Hogarth was a man of London. He hardly ever left the city that he criticised, satirised, preached at and loved. He frequented fairs and taverns, sideshows and cockfights, dances and all-night supper parties; watched parading Redcoats and election riots, and followed the crowds to executions. He observed the comedy of English life as a man, a commoner who was part of it, studying its significance and the character, expressions and behaviour of the players composing it. He knew his London and he loved Englishwomen and the beefy men whom he drew and painted with the bulk strength of sculpture. Above all though, he was a man who purified the gloomy house of art with his blasting laughter.
Born 10 November, 1697, in a poor Smithfield neighbourhood in the city of London, Hogarth was the son of a Dutch Calvinist schoolteacher. His father, who made a precarious living by such literary drudgery as compiling dictionaries and writing textbooks, ended up in Fleet prison as a result of the debt he owed. This rocky early start strongly influenced Hogarth's desire to succeed. Another strong influence was the puritanist religion of his father. Always close to the surface of Hogarth the artist was Hogarth the preacher.
Young William showed an early talent as a draughtsman, but either from prudence or from necessity he was apprenticed to an engraver of silverplate in 1712, at the age of 15. Hogarth's first "works" were intricate decorations on silver tankards and platters, but he quickly found the work "in every respect too limited". As soon as he was free of apprenticeship he took up the more ambitious trade of engraving on copper for reproduction. Although earlier artists (Rembrandt, for example) had used the etching needle, Hogarth was virtually the first to rise to greatness from the ranks of journeymen engravers. This early career influenced him in various ways - it deprived him of conventional academic training according the principles of the "Great Style", but it made him familiar with a wide variety of pictorial styles, from that of the crudest broadsheet to suave reproductions in the style of Leonardo and Michelangelo.
Throughout the 1720's Hogarth's income came from pictorial advertising cards for shops, billheads, theatre tickets and formal invitations to funerals. Then came book illustrations and scathing satirical engravings, which were sold in bookshops at a shilling per copy. The first of these satiric works was a savage attack on the South Sea Company, a speculative venture that became known as the "South Sea Bubble" after it burst disastrously in 1720. The faces of some of the figures that fill the picture to overflowing and represent the company's directors and their victims are portraits of real celebrities - libel laws of the early 18th century were too flaccid to spoil such fun.
The South Sea Scheme shows many characteristics that would mark Hogarth's work throughout his career. Perhaps because of his upbringing in crowded London, where few people had rooms or even beds to themselves, he seemed loath to leave an inch of space unused. His designs are multi-ringed circuses packed with allegorical figures - Honour being flogged by Self-Interest, Truth beset by Villainy, Despair beckoned by Fraud. This type of engraving had its roots in the Netherlands, but Hogarth gave it unequalled vigour.
Hogarth was also technically versatile - between jobs he taught himself to paint, and it was from these small paintings that he made his engravings, which could be sold easily and which became quite popular. Impressed by the work of James Thornhill (who carried out the painted decorations in the dome of St. Paul's and at Greenwich - the only native Baroque paintings of any quality in the country) which Hogarth had seen in the Royal Hospital, and influenced by his notable success, Hogarth formed an ambition to succeed as a history painter. In the 1720's, therefore, although he had already started his own business as an engraver, he enrolled as a student in Vanderbank's Academy in St. Martin's Lane, and later he attended Thornhill's private art school in James Street, Covent Garden. In the classes, Hogarth was disappointed - it was mere drawing.
He may not have learned much from his teacher (he was soon painting better than Thornhill), but the experience was not a total loss. Hogarth won the love of Jane Thornhill, his master's only daughter, twenty and very lovely, and he proposed marriage. Thornhill frowned on the match, sceptical of the engraver's ability to support the girl. The young couple eloped in 1729.
Although Hogarth had entertained early hopes of improving his place in the hierarchy of artists by taking up history painting; the task of winning over Julia's disapproving father, combined with the need to earn more money to support her without her father's help, urged Hogarth to begin more serious painting in oils. Hogarth quickly found that conversation pieces (a popular type of painting recently imported from the Continent) offered a surer road to success than history painting. Stating that conversation pieces gave "more scope for fancy than common portrait", he began casting about for commissions. By the beginning of 1731 he was well established in this field, orders poured in, and a list shows that at this time he had 16 commissions on hand. Hogarth, however, regarded this work as a drudgery only a little better than engraving, and in his characteristic manner he actively set out to create an alternative, new, and above all, British style.
His inspiration came from an unlikely source - the theatre. In 1728 John Gay's The Beggar's Opera premiered. The Beggar's Opera was a lively musical drama that was in deliberate contrast to the grandiose Italian opera that Hogarth had already ridiculed in his caricature prints. Its heroes were thieves and fences, its climax came in Newgate Gaol, and its tunes were old English ballads. This musical about the London underworld of prostitutes, pimps and thieves, swept the city as had no play within living memory and was an instant success. Enchanted, Hogarth promptly painted and publicised a pictorial version of the play's climax. The work showed not only the actors in their roles but also the distinguished audience seated at the sides of the stage, and was so popular that he painted five variants.
