Hogarth’s Graphic Works
The World of Hogarth: Lichtenberg’s Commentaries on Hogarth’s Engravings
The world engraved by Hogarth was horrible and bleak. Turning the pages of Professor Paulson’s superb edition of his prints we come across little but exploitation and misery, ugliness, deceit, and greed. The lust is joyless, the much vaunted humor generally cruel. Or is this interpretation too colored by our own over-refined sensibilities, our unwillingness to appreciate the knock-about fun provided by a public execution or the funeral of a diseased whore? Professor Paulson, whose knowledge and tact are so evident on every page that one is reluctant to disagree with him, suggests that such an attitude may indeed be misguided when trying to come to terms with Hogarth; and many generations of commentators have persisted in seeing in him a satirist whose admitted insensitivity is more than compensated for by the infectious vitality of his response to what he depicts—“robust” is the word usually used to describe this.
Fielding was only the first of those who compared Hogarth’s view of the world with his own. In spite of such an authoritative opinion the analogy does not seem a very profound one. Fielding was certainly a pessimist, and the chance encounters which befall the characters in his novels are nearly always disagreeable, revealing the vices rather than the virtues of humanity; but the heroes and heroines themselves are sustained by a frail but unmistakable sense of decency and, above all, by real warmth of feeling—qualities which are not much found in the world of Hogarth. Or, rather in the world that he chose to engrave, for his paintings convey a very different atmosphere.
Patronage imposes stringent conditions, and not many (who indeed?) could treat the rich and mighty with the ironical disdain of Goya. Nevertheless it seems doubtful whether the obvious need to flatter is enough to account for the tender humanity to be found in some of the conversation pieces: the charming Graham Children, for instance, or the doll-like, but entirely likeable, Cholmondely Family. Or we can take the portraits. Hogarth himself engraved five of these (not counting self-portraits): four are of criminals or of men associated with crime: Garrick acting the most brutal of Shakespeare’s kings, Richard III; Sarah Malcolm, executed for a triple murder; Lord Lovat, beheaded for treason; and John Wilkes, in Hogarth’s eyes (if not in ours) a cynical rabble-rouser. There is nothing here to match the genial benevolence of the philanthropist Thomas Coram or the sympathetic insight with which he studied his servants—to mention only two out of many delightful pictures. Even fornication has connotations which vary according to the medium employed to illustrate it. In the two little pictures in the Fitzwilliam Museum the young couple first lust and then repent in harmony; in the engravings of a very similar scene, both the expense of spirit and the waste of shame are more arduous and less harmonious.
THE USE OF BLACK AND WHITE brings out in this delicate colorist a vein of savagery, the consequence not …