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.

Hogarth was proud of his new invention, calling the genre the “modern moral Subject,” and describing it as “a Field unbroke up in any Country or any age.” He took the role of the narrator: “Subjects I consider’d as writers do(;) my Picture was my stage and men and women my actors who were by Mean(s) of certain Actions and express(ions) to Exhibit a dumb shew.”

Just as in The Beggar’s Opera, Hogarth invests each story with a topicality it would not otherwise have by introducing real-life figures into the action. Among the French hairdressers and valets at the Countess’s morning levée in Marriage A-la-mode, for example, guest appearances are made by George Frederick Handel and the singer Giovanni Carestini. In the Harlot’s Progress, both the procuress Mother Needham and the rapist Colonel Charteris enjoyed a certain local notoriety and the harlot Moll Hackabout takes the name of a well-known whore. To his contemporaries, therefore, Hogarth’s stories were as fresh as the morning newspaper.


How ironic, then, that only a few years after the artist’s death in 1764, the Rev. John Trusler published a moralizing exegesis on the prints which emphasized the ways in which the Harlot’s or the Rake’s progresses were like that of Bunyan’s Pilgrim. Trusler was not wrong (Hogarth himself called the progresses “modern moral subjects”) but he missed a lot of the fun and all of the humor of the prints. He says for example of the last plate of the Rake’s Progress,

Reflect then, ye parents, on this tragic tale; consider with yourselves, that the ruin of a child is too often owing to the imprudence of a father.

Yet the Rake’s Progress was less likely to hang in a nursery than in a gentleman’s club, where it would have been particularly appreciated for the dirty jokes in the orgy scene in the brothel. Likewise, our response to the final plate in the Harlot’s Progress is to laugh at the expression on the face of the young clergyman with his hand up the skirt of the pretty whore next to him, not to shake our heads with Trusler over the Harlot’s untimely end.

The distortions of moralizers are matched by the deterioration of the plates. Even during Hogarth’s lifetime the earliest of these began to become worn, producing muddy impressions. Reproductions in nineteenth-century books about Hogarth became ever more distant from the original prints. To see a sparkling early impression of the Rake’s Progress, for example, is an eye-opening experience.

Something like this distancing process has happened in the field of Hogarth scholarship, which for more than thirty years has been dominated by one man, Ronald Paulson, a professor of English at Johns Hopkins. Among other studies, he published a catalog of the graphic works in 1965 (revised 1970, 1989) and a two-volume biography entitled Hogarth: His Life, Art, and Times in 1971. This last work has now been revised, and according to the author completely rewritten and expanded, into a three-volume edition. Volumes One and Two have already appeared. Volume Three, which I read in manuscript, will be published in May.

The factual information contained in Paulson’s catalog of the prints is invaluable. The first version of the “Life,” too, must be read by all students of Hogarth even if, like me, they are unable to agree with Paulson’s method or conclusions. But the author’s claim that the revised edition is “completely recast and rewritten” is only partly true. This is a cut and paste job, with the emphasis on the paste. Most of the original words, lightly edited, remain, interspersed with hundreds of pages of new material, much of it reading like further thoughts on those already published.

When completed, the revised edition will total well over two thousand pages. How valuable is this work? How necessary is it for our understanding of the art of William Hogarth? The answer largely depends on what one thinks of Paulson’s tendency to read more than one layer of symbolic meaning into virtually every detail and every gesture in every picture Hogarth ever painted. Paulson’s discussion of one character, Moll Hack-about, the harlot in the Harlot’s Progress, gives a fair idea of his approach.

In his interpretation of Plate One, Paulson begins well, comparing Moll’s meeting with the procuress to Dürer’s print of the Visitation. The resemblance works visually, and Hogarth would certainly have known this particular visual source. Moreover, it would be characteristic of Hogarth blasphemously to parody a popish, Marian subject. But difficulties begin almost at once. For Paulson the figure of the Harlot is not simply lifted from a formal visual source (Dürer’s Virgin Mary), she is continually described as the Virgin Mary, “an intercessor for concupiscent man” whose illegitimate child is “topologically the Christ.” Later we are told that she is Eve tempted, and Mary Magdalene. Moving on, Paulson then identifies the Harlot as Hercules, making her choice between Virtue (the clergyman who ignores her) and Vice (the bawd). She is Diana of the Ephesians: she is “a failed Isis.”

