Hogarth: A Life and a World
The Analysis of Beauty
Hogarth and His Times: Serious Comedy
William Hogarth, the tercentenary of whose birth falls this year, is an appealing subject. He is also an intriguing one, reminding us of Michel Butor’s remark in his essay “Words in Painting” that the presence of words “ruins the fundamental wall erected by our education between letters and the arts.”1 Words certainly are to the fore in Hogarth. In the cause of storytelling he will exploit, sometimes skillfully and sometimes fairly ham-handedly, not only signs and symbols easily translatable into words, like emblems, blazons, rebuses, and enacted proverbs, but also words in all their nakedness: inscriptions, manuscripts, scraps of newspaper, title pages, and missives. By squinting very hard at the first plate of A Harlot’s Progress, one discovers that the paper the country clergyman is clutching bears the address of the Bishop of London, and this is a detail very important to the satire. For a yard or so away, an innocent country girl is falling into the clutches of a procuress, yet the pastor notices nothing: his mind is altogether elsewhere, running upon a fat benefice. The message, on Hogarth’s part, is not very elegantly delivered—not half as imaginatively, shall we say, as the letter in David’s Death of Marat—but somehow this seems to matter less than it might. Hogarth (rather like his friend Henry Fielding) is feeling his way into an unexplored genre and is not overbothered with rules.
The marriage of words and painting, indeed, spells a kinship with the novel. It was no accident that Fielding so often invoked Hogarth, writing that Thwackum “did in countenance very nearly resemble that gentleman, who, in the Harlot’s Progress, is seen correcting the ladies in Brideswell,” or that Mrs. Partridge “exactly resembled the young woman who is pouring out her mistress’s tea in the third picture of the Harlot’s Progress.”2
When Sketches by Boz was published, Sydney Smith wrote to a friend that “the Soul of Hogarth has migrated into the Body of Mr. Dickens” 3 ; and certainly, if one is looking for Hogarth’s legacy, it is to be found in Dickens and his illustrators. What could be more Dickensian than Hogarth’s Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn? Cruikshank imitated it, charmingly, in his “Private Theatricals” (in Sketches by Boz) and in fact is said to have “copied, adapted, quoted from, or updated virtually every one of Hogarth’s prints.”4 Equally, in the last plate of Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness, the two urchins in the left-hand corner, cheerfully relishing the milling scene around the scaffold, put one in mind of the wonderful ragged boy, savoring, quite unenviously, the pompous absurdity of the wedding party, in “Phiz”‘s “Coming Home from Church” in Dombey and Son. Hogarth and Dickens attached a particular value to this puerile gaze—a welcome change from the “male gaze” we hear so much about.
No doubt Dickens and his illustrators somewhat sentimentalized Hogarth. Nevertheless they were not mistaken, nor were Hazlitt and Lamb in error, in seeing Hogarth’s originality as lying in…
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