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.
Hogarth’s sisters were in the millinery trade, hence it is strictly relevant, but also serendipitous, to hear at length about the “great bon-net mart” in an alley near Leicester Fields; also to hear about Gamble’s fan shop in St. Martin’s Court, where, at the time the Hogarths moved into the Fields, one could buy the “Church of England Fan,” price 2s., and “a new edition of the Harlot’s Progress in Fans, or singly to frame.” Uglow’s method works so well that the reader turns a blind eye when, to keep the narrative going, she constructs a whole chapter around the quarrel of 1755 between William Pitt and Henry Fox, and the loss of Minorca, which led to the execution of Admiral Byng—though in brutal truth there is nothing to show what, if anything, Hogarth thought about these stirring events.
Uglow is the author of distinguished studies of Elizabeth Gaskell, Fielding, and George Eliot, and is presumably not a trained art historian. All the same she has an accurate eye, a strong sense for compositional relations, and an attractive vein of impressionistic criticism. “In Gin Lane,” she writes, “we hover dizzily, somewhere in the air, above the bony ballad-singer, above the falling child. We look across the chasm whose floor we cannot see. We are gazing down, being sucked in. We too may fall.” The spelling out of Hogarth’s allegory is unforced and exact. I also like her novelistic and inventive reading of Hogarth’s “history painting” Moses Brought before Pharaoh’s Daughter:
By the feet of Pharaoh’s daughter lies a crocodile, used in emblem books as the symbol for the continent of Africa, but depicted here too as a kind of royal household pet. An appropriate touch, but one that might make people wonder, uncomfortably, if the foundling child Moses was not also a whim, a “monstrous pet” like the monkeys that fashionable women of the 1740s favoured. And behind the princess’s chair a black servant whispers in the ear of a lady-in-waiting who raises her hand in alarm, perhaps hearing the rumour that this “foundling” is the princess’s son. Scandal is already spreading. Once again, as in The Pool at Bethesda, “low” subjects had invaded Hogarth’s high art.
Uglow likes to speak of Hogarth’s paintings and prints as “theatrical.” The busy scenes of the Election series, she writes, “were all controlled, almost choreographed, by a marvellously theatrical composition”; “His crowded canvas [The March to Finchley]…looks like the stage set for a ballad opera.” It is a reasonable way of talking, nevertheless only half, or perhaps less than half, true. Hogarth’s tableaux, for instance the gambling scene in The Rake’s Progress, may actually, from one point of view, be more momentary than a stage tableau—a dog is standing barking on a fallen chair, someone has just noticed that the building is on fire; but from another point they are much less so. Everything tells us, in the same gambling scene, that the morose man on the right has been sitting frozen in the same despair for a long time; that the transaction between the scribe and gambler on the left is a story with a before and after. The way the spectator takes in Hogarth’s scene, indeed, is almost the opposite of the way he takes in a stage tableau: he has to “read” it, an intricate, laborious, and lengthy process.
But let us notice something further. Hogarth briefly experimented with painting theatrical scenes “live” (using dark blue paper so as not to distract the other spectators). In this, according to Uglow, he was a pioneer; his Falstaff is, she says, “the first English painting of any dramatic scene,” while his The Beggar’s Opera is “the first to show a scene actually in production, in a particular theatre.” Nevertheless he fairly soon abandoned “theatrical” painting, and one may hazard that he found it obscurely unsatisfactory, as I do myself. The doubleness of the illusion seems to present various problems or paradoxes. For instance an actor, when being depicted in a painting, is—for such is the nature of acting—controlling his or her own appearance, and thus is encroaching on the independence of the artist. Again, in a painting depicting a painted theatrical backdrop, how is one to distinguish the work of the painter of the backdrop from that of the painter of the picture?
