How the London-born artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) would have delighted in the parliamentary shenanigans of the past week. As a political satirist, he would have revelled in sketching the pompous grandstanding of dissembling ministers at the dispatch box, of the jeering opposition back benchers waving ten-pound notes, of the cannon-fodder MPs glumly shuffling through the Aye lobby. His greatness lay in capturing the look on a face – a wry smile, a furtive glance, a wrinkled nose at something that smelt bad.
Hogarth was fascinated by power and the play-acting that helped maintain it and often used his art to poke fun at powerful men. But he also used it as a way of raising issues of concern, electoral reform, or to protest the inhumane conditions in the Fleet prison, for example. While many contemporaries called his work “caricatures”, Hogarth operated across a range of artistic endeavours from engravings, to prints, to portraiture, to staged “conversation” pictures of well-to-do families.
However, perhaps his best known works are the moral narratives, such as the storytelling paintings that trace the path of the lost innocence and tragic death of Moll Hackabout in A Harlot’s Progress (1732), or the squandering of an inherited fortune through debauchery leading to mental breakdown and to Bedlam of Tom Rakewell in A Rake’s Progress (1735, pictured). Hogarth turned these paintings into engravings, and prints were produced for quick sale to a growing middle-class keen to acquire the trappings of refinement. They were hugely popular, and still are today. As Jenny Uglow notes in her masterful biography, “Hogarth prints still hang dustily in corners of the city’s bars and cafes and theatre foyers”.
Those two works sit at the heart of a new exhibition at Tate Britain, Hogarth and Europe, which places Hogarth’s work within a wider European movement of new creative freedom as artists responded to rapid economic growth and social change. Cities were growing fast, there was excitement and opportunity and there was boisterousness, vulgarity and danger, and artists were looking for new ways to both represent and engage their audiences.
By 1760, London had become the most populous city in Europe with over 700,000 inhabitants swelled by migrants from the country and from overseas. Manufacturing, banking, construction and retail all thrived. Commercial and imperial trade flourished. The quays and wharves along the Thames were so busy it could take a month to unload a ship. Hogarth painted it all. He was illustrating history as it was happening. In Four Times of the Day (1738), for example, he captures the interactions of common people as they go about their day, the noise and the smells of the streets, that moment at which things might slip into disorder. The intricate detail deserves patient viewing and some time to decipher the messages Hogarth placed there to entertain the viewer.
Portraiture was a profitable activity for Hogarth and there are plenty of examples of his work in this exhibition. He mainly painted men and women and their families from the middle-ranks and the professions, an emerging bourgeoise at ease with itself and able to enjoy exotic luxuries – such as coffee, sugar, rum, tobacco – brought from afar from slave plantations fed by a transatlantic slave trade few at that time challenged. The Tate confronts this history directly and provides short texts next to some of the artworks by different commentators to provide critical voice.
Hogarth achieved so much in his lifetime and not just in terms of his diverse artistic outputs. He promoted legislation to protect artists’ copyrights – so much of his work was pirated – supported the creation of the first art academies, and helped to set up Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital which offered a home for infants at risk of abandonment or murder. Yet he also opposed social change and there are aspects of his work that can not be glossed over, such as his depictions of casual sexual assault, antisemitism and the mistreatment of black servants. He profited from selling his works to plantation owners and as the Tate notes “later in life he outspokenly supported the government and hankered after the position of painter to the King”.
Hogarth’s work defined an era and this exhibition shows why. His work throws sharp relief on the inequalities of the time, yet it is full of energy and of pathos and there is so much to admire in his craft and the touch of his paint brush. In The March of the Guards to Finchley (1749-50), soldiers gathering to protect the capital from the Jacobin rebels, who in 1745 had advanced as far south as Derby, are shown as a “march of disarray” – the reality against the patriotic ideal. Soldiers are drinking, saying farewell to loved ones, there’s music and bare-knuckle fighting. George II was horrified when he saw the painting: “Does this fellow mean to laugh at my guards?” Well yes, for Hogarth wants to show us that this is how it really is.
Hogarth and Europe is at Tate Britain until 20 March 2022.
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