Hogarth, The Painter and his Pug (1745). © Tate
Graham Spicer delves into the darkly satirical world of Hogarth's London at Tate Britain, and discovers there is much more to this celebrated 18th century artist.
Tate Britain’s new Hogarth exhibition, running at the London gallery from February 7 to April 29 2007, is the first major retrospective of the 18th century English artist for more than 30 years.
It certainly makes up for lost time, bringing together a wide and cleverly displayed range of his works from all periods of his 40-year career, many borrowed from collections around the world.
The show first opened at the Louvre in Paris in 2006 where it has already been one of the gallery’s most successful autumn exhibitions. Its trip to London seems likely to be equally popular, especially with Londoners, as the capital itself is one of Hogarth’s main subjects.
Stephen Deuchar, Director of Tate Britain, certainly thinks the exhibition will inspire: “Hogarth is probably one of the most famous of all the British painters but we defy anyone not to learn something new by looking at this collection of paintings,” he said.
This is a huge exhibition, with more than 200 exhibits over 10 rooms, and it would be nigh-on impossible to appreciate all the nuances to be discovered inside each one of these extraordinary artworks.
Marriage A-la-Mode: The Tête à Tête (1735). © The National Gallery, London
However, with such a comprehensive display of the artist’s works you can truly appreciate his breadth of talent and range of subjects.
As the exhibition shows, Hogarth was much more than a celebrated satirist – he was also a masterly painter, engraver and art theorist who could turn his hand to portraits, historical scenes and populism alike.
William Hogarth was born in London in 1697 and died in the city in 1764. The early 18th century is often known as the Age of Hogarth, and rightly so, for he managed to capture the times in a way no other artist managed – from the top of society to the bottom and exposing the corrupt, the seedy, and occasionally the good, in all walks of life.
Hogarthian London is as much a star of the show as Hogarth himself, and his images of the burgeoning metropolis inform much of the modern-day perception of the 18th century capital.
In fact, while the images like ‘Gin Lane’ and ‘Beer Street’ may be the stuff of high satire, they still help inform our knowledge of the city and its problems, many of which still resonate today.
The Shrimp Girl (c1740-50). © The National Gallery, London
Starting with his early career in the 1720s, when Hogarth had set up shop as a copperplate engraver, the exhibition shows his first commercial successes like Scene From the Beggar’s Opera, which helped to boost his reputation.
Hogarth always displayed a commercial savvy, portraying events and themes like this one that were capturing the public’s imagination. Scandalous tales of sex and immorality likewise proved highly lucrative for him.
“To an extent Hogarth is playing on the prurience of the public,” explained the exhibition’s joint curator, Christine Riding.
“The other thing that makes his work so topical is because he looks very carefully at newspaper reports and what he hears in the coffeehouse,” she added. “Figures from the public imagination are there in his works and make his work somewhat journalistic and very topical.”
Notable examples include the celebrated series A Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress. These first ‘modern moral’ works, created in 1731 and, 1734, were to make Hogarth rich and seal his fame and reputation.
Heads of Six of Hogarth's Servants (c1750-55). Tate
Although the works’ protagonists, Tom Rakewell and Moll Hackabout, were fictional creations, their travails had huge resonance for contemporary Londoners and showed how easy it could be to fall from grace, through the fault of your own or others.
For although Hogarth’s works were often moralistic, they could also be ambiguous – Moll Hackabout arrives in London an innocent to be tricked into the seedy world of prostitution, but is there a look of smugness on her face as she relieves gentlemen of their money?
They also spare no section of society in their satire. Tom Rakewell, the eponymous rake who squanders the family inheritance, may end his days in a lunatic asylum, but in the same painting the viewer is drawn to the mocking looks of the powdered society ladies who have paid to gawp at the inmates.
Along with the stories of goings-on behind closed doors the chaos and energy of London’s streetlife is also vividly displayed, particularly well in The Four Times of Day series.
On one level, works like these are a wonderful romp through 18th century London; read more deeply they are loaded with symbolism, historical details and a journalist’s eye for a story.
This complex interaction between high and low art is a recurring theme of Hogarth’s work, and as well as the populism of his satirical pieces he also applied himself to a range of other subjects and styles.
O the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’) (1748). Tate, presented by the Duke of Westminster, 1895
These ranged from the relatively low-key ‘conversation pieces’ to larger portraits and historical works.
The conversation pieces pictured the newly fashionable ‘polite gatherings’ of people from different social and religious backgrounds, and many of his finest examples are on display along with portraits and historical works that show his mastery of the painter’s art and depth of subject matter.
Of course, a Hogarth exhibition wouldn’t be complete without an appearance by the aforementioned Gin Lane and Beer Street, but other tales like the Industry and Idleness series and The Four Stages of Cruelty are just as entertaining.
These stories of crime and punishment reflect the fact and fear of rising crime in London as its population boomed.
Although Hogarth was to become increasingly preoccupied with nationalistic themes, like the well-known O the Roast Beef of Old England (The Gates of Calais), even towards the end of his career he created extraordinary images, like the anarchic The Election series.
This group of four large paintings chronicling a corrupt election campaign is quintessential Hogarth – artistically adept, packed with action, full of hidden meaning and darkly comic – a fitting end to an excellent exhibition.
The sheer volume of work on show threatens to overwhelm the senses, however, so give yourself plenty of time to properly immerse yourself into the scandal and symbolism of his work.