• Email
  • Print

The Horror in Hogarth

Hogarth’s Graphic Works

compiled and with a commentary by Ronald Paulson
Yale, 2 vols., 653 pp., $40.00

The World of Hogarth: Lichtenberg’s Commentaries on Hogarth’s Engravings

translated and with an Introduction by Innes Herdan, by Gustav Herdan
Houghton Mifflin, 297 pp., $12.50

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 only of the rather brash technical methods that he adopted. His art, as it reached that wide public whose morals he was so anxious to improve, reflected something of the despair as well as the bullying bluster that were always latent in his character, as they are perhaps in that of any satirist. Others have already pointed out how grotesque are the sheriffs gorging themselves in the Banqueting Hall, that heaven which is eventually reached by “the industrious prentice grown rich.” It is here that Professor Paulson warns us against too “modern” an interpretation, but all the same one wonders if he can be right in claiming that Hogarth was consciously trying to portray not only “the dissimilarity but also the ironic similarity” between the Lord Mayor’s procession and the March to Tyburn which form the climax of the careers of the two apprentices. If that is indeed the case, what becomes of Fielding’s theory that the prints “were calculated more to serve the Cause of Virtue, and for the Preservation of Mankind, than all the Folios of Morality which have been ever written; and a sober Family should no more be without them, than without the Whole Duty of Man in their house”?

Artists, perhaps, are not to be judged in this way, but Hogarth himself and his eighteenth-century admirers were so insistent in stressing the “moral” side to his work that, in the absence of any very great aesthetic satisfaction to be derived from the prints, the temptation to challenge him on his own ground becomes almost irresistible. We find ourselves left with a sour and profoundly vindictive vision of the world which has no real equivalent in eighteenth-century art—until the arrival on the scene of the great Goya—and which is, for that reason, of all the greater interest. He is rare also in an age of arcadians for his total lack of concern for the country-side, and his depictions of crowded, stifling London are memorable partly because they are the first representations in art of town life throughout the world as we know it today. How different from the stately, placid city recorded for us by his exact contemporary Canaletto or even the more bustling and vivid Warsaw of Canaletto’s nephew Bellotto! Hogarth’s architecture, like the human features he loved to depict, is powerfully expressive without ever quite reaching the point of caricature. The bitterly cold and inhospitable Covent Garden of Morning presses relentlessly down on the quacks and drunks, prostitutes and beggars who shock the prim spinster on her way to church, while above smoke pours out into the dark sky—a symbol, almost, of Hogarth’s stifling and contaminated universe where we never have room to breathe or relax. A sort of horror vacui informs every print, cluttering up the available space with noisy incident. There is, of course, much variation in tone and quality in the engravings, which range from the comparative elegance of Marriage à la mode to the beastliness of the Four Stages of Cruelty, but Baudelaire (who had never, of course, seen the paintings) is surely right to sum up the over-all effect as “quelque chose de froid, d’astringent, de funèbre. Cela serre le coeur.”

NOT EVERYONE’S HEART, however. The Commentaries of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg have long been acknowledged as the most distinguished of all the many attempts that have been made to “read” Hogarth’s plates, and this good English version is therefore extremely welcome. Because Lichtenberg was born nearly fifty years after Hogarth, and because he visited London a few years after the artist’s death, he is always described as a contemporary and for that reason particularly well qualified to interpret Hogarth’s universe. But the difference of generations was decisive. The “robust” has made way for the maudlin, and the Commentaries, far from proving the delight that other readers have acclaimed, strike this reviewer as being tiresome and distasteful.