This is not all. The Harlot’s Progress itself Paulson calls a political allegory because “a seduced and discarded woman is like the electors who succumb to Walpolean bribery.” And the fact that the Harlot’s child seems to ignore its mother is explained as Hogarth’s “feelings of guilt” toward his mother, who unlike his “classicist, perhaps free thinking” father represented to him religious art and explains his ambivalence towards it.

At some point on this labyrinthine iconographic journey this reader lost some large element of trust in his guide. To each new identity proposed for the Harlot I found so many objections that I ended in crediting none of them. How can the Harlot be described as a Hercules when she is a passive figure who is not being offered a choice of any kind? How can she be Hercules when she does not assume the pose of Hercules (as, for example, Macheath does in the “Scene from the Beggar’s Opera”). To the suggestion that the Harlot’s Progress is a political allegory, one recalls that although he had plenty of opportunities to do so Hogarth conspicuously restrained himself from attacking Walpole, and that Paulson himself attributes this to Hogarth’s acceptance of a bribe from the prime minister. And finally, since we know almost nothing whatsoever about Hogarth’s relationship with his mother or his father, Paulson’s suggestion of a private symbolic meaning in the character of the Harlot’s child is mere guesswork.

Unfortunately, such academic flights of fancy occur on virtually every page of all three volumes, while very simple interpretations or responses are not mentioned at all. The pug dog, Hogarth’s pet, in the famous self-portrait in the Tate Gallery, is discovered to be associated with “dog-headed Anubis who taught Isis the way to find the dismembered body of Osiris.” In his discussion of the print The Distressed Poet, which shows a garret room in which a deluded scribbler dreams of riches, Paulson goes on at length about the Nativity and Proserpina but fails to point out that the print must be based on Hogarth’s own experience of seeing his father dreaming his life away in grandiose literary projects.

So carried away is Paulson with the need to find parallels and hidden connections between unrelated people and things that he frequently makes statements which are simply not true. I filled a notebook with examples, but two must suffice. Noting several parallels between Hogarth and his rival William Kent, the author casually mentions that “both were poor boys from the north country….” when of course Hogarth was born in London, and rarely left the city. The brunt of Paulson’s reading of The March to Finchley is taken up by an interpretation of the motherless ducklings in the puddle in the lower righthand corner. Why? Because the picture belonged to the Foundling Hospital, and “the baby chicks separated from their mother…epitomize the fragmentation of both war and the life from which the Foundling Hospital is a refuge.” But the picture was neither commissioned by the governors of the Foundling Hospital nor painted with the hospital in mind. The hospital won the painting in an open lottery (to which there were almost two thousand subscribers) drawn in April 1750. This makes nonsense of any attempt to interpret its iconography in terms of orphans.

Paulson ends up by caricaturing Hogarth’s genius by finding in his art a complexity which simply does not exist. Every page of this book is full of qualifying. self-protecting words, words like “would have,” “it is possible,” “may have,” “could have,” “probably.” These serve to absolve the author from having to produce documentary evidence to prove his sweeping assertions. He is thereby enabled to dress up speculation as fact or critical insight. This method, which seriously marred the first published version of the “Life,” verges on parody in the second. Compare a passage concerning the final plate of the Harlot’s Progress, from the 1970 edition, with the same passage in the revised version. Earlier Paulson writes:

The final painting was presumably finished Thursday, 2 September 1731, the date on Hackabout’s coffin. At any rate, Hogarth seems to have intended this date to signify the completion of the series, as an allusion or as a private memorial. Perhaps he was amused by the anniversary of the Great Fire of London on that date (noted in the newspapers of the third).

