looks on and fondles himself. In the second scene of her descent, Mary has been transformed from the innocent provincial maiden and transported into Babylon where as a whore she has penetrated high society. Amid gilt furniture and oil paintings the urban rot has set in.

I last saw the Harlot’s Decline in the V&A’s British Galleries, where the full print cycle hangs on one wall. Seeing the first image conjured up a few lines from Michel Houellebecq’s late 20th century novel, Atomised:

‘The terrible predicament of a beautiful girl is that only an experienced womanizer, someone cynical and without scruple, feels that he is up to the challenge. More often than not, she will lose her virginity to some filthy lowlife in what can prove to be the first step in an irrevocable decline.’

Hogarth’s engravings, cheap and available to a wide public, earned him his main living and brought wide recognition. He told stories that in his best-known works were created for the many and understood by this audience.

Of The Four Stages of Cruelty, he said: ‘The leading points in these, as well as Beer Street and Gin Lane, were made as obvious as possible, in the hope that their tendency might be seen by men of the lowest rank and the fact is that the passions may be more forcibly expresst by a strong bold stroke, than by the most delicate engraving.’

Unusual for such a popular artist many of Hogarth’s portraits remain obscure. Yet he considered his painting of Captain Thomas Coram in London’s Foundling Museum to be one of his best works. His work also includes small-scale conversation pieces, refined for the ‘middling orders’ and modest gentry.


An Assembly at Wanstead House, 1728-31, Oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art

But Hogarth did not hesitate to satirise the cosmopolitan excess and dandyism emanating from across the Channel: just look at Marriage A-la-Mode; the Italianate paintings on the wall in the contract scene, and those Dutch and Flemish types in the Countess’ death scene are not there by accident. He often depicts moral corruption physically: the depraved with their syphilitic boils, commonly referred to as ‘French pox.’


Marriage A-la-Mode (Scene one: The Marriage Settlement), 1735, Oil on canvas, The National Gallery

However, Hogarth knows how to give us just the right measure of discord.  Ridicule may abound and nervous laughter from viewers continue to accompany explanations of his rake scenes but he never forgets the humanity of those he portrays.

As Architectural historian and past curator of Sir John Soane’s Museum, John Summerson said: ‘Hogarth’s people are always mimed representations of the originals – never, or rarely, caricatures. They are human beings observed as an actor might observe them and represented as an actor might represent them.’

One series of paintings, the Humours of an Election, completed more than 22 years after A Rake’s Progress, does not command anything like the same fanatical desire to view. Nonetheless, I’ve lost count of the books adorned with a scene from it printed on the cover.

Fashions aside, it could be a satire of political activities from many other times and places. That bribery took place then was well known; each parliamentary seat had a price. The parties depicted are inept and nostalgia for past achievements reigns: two men are shown recreating the 1739 naval victory of Porto Bello in Canvassing for Votes and a buckling carriage transports Britannia in The Polling.

Summerson, said of the first scene: ‘Hogarth’s ridicule is wholesale and in all the thirty-four figures there is not one which has not some degrading trait: at least, I think not one. You can have it, if you like, that the woman fiddler perched up at the back is rather an old dear – but I doubt it’.

Hogarth’s death preceded the French Revolution and the epochal change to the arts that would be brought about by Romanticism.

The motivation and inspiration behind Hogarth’s art reflect 18th century thinking. As he made clear: ‘In these compositions, those subjects that will both entertain and improve the mind bid fair to be of the greatest public utility and must, therefore, be entitled to rank in the highest class.’

Hogarth’s work features people whose frailties we can recognise if not identify with. But beyond this, his fluency in depicting human folly in its comic and tragic aspects has resonated with audiences down through the generations – his characters and their stories transcend his time and assure Hogarth’s posterity.

Hogarth: Place and Progress will be held at Sir John Soane’s Museum (October 9th 2019 – January 5th 2020)

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