Eros and Hogarth

Robert Melville

  • Hogarth by David Bindman
    Thames and Hudson, 216 pp, £5.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 500 20182 X

David Bindman does not think that Hogarth was joking when he gave one of his contemporaries, John Nichols, a comic demonstration of minimalism: it took the form of a diagram composed of three lines and he claimed that it contained his memory of ‘a Sergeant with his pike going into an Ale House, and his Dog following’. It was supposed to be a method he had invented to save him spending time on drawing. Of the three lines, one is vertical and stands for the ale-house door. The other two branch off it, the higher one being the sergeant’s pike, ‘who is gone in’, and the lower one, short and curly, being the dog’s tail. The demonstration is so blatantly simplified by the sergeant and most of his dog having ‘gone in’ that one would want to see the shorthand reminder for an actual painting before finding such a means of recall believable. Bindman would surely have reproduced an example if one were to be found. All the same, he contends that since the few sketches found in Hogarth’s studio rarely connect with his paintings, some system of lines, possibly of the kind recorded by Nichols, must have emerged from his intensive cultivation of visual memory.

Although Hogarth’s paintings yield no evidence of a linear system, he was a fine draughtsman, if a reluctant one. When there was no painting for the engraver to copy, Hogarth had to provide a drawing; he made a splendid set for the series called ‘Industry and Idleness’. But Bindman makes excellent use of a colour plate of part of an unfinished painting to show the spontaneity of Hogarth’s brushwork and applaud his mastery of a technique which leaves no trace of diagram or drawing, and probably had no use for either. This painting is usually known as ‘The Wedding Dance’, and is one of a series which was intended to depict a happy marriage in reaction against the disastrous outcome of ‘Marriage à la Mode’. The six episodes were all brushed in, then put aside and never finished, and three of them are lost. The speed and assurance of the first spread of the paint in ‘The Wedding Dance’ is dazzling: the whirl and stamp of the dancers are fixed for ever and even the tints of their flesh and the colours of their clothes are clearly indicated. The chandeliers which pour their light onto the dancers have been singled out for the high finish that would have been given to the entire picture if the project had not been abandoned. It lends the insubstantiality of the figures a peculiar magic: they look as if they have escaped from a dream.

It’s probably true to say that before Lawrence Gowing organised a comprehensive exhibition of Hogarth at the Tate in 1971-2, very few people thought of him as one of the great European painters of the 18th century. The paintings were always overshadowed by the engravings, and one is inclined to think that engraving was considered to be more appropriate than colour for story-telling, being closer to the printed word. Since Gowing, there have been several reassessments, and, in the case of Paulson, documentation on a heroic scale. Bindman is the latest reassessor. He says that ‘in a way this revelation [the Gowing exhibition] has not yet been fully assimilated,’ and that his chief aim is ‘to reconcile his achievements as a satirist with his prowess as a painter’.

A couple of years ago, Mary Webster’s account of Hogarth, which had a similar aim, was published by Studio Vista (and is now out of print). It had the advantage of a larger format and an Italian editor who made bold use of magnified details in colour from ‘Marriage à la Mode’ and ‘A Rake’s Progress’ to show, without a word said, that painter and satirist are on the most intimate terms. The colour detail chosen for the jacket was from the second scene of ‘Marriage à la Mode’ and devoted entirely to the young countess’s face. The absence of any of her 18th-century gear brings her seductively into our time. It’s now clear that the glimmer in her half-closed eyes and the smile on her sensual mouth have a secret cause. She is reliving a night of love-making with the lawyer who arranged her marriage contract. Paint and image in a double-page spread of a detail from the tavern scene in ‘A Rake’s Progress’ are equally startling. The head and shoulders of the rake himself are hemmed in by the thrusting busts of two whores. His mouth has dropped open, partly in drunken fatigue, partly in response to the girl’s hand which searches in his open shirt for his nipple, whilst the other hand slips his gold watch to the girl at his back. If one didn’t know that the black patches on the faces of the girls were syphilitic disfigurements one might have thought they had been drunkenly decorating themselves with too many beauty spots.

The tavern scene is a superb study of turbulence and depravity, containing many figures and various activities. It was the Rose Tavern in Drury Lane. Hogarth and his friends knew it well, and to some extent Hogarth relied on an oral accompaniment when the engravings went on sale. Unless people had talked we would not know, for instance, that the man in the background, holding a bronze plate and a lighted candle, was waiting for the girl in the foreground to finish undressing, before coming forward to put the plate and the candle in the middle of the table. She has already removed her heavy stays, which make an exotic still-life. When she is naked she will clamber onto the table, and, standing or lying on the plate, which should perhaps be called a ‘dish’, she will go through her programme of obscene postures and make certain she is facing the rake at the climax because he pays for the food and drink. Her vagina will be the candle-snuffer.