That sounds fairly reasonable. Now compare the revised version:

The date of Hackabout’s coffin in Plate 6 is 2 September 1731. Hogarth may have wished to connect her death with the anniversary of the Great Fire of London:…first, because of the popular associations of passion or syphilis with fire. In Plate 5, for example, a fire is blazing and the pot boiling over as the Harlot dies. As early as the twelfth century citizens were forbidden by law from having to do with whores suffering from the “burning.” In the second place, he may have intended us to see the Harlot’s personal destruction in the wider context of national disaster: he may have wished to recall his use of the Monument to associate the Great Fire with the plight of England in 1720. But most likely, this was the date on which he finished the last painting of A Harlot’s Progress.

After reading this second passage it takes a moment for the reader to remember that in the last scene of the Harlot’s Progress there is no fire, still less a glimpse of the Monument in the City of London to the Great Fire of 1666. There is only a date, which Paulson himself seems to know perfectly well is the date when Hogarth finished the series. When we turn to plate five, the Death of the Harlot, we do indeed find a fire burning in the grate, but most viewers would conclude that it simply shows that the Harlot is so poor she is dying in the room in which she both sleeps and cooks. It is easy to forget why it matters that the Harlot dies on the anniversary of the Great Fire—oh yes, the medieval connection between the sensation of burning and syphilis. But follow up the footnote at the end of this sentence and what do we learn? That the rapist Colonel Charteris, who appears in plate one, might have been born in 1666. This is pseudo-scholarship.

Hogarth’s contemporaries responded to these images as entertainments. Horace Walpole (1765–1771) goes out of his way to tell us that with the exception of a few very early prints Hogarth is not a difficult artist:

If ever an Author wanted a commentary, that none of his beauties might be lost, it is Hogarth; not from being obscure (for he never was that but in the two or three of his first Prints, where transient national follies as Lotteries, Freemasonry, and the South Sea, were his topics) but for the use of Foreigners, and from a multiplicity of little incidents, not essential to, but always heightening the principal action.

Exactly. Today we are the foreigners who need a commentary to help us understand transitory political issues, to identify now forgotten celebrities, or to explain the nuances of Hogarth’s jokes. But at the time they were engraved, even this much was hardly necessary. The antiquarian and engraver George Vertue tells us that the Harlot’s Progress “captivated the Minds of most People[,] persons of all ranks & conditions from the greatest Quality to the meanest.” The upper and middle classes could afford both to purchase the prints and to frame them under glass in the pear-wood frames recommended by the artist. But servants, apprentices, and the middling sort would all have been able to see Hogarth’s prints displayed in shop windows, or on their masters’ walls. They may even have owned a print from a cheap edition and hung it unframed in their own rooms, as the Harlot does a penny engraving in plate three of her progress. The prints were intended to be utterly intelligible.

Paulson seems to think that Hogarth was painting for an audience of graduate students. For him, Hogarth’s true meaning can be understood only by the enlightened few. I would feel far more disposed to believe this if he had produced a single contemporary of Hogarth’s who saw in these pictures and prints the symbolic complexities he finds there. At the same time, hundreds of ingenious interpretations of individual images fail to add up to a coherent account of Hogarth’s artistic enterprise.

As it happens, a recently published study of this period, Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837,1 provides a perspective on British eighteenth-century society which suggests to me a quite different reading of Hogarth’s work. In place of Paulson’s cerebral scholar-painter, we can substitute an artist who spoke the language of the man on the street. Far from being the pedantic iconographer one finds in Paulson’s book, he was an artist who, in my view, pursued a relatively simple theme: the celebration of a common national identity, the Britishness of Britain, without any illusions about the myriad faults of the British.