Diderot wrote that no one had yet produced, and no one would ever produce, an acceptable piece of painting based on a theatrical scene, “and this, it seems to me, is one of the cruellest satires on our actors, our stage décors, and perhaps our poets.”6 As we see, he was blaming not the genre but the theater, his theory being that on the stage, as in a painting, it was essential that the characters should show no consciousness of the beholder. I can, though, also suggest a more down-to-earth objection to the genre. It is that, for the spectator, the miracle of acting is to see someone whose appearance is known to us assume some utterly different shape and physiognomy. There are some nice anecdotes about Hogarth and Garrick in this connection: how Garrick, when Hogarth was trying to paint him, teasingly drove him almost to madness by changing, not just his expression, but his features every few minutes; and how Hogarth, wanting to make a drawing of Fielding after Fielding’s death, got Garrick to impersonate him. But this is exactly the aspect of acting that painting cannot possibly convey. At all events, I incline to think that Hogarth’s “conversation pieces,” in which the figures are so convincingly in conversation with one another, cannot properly be called “theatrical”; for, to judge from “theatrical” paintings of this period, the convention was still that actors should address themselves not so much to their fellow actors as to the audience.
Uglow is in sympathetic rapport with Hogarth the man, without pretending to solve all the mysteries of this “bull-headed” francophobe, this fanatical scourge of the connoisseurs and “dark pictures.” The bust by Louis-François Roubiliac7 gives her the pretext for an effective set piece:
Roubiliac caught the truculence in Hogarth’s crooked jaw and cleft chin, the sensuality in his wide mouth, the humorous shrewdness of his appraising eyes with their late-night, slightly rakish bags beneath; the cool aggressiveness in the fighting angle of the short neck, and the pride in his high forehead with its flaunted scar—it was said that Hogarth deliberately wore his hat pushed back to let this show.
The beautiful directness and tenderness of Hogarth’s portrait of his servants8 is, for her, important evidence of his character (and in fact, though he severely forbade his servants to accept “vails,” or tips, they seem to have found him a generous employer). During the last months of his life Hogarth, Goya-like, fell into extravagant despair, and Uglow makes an eloquent end-piece of her own out of his embittered Tailpiece, or the Bathos, in which Time, with a gnarled face and Christ-like body, lies gasping the word “Finis,” and the broken inn sign of “The World’s End” leans crookedly over a litter of shattered objects—a palette among them. She notes, rightly, that for all the “sad, startling pain” the effect is weirdly comical. There is something suggestive here, both of strength and of weakness, in the tradition of English comic art.
In writing her biography of Hogarth Uglow was helped by Ronald Paulson’s monumental and magnificently scholarly three-volume study. 9 But what she does not say, and perhaps does not feel, is how misleading Paulson can be as an interpreter of Hogarth. The point is brought home to me by the introduction to his new edition of Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty. He pays tribute to Joseph Burke’s handsome edition of 1955 (the first really scholarly one) but supplies a good deal more detailed annotation than Burke. So far, so good. But it is hard not to think that the gloss he puts on Hogarth’s treatise, both here and in his biography, is extremely perverse.
The Analysis of Beauty was first published in 1753 and took people who had not thought of Hogarth as a theoretician pretty much by surprise. In fact it had been in his mind for some years. There is a hint of it in his self-portrait with his pug dog “Trump,” executed in 1745, in the foreground of which a serpentine wire, lying on a palette, is labeled “The Line of Beauty.” “The bait soon took,” he wrote, “and no Egyptian hierogliphic ever amused more than it did for a time, painters and sculptors came to me to know the meaning of it, being as much puzzled with it as other people, till it came to have some explanation.”
His central thesis in the Analysis runs, very briefly, thus. In looking at a solid object only certain portions are visible to us, the corresponding portions on the farther side being of necessity hidden; but if we think of the object as having been hollowed out, leaving only a shell, we can, in imagination, take up a position inside it, from which we can view it as a whole. Now it is, he argues, the property of certain intricate and serpentine forms to lead the human mind (which is active and loves pursuit) on “a wanton kind of chase” after the hidden portions of the object it is regarding; and the pleasure this gives the mind is what is meant by beauty. “Beauty,” for which aestheticians and connoisseurs can find no better name than “the je ne sais quoi,” or “incommunicable grace,” is a really existing and concrete phenomenon.
It is a most enticing work. Aesthetics, as practiced by such writers as Lord Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson, has been, largely, a misbegotten science, bearing no relationship to the manner in which works of art actually function. One is thus instinctively drawn to the rare writer like Hogarth who works outward from experience and is grappling with an empirical intuition. No doubt it may be absurd to suppose that “beauty” is locatable, like ozone or electromagnetism, just in the way that he suggests (Joseph Burke thinks so), but his treatise is wonderfully fresh and mind-expanding: it opens up all sorts of novel perspectives.
Paulson’s reading of it, however, is very strange indeed. His drift is that the book represents a major turning point in Hogarth’s career. Up to then Hogarth had been conducting a campaign narrowly concerned with art: he had attacked enslavement to the connoisseur and the prestige of Continental ideas and the so-called “old masters.” He had combated the deadening doctrine of “copying” as prescribed in traditional art teaching and had propagandized for a painting “academy,” but a democratically organized one. Now, however, his thoughts had undergone a revolution. He had become so utterly disgusted with the society he was living in as to decide, at this point, that salvation lay in aesthetics alone. A point made in passing in The Analysis of Beauty, that no Venus, however beautiful, could compare with a young flesh and blood woman, became the linchpin of a complete new political and ethical world view. “He has, in effect,” Paulson writes, “replaced morality with aesthetics as the only sort of ideal he can find in a world as utterly corrupt as the London of the Harlot’s Progress.”
By “aesthetics,” what he emphatically did not mean, however, was the aesthetic doctrines of Lord Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury held that “virtue,” to be a meaningful concept, had to be disinterested, and that, to almost the same extent, disinterestedness lay at the root of beauty. This view, as Paulson says, Hogarth regarded as a fraud and a political hypocrisy. “Hogarth revealed beneath the supposed disinterestedness and benevolence of the Shaftesburian man of taste (the connoisseur and collector) a subtext of ownership, control, and desire.” Accordingly the word “disinterestedness” needed to be, if not discarded altogether, at least redefined in a sense unconnected with virtue. In the real world, moral judgement is, or should be, replaced by “human passion, release, and liberty” and by the “pleasure of pursuit.” (Paulson stresses the “wanton” in Hogarth’s phrase “a wanton kind of chase.”) He writes: “In the satires that followed the Harlot’s and Rake’s Progress Hogarth came to associate value, displaced from organized religion and its ‘idolatry,’ with a beautiful and young, contemporary and ‘living’ woman.”
Well, the trouble with this is that the most testable part of it seems just not to be true. It would be uphill work to argue that either the dissatisfied wife or the pathetic mistress in Marriage à la Mode is meant to epitomize “value”; Industry and Idleness is all about young men and hardly features a young woman at all; and we only see a young woman in The Four Stages of Cruelty when, far from being “living,” she is a corpse. In Paulson’s hands, Hogarth’s work comes out as a sort of shadowy combat with Shaftesbury, in which character, sympathy, observation, and amusement count for nothing.
Paulson, as he admits himself, is basing his interpretation not so much on Hogarth’s text as on the two plates of illustrations,10 and also playing the curious game of treating the little diagrams outside the margin of the plates as contributing to the action. Interpretation, one way and another, is playing a pretty bold game here. I am reminded of an essay by Ian Watt on “Conrad Criticism and The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus,”‘ in which Watt complains about what he calls reductio ad symbolum—as when, for instance, a critic of Conrad’s novel interprets the Negro Wait and the sea as, respectively, symbolizing “death” and “life,” or another critic identifies Wait with Jonah: the effect being to reduce what Conrad actually wrote to a mere illustration (and also to ignore a good part of it). He calls this “heterophoric” interpretation, distinguishing it, very much to its disadvantage, from “homeophoric” interpretation, which “works, characteristically, by natural extension of the implications of the narrative content, and retains a consistent closeness to it.”11 In art history, one reflects, how extremely tempting heterophoric interpretation must be. It only requires a painting faintly to recall some classic iconographic formula to assume that it alludes to it or expresses the same meaning.
We see the tendency in Paulson’s account of the witty design, Columbus Breaking the Egg, which Hogarth used as a subscription ticket for his Analysis of Beauty. Hogarth (adapting a story told by Vasari about Brunelleschi) depicts Columbus at table with five companions. Irritated at being told it was simple to discover America (“simple once one has thought of it,” we imagine him growling), he has challenged his companions to solve another “simple” problem, i.e., how to make an egg stand upright—which of course they are unable to do. On the table there is a dish of eggs and eels, displaying the serpentine “line of beauty,” and the point of the print is that, simple as may be the principle behind The Analysis of Beauty, it took a modern Columbus (Hogarth) to hit on it.
One would think no more needed to be said, but Paulson will have it that Hogarth’s design evokes a Last Supper,
which in effect puts himself in the role, not only of the discoverer of the ‘new world’ but the ‘savior of mankind.’ The eggs and eels before him on the table replace the Host of the Last Supper, his messianic mission the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
Hogarth is burlesquing the Last Supper “to indicate that religion is demystified…to be recovered as natural beauty.” This strikes one as interpretation gone right out of control and “heterophorically” on the loose. For one thing (among a dozen), Hogarth’s joke turns on Columbus’s companions not being disciples.
It is the same with A Harlot’s Progress. Paulson takes the first plate, in which Moll Hackabout is standing between, or more or less between, a country clergyman and a procuress, as alluding to the famous iconographic formula “The Choice of Hercules” (or “Hercules between Vice and Virtue”). But, after all, the clergymen, far from tempting or inviting Moll to anything, has his back to her—which indeed is Hogarth’s point. So where does a choice come in? Paulson also (and Jenny Uglow seems to go along with him) wants Moll’s meeting with the procuress to recall the Visitation, i.e., the visit of the Virgin Mary to Saint Elizabeth, a weird conjunction of ideas, and again he wants Moll in her garret, visited unknown to herself by the magistrate, to represent a parodic Annunciation. “Hackabout is a Hercules of our time, and a Virgin Mary of our time: she represents both the inappropriate model and the decline of standards.” You could only see the Progress so by ignoring all Hogarth’s efforts to interest you in Moll as a person.
It may help to pull these thoughts together if one considers Hogarth’s The March to Finchley, one of his finest creations.12 People explain or interpret this packed picture in a variety of ways, so I will begin by saying how I understand it. During the Jacobite rising of 1745, the Duke of Cumberland, fighting the rebels in the north of England, suggested that, in case any of the enemy should slip past him and threaten the capital, a camp should be set up at Finchley, just outside London, and regiments be moved there from Dartford in Kent. Hogarth’s picture, painted several years after the event, depicts one of these regiments. It has been spending the night near Tottenham Court Road turnpike, and its drummer is now summoning it to resume its march (all the six, or nearly six, remaining miles to Finchley).
The scene, however, is one of disorder: for one reason, because a noted Covent Garden brothelkeeper has patriotically followed the regiment, taking lodging for her whores for the night in a nearby inn. Some of the soldiers are drunk, some are bidding farewell to their family; a wagon is approaching, bringing camp followers who will sell food to the troops; and in the background a bareknuckle boxing match is going on. The officers, whether commissioned or noncommissioned, are not making much effort to impose discipline. Amid the crowd, a young officer kisses a milk girl, and as her pail sinks to the ground a man tips the milk into his hat, a spectacle which so entertains a pie man that he does not notice someone is stealing one of his pies. Meanwhile the whores, magnificently dressed, are waving an emotional farewell to the soldiers, and the brothelkeeper, with piously uplifted eyes and hands, prays for their safe return.
It remains to describe a group in the foreground. A tall and handsome grenadier, with a hunted look on his face, is having one arm tugged, reproachfully, by an attractive but pregnant young woman and the other, more violently, by an older woman, with a cross around her neck.
The first thing to say, it seems to me, is that this is a very nicely calculated joke, turning on the fact that, for all the tearful farewells, the soldiers are hardly departing for a far-flung battlefield (and indeed, as history tells us, were never to be within several hundred miles of the enemy). Anyone who takes Hogarth’s picture tragically is likely to be misreading it.
The second thing to say is that the central trio are wonderfully well established at the level of ordinary human character and behavior, as indeed are many other figures in the throng. Hogarth has invented a kind of painting which, though no doubt loosely related to Breughel and Teniers, has as much in common with Fielding and Richardson.
