Book Review of Elizabeth Einberg’s "William Hogarth: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings", published in Apollo Magazine / by Rich Hobbs

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

with paint.

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.