The evidence for such a view of Hogarth is in the pictures themselves. In The Country Dance (Tate Gallery), for example, estate workers and tenants have gathered in the great hall of an ancient manor house. As they dance their clumsy country reels, the lord of the manor performs a suave minuet, teaching the lower orders by his example of civilizing grace and refinement. In the print which is related to the painting, the room in which the dance takes place is hung with portraits of British monarchs—some good (Queen Elizabeth I) some bad (Henry VIII, Charles I), but taken together representative of English history. In my view, The Country Dance suggests the ability of the British people of all classes, with all their foibles and pretentions, to share in a common history. As if to underscore his point, in the print Hogarth turned the squire into none other than the heir to the throne, Frederick Prince of Wales.

In The March to Finchley (at the Thomas Coram Foundation in London), Hogarth shows Britain in apparent disarray as the country prepared to meet the Jacobite invasion of 1745. The strapping young grenadier in the center, torn between a Catholic shrew and a Hanoverian beauty, symbolizes the country torn apart. The entire foreground is taken up with a comic scene including drunken soldiers, a Jacobean bawdy house, and an English boxing match. The picture is often interpreted (indeed was interpreted by a furious George II) as a satire on British martial incompetence. But in fact Hogarth seems to be saying something very different: that political diversity, drunkenness, and sexual license are all byproducts of English freedom. It is this very anarchy that the troops loyal to George II are fighting for. In the background of the picture the soldiers have already pulled themselves together into well-disciplined ranks. And since the events the painting depicts happened only a few years before Hogarth painted the picture, his audience would of course have been well aware that when the British did shape up, they drove the Pretender from their island.

In Hogarth’s Servants, (Tate Gallery) of about 1750–1755, one might almost characterize the theme as racial: these handsome, healthy faces represent the Anglo-Saxon people. In their physiognomies British men, women, and children reveal their innate goodness and honesty. This famous picture is not, as is sometimes said, a sketch, but something unusual in British art at this date: a finished painting that does not conform to traditional principles of pictorial organization. By not attempting to fit his servants into a composition reminiscent of the conversation pieces he had reserved for his aristocratic clients, Hogarth refuses to impose a structure of any kind on the British people.

Evidence for Hogarth’s looking at British society with critical affection exists throughout his work. In the narrative cycles Hogarth poked fun at certain easy-to-hit targets such as the French dancing master, the Italian castrato, the quack doctor, and the crooked lawyer. But he also attacked genuine social evils, from the effete aristocracy’s addiction to dueling to the place-seeking clergy’s neglect of its pastoral duties. He was particularly hard on a middle class prepared to sacrifice its children to further its social ambition. In the print Gin Lane, he exposed the toll cheap alcohol was taking on the health and morals of the working class. He is more ambiguous in his treatment of the London mob. As the son of dissenters, who were the objects of the mob’s fury during the Sacheverell riots in 1710, Hogarth knew how dangerous the lower classes could be. But the prints are by no means entirely hostile to the mob. As a liberty-loving Englishman, he had a healthy regard for the power of the rabble to oppose arbitrary and unpopular laws imposed by a repressive Whig government.2

The issues and abuses Hogarth satirizes in The Election (Sir John Soane Museum) are long forgotten. The election is being fought over the government’s reformation of the calendar to bring it into line with that in use on the Continent, and the introduction of a bill in Parliament which would naturalize Jews not born in Britain. Both questions seemed as vital to Hogarth’s contemporaries as the Maastricht treaty or the immigration of foreigners to many ordinary British people today. And like the issues of Britain’s role in Europe and immigration, Hogarth’s fictional election is being fought over keeping Britain British. Hogarth regards the free-for-all of bribery, coercion, and election-rigging as deplorable but hilariously funny, something to be endured with a certain tolerance, the price one pays for liberty, even if in plate one he shows the sedan chair carrying Britannia herself breaking down. Compare this with his bitter view of the French in Calais Gate and the difference in tone is evident.

Hogarth is credited with introducing into British art the narrative cycle, the middle-class portrait, and scenes from Shakespeare and Milton. But it is his xenophobia and his love of liberty that give him his real claim to the title of the “Father of British Painting.” One must respect all the hard work Professor Paulson has done in American libraries, but Hogarth is at once a simpler and more accessible artist when viewed from the streets of London.

This Issue

May 27, 1993