Radio 3 Talk on William Hogarth, broadcast / by Rich Hobbs

In his history of the first Australian penal settlements, "The Fatal Shore", the

art critic Robert Hughes described the standard modern perception of

Georgian England thus:

"A passing reference to violence, dirt and gin; a nod in the direction of the

scaffold; a highwayman or two, a drunken judge, and some whores for local

colour; but the rest is all curricles and fanlights. Modern squalor is squalid but

Georgian squalor is ‘Hogarthian’, an art form in itself."

Note that adjective. By now it’s so well entrenched we instinctively know

what it means, though it’s probably not the meaning Hogarth himself would

have wanted. He had definite ambitions for his name to be associated with his

practice, and yet the paint strokes or engraved lines and slashes aren’t, of

themselves, "Hogarthian".

And however much he wanted - pretty successfully - to found an entirely new

school of British art, there’s nothing really "Hogarthian" in his proto-

impressionist study "The Shrimp Girl" or in his innovatively realistic portrait

of the philanthropic sea-captain Thomas Corum, or his portrait of David

Garrick or his murals in the Inns of Court or for Bart’s Hospital. These are all

by Hogarth, for sure; they might even be "Hogarthish"; but none of them quite

ring true as "Hogarthian", not the whole hog.

And yet "Gin Lane" and "The Stages of Cruelty" and the Harlot’s and Rake’s

Progresses and The Times of Day all are palpably "Hogarthian".

Again, this has nothing to do with technique or the medium in which Hogarth

produced these definingly "Hogarthian" images. The most modern man

imaginable in the early modern era, self-made, commercial, eschewing patrons

while infiltrating the heights of society, Hogarth was also a multi-platform

artist. Nearly all his satirical series were launched simultaneously as paintings

and engravings, and sometimes - to get his third bite of the cherry - he’d

engrave, print and sell combined entrance and lottery tickets, allowing the

punters ingress to his studio to view the painting and - just possibly - win an

engraving of the original. This is enterprising, but it isn’t Hogarthian.

Basically, "Hogarthian" is that weird yet common formulation, the self-

defining adjective. Something where the definition lies in what it defines. As

if he were wandering through a tatty Palladian hall of dirty mirrors, Hogarth

depicted Georgian London and it reflected its "Hogarthianness" back to him

until the depiction, reflected and re-reflected in the distorting mirrors of Satire

and Time, became the definition.

And to give him his due, Hogarth was the man for the job. His life spanned

Georgian London’s formative years as well as its expanding geography. Born

in 1697 near Newgate Prison, an even more "Hogarthian" local landmark was

the Fleet Ditch, that sluggish, stinking Thames tributary on whose banks stood

the Fleet Prison, wherein Hogarth’s father was imprisoned for debt for five

years during William’s childhood.

Moreover, the Fleet Ditch brimmed, in addition to the blood and guts washed

down from Smithfield and all its other faecal effluvia, with satirical

symbolism. This, after all, was London’s very own River Styx,

emblematically demarcating the old, charred medieval city replete with its

usurers and merchants from the lawyers and printers and property speculators

further West. And it was duly blessed by the Godfather of Satire Jonathan

Swift in his "A Description of a City Shower":

Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,

Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,

Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.

That was written when Hogarth was twelve and just escaping the miasmas of

the Fleet by being apprenticed to an engraver up West in Leicester Fields.

There he stayed and prospered, never quite retiring to his country residence

out in Chiswick, these days just up the road from his eponymous roundabout.

One of Hogarth’s early satirical engravings was a rip-off of Swift’s

"Gulliver’s Travels", depicting Gulliver, non-canonically, punished for

pissing on the Emperor’s palace by being administered an enema by the

Lilliputians. If Swift knew about this shameless coat-tailing, he didn’t repine.

In 1736, lambasting the Irish Parliament in "A Character, Panegyric, And

Description of The Legion Club", Swift suddenly breaks the fourth wall to

make this direct appeal to Hogarth:

How I want thee, humorous Hogarth!

Thou, I hear, a pleasant rogue art.

Were but you and I acquainted,

Every monster should be painted:

You should try your graving tools

On this odious group of fools

Alas, Posterity denied us an Enlightenment collaboration pre-echoing Hunter

S Thompson and Ralph Steadman, though there was no shortage of Georgian

Fear and Loathing for Hogarth to engrave or Swift describe. Nor should we

be surprised that the Fleet Ditch appealed to Swift’s scatalogical muse, which

thereafter informed Hogarth’s apocryphal depiction of Gulliver’s colonic

irrigation: the purpose of satire, after all, is to take the piss, reinforcing the

universal truth that our masters and imagined betters, like us, shit and will die.

But there’s more to it than just that. Swift’s poem is a satirical portrait of the

urban. Hogarth’s subject became the new London of elegant Georgian

squares emerging in Soho and beyond, but as with Swift, showing it as it truly

was: the greatest city the world may have ever seen, but without flush toilets.

