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.

For a number of reasons, the key figure in this debate was always likely to be Hogarth. For Hogarth developed a theory of art which (arguably at least) matched his actual paintings rather well, but was entirely out of line with what we can think of as the ‘official’ tradition of 18th-century theory, as produced by Shaftesbury, Jonathan Richardson and Sir Joshua Reynolds. He can also be argued to have challenged, more directly than anyone else, the supremacy of history painting in the hierarchy of genres adhered to by that official theory. He was always willing to turn his hand to history painting, in his version of the grand style, when commissions were available; but he also produced paintings in a new kind of genre, the ‘modern moral subject’, the ‘progress’, which were sometimes described as comic history painting, and which may have contained the implication that the commercial England of the mid-18th century was not a place in which ideal history painting in the Italian manner could flourish – and that this was a cause for congratulation, not regret. What the English needed was English art.

And now Hogarth it is: in the last year or so two of the most learned and argumentative historians of British art have offered us two different Hogarths, with about as much in common as Michael Howard and Dennis Skinner. One of them is described by David Solkin in his Painting for Money, reviewed in these pages last year by Ronald Paulson. Solkin’s Hogarth is an ambitious social climber, determined to efface the memory of his beginnings as an apprentice in the trade of silver-engraving, and to become a painter, at a time when the fine arts conferred on their practitioners something approaching refinement and gentility. This Hogarth became a spokesman for the aspirations and attitudes of a rich and newly visible middle class, and one of his aims was to reassure them that their enjoyment of luxury was (as long as they lