The view from the street

John Barrell

  • Hogarth. Vol. I: The ‘Modern Moral Subject’, 1697-1732 by Ronald Paulson
    Lutterworth, 411 pp, £35.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 7188 2854 2

In the early Eighties, the main debate – though quarrel might be the better word – among historians of British art in its ‘great century’, from Hogarth to Turner, was about landscape. But whatever the differences between them, the most vocal participants in this debate were all finally on the same side, arguing with a largely silent (either stunned or indifferent) opposition to establish that there was a politics of landscape painting, that it needed to be understood in the context of landownership, agricultural improvement, the management of the rural poor, the changing economic relation between town and country and so on. By the late Eighties that argument had apparently been won, and as the victors began to extend the field of their inquiry to portraiture, history painting, the conversation piece, so they began to fall out among themselves. Perhaps the main issue at stake was how to explain the apparent mismatch between the theories of painting most influential on 18th-century connoisseurs and critics, committed to the promotion of a public art of manly virtue and idealised forms, and the predominantly private, informal, even (as the century got older) feminised works which actually got produced.

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