Does one need to “interpret” this picture? Yes, because it contains features, often involving writing, which are clearly meant to hint at a secondary meaning. The pub on the left has a sign depicting Adam and Eve, and the licensee’s name is “Giles Gardiner” (an irreverent allusion to the Almighty?). The inn on the right, temporarily become a brothel, is called “The King’s Head” and has a sign depicting that noted roisterer Charles II. There is a flourishing green tree on the left of the picture and a dead one on the right. The younger of the grenadier’s two lovers carries, in her pocket, a copy of the patriotic anthem “God Save Our Noble King,” while the other, evidently a Catholic, is vending The Jacobite’s Journal.
The crucial question is at what point, in responding to the picture, ought we to begin interpreting? Devotees of interpretation tend to assume that any symbolic meaning must be fundamental, and in the case of Hogarth this is, I think, a fatal error. We may sense this from his own insoucient words in The Analysis of Beauty: “It is a pleasing labour of the mind to solve the most difficult problems; allegories and riddles, trifling as they are, afford the mind amusement.” He loves to strew his pictures with “allegories and riddles,” and sometimes most ingenious ones;13 but we should think of them as a supplement, lying on top of, not beneath, the human message, and separated from it like oil from water.
The March to Finchley offers a neat example. Paulson claims—in this case, I imagine, quite rightly—that the grenadier and his two women are meant to suggest “The Choice of Hercules,” but if we try to apply this idea at the human level, we find it simply does not work. The grenadier is in his present plight precisely because, earlier, he did not choose, and it is too late to do so now. (If he still had a choice, it might be well to be a million miles away from here.)
At what I call the “supplementary” level, on the other hand, it is perfectly apt to think of this as a Choice of Hercules—a choice, that is to say, between Hanoverianism and Jacobitism. In a picture referring to the 1745 rising nothing could, allegorically, be more appropriate. Trouble only arises if one starts telling oneself that this is what the picture, or even just this portion of the picture, is “about”; that what is preying on the young grenadier’s mind is not having two rival women on his hands (one of them, if not both of them, pregnant), but whether he should fight for King George or for the Jacobites—a question with no application to his immediate dilemma. I might add that Hogarth, here as elsewhere, is plainly not too much in earnest about his “allegory” or “riddle”; for the Jacobite’s Journal was in fact an anti-Jacobite periodical, run by his friend Henry Fielding (the title is ironical), and moreover it did not exist in 1745.
Paulson makes great efforts to evolve a master meaning for The March to Finchley, by the aid of symbols. Identifying the bareknuckle bruisers as Cain and Abel, he posits a general symbolic movement from left to right of the picture, recapitulating the consequences of the Fall. Again, on the strength of the two chicks who have lost their mother (a tiny detail), he interprets the picture (which ended up in the Foundling Hospital) as a statement about “‘children’ and the consequences of uncaring parents.” The foundlings, he says—it seems to be expecting rather a lot of them—would read it as “a story of castaways, children without parents, or the poor without powerful friends.”
It would not be difficult to demonstrate that these master meanings do not really work. For instance, on the left-hand or Edenic side of the picture a soldier, suffering from gonorrhea, is finding it painful to piss—a very “fallen” circumstance. But the answer, I would suggest, is not to reinterpret Hogarth’s symbols (even if one could be sure what things he meant us to take as symbols), for he would not have expected them to “add up” or convey a fully coherent message. They were a witty amusement, an ingenious supplement; the gravamen of his art lay elsewhere.
In honor of Hogarth’s tercentenary the British Museum organized an exhibition, focusing mainly on Hogarth’s prints, of which they have the finest collection in the world. (It travels to the US this winter, opening at the University Art Museum at Berkeley, California, on January 28.) The exhibition was inspired by David Bindman,14 who has written the catalog, and it is intended, we are told, to provide, not so much a general introduction to Hogarth, as a contribution to recent critical debate. In his introduction to the catalog Bindman says that (no doubt for the above reason) he has confined himself to “areas that have been relatively little considered by previous writers on Hogarth”: in particular Hogarth’s changing reputation, and the “classical literary antecedents” of his satire.
Bindman says, handsomely, that “almost every thought that has gone into this catalogue and exhibition” has been “anticipated or sparked off in some way” by Ronald Paulson’s many books on Hogarth. It is noticeable, though, that he does not practice iconographical source-hunting à la Paulson; also that he holds, as against Paulson, that Hogarth was not a radical and “worked, however uncomfortably, with the grain of society rather than against it.”