Everything about Lichtenberg makes him seem one of the most attractive and remarkable men of his time. A Göttingen physics professor of enlightened views and the broadest general culture, his personality comes through to us with great vividness from the “Waste-Books” which contain his aphorisms and which have been analyzed with acute insight by J. P. Stern. These terse and oblique reflections on “absolute relativeness” convey a melancholy skepticism which is so far removed from Hogarth’s harsh simplicities that one is at first inclined to wonder what on earth could have made him undertake so uncongenial a task as to describe them. But the answer is clear enough. In 1770, for four weeks, and then again for more than a year in 1774-75, Lichtenberg came to England: “Now at last I am in my dear London, for which I have yearned and angled and reached out with both hands…I rush and run the whole day, with all my senses wide open….” These visits, in fact, proved to be the most influential events in his life, the equivalent of those Italian tours that overwhelmed so many of his compatriots. Enclosed again in the pettily provincial atmosphere of Göttingen he harked back continually to the freedom and brilliance of London, where he had met with much social acclaim, culminating in an invitation to stay with the royal family at Kew. But Lichtenberg was a hunchback, and this, combined with his evident intellectual superiority to most of those with whom he came into contact, may have made him somewhat uneasy in the company of the great; certainly, like many men in such circumstances, he felt particularly drawn to the apparently uninhibited vitality of the underworld. Dr. Stern has, however, pointed out how guarded a sympathy this was. He remained an “observer,” fascinated, as he emerged from a theater or splendid mansion, to watch the prostitutes and thieves who thronged the London streets. The Commentaries on Hogarth, which he began about ten years later, are partly exercises in nostalgia.

We know more details about Lichtenberg’s life at this period. His private diaries reveal “a terrible sequence of anxieties and pains, lust and drink alternating with mortifying pangs of conscience and good resolutions” (Stern). But the life he records in his Notebooks is very different: it is that of a speculative philosopher brooding stoically and not too unhappily in his ivory tower. The Commentaries seem to reflect this unease, even this insincerity.

THE APHORISMS are wonderfully pithy and to the point; the Commentaries are intolerably garrulous and coy, circling round the theme and then breaking off into a digression Everyone has made the inevitable comparison with Sterne, whom Lichtenberg much admired, but here he seems to have caught the Sternean mannerisms without the essence, the husk without the core. He conveys, of course, the necessary information, but does so with an irritating knowingness, in tones typical of the don who knows all about “life.” When he bewails the lot of madmen or child prostitutes, his tone seems to be drawing attention rather to his own warmth of heart. Both Hogarth and Lichtenberg are unsympathetic because of the distance from which they view the world of The Rake’s Progress and so on, but better, surely, Hogarth’s bullying than Lichtenberg’s voyeurism. How he goes on about the whip by the harlot’s bed!

—a comet with a terrific tail—the broom of education—the birch. We have been rather slow to mention it although among all the inanimate objects on the Plate this is usually the first, after the watch, that is, to attract the eye of the spectator. We have called it terrible, but merely in accordance with linguistic custom; for these comets on the firmament of morals do just as little harm to that system as those in the sky to the system of the physical world. Just as Newton has assumed that the latter might perhaps with their tails fan an invigorating atmosphere into the system, so it might not only be supposed but could be geometrically demonstrated that the former actually sweep a great deal of evil out of the world with theirs. If, however, we see them not as birches but merely as bundles of faggots, then their use is really limitless; one might well ask, for example, what would become of the rushing stream of instruction and learning which in school pours through both our ears, if they were not in due course to build a dam at the other end out of such faggots to prevent its escaping there helter-skelter. But how does the pedagogic faggot or rod of philanthropy come to be here, and just on the head-board of the bed? The problem, I must admit, is really not an easy one. I wish it were even more difficult or so difficult that it simply could not be solved. Oh! that sort of problem makes the most wonderful material for authors who are paid by the page, like brick-layers by the cubic foot.

And so on, and so on. Charm? Or a clever, embarrassed man talking down? But in either case there is surely not the remotest affinity with Hogarth.

Lichtenberg’s Commentaries constitute a key document in the development of Hogarth’s reputation and, embedded in the chatter, is much useful information and some exciting insights: for these reasons they are well worth reading, but they do not do justice to their brilliant author or to the artist he is writing about. Fortunately Hogarthian studies have now been better served than ever before by this edition of the prints, which will also be of considerable value to anyone at all interested in the eighteenth century.

  • Email
  • Print