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The Birth of Brit Art

Friday, June 1, 2007

Robin Simon.
Hogarth, France and British Art.
Hogarth Arts. 313 pages. £45

Mark Hallett and Christine Riding.
Hogarth.
Tate Publishing. 264 pages. £29.99

In 1748, during one of the periodic lulls in French-British hostilities, the painter William Hogarth visited France. Blending in with the scenery was not Hogarth’s way: Rather, he sounded like some early Thatcherite on the rampage, railing against evil and decadent continentals. “He was sure to be dissatisfied with what he saw. If an elegant circumstance either in furniture or the ornaments in a room was pointed out as deserving approbation, his narrow and constant reply was ‘What then? But it is French! Their houses are all gilt and beshit’,” an English engraver recalled. “In the street he was often clamorously rude.” His travelling party repeatedly tried to calm him down so they would not be accosted by irate Frenchmen. To no avail.

The fact that he was arrested for spying while sketching in Calais and brought before the local governor did not improve his mood. The governor, having satisfied himself that Hogarth was no enemy agent, had him brought on board a ship under armed guard, who “spun him round like a top” on the deck before informing him, when they were three miles from the French coast, that he was free to go.

One did not mess with Hogarth unpunished. Upon returning to Britain he immediately set about transforming his French experience into paint. The result was The Roast Beef of Old England, also known as The Gate of Calais, a splendid piece of anti-French propaganda. It shows a skinny Frenchman, staggering under the weight of a colossal side of British beef which is on its way to a local inn for British travellers. A friar pokes the meat with a fat finger while some emaciated guards look on hungrily. One ragged, cross-eyed half-wit has his toes sticking out of his shoes; another is wearing clogs. (No self-respecting Brit of that era would be caught dead in a pair of clogs. An Englishman wore shoes, preferably with a bloody big silver buckle on them, if you don’t mind.) The France of this painting, in short, is a tyranny that cannot properly feed and clothe its citizens, let alone shoe them.

In the dark corner, an exiled Scottish Jacobite is quietly starving away. And most intriguingly, in the background we see Hogarth himself, in profile with his sketch block, a second before he is arrested, with just the pike and the hand of the arresting officer showing on his shoulder. In the land of tyranny, he implies, an honest Englishman can be arrested without warning.


Measuring just five feet and a flashy dresser, Hogarth was the first artist to put British art on the map — one of his portraits is signed “W. Hogarth Anglus Pinxit.” (“W. Hogarth, the Englishman, painted this.”) According to art historian Robin Simon, Augustus’s claim about Rome, that he “found it brick and left it marble,” which Dr. Johnson applied to Dryden and his use of the English language, can equally well be applied to Hogarth in the sphere of art. Before him, British art stank. After him, it existed.

Hogarth’s imagination is characterized by the kind of abundance one normally associates with Shakespeare or Dickens. (Not surprisingly, a set of his prints hung on the stairwell in Dickens’ house.) Indeed, it is impossible to take his paintings in in one glance: They must be studied. As Charles Lamb noted, “his graphic representations are indeed books: they have the teeming, fruitful, suggestive meaning of words. Other pictures we look at. His prints we read.”

His range is extraordinary: He tried his hand at everything from history painting to elegant conversation pieces and portraits, usually with success. He even invented his own genre, the modern moral subject. And though his paintings often have unpleasant topics, like drunkenness, debauchery, disease — one, the ultimate portrayal of a hangover, shows a gentleman retching into his chamber pot, surely a first in art history — they are very beautiful. Nobody does rococo refinement better, and nobody satirizes it as well.

He was the first to celebrate the new bourgeois class, and as a guide to the Britain of his day he is unparalleled. In his prints, he prided himself on having created a body of work “descriptive of the peculiar manners of the English nation for which the curious of other countries frequently send in order to be informed and amused.” In marketing his art and bringing it to a wider audience, Hogarth was very much a modern painter with a keen understanding of the uses of publicity. To protect the artist against pirated versions by unscrupulous booksellers, he fought for the Engravers Copyright Act, which came to be known as Hogarth’s Act.

The problem with satire is that it is closely tied to the events of its own age. This means that with the passing of time much is forgotten and needs to be reconstructed in order to become intelligible. Two new books on Hogarth and a third from 1997 do just that. Robin Simon’s masterful Hogarth, France and British Art demonstrates that for all his professed Francophobia, Hogarth was intimately familiar with French art and constantly reacting to it, in the process establishing a “new vernacular for painting, much as Dryden, Swift and Pope had done in literature.” Mark Hallett and Christine Riding’s Hogarth goes through his prints and paintings one by one and presents a series of essays on key aspects of his art. Together with Jenny Uglow’s splendid biography, Hogarth: A Life and a World from 1997, which provides the set piece rendering of the Calais incident, these books give the necessary background for a true appreciation of Hogarth’s work.


