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The Genius of Gin Lane

Hogarth: Volume 1: The ‘Modern Moral Subject,’ 1697–1732

by Ronald Paulson
Rutgers University Press, Vol. 1, 411 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Hogarth: Volume 2: High Art and Low, 1732–1750

by Ronald Paulson
Rutgers University Press, Vol. 2, 477 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Hogarth: Volume 3: Art and Politics, 1750–1764

by Ronald Paulson
Rutgers University Press, Vol. 3, 680 pp., $24.95 (paper)


You have to go London to see the work of William Hogarth, but once there you ought to be able to take in most of his major paintings in a single day, on foot, starting from the Thomas Coram Foundation (the Foundling Hospital), and moving on to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, the Sir John Soane Museum, the Tate, and the National Gallery. A second day spent at the British Museum with his prints, followed by a sentimental spin out to Hogarth’s house in Chiswick, and you’ve seen the best of him.

No other British artist so completely identified himself with the city of his birth. Like Dickens, Hogarth celebrates the squalid spectacle of London life. During his rambles through the city his eye fell on prostitutes and parvenus, apprentices and aristocrats, the up and coming and the down and out. Much of the early Georgian city in his prints has disappeared, but the roiling under-class Hogarth depicted in print after print still exists—indeed it became much more visible after Mrs Thatcher became prime minister in 1979.

On a bad day London can still seem all too Hogarthian, a violent place, a filthy city where public drunkenness and extreme poverty are part of the teeming life in the streets. Rich and poor live noisily together in a relatively compact city center, so that the claustrophobia Hogarth emphasizes also feels familiar. A dozen newspapers keep everyone in touch with what everyone else is doing and thinking. Because the court, Parliament, and stock exchange are all here, satire spreads almost as fast as gossip. The eighteenth century had Hogarth, then Gilary and Rowlandson; today people read the satirical magazine Private Eye and watch the Hogarthian puppet show Spitting Image. Whenever tabloid headlines broadcast yet another episode in the marital saga of the Prince and Princess of Wales I think of the arranged marriage of the young Earl and Countess in Marriage A-la-mode.

Born in Bartholomew Close, near to both the medieval hospital of St. Bartholomew and Smithfield Market, Hogarth was the only son of one of those dreamy, feckless fathers such as belonged to Dickens and Thomas Lawrence, men whose failure in the race for success only served to steel their children’s determination to find security through popular acclaim. A Latin scholar from the North of England, Richard Hogarth established a London coffeehouse specializing in Latin conversation; this landed him, bankrupt, in the Fleet prison, where he was confined “within the rules” from 1708 to 1712.

Like Dickens, Hogarth spent his childhood in the shadow of debtor’s prison. And like Dickens he drew on the experience for the rest of his life. No other British artist painted prisons—the Fleet, Newgate, Bridewell, and the madhouse Bedlam—so frequently or so realistically. On a more mundane level, from the age of about eleven or twelve Hogarth’s format schooling came to an end, a consideration we should bear in mind when weighing claims that Hogarth brought formidable esoteric learning to this art.

On the other hand, the fairs and shows that were so much a part of eighteenth-century London street life acted as stimulus to his quick wit and lively imagination. “I had naturally a good eye,” he writes of his childhood, “[and] shews of all sort gave me uncommon pleasure when an Infant and mimickry common to all children was remarkable in me.”

Apprenticed in 1714 to a silver plate engraver who taught him the rudiments of his trade, Hogarth soon grew bored. His artistic education began in 1720 at the new academy of art run by Louis Cheron and John Vanderbank in St. Martin’s Lane. Here he could draw from life, but here too he began to develop a working method which differed completely from ordinary academic practice and which helped to form his very individual style of painting.

This method was based on a system of visual mnemonics, a learning technique whereby the practitioner fixes the image he wishes to remember in his mind’s eye, then draws or paints it later in his studio. Hogarth’s ability to recall scenes and faces at will enabled him to dispense with the necessity of learning to draw by copying from casts, the deadening method of instruction whereby the student is taught that there is only one correct way to render an eye or a nose or a mouth. Hogarth therefore avoided the tendency of academic art to idealize.

Instead of burthening the memory with musty rules, or tiring the eyes with copying dry and damaged pictures, I have ever found studying from nature, the shortest and safest way of attaining knowledge in my art.

Relatively few Hogarth drawings survive, suggesting that he worked directly onto the canvas. Although he may have made quick visual notes from the life, nothing stood between him and the fluent, spontaneous application of paint to canvas. He was like a writer trying to write in the vernacular, attempting in his art to speak a language that had not been translated from the Latin, a language of its own time and place, which everyone could understand. It is as though he were determined not to make the same mistake as his scholarly, impractical father: his art would be for everyone.

