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The Pleasures of Reading Hogarth

Hogarth: A Life and a World

by Jenny Uglow
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 794 pp., $45.00

The Analysis of Beauty

by William Hogarth, edited with an introduction and notes by Ronald Paulson
Yale University Press, 162 pp., $15.00 (paper)

Hogarth and His Times: Serious Comedy

by David Bindman
University of California Press, 208 pp., $29.95 (paper)

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 his intense humanity: a more direct relationship to and sympathy with the human than anything in previous English painting, or for that matter inTeniers or Jan Steen.

The quality was visible most obviously of all in Hogarth’s faces, extraordinarily varied, subtle, and originally conceived (not taken from Le Brun5 ) as they are. Throughout The Rake’s Progress, the Rake’s own facial expressions are marvelous: gormlessly innocent in the opening scene; totally debauched in the brothel scene; shamefaced, quizzical, and askance in the church scene, as he looks, as it were over his shoulder, at the ancient bride he is marrying for her money. Best of all, perhaps, is his mild gaze (and outstretched palm, borrowed from Garrick as Richard III) in the prison scene, conveying that things are so infinitely worse than even his gloomiest imaginings that he cannot be expected to listen to what his wife, the turnkey, and the potboy are bawling in his ear. It is imaginative sympathy at a profound level, and everything great in Hogarth ultimately takes its meaning from his faces.

I am insisting on the sympathy, since it tends sometimes to get downplayed. Consider the third plate of A Harlot’s Progress, depicting Moll Hackabout, now living the life of a prostitute in a squalid garret in Drury Lane. The natural or, as one might say, “Dickensian,” response would be to admire the way Moll is making the best of things: how, even in very bad circumstances, she is managing to keep up some style; has covered the cracks in the wall with pinups and her masquerade outfit; still sleeps in canopied (if untidy) state; and is being helped by her servant, of whom she has made a dear friend, to hold a mock levée. That a magistrate has tiptoed into the room, with his bailiffs, and is about to arrest her gives us quite a pang. In a word, the picture is full of amused human sympathy. But you would hardly guess so from the commentators, whose only thought seems to be how Moll is paying for “affectation” and for wanting to be a “lady,” or, alternatively, is serving as a scapegoat for a patriarchal society—very improving thoughts, no doubt, but it did not require Hogarth’s art to convey them.

I have rather similar feelings about the unforgettable “Morning” scene in The Four Times of the Day, in which an elderly and lean-faced, nevertheless somewhat flirtatiously bedizened, old maid is going to morning service in St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, with a footboy behind her, blue with cold and a picture of misery, to carry her prayer book. In the church’s forecourt some belated revelers are kissing their young women, and it is conventional to say the elderly woman looks at them with horror or sour disapproval. Actually, though, it would be truer to say she is looking disconcerted and put down (putting her fan to her lips out of nervousness). Jenny Uglow, in her highly enjoyable new biography of Hogarth, writes that “if the scene were only this, then it might be called a documentary.” It is the depiction of the elderly churchgoer, she says, that turns it into a morality play. “As she judges them [the young people kissing], she herself is implicitly condemned by her bony shape and her pursed lips, and by the young page who follows her, shivering in the cold.” I don’t think that this is how Hogarth works, or that he takes sides in such a manner. (It is a pity in a way that Hogarth’s “Progresses” have to be spoken of as satire, which implies just this kind of taking sides.) That the churchgoer beautifully epitomizes winter is certainly true and is a different matter.

To write a biography of Hogarth, or a biography of anyone, requires working out the imperatives and constraints specific to the subject. Hogarth was a painter of London and of his “times”; hence in a biography there will have to be a lot about these topics. This particular imperative is a distinct boon to his biographer, who, like all biographers, is faced with the question what to do about “color.” In so far as the subject’s activities are intrinsically colorful there is of course no problem, but is “color” permissible for its own sake? It is a question often in our mind when reading Uglow. She writes: “These disputes were canvassed in journals, argued in tracts and blasted in sermons. Men wrangled over them in their clubs, as the candles guttered and smoked and glasses were emptied and refilled.” What we have here, though we swallow it cheerfully, is unashamed “color”—for we know, without needing to be told, that candles sometimes gutter and that empty glasses need refilling. Describing Hogarth’s The Enraged Musician, in which a desperate fiddler stops his ears against the bedlam of street music and street cries outside his window, she notes colorfully but most relevantly:

The street has its grace as well as its chaos, and amid the rabid noise the milkmaid crying her wares is as haunting as his drummer in Southwark Fair…. Hogarth shows her pacing her “milk-walk,” a territory that was bought and sold. As she went, she would chalk up the tally on each customer’s doorpost, probably working for her father, a milk-carrier who had fetched the milk early that morning from one of the cow-keepers in the parks or outside the city.

But the passage continues, “Her creamy milk was a small city luxury, a taste of nature amid the bricks and mortar, as precious and life-giving in its way as music,” and this is “color” pure and undisguised and, I think, just a fraction over the top. Such a sentiment about milk, after all, is one that we might perfectly well have in twentieth-century London or New York.

Relevance is the point. Uglow is faced with a very serious, even daunting, problem in that Hogarth was not much of a letter writer, and very few letters of his have survived. Letters are manna to a biographer. With their help, one can show what the subject is up to week by week, or month by month; but lacking them, and in periods when the subject is out of the public eye, how is one to keep a narrative going?

Now this is a problem that, in large part, Uglow has triumphantly solved. In regard to the first fifteen or twenty years of Hogarth’s life, however, it is simply insuperable. She can insert the few meager known facts—about his boyhood in Smithfield, his apprenticeship to an engraver of silverware in Covent Garden, his father’s misfortunes and imprisonment in the Fleet—but this does not make a narrative. For the purposes of narrative (and she is determined to have one) all she can do is recapitulate the story of England in the reign of Queen Anne as the textbooks relate it. It is decently and competently done, but of necessity it is a pis-aller, a kind of abstract “color” (or “background,” or whatever you like to call it) which would have been equally at home in a biography of John Wesley or a dozen other eighteenth-century characters.

Even when Hogarth has become a known and famous figure, there are long gaps of time in which there is no saying how exactly he occupied himself. But the fact that Hogarth is known to have done certain notable things, to have known certain places and people and been associated with certain groups or movements, poses questions that can fairly be answered at length, relevantly though at the same time “colorfully.” Here Uglow shows her strength. In 1732 Hogarth moved to Leicester Square, attracting his mother and his two unmarried sisters there also. It was a move with all sorts of cultural and social-historical ramifications—also political ones, for Leicester House was the headquarters of the “Prince’s Party”—and Uglow, by a combination of flair and industriousness, recreates Leicester Square for us vividly and in depth.

  1. 1

    Michel Butor, “Les mots dans la peinture,” in Repertoire IV (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1974), p. 31. My translation.

  2. 2

    Tom Jones, Book III, Chapter 6, and Book I, Chapter 3.

  3. 3

    See Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. M. House and G. Storey, vol. 1 (pub tk, 1965), p. 431 fn.

  4. 4

    See R.L. Patten, George Cruikshank’s Life, Times, and Art (Rutgers University Press, 1992), vol. 1, p. 36.

  5. 5

    I.e., from the celebrated Method for Learning to Portray the Passions (1698) by Charles Le Brun, a standard textbook of facial expressions.

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