Ten years ago I went to the private view of what I reckon must be the worst
major exhibition I’ve seen. This wasn’t the artist’s fault - he’d already been
dead nearly two and a half centuries by then - and nor was Tate Britain’s 2007
Hogarth show anything less than a comprehensive and scholarly exploration
of work by an artist I also happen to revere. The problem lay in one of those
traps museums and galleries are eternally prey to: a Reverence for The
Artefact at the expense of the Art Itself.
Because of a persistent need for authenticity, the Tate’s curators clearly felt
obliged to acquire contemporaneous copies of Hogarth’s prints. This makes
partial sense, because the prints make up the most accessible part of his output
for most people for most of the last 270 years or so. But they’re also,
obviously, reproductions. So whatever mysterious (yet clearly quantifiable)
potency an original "Artistic" artefact might usually generate doesn’t truly
apply with prints, because the "original" is a sheet of copper, never intended as
anything other than a medium of reproduction. Hogarth understood this
completely, which is why he made prints of his paintings in the first place, to
reach as wide an audience as possible so he could expand the potential market
for his work.
Galleries and museums are, by definition, all about the Sanctity of the
Artefact, but even so it really shouldn’t matter how a reproduction is thereafter
reproduced. The Tate could - and probably should - have projected Beer Street
across the Thames onto the front of the MI5 building or onto the moon,
covered whole walls with blown up reproductions of Industry and Idleness or
The Stages of Cruelty, or even had the gift shop located in a life-size
recreation of Gin Lane, upping the revenue yet further once the punters really
got stuck in to the souvenir hooch.
But because of their Reverence for The Artefact the Tate hung Gin Lane and
all of Hogarth’s other iconic prints on the gallery’s tall, looming walls in
something close to total darkness. This, of course, was to protect the fragility
of the paper they were printed on, which had itself been sacramentally
touched by Hogarth’s own hand. Though I seriously doubt this would have
made much difference in practice anyone new to Hogarth who hadn’t forked
out for the audio-guide. They, I suspect, would have walked through the murk
straight past some of Hogarth’s most important and defining work in all its ill-
lit littleness into the next, brightly lit gallery, where covering a whole wall
they’d have been confronted by "Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter".
And many visitors may easily have come away imagining that size and
position signify something, and that Hogarth’s work is exemplified by a
painting like "Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter". Which, for the
record, is one of the worst paintings by a major artist I can think of. And I’m
sticking to that opinion despite what I’ve now learned from Elizabeth
Einberg’s monumental study "William Hogarth: A Complete Catalogue of the
Paintings", that the painting was produced and donated to The Foundling
Hospital as an act of charity by Hogarth. However Good or Great he was
being, the picture still stinks.
I am, I admit, biased. For cartoonists like me, Hogarth is the grandfather of
our profession: in elevating visual satire to the level of Art, he bequeathed us a
vision of the 18th century summed up in his own eponymous adjective. As
Robert Hughes wrote in "The Fatal Shore", describing the world from which
the first convict settlers of New South Wales were transported: "Modern
squalor is squalid but Georgian squalor is ‘Hogarthian’, an art form in itself."
Moreover, the new school of British Art Hogarth boasted he’d founded with
his "Modern Moral Tales", shot through as they were with narrative, polemic
and mockery, leads far more obviously to Gillray, Cruikshank and modern
political cartoons (the last redoubt, incidentally, of allegorical painting) than to
Constable or Reynolds. Given that so much of it was also printed, specifically
to reach as wide an audience as possible circulating his polemical point,
Hogarth might more truly belong in the realm of journalism than that of "Art".
Thus the dilemma between Art and Artefact I outlined above is compounded
by Hogarth encapsulating the conflict between Artist and Artisan. In a way,
most of his career was taken up squaring that particular circle, starting as
apprentice to a jobbing engraver and finishing up as Serjeant-Painter to the
King (having previously eloped with the daughter of the previous Serjeant-
Painter). To complicate matters even further, his various plaited careers -
engraver, printmaker, painter, society portraitist, piss-taker, ruthless
businessman, satirist - means different - and rival - constituencies can all
claim Hogarth as their own, and in different ways. So, while I choose to salute
Hogarth the visual journalist, rolling around in the gutter with the rest of us
laughing his head off at the follies of his times, for art historians like Einberg
Hogarth’s proper place is in the Petrie dish of intense scholarly study.
To give her her due, I doubt a better book on the subject will be needed. It’s
also a pleasure to read. Hogarth’s business model of producing paintings
which he’d then reproduce to sell on as prints occasionally tempts one into
neglecting the original. So I was pleased to get reacquainted with the simple
beauty of the paintings of "The Four Times of Day", on top of all their low
slapstick of emptying chamber pots and squashed cats. It’s in the details of
these paintings, like with the small clump of flowers in the foreground of
"Chairing The Members" from "The Humours of an Election", that Einberg
helps remind us what wonders, albeit idiosyncratically, Hogarth could work
Einberg’s also good on the fate of paintings where all that’s left are the prints.
For example, the paintings of "A Harlot’s Progress", Hogarth’s debut Modern
Moral Tale and his first great commercial success, were destroyed in a fire at
William Beckford’s Palladian mansion at Fonthill in February 1755. Einberg
notes that Hogarth himself was "more taken with reports that [Fonthill’s]
magnificent clockwork organ, set off by the heat, played ‘pleasing airs’
throughout the conflagration", which perfectly captures Hogarth’s
"Hogarthianness", his brand of 18th century whimsy he shared with Swift and
Sterne - both of whom he illustrated. The paintings of "The Rake’s Progress"
were saved from the same fire.
I also discovered parts of Hogarth’s output that had previously eluded me, like
the blasphemous "Sir Francis Dashwood at his Devotions", privately
commissioned (presumably as a gag - yet more Enlightenment whimsy) by
one of Dashwood’s friends. Einberg dates the painting much earlier than
hitherto through some meticulous and rather dazzling scholarship.
Dashwood, for his part, was a member of the notorious Monks of
Medmenham who performed jokey black masses in the Hellfire Caves,
including during Dashwood’s time as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Another
of the Medmenham Monks was the radical journalist John Wilkes, subject of
one of Hogarth’s most commercially successful prints and, through his agents,
Hogarth’s final nemesis when the whole world Hogarth had previously
satirised seemed to turn on him, more or less hounding him to his death. But
as there was no accompanying original painting, you won’t see that image in
Einberg’s book. Nor will you find "Gin Lane" or "Industry and Idleness" or
"The Stages of Cruelty". Nor, for the same reason, does she include "The
Pathos" his terrible, terrifying final image of entropy, collapse and failure.
This is hardly Einberg’s fault. She’s done what she set out to do, and done it
brilliantly. But the cartoonist in me can’t help feeling that this leaves Hogarth
only half done. For sure, you’ll get his Hogarthian spirit in spades in
"Marriage a la Mode" or "The Rake’s Progress" or "The Humours of an
Election". But you also get far more intensely dull portraits of men in wigs
than I ever dared imagine Hogarth had the time or avarice to paint. And once
more we’re back with the Tate problem: these paintings may be Hogarth but
they’re not truly "Hogarthian"; not, as it were, the whole hog.
That said, in presenting us with his entire oeuvre in paint Einberg helps pin
down Hogarth more precisely than she may have intended to. As well as being
both Artist and Artisan, he was also clearly quite often something of a hack,
just like me. It’s another badge I suspect Hogarth, counting the swag, would
have worn with quiet pride.