Bindman’s chosen themes, and the “critical debate”in general, remove us to a certain distance from Hogarth—which is fair enough if our direct responses to his art can be taken for granted. Certainly the “classical literary antecedents” of his satire, and particularly his relationship to Juvenal, seem like subjects well worth exploring. There is a problem, though. No doubt Hogarth, that magnificent and subtle imaginer of human situations, was also, and simultaneously, a satirist. But as a satirist he opted for the easy and the obvious (or the simply weird, as in Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism); moreover, there is a temptation to explain things in his pictures as satire that are meant in another spirit.
I am thinking of the brilliantly devised second scene in A Harlot’s Progress, depicting Moll living in splendor with a middle-aged Jewish protector. (She has been spending the night with a young man and, to distract her protector’s attention as her disheveled lover slinks away, she kicks over the tea table.) Bindman’s note on this runs, censoriously: “The Jew is…an arriviste, an ape of his social superiors, for he adopts genteel customs like taking tea and collecting Old Master paintings, though his claims to gentility are based only on wealth.” This is very severe. It seems to suppose we could not be interested in a well-to-do Jewish merchant, who decides to live the life of a man of taste and fashion and lavish expense on a young mistress, simply for its own sake—something we would have no difficulty in accepting if reading about him in a novel by Balzac. It is not clear why it must be assumed that Hogarth wants to condemn him and play the moralist and repressive social critic toward him. That he (Hogarth) should find the whole situation amusing and all-too-human is another matter.
Bindman is very instructive on the “countless limitations” and “variations” inspired by Hogarth’s work and reproduces scenes from David Hockney’s ARake’s Progress (1961-1963), as well as Daniel Chodowiecki’s physiognomic etchings The Progress of Virtue and Vice (1777). These connections, of course, are a different matter from “influence” in the profounder sense, such as Poussin exercised on Cézanne, but, one feels, Hogarth deserved to have such influence too. I am thinking, for instance, of the garret scene in AHarlot’s Progress and the marvelous compositional invention Hogarth has achieved there out of the hot water streaming into the “bunter’s”teapot; the engaging, impudent tilt of Moll’s body; and the great, heavy, and strangely suggestive knot in her bed curtain. Thus it puzzles me that Bindman writes of W.P. Frith’s “progress,” The Road to Ruin (1889), that “the images are profoundly Hogarthian in the way that the material objects and physical attributes of the actors work together to express changing social situations and emotions.” The Road to Ruin strikes me as rather frightful and as visually quite null. “Hogarthian”hardly seems the right word for it.
December 18, 1997
Michel Butor, “Les mots dans la peinture,” in Repertoire IV (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1974), p. 31. My translation. ↩
Tom Jones, Book III, Chapter 6, and Book I, Chapter 3. ↩
See Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. M. House and G. Storey, vol. 1 (pub tk, 1965), p. 431 fn. ↩
See R.L. Patten, George Cruikshank’s Life, Times, and Art (Rutgers University Press, 1992), vol. 1, p. 36. ↩
I.e., from the celebrated Method for Learning to Portray the Passions (1698) by Charles Le Brun, a standard textbook of facial expressions. ↩
Diderot, “Essais sur la peinture,” in Oeuvres Esthétiques, edited by P. Vernière (Paris: Garnier, 1968), p. 713. My translation. ↩
National Portrait Gallery, London. ↩
Tate Gallery. ↩
Ronald Paulson, Hogarth (Rutgers University Press, 3 vols., 1991-1993). ↩
“Hogarth is in the process, in the illustrative plates if not the text, of redefining beauty, virtue, and disinterestedness” (p. xxxiii). ↩
I.P. Watt, “Conrad Criticism and The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus,”‘ Nineteenth Century Fiction, 12 (1958), pp. 257-283. ↩
The painting is in Thomas Coram’s Hospital. ↩
Here is how G.Ch. Lichtenberg, in his remarkable commentaries on Hogarth’s engravings published in the Göttinger Taschenkalender in the 1790s, interprets a detail in A Midnight Modern Conversation: ↩
Bindman is the author of Hogarth (1981), in the Thames and Hudson “World of Art” series. ↩