Old Nick's cook who sliced steaks off brawnybums

Hogarth and his Times - Hogarth
December 5, 1997

The tercentenary of Hogarth's birth provides an opportunity to enjoy, celebrate and study his life and works. The British Museum is staging an ambitious exhibition, "Hogarth and His Times", until January 4 1998, and the first these two books is published to accompany the exhibition; indeed most of it is a catalogue. Its author, David Bindman, is a major Hogarth scholar.

Hogarth is generally presented as the social realist of his day, characteristically "English" in style and intent. As a product of the metropolitan forcing house of artistic activity and cultural values, he wrote a treatise on aesthetics, The Analysis of Beauty (1753), "to fix the fluctuating ideas of Taste". In general, he pursued a middle way between artistic extremes.

Bindman argues that Hogarth's moral series are works of fiction, based on a simplified and schematic view of society, divided into three self-contained classes: the wealthy, "the middling sorts" and the poor. By juxtaposing images from Hogarth's series with the work of other artists, the exhibition makes it possible to scrutinise the subjectivity of his social vision.

The catalogue discusses the contested manner in which Hogarth's work and significance were defined by contemporaries and redefined by posterity. Contemporary imitations of A Midnight Modern Conversation and A Rake's Progress are evidence of the effectiveness of moral tales expressed in an intriguing, humorous and somewhat erotic narrative that (as Bindman points out) permitted the imitators to emphasise their libertinism or their cautionary value, as preferred.

In the following century, Hogarth appeared as an archetype of self-improvement, a model of patriotic truth, morality and vigour, as in W. P. Frith's engraving Hogarth before the Commandant at Calais (1860). Aside from reprints of Hogarth's moral series, there were also updated reworkings, such as Frith's series, The Road to Ruin (1889), a humourless attack on gambling, also reproduced in the catalogue. David Hockney's A Rake's Progress (1961-63) is also depicted, although, aside from its title, whether it contains any worthwhile echo of Hogarth is unclear.

In 1781 Edmund Malone wrote from London: "People here are all seized at present with an Hogarthomania". This collecting zeal reflected the artist's ability to produce work that was popular. The engravings of his six paintings A Harlot's Progress sold over 1,000 sets. Bindman skilfully discusses the relations between Hogarth's market and his work. He suggests that as Hogarth's ambitions turned from the late 1730s towards a more elevated conception of his art, so he seems to have been more embarrassed than gratified at the thought of his designs passing into the hands of the general public. Aside from Bindman's lengthy and thoughtful introduction, the entries themselves contain many observations of interest, for example the lack of sympathy for "the common people" shown in the print The March to Finchley (1750), or the anonymous copy of the print of a murderess, Sarah Malcolm (1733), with the addition of a clergyman and the scene of hanging, emphasising the need for penitence. Bindman suggests this may be the product of clerical worries that prints such as Hogarth's might serve to glamourise rather than discourage crime.

The exhibition also includes manuscripts associated with The Analysis of Beauty and the Apology for Painters. The draft of the analysis is full of crossings-out, which, Bindman argues, suggests the difficulty Hogarth had with written expression. To locate Hogarth in contemporary controversy, this section of the exhibition is followed by one devoted to the criticisms of The Analysis by the watercolour artist Paul Sandby. In 1753-54 he produced a series of eight satirical etchings, all printed in the catalogue. They were aimed at Hogarth, his pretensions as a theorist and history painter, and at his resistance to plans for a new academy for artists. In the prints, advertised as The Analysis of Deformity ... or, A New Dunciad, Hogarth was presented as a mountebank painter, an author run mad, and an egomaniac opposed to progress. Similarly, Hogarth's support for the Earl of Bute in The Times (1762) is reproduced alongside a number of attacks on Bute and Hogarth, including Sandy's The Butifyer (1762) and the anonymous A Set of Blocks for Hogarth's Wigs (1762). By late 1762, almost all satires devoted to Bute included Hogarth and vice versa.

In the same fashion, Hogarth's attack on Wilkes is reproduced alongside responses that attacked the artist as a government hireling, "who for Gold/ O'er his Heart a Veil can hold,/ Give an Angel Satan's face,/ And the Fiend an Angel's Grace". Hogarth was affected by such malicious attacks, and they contributed to the pessimism of his later work, culminating in the exhausted, broken Tail Piece: The Bathos (1764), a view of the desiccation of fame.

Jenny Uglow's biography of Hogarth is well-written and exciting, but less reflective and less thoughtful about his art than the work of Bindman, whose judicious scholarship would be difficult for more than a handful of people to match. Uglow's range is impressive. She captures much of London life, and there is certainly variety. For instance, drawing on Paulson's Hogarth, she shows the artist playing Grilliardo, the Devil's cook, in Garrick's 1746 spoof Ragandjaw, entering with the lines: "I am Old Nick's Cook - and hither am I come/ To slice some steaks from off thy Brawny Bum" It would be all too easy to criticise Uglow. Her historical grasp is incomplete, at times worryingly so, as in her account of the passage of the peace terms through Parliament in 1762. The style is also sometimes limited: "Polite society was intrigued by The Analysis of Beauty. It exclaimed over it at tea tables, argued about it over dinner and joked knowingly about the serpentine line." But overall, Uglow's Hogarth is informed and informative and has much to recommend it.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

Hogarth and his Times

Author - David Bindman
ISBN - 0 7141 2614 4
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 208

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