Hogarth’s system of visual mnemonics also implies a considerable element of self-instruction. As late as the Rake’s Progress of 1732–1734, the handling of paint is still tight, suggesting that his training as an engraver prevented him from relaxing his control of the brush. Later he developed a confidence in the use of oil paint which enabled him to apply his bright clear colors with an easy fluency. In fact, the sensuous handling of pigment in The March to Finchley and The Election is curiously at odds with the puking, pissing, drooling, and groping it is used to depict. The physical seductiveness of these paintings comes as a surprise if we know Hogarth only in black-and-white engravings after them.

Hogarth’s anti-academic prejudice overlapped with political bigotry. He hated all things foreign, from the neo-Palladian architectural styles of Lord Burlington and William Kent to the rigid orthodoxy of taste and teaching methods imposed after 1663 by Charles LeBrun at the Acadèmie Royale in Paris. Hogarth identified both with the codification and embalming of art in sets of rules and regulations.

Naturalism in painting he equated with British beer, British roast beef, and British common sense. He founded the St. Martin’s Lane Academy in 1735 in part to counter the prevailing taste for the staid aristocratic Palladianism of Lord Burlington and his followers with native informality and wit in painting. When the second-rate French painter Jean-Baptiste Van Loo enjoyed a huge success in London in December 1737, Hogarth promptly took up portraiture again after a lapse of six or seven years. As English artists do to this day, he resented the adulation of the intelligentsia for foreign fashions in art.

On the other hand, Hogarth’s tirades against foreigners and old masters served to conceal an exceptional receptivity to painting of every kind. He resented the influx of Huguenot refugees whose imported skills took jobs away from British craftsmen, and yet he was quick to imitate the lively rococo style they brought with them from France. The draftsmanship in his earliest prints owes much to the study of Jacques Callot, and in conversation with Hester Lynch Salusbury, Hogarth once made this revealing remark:

[Johnson’s conversation] was to the talk of other men, like Titian’s painting compared to [Thomas] Hudson’s: But don’t you tell people now, that I say so (continued he), for the connoisseurs and I are at war you know; and because I hate them, they think I hate Titian—and let them!

What sometimes seems contradictory in Hogarth often turns out to be perfectly consistent. Though he railed against the fashion for collecting dark and dubiously attributed old masters of the Dutch and Italian schools, when he tried his hand at “the grand stile…for Historical Painting” in his mural-sized paintings for the Foundling Hospital, St. Bartholomew’s, and the Church of St. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, Hogarth did not hesitate to attempt the stately baroque of Poussin or Carlo Maratta. As a practical man he knew that narrative subjects crowded with naturalistic detail could be enjoyed in a drawing room, but that large-scale paintings in public settings required classical grandeur. Nor was he above borrowing a pose from a print after Hyacinthe Rigaud to lend dignity to his great portrait of Captain Coram. And he turned to French engravers to achieve the elegance he sought in the prints after Marriage A-la-mode.

But these examples are exceptions. In the portraits and genre paintings Hogarth stood for all that was informal and anticlassical, unstuffy and fresh in English art. His first truly innovative painting, a scene from John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, contains within it most of the elements he would later develop in his narrative cycles. The first of the six versions-was painted in 1729 a year after the musical hit had opened in London. It shows the dramatic climax when Polly and Lucy beg their respective fathers to spare the life of Macheath. Hogarth depicts an actual performance, in some versions even including the proscenium arch framing the stage so that the viewer finds himself a member of the audience. The painter therefore imitates the journalist, going so far as to report the gossip of the day when he shows Lavinia Fenton, the actress playing Polly Peachum, turning to her real-life lover, the Duke of Bolton, who appears in later versions of the picture in the audience seated on stage.

In the three great narrative cycles of the 1730s and 1740s, Hogarth perfected the narrative techniques first explored in The Beggar’s Opera. He invented the fictional characters of the whore, the libertine, and the young couple married for convenience, then told the story of their descent to ruin, disease, madness, and death, as it unfolded from one canvas to another. Each tale is structured exactly like a novel, with the equivalents of an introduction, narrative development, climax, and postscript, and with minor characters, subplots, and a highly thoughtout internal structure.

Characters develop from one plate to the next, as when the future countess in Marriage A-la-mode, whom we meet as a weeping, sniffling teen-age girl in plate one, turns into the sexually sated, sly sex kitten in plate two. Other scenes imitate the operatic convention for disclosing two separate lines of thought simultaneously, the duet. A good example can be found in plate three of the same series, where the Earl has taken his pregnant underage mistress to a quack doctor for an abortion. The Earl cheerfully produces a bottle of pills, while the quack’s sinister female assistant unclasps a penknife. In every scene Hogarth employs theatrical conventions including props, pose, costume, and gesture to thicken his plot and move it forward.

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