Issue Number: 94
Hogarth’s satire and sensibility resonate in two spirited exhibitions this spring, writes Jenny Uglow
William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode: The Inspection, 1735.
The superb Hogarth exhibition at Tate Britain, already shown at the Louvre and due to move on to Madrid, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because it provides an unrivalled chance to see the whole range of the artist’s work in one place. For once, we can follow him from street to salon, from youth to old age, from early satires to the Progresses and iconic prints such as Gin Lane; from pioneering ‘conversation pieces’ to bold portraits, set pieces like The March to Finchley and unconventional works such as Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants or The Shrimp Girl.
The curators, Mark Hallett and Christine Riding, have secured loans from around the world, placing the artist in his time by including works by forebears and contemporaries. They also suggest his lasting influence by showing recent Hogarthian ventures from David Hockney, Paula Rego and Yinka Shonibare. The rooms follow a roughly chronological layout, displaying the variety of his output and his startling virtuosity as a painter, as well as an engraver.
Hogarth’s work offers a vivid commentary on Georgian society. He met every rank, from princesses at court to prostitutes in Bridewell, but many of his portraits celebrate the rising ‘middling classes’, such as Captain Coram, the instigator of London’s Foundling Hospital, who he immortalised in one of his best portraits. In the intense debates about the nature of a culture appropriate to the new Great Britain, created by the Act of Union in 1707, the consensus was that the fledgling nation should draw on the best of the European tradition, but shun the rigid hierarchies of its absolutist regimes, looking back, instead, to the Roman republic. Hogarth concurred, although his own view of London as Augustan Rome can be gleaned from A Rake’s Progress, where the portraits of Roman Emperors on the walls of the Rose Tavern are all defaced – except for Nero. Hogarth never took jargon at face value and constantly unmasked hypocrisy.
The curators responsible for the Louvre show, Frédéric Ogée and Olivier Meslay, suggest that as the new social groupings of this commercial age shook old notions of immutable identity, so the emphasis turned to ‘individual experience and “progress” developing over time’, as seen, for example, in the titles of the novels Moll Flanders, Pamela, Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy. The relation of the individual to society, and the shifting ideas of private and public responsibility were among Hogarth’s great themes.
Above all, in his painting, in his satires, in his complex and moving The Harlot’s Progress, The Rake’s Progress and Marriage A-la-Mode, and in campaigning prints such as The Effects of Industry and Idleness, everything Hogarth did seemed new. Novelty, of course, is not always welcome. The engraver George Vertue, a tireless art-world gossip, remarked with astonishment about Hogarth’s quick and lively genius, but he also noted how Hogarth nevertheless upset people with his provocative mixtures of genres and ‘undaunted spirit’.
Hogarth’s pugnaciousness (emphasised by the inclusion of his own pug dog in his self-portrait of 1746), was exercised particularly on behalf of British artists, whom he saw as the victims of the craze for ‘dark Old Masters’ and foreign portraitists lauded by so-called ‘connoisseurs’. His chauvinism was part of a fight for survival, and effectively so, since he not only achieved the first copyright act in Britain, in the Engravers’ Act of 1735, but also won public spaces for British artists to show their work, notably in London’s Foundling Hospital.
The aggressive cultural nationalism of his early attacks on Italian opera, Palladian architecture and French ‘luxury’ was transformed into vehement disdain for the whole French nation, when relations between the countries were tense. He made this fury abundantly clear in O the Roast Beef of Old England (The Gate of Calais), painted in 1748, after he had been arrested for spying on a brief drawing trip across the Channel. An exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, ‘Vive la Différence!’, shows how easily the ancient rivalry and frequent hostilities between England and France gave birth to much-used stereotypes – the weedy French peasants against well-padded John Bull – and how devastatingly Hogarth employed these.
But this is only a small part of his work. The great success of the Hogarth show when it was first seen in Paris – where visitors accepted these prints simply as windows on their time – reminds us that Hogarth is one of the most original European, as well as British, artists of the eighteenth century.
Hogarth, Tate Britain, London (020 7887 8888), until 29 April; Vive la Différence! The English and French Stereotype in Satirical Prints 1720–1815, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (01223 332900), 20 March–5 Aug
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