William Hogarth died 252 years ago today
When we try to visualise the first half of the eighteenth-century, it’s William Hogarth that starts painting pictures inside our heads. Peter Brook’s little known movie of the The Beggar’s Opera (which offers the only occasion on which Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Williams shared screen time) is designed as successive frames of William Hogarth all glued together.
Hogarth is full of contradictions. He would have loved to be remembered for his “proper” paintings and of course for his formal work on aesthetics The Analysis of Beauty (1753) which asserted a kind of elongated letter “S” as the norm of all definitions of beauty. Much mocked in its day, it did inform Edmund Burke’s rather more influential Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757/9) in useful ways. And I am fond of the unfinished “Shrimp Girl”
A painting like this could not have been exhibited in the eighteenth-century. If Hogarth had “finished” it he would have ruined it, but there was no aesthetic context for the admission of anything so spontaneous and vivid in the name of art. Spaces needed to be filled in and vague bits needed to be sorted out.
More famous of course for his narratives of crime, low life and depravity, Hogarth is one of those people who is too good a story to be as good a moralist as he’s claiming to be. Industry and Idleness may involve a hanging scene that is meant to offer a grisly lesson to us all – but Hogarth can’t resist showing us people picking pockets in the crowd. A spectacle that is meant to deter a life of crime involves huge crowds of people all looking the same way and therefore inviting a life of crime. The brilliance of the detail of Hogarth couldn’t help but undermine the main thrust of the narrative.
Similarly when we look at Marriage a la Mode, the Rake’s Progress and the Harlot’s Progress, we’re looking at people who might get what’s coming to them, but they get what’s coming to them in the context of a world that is in no position to judge them and which appears incapable from profiting from any “example”. The backgrounds of these paintings and engravings are populated with beings who function independently and tangentially to the “central” characters. Many have argued that Hogarth is closer to prose than to paint, that the formal abstract qualities of light and space and colour have no interest for him, or for us when he tries to play with them (the shrimp girl notwithstanding). As a storyteller, he is at his most effective when he is least effective, most compelling when most distracted. The stories in the margins crowd out any main narrative and the stories he ends up telling end up being more interesting than the stories he’s promised to tell. Unlike Laurence Sterne who did the same thing deliberately, Hogarth never really got to know and appreciate this gift.
Hogarth died in the middle of an extended spat with the poet Charles Churchill. Despite the generation gap between them, Churchill and Hogarth resembled one another in many ways – which only made the argument between them all the more bitter of course. Hogarth had mocked Churchill’s friend Wilkes so Churchill wrote the acerbic “Epistle to William Hogarth” so Hogarth drew Churchill as a bear and so it went on and on and on until both died – a matter of days apart from one another. Or about a week, shall we say? October-November 1764 was a grim time for eighteenth-century satire, with the curtain coming down on two of its chief practitioners – locked in sweaty combat with one another in an unstoppable “race to the bottom”.