Almost by chance Hogarth had hit on the pictorial form that was to make his reputation. Hogarth was always the businessman, and this quick success gave him a golden idea: instead of depicting lively scenes from another man's play, why not imagine scenes of his own suitable for picturing. Thus began Hogarth's career in dramatic narrative. His first attempt, in 1731, was a pair of paintings entitled Before and After, illustrating a seduction. Said to have been commissioned by "a certain vicious nobleman", the pictures nevertheless contain an element of moralising in that the man in After looks somewhat dazed and unhappy despite his lustful conquest. Hogarth listened to glowing comments on Before and After and saw in such pictures, which combined moralising with titillation, a way to carry his preachings to the largest possible audience. Hogarth knew that he had important things to say and that it was not in portraiture that his real interest or his real gift lay. He was a born illustrator. He was also a born moralist, a fighter for causes, and he found exactly the right mode of expression for his genius in these moral narrative pictures. These thoughts gave rise to his more famous works, those in which he proceeded as a dramatist, presenting a series of scenes to paint a moral.
Impatient to put to a practical test his ideas of "composing pictures on canvas similar to representations on the stage", he took a house in Leicester Fields (which he occupied till his death) and bent all his wits to a study of the career of a loose woman. To put his plan into operation, Hogarth intended to paint a single picture dramatising woman's fall, with enough titillation to insure its popularity. Before he completed his project he had multiplied one painting into a series of six, because he discovered that if he depicted a series of scenes of London low life, presented as a story in narrative order, and sold them as engravings, he could find a large and profitable audience.
In 1732 The Harlot's Progress, the story of Moll Hackabout, burst upon London. Stylistically, this series combined the appeal of scenes of merrymaking and debauchery by earlier Dutch painters such as Ostade and Steen, the elaborate wit of Bruegel's engravings, and the popular prints of actual condemned criminals that Hogarth himself had engraved on several occasions. These narrative series had an intriguingly recognisable London setting, and many of their characters were both real and well known. Hogarth claimed to be cultivating a field "not yet broken up in any country or any age", that his works were "in the historical style", but of an "intermediate species of subject, which may be placed between the sublime and the grotesque". His pictures were not simply slices of life but were carefully conceived and composed inventions. He was not ignoring the grand manner; but like Gay in his Beggar's Opera, he was inverting it, introducing the "antihero" to painting. Poor Moll Hackabout was the rage of London; she was put into pantomime and opera, sung in street ballads, painted on fans and tea services. Her only detractors were the highbrow painters of the grand style and the auctioneers, who grudgingly allowed that she was an appealing wench, but said she was not art. The public did not pause to consider her artistic pretensions. They recognised her as one of their own kind. They were delighted with Hogarth's unsparing realism. The truth is that he revived the oldest and most appealing form of art - storytelling, which had been lost to the world since the era of Giotto and his religious fables.
The Harlot's Progress delighted all classes of London's population and won its creator a unique and permanent place in the history of art. Whether or not A Harlot's Progress improved the minds of its admirers, as its creator intended, Hogarth's fame was assured. Although the series was received with instantaneous and universal applause (and netted the author, by the sale of engravings, a snug fortune of five thousand dollars), the plates were freely pirated, and engraved copies of varying quality were sold in enormous numbers with no benefit to the original artist - a situation that was common at the time.
Hogarth, tired of this evil, reacted with characteristic vigour; he got influential friends to pressure Parliament until, in 1735, it passed a copyright bill (known as "Hogarth's Act") protecting artist's rights in the reproductions of their works.
Hogarth did not rest on his laurels. His next satire was The Rake's Progress (whose publication as engravings he held up until the copyright law was safely passed). The Rake's Progress was a play in eight scenes picturing the career of a spendthrift. Closely paralleling its predecessor, this series shows the mounting troubles of a foolish young fop who inherits the fortune of his miserly father and attempts to keep up with the gaudy and licentious aristocrats who lead London society. His money eventually runs out and he tries to recoup his fortune by marrying a rich, elderly, one-eyed woman. Even this does not suffice: The Rake is thrown into debtor's prison and finally dies in an insane asylum. A better work in every respect than its predecessor - in characterisation, draughtsmanship and colour - The Rake's Progress, though greeted with enthusiasm, did not set London on fire as did the story of the lowly Moll Hackabout. The picture-drama was no longer a novelty.
A Rake's Progress, protected by Hogarth's Act, earned Hogarth a great deal of money and permitted him to give attention to his lifelong ambition, which was to paint "history pictures". He spent the better part of two years painting two enormous pictures on Biblical themes - The Pool of Bethesda and The Good Samaritan. Unhappily for Hogarth, when he gave two biblical canvases St. Bartholomew's Hospital, the hospital of which he was a governor; they earned him little praise and no commissions. The academic critics never accepted Hogarth as a history painter - Reynolds went so far as to express regret for those few occasions when Hogarth "very imprudently or rather presumptuously, attempted the great historical style, for which his previous habits had by no means prepared him". "Hogarth's genius", said Reynolds, had "been employed on low and confined subjects" and, therefore, "the praise which we give must be limited in its object". Disappointed, Hogarth returned to the field of portraiture.
Portrait painting, a traditional road to artistic prosperity, was Hogarth's next endeavour. His first serious production was a full-length portrait of Captain Thomas Coram, a prominent philanthropist, shipbuilder and self-made man. Hogarth proclaimed in advance that the picture would challenge the tradition of van Dyck's elegant portraits of English aristocrats of the previous century, and would prove that a native-born British painter could do as well for a middle-class sitter. Captain Coram accomplished both those things. It was a great artistic success and is certainly one of the best portraits ever painted in England. Its background and foreground symbolise the sea, where the good captain won his fortune, and the face of the subject glows with virtues that Hogarth admired: intelligence, good humour, honesty and morality. Portraiture, however, was not the ideal outlet for Hogarth's talents, for unfortunately his excellence lay in the grasp of character, and he learned "by mortifying experience, that whoever would succeed in this branch [of society portraiture] must make divinities of all who sit for him".
He was not a flatterer and he would not paint, for any consideration, a person who did not appeal to him. His best portraits are in fact those which he undertook for his own pleasure and in which he could be absolutely truthful: his self-portraits and paintings of his friends or even of his household servants. Such works were not likely to have a very large sale, however, and as his love for truthful portrayal of the simpler (and often seamy) side of life, was in direct opposition to the elegant Palladian taste of the day, he never commanded the commissions that lesser portraitists did.
In 1734 Thornhill died and Hogarth inherited the art school. With his usual determination, he reorganised the academy into one of the most important English schools of art before the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768. Hogarth assumed control of the art school, endowed it and supervised the curriculum, hoping against his suspicions that he might discover a method other than his own "whereby talent might be developed freely and not shaped to copy the dead for the dealers".
In 1743, while still doing a few portraits, Hogarth began work on his most brilliant achievement; the series called Marriage à la Mode. In this he combined his moralising with a subtlety and economy of design not apparent in most of his other satiric works. He intended to have the series of six engraved for reproduction, but he also hoped to sell the paintings themselves for high prices. Therefore, he painted them all with meticulous care, (which was not always the case with earlier works of his that were headed for the engraver's tool). The engravings from Marriage à la Mode made Hogarth a small fortune, but the patrons of art did not rush forward to bid for the paintings. What, besides shame and resentment, could they have got from paintings that not only disclosed the seamy side of high life but which, in the absurd classic nudes disfiguring the backgrounds of Marriage à la Mode, had burlesqued the tastes of would-be connoisseurs? Hogarth kept the six paintings in his studio for five years rather than entrust them to the dealers, finally disposing of them at public auction. The whole set brought the insignificant sum of five hundred dollars!
In his last years Hogarth wrote The Analysis of Beauty, the first treatise on the aesthetics of painting to appear in the English language. The book, published in 1753, is partly an elaborate theory of aesthetics based on the idea that those things that evoke a feeling of great pleasure are expressed in curved, serpentine lines - Hogarth's well-known "Line of Beauty". It is also an appeal to artists to get their ideas direct from nature, not from traditions of art. A few critics liked the book; most did not, and some of them derided Hogarth as a man of little education who was writing about philosophical matters far beyond his depth. In addition, his "Line of Beauty" was considered ridiculously simplistic, and he was suspected of plagiarism. Many satirical prints attacked Hogarth's pretensions to present himself as a privileged authority of aesthetics.
In his later years William Hogarth was not a happy man. His roughly satirical Election series of 1754 (a send-up of corruption and chaos in the whole community) fell far short of his earlier narrative series, his paintings - sometimes auctioned in his own house, where he limited bidding on each lot to exactly five minutes - did not bring the prices he felt they deserved, and the last decade of his life was enlivened by controversies - including a scandal over his Sigismunda, his last work in the ideal style which was rejected by the patron, hooted by the critics, hated by the dealers. Hogarth knew that, in attacking it, his adversaries were indirectly attacking the character of the man who had painted it. Disappointed, Hogarth did little painting during his last ten years.
The short, stocky, blue-eyed man with a keen wit, tender heart and booming laugh was ambitious, and in his own eyes his ambitions were not realised. But William Hogarth will long be remembered for his indefatigable morality, his genius, and the wonderfully lively works of intellect that he left behind. Perhaps it would have disappointed him to know that today we esteem most highly the topical narratives that he would have regarded as ephemeral ... then again, he may have laughed to know it.
William Hogarth, painter and engraver, died in 1764. He was sixty-sixth years old. Hogarth was laid to rest in nearby Chiswick churchyard.
contributed by Gifford, Katya