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
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.