Naturally, Hogarth shows us the consequence: in The Times of Day and

throughout his oeuvre, there’s a constant leit motif of chamber pots being

emptied out of windows to add to the casual catastrophes of the street below.

We all get the satirical point, just as we do with his depictions of Frenchified

dandies stepping out of their churches, coffee houses, clubs or courtrooms into

gutters full of shit and squashed cats. And that’s just in the smart part of town.

Wait til you hit the surrounding slums.

Like in "Gin Lane", probably the definingly "Hogarthian" image of Georgian

London, where the depiction of urban squalor in the St Giles Rookeries was

intended to work like a tabloid headline. It was meant to function as a

terrifying polemic, part of a concerted campaign Hogarth had launched with

Henry Fielding to address the source of a general moral collapse in society.

After the seismic shock of the Jacobite Uprising of 1745, London was seized

by fresh panic, with the wealthier classes in general flight to the country from

fear of the city’s poor. Otherwise they risked the genuine threat of being held

up by highwaymen in Piccadilly in broad daylight. All this was blamed on the

free availability of cheap Dutch gin, the chosen opiate of the underclass.

Moreover, they remembered Judith Dufour 15 years previously, who’d taken

her infant daughter out of the workhouse and then strangled the little girl to

sell the clothes she’d been issued with in order to buy gin.

Gin Lane was published simultaneously to Beer Street, a comparatively tepid

extolling of the honest English alternative to evil foreign gin, along with "The

Four Stages of Cruelty", which charted the inevitable path from tormenting

animals to murder and then dissection by the anatomists, the final, eternal

punishment wrought by the Enlightenment on executed London paupers. The

prints were all were produced on cheap paper for widest circulation and,

unlike earlier series, they had no companion paintings: these images existed

solely to be reproduced and circulated, as polemical texts.

In other hands this all might have worked well enough, but the message and

the depiction of the squalor and its horror isn’t what finally makes them, and

particularly Gin Lane, so wholly Hogarthian. It’s the jokes.

Hogarth’s polemic is clear, but it’s almost as if he can’t help himself from

lowering the high moral tone with a few gags. Actually, a lot of gags. Look at

the background of Gin Lane and it’s crammed with jokes: drunks and dogs

fighting over bones; gin being forced down the throats of cripples and babies,

a drunken carpenter pawning the tools of his trade, a drunken baker

accidentally impaling his own baby. Corpses are disinterred, a barber hangs

himself in a collapsing building, a blind man tries to throw a stool in a

barroom brawl. And central to it all is the horrific image of the woman

dropping her infant son to his certain death down a stairwell. And it’s a gag.

It’s a joke on the central iconography of Christianity, of the Madonna and

Child, though here the Madonna is so pissed - note that cloacal word again -

she’s dropping and killing the Christ child, the exclusive medium of possible

redemption, out of drunken neglect and, basically, not giving a shit.

And there, getting back to adjectives, lies the difference between a Hogarthian

and Dickensian slum: you weep at the latter (which was 80 years but only

yards from Gin Lane) because there’s hope of redemption, and the horror lies

in that hope being dashed. In Hogarth’s slums there’s no hope of redemption

at all, so you might as well laugh.

Indeed, sometimes Hogarth seems quite unable to resist the temptation to

lower the tone. In Plate 8 of the polemical and frankly preachy series

"Industry and Idleness", when the virtuous, industrious (and, to be honest,

insufferably smug) apprentice becomes a Sheriff of the City of London, he’s a

tiny figure in the background at the feast in the City, and our eyes are drawn

irresistibly, like Hogarth’s attention, to the swinish aldermen (and,

presumably, previously industrious apprentices themselves) gloriously and

grotesquely at trough at the image’s focal centre. Likewise, in Plate 11, when

the idle apprentice is on his way to be hanged, the scene is so vibrantly

carnivalesque we end up enchanted by what should be Tyburn’s instructive


Yet remember Swift’s supplication: "How I want thee, humorous Hogarth".

Not savage, or squalid or cynical, but funny. True, the jokes - like Swift’s gag,

told too deadpan, about the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver - are

dark - jet black, in fact, but that’s what jokes are for, to work that strange

transubstantiation transforming the mundane horrors of the everyday into

laughter, releasing all those lovely endorphins which help us navigate our way

through life without going mad with despair.

And, of course, from necessity they had stronger stomachs back then. Yet

while The Hogarthian is all those things - savage, squalid and cynical -

Hogarth only made it so because his humanity left him genuinely appalled by

the horrors of the Hogarthian Age. That’s how the man, this philanthropist and

patron of the Foundlings’ Hospital, in his own way as sentimental as Sterne,

informed the artist who always makes his characters topsy-turvily "progress"

towards perdition. It’s from the pity of it all.

Because in the end, down those Hogarthian streets walked a man called

Hogarth who was not himself Hogarthian, thus belying the word he

bequeathed us. Because, like most Georgians, his genius lies not in the

strongness of his stomach, but in the softness of his heart.