Low life in the art of Hogarth is often very low, and being what we are, we have been afforded so much horrified pleasure that the satire and morality do not seem to be high points in his art. They are protective covering. His genius is in his sense of life as it is lived. His sensibility is at its highest pitch in two portraits: the oil sketch of ‘The Shrimp Girl’, probably the greatest image of blithe girlhood in European art, and the portrait of Elizabeth Salter, signed and dated 1744, formal and highly finished, but exquisitely relaxed. I have looked and looked but can find no colour-plate of lovely Mrs Salter in either book.

I find that both biographers tend to fish out quaint arguments in defence of his moralism. They claim, for instance, that he only accepted two commissions from known eroticists because he needed the money. (This was about ten years before he painted the portrait of Mrs Salter.) For each of these two dubious patrons he painted a pair of pictures called ‘Before and After’. One pair was indoors, the other outdoors. The eroticist who got the indoor version must have been wildly disappointed. There was some clutching, a side-table was knocked over and a curl escaped from under the lady’s lace cap. The man hadn’t decided how to arrange his features before the situation was at an end. The lady maintained an air of gloomy consternation throughout. The girl in the outdoor pair is petite, and her horrified countenance, before and after, is indicative of her wish for moral rectitude: she is sorry Nature is so demanding. The ‘after’ picture in this pair contains the only detail in all his known work that can be considered obscene. Hogarth has had the idea of painting the moment after withdrawal, before either participant has had time to adjust his or her dress. The young man’s shirt almost but not quite conceals his penis (this I take to be the obscenity) and the girl discloses her four petticoats in four pretty colours to which must be added a fifth – the shell-pink of her legs beyond her garters. Bindman suggests that the painter’s underlying theme is the contrast ‘between the world of erotic delight offered by the swain and the messy reality and bewilderment which follows what we are meant to understand as a first attempt by both parties’. The young man’s shirt coming out of his fly is of course unseemly, but the disorder in the girl’s dress is charmingly arranged and seems to hold the promise that a little more practice will make a world of difference. But it’s just as well that these two little paintings were not beginning another of Hogarth’s Progresses. If he thought the girl had sinned, her wages would have to be a miserable death, however well he had chosen the colours of her petticoats.

A curious remark comes from Bindman about the marriage of convenience which is supposed to have condemned the young couple in ‘Marriage à la Mode’ to the roles of rake and woman of pleasure. After pointing out that the husband-to-be is a ‘Frenchified fop oblivious to feeling’, he thinks he discerns signs of emotion in the girl, which he attributes to her lower social class. But later he says that ‘the possibility of affection between the young couple is destroyed by the false position in which they have been placed by their parents.’ I think the young couple are well content with the match: he gets a fortune and she becomes a countess. The possibility of affection is more likely between the countess and her lawyer: they have obviously started an affair even before the marriage contract has been signed. They are still lovers when discovered, and the lawyer runs the husband through. Bindman contends that as the young earl dies from his wound, the countess kneels before her husband ‘aghast at what she has lost’. I think this should be rephrased to read ‘aghast at what has happened’. She has lost her lover as well as a husband. When the lover is hanged at Tyburn for murder she poisons herself. Her little daughter by the earl is brought in for a fond farewell. She has a syphilitic sore in almost the same place as her father, and a leg iron besides.

The moral of the last great narrative series, ‘Industry and Idleness’, is: if you want to get on, marry the daughter of your boss; and as Bindman so rightly says, it’s the ‘most positive endorsement of a bourgeois ethic in Hogarth’s career’, with the possible exception of his stately portrait of wealthy Mary Edwards, who was his most generous patron and a courageous fighter for one woman’s lib – her own. In a screed beside her in the portrait she implores all Englishmen to remember the laws and rights and defend the liberties secured for them by their ancestors.

Pictorially, the engravings of ‘Industry and Idleness’, based on drawings instead of paintings, are among Hogarth’s greatest works, and would probably have been even greater if all 12 had been devoted to the petty criminal instead of half of them going to the career of the bootlicker who became Lord Mayor and had the pleasure of sentencing the idle one to Tyburn. By this time Hogarth’s sense of morality was on about the same level as that of the man in Oliver Twist who said: ‘That boy will be hung.’ Yet his feeling for life was unimpaired. The engraving which depicts Idle in a broken-down bed with his whore turns sordidness into farce, with a rat scuttling past the feet of the whore and a scrawny cat falling down the chimney followed by a couple of bricks. The whore has not been awarded a black spot, but Bindman is confident that she is diseased. She is sitting up, looking with evident pleasure at the day’s haul of watches and jewellery, and one wonders if force was used to obtain the big gold earrings she is dangling. Idle had been asleep beside her, but has awoken in terror at the noise made by the cat falling down the chimney. He is half-mad with fear, but has not yet grasped where the noise is coming from and is staring bolt-eyed at the door, under the impression that the law has caught up with him. The quotation from Leviticus at the foot of the engraving has been marvellously well-chosen to underline his state of mind, and it transforms the whole sordid scene into desperate poetry: ‘The sound of a shaken leaf shall chase him.’