One of the characteristics of the eighteenth century is its interesting mixture of coarseness and refinement, and few people exhibited both strands better than Hogarth. “Having rarely been admitted into polite circles, none of his sharp corners had been rubbed off, so he continued to the last a gross uncultivated man” sniffed the gossip writer George Steevens, a contributor to the first Hogarth biography, The Genuine Works of William Hogarth (1808). This wildly overstates the case — Hogarth did not lack influential and elegant friends, notably the actor David Garrick — but those in search of the coarse Hogarth will find plenty of evidence in The Five Days Peregrination, the celebrated account of the occasion when, in the summer of 1732, he and a bunch of artist friends, after a heavy night at the local tavern, decided to set out on an exploration of the Kent countryside in a parody of the obligatory Grand Tour. They seem to have spent an extraordinary amount of time flinging hogs’ dung at each other, and their exploits were written up afterwards by one of the participants, with Hogarth supplying the illustrations.  We see Hogarth in particular behaving very badly, with some of the scatological details remaining censored until the 1951 edition of the book.

But for all his rough edges and professed contempt for connoisseurs and foreign refinement, according to Simon, Hogarth was no primitive “football fan” out to demolish French and foreign art: “It is important to realize that Hogarth was in no sense generally iconoclastic, as is sometimes supposed. He was far too clever for that.” Rather, Simon suggests, in his attempt to define his own artistic identity — and by extension, that of British art — he needed something to react to, a wall to kick up against. France provided that wall.

The same goes for his alleged contempt for the old masters. True, with great relish he chastised European dealers, whom he referred to as “Picture Jobbers from abroad,” for “continually importing Ship loads of dead Christs, Holy Families, Madonas and other dismal Dark Subjects, neither entertaining nor ornamental; on which they scrawl the terrible cramp names of some Italian Masters and fix on us poor Englishmen the character of Universal Dupes.” (Hogarth’s spelling left something to be desired.)

Thus, in his 1744 engraving The Battle of the Pictures — a parallel to Swift’s “The Battle of the Books” — he dramatizes the situation by having old-master paintings — or rather copies of old-master paintings — arrayed in endless lines, assault his own canvases, cutting right into them. What he found particularly ridiculous was the contemporary preference for darkness in paintings, which he satirized in Time Smokes a Picture, an engraving depicting Time, represented by an aged man, blowing smoke on a canvas, giving it the required darkness and artistic value.

But this does not mean that he hated the old masters, notes Simon, and there are plenty of echoes in his own paintings to prove the point. As does the occasion on which Hogarth praised Samuel Johnson’s mastery of conversation, comparing it to that of Titian in painting, but quickly adding: “But don’t you tell them now that I said so, for the connoisseurs and I are at war you know, and because I hate them, they think I hate Titian. Well, let them.” What he objected to was the automatic, faddish and unthinking  preference of connoisseurs and collectors for foreign artists over British ones and for old masters over living artists, as well as to the notion that the artist should slavishly imitate old masters. It was his view that the artist should observe nature directly, not rely on second-hand copying. For instance, observing Thames watermen Hogarth had noticed that the repetitive nature of the men’s work had given them enormous shoulders and spindly legs. So, if the artist were to paint Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld, that would be how Charon should be rendered, not as some ideally proportioned Greek statue.

Turning to his contribution to the genres in which he worked, Riding and Hallett trace his early development as a social satirist and supplier of “pictorial” theater in what was then the world’s largest and most crowded metropolis. Hogarth started out as an engraver, an art form he practiced exclusively until the age of 30 and continued all his life, and from the first one is struck by his ability to cram massive amounts of detail into a small space and by the ferocious energy of his attack. Thus, his first engraving, The South Sea Scheme (1721), deals with the great investment scandal of the previous year, where fortunes were lost in fraudulent trade ventures in Spanish America. It shows investors being whirled around on a merry-go-round while Fortune hangs mangled on the wall of Guildhall with a scythe-wielding devil slicing pieces of her and throwing them to the crowd and Honesty lies tied to a wheel, being flailed by the figure of Self-Interest.

And this is mild stuff compared to The Punishment Inflicted on Lemuel Gulliver, an exercise in pure scurrility where the target is the corrupt government of Robert Walpole. Here Britain, in the person of Gulliver, is subjected to the humiliations of a Lilliputian Dr. Walpole and his huge enema syringe. To this kind of imagery — which one would have to be a proctologist to truly enjoy — one can only say that the eighteenth century was a robust age and that Hogarth, like his idol Swift, was more robust than most.

As a chronicler of city life, Hogarth delighted in the smells and sounds and movement — Henry Fielding described one of his later prints as “enough to make a man deaf to look at” — and proved himself a master of suspended animation. As the son of a poor language teacher turned innkeeper, who encouraged his customers to speak Latin and was sent to Fleet Street prison for debt, Hogarth was not unsympathetic to the plight of the poor and found a certain vigor in low life with its pretty drummer girls and milkmaids and mischievous street urchins.

Riding compares Hogarth’s vision of London with that of Canaletto, who worked in the city at the same time and produced some exquisitely elegant panoramas of London under a bright Italian sky. Canaletto’s is the tourist agent’s London with all the unpleasantness carefully expunged — and wonderful creations in their own right — but Hogarth’s London is the real thing.


But though they kept him in bread and butter, Hogarth had larger ambitions than producing topical satirical prints. He turned to oil and to painting conversation pieces — informal group portraits. Others had done them, but, notes Simon, “the lightness of touch and humour he brings to it is new, at least in England.” According to Hallett, these paintings offer a counterpoint to the social satires by setting forth an “ideal of restrained, elegant and inclusive social interaction,” presenting the family as the bedrock of society, and they prove that Hogarth could be refined with the best of them.

Typically, he introduced a theatrical element, linking people together by looks and gestures and showing things about to happen. Thus, in The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox, putti hovering over the happy couple have lost control over their cornucopia, and the couple is on the verge of being inundated with pears and apples. In a later piece, a child is in the process of upsetting his chair and a stack of books, and in Captain Lord George Graham in his Cabin a waiter is about to spill sauce down the back of an unfortunate diner. Small dogs mimic the action in many of them. (A minor thesis could be written on the role of dogs in Hogarth’s paintings.)

To see how sophisticated they are one need only compare them, as Uglow has done, to the efforts of one of his contemporaries, Arthur Devis, who would sketch a group and then rely on dressed up dolls for the rest. Devis’s paintings are charmingly naïve in their stiffness and fetch big prices at auctions, but they are not exactly world-class art. Hogarth’s are.

The problem with the conversation pieces was that due to the number of characters involved, they took a long time to execute; and unlike some of his colleagues, who ran regular portrait factories where the master would do the faces and an army of assistants, each with his specialty, would do the rest, Hogarth refused to employ assistants. These paintings also tended to put a damper on Hogarth’s irreverent cast of mind — naturally he could not resist parodying the genre in A Midnight Modern Conversation, showing what goes on in a drinking club for eminent citizens around four in the morning — but there were limits to how much license others could be expected to put up with, especially when they were footing the bill. Horace Walpole, famous wit and fourth son of Sir Robert, called portrait painting “the most ill suited employment imaginable to a man whose turn certainly was not flattery nor his talent adapted to look upon vanity without a sneer.”

Among Hogarth’s first efforts in oil had been some scenes from John Gay’s musical play The Beggars Opera — Gay’s parody of grand opera. This provided the inspiration for what Hogarth was to describe as his own greatest invention, “the modern moral subject,” which he defined as a new kind of comic history painting, presenting low topics in the grand manner, doing in painting what Pope had done in literature and Gay in the theater.

His A Harlot’s Progress (1732) tells the story of a sweet-faced country lass, Moll Hackabout, who comes to the big city, gets corrupted by it, enjoys brief success as a courtesan, and then goes downhill fast, with episode six showing her firmly in her coffin. What had begun as a single painting of a harlot at breakfast in her boudoir became, at the suggestion of one of Hogarth’s friends, a pair of companion pieces and eventually developed into a sustained narrative of six episodes. The series achieved great popularity through Hogarth’s engravings from it, though unfortunately a lot of pirated editions were produced.

Hogarth followed up this success with the parallel series, A Rake’s Progress, and, taught by experience, waited for the passing of the Engravers Copyright Act of 1735, for which he lobbied strongly, before he made engravings of this series. A third series, the most ambitious, Marriage-à-la-Mode,  describes a marriage of convenience between an impoverished earl’s son and a wealthy alderman’s daughter, which in true Hogarthian fashion necessarily ends in murder, suicide, and execution.

In these series, notes Simon, Hogarth revealed himself as a “compulsive story teller, as much as Dickens or Shakespeare, with whom, alone among British artists, he bears comparison.” Hogarth himself described his paintings in terms of drama or “dumb show”: “I have endeavoured to treat my subjects as a dramatic writer; my picture is my stage, and men and women my players.” And just as in a modern crime fiction the contents of the criminal’s lair tells a lot about his mindset, what the people of Hogarth’s pictures surround themselves with and what they read reveal a great deal about them. Thus Walpole observed that “the very furniture of his rooms describe the characters of the persons to whom they belong. It was reserved for Hogarth to write a scene of furniture.”

Riding sees the three series — peopled as they are with castratos, French dancing masters, and fencing masters — as a sustained attack on the upper-class obsession with foreign luxury goods. The venereal disease that has infected the young nobleman in Marriage-à-la-Mode  becomes “emblematic of the spread of foreign culture which has infected and weakened British identity, society and commerce.” Despite their sordid subject matter, the paintings are incredibly beautiful, as sophisticated and sensuous as anything produced in France. (Interestingly, notes Uglow, they come across much harsher as prints.) One of the advantages of being a moralist is that it allows you to explore in great detail the thing you disapprove of: Hogarth’s subject matter allowed him to be prurient and moral at the same time, appealing both to the libertine and the art collector, who, as Uglow has pointed out, were closely linked at this time. On the Grand Tour, the connoisseur who had come to Venice to inspect the art would usually inspect the bordellos too.


In the eighteenth century, history painting reigned supreme in the hierarchy because it required a knowledge of ancient and biblical history and a mastery of all the elements of painting, from the figure down to the humble still life. At the time, only continentals and the old masters were thought capable of tackling it.

Naturally, Hogarth had a go at that too. In a true eighteenth-century combination of altruism and selfishness, he offered to decorate the staircase of the new wing of St. Bartholomew’s hospital for free, thereby obtaining a showcase for his own art and for British art as well, proving that what the Italians and French could do the British could do too. For St. Bartholomew’s, he painted the Pool of Bethesda, and the Good Samaritan. In these works, and later in Paul Before Felix, which he did for the lawyers at Lincoln’s Inn, the noble and the grotesque mix within the same image to startling and unsettling effect.

For once, Hogarth’s efforts did not meet with universal acclaim. As Sir Joshua Reynolds wrote in 1788, more than two decades after Hogarth’s death, “Hogarth very imprudently, or rather presumptuously, attempted the great historical style, for which his previous habits had by no means prepared him. . . . It is to be regretted, that any part of such a genius should be fruitlessly employed.” This, Hallett notes, is nothing compared to the attacks against his history paintings during his own lifetime. It was said that he could not prevent low “Dutch” details from creeping in in the form of “inappropriate satire and physiognomic excess.” Stung by the criticism, he attempted to modify them in the engraved versions. He even produced a satiric print version of Paul Before Felix, with Paul depicted as a dwarf on a footstool, and barnyard humor galore to show what the real Dutch deal would look like.

Hogarth suffered his worst humiliation in 1759, when he took one more stab at history painting with Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo, from Boccaccio’s tale in The Decameron in which the daughter of Prince Tancred has secretly married one of her father’s attendants. This match does not overly please her father, who has her husband murdered and his heart sent to her in a goblet. Hogarth painted the scene in great and gory detail, with the heart seeming to throb in its golden chalice.

Cynical as ever, Horace Walpole described Sigismunda as “a maudlin whore tearing off the trinkets that her keeper had given her, to fling at his head. . . . Her fingers are bloody with her lover’s heart, as if she had just bought a sheep’s pluck [heart] in St James market.” The fact that Hogarth had used his wife, Jane, as a model made this all the more wounding. Worse, Hogarth’s customer, Sir Richard Grosvenor, who had given him a free hand to paint anything he wanted and allowed him to name his own price, refused to pay for it and Hogarth was obliged to take it back. And when he put it on display at the exhibition of the Society of Artists in 1761, the hostile reaction forced him to withdraw it. But for too long, Hallett argues, the art world has simply accepted the collective contemporaneous judgement of Hogarth’s history paintings, and he urges a reevaluation.


Finally, there is his contribution to the art of portraiture. In 1739, Hogarth had become a founding governor of the Foundling Hospital and would appropriately produce, in 1746, a huge canvas of the Überfoundling of them all, entitled Moses Is Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter. But the real stunner is his 1740 portrait of the hospital’s founder, Captain Coram, which he painted as a proof of his boast that he could match van Dyck in portraiture. According to Simon, he specifically challenged the fashionable French portrait painter Jean Baptiste van Loo, who had settled in London and who in Hogarth’s view attracted far too many customers.

The captain was forthright and unpretentious, a man after Hogarth’s own heart, a patriot Protestant whose purpose was to save children from the street and turn them into productive citizens, preferably sailors. In his portrait, measuring eight feet by five, the size normally used in royal portraits, Hogarth carefully avoided what was contemptuously referred to as “French flutter,” the artificial gusts of wind in the drapery or the clothes, designed to create an illusion of life. Instead, life springs from the person himself. Coram positively brims with energy and impatience, which is emphasized by his stumpy little legs that do not reach the ground. They are just itching to run off and do good.

From this portrait and that of the massive George Arnold, one of Hogarth’s fellow governors, and, indeed, from Hogarth’s own self-portrait — complete with scar and jutting jaw and his pug Trump, which looks mightily pugnacious — one understands why Britain was to become top nation.

As Hallett points out, these are some of the “first portraits of modern bourgeois man,” “embodying these supposedly English virtues of sobriety, energy, directness and sincerity” — as opposed to the effeteness of fancy foreign fops — an interpretation with which Hogarth would no doubt agree, except for the word “supposedly.” In another bout of portrait painting in the final decade of his life, he painted his close friend, the actor David Garrick — whom he had already painted as Richard 111 — this time together with his wife. An affectionate portrayal of married bliss, but not without its complications: During the sittings, Uglow notes, Garrick would tease him by changing his expression ever so subtly, and Hogarth would in vain try to capture him before catching on — with Garrick narrowly escaping Hogarth’s pencils and paintbrushes and “the variegated storm of colours that pursued him.”

Hogarth also painted children, and he painted his six servants, whose clean-scrubbed, very British faces convey everything a trusted servant should be. His portrait of Francis Matthew Schultz, third cousin to the Prince of Wales, broke new and very modern ground. Commissioned by the sitter’s bride-to-be in an attempt to make him forsake his rakish ways, the painting showed him throwing up in bed. His descendents thought it a little too modern and had the chamber pot and the vomit painted out and supplanted by a harmless newspaper.

For a tough satirist, Hogarth was mightily thin-skinned when it came to attacks on himself. The criticism of his history paintings had stung, and his treatise, The Analysis of Beauty (1753), which he trumpeted as his bid  to fix “the fluctuating IDEAS on TASTE” and provide a corrective to the whims of the connoisseurs, got mixed reviews. His writing was ridiculed for its self-educated awkwardness and for the fact that a man who had spoken strongly against the hierarchical structures of the French academy suddenly wanted to lay down the law and put beauty on a formula.

But criticism did not prevent him from producing some of his best work with a new focus on social satire, particularly on anti-social behavior. As Hallett points out, for all his celebration of spontaneity and low-life energy, Hogarth was never a radical in the political sense. To him, mob behavior was scary, an attitude which became more pronounced as he got older and increasingly stressed the need for order, notably in Gin Lane and Beer Street and The Four Stages of Cruelty. The latter was a particularly hard-hitting print series — “calculated to reform some reigning vices peculiar to the lower class of people” — in which the main character, Tom Nero, having begun his criminal career by torturing innocent animals, deservedly ends up on the anatomist’s table after his execution.

Crowds out of control are again found in his late Election series from 1754 , attacking the Tory and Whig political machines. The final painting, in which a battle between bruisers is about to topple the elected candidate out of his chair, presages Anarchy in the uk by a couple of centuries, with one of the rabble looking suspiciously like Sid Vicious. But despite their subject matter, these are among his most exquisite paintings, proving again that ugly can be beautiful.

His final blasts came when, after having mixed directly in political affairs, he was brought into close combat with his former friends, the Tory politician John Wilkes and his henchman, the Rev. Charles Churchill, who attacked him for meddling in concrete politics and not sticking to general satire. Hogarth retaliated by publishing his famous print of Wilkes as the essence of the manipulative demagogue, complete with devil’s horns and a lecherous leer, and the one of Churchill, entitled The Bruiser, showing him as a primitive bear.

But Hogarth was not enjoying the brawl. During this period, one of his servants reported, he stopped smiling. He spent his days revising his copperplates, darkening the message of his engravings. Appropriately, to serve as the end piece for his prints, he designed The Bathos, his version of the end of the world. Here Time lies broken, surrounded by debris, among which most poignantly is the broken palette of the artist. Having completed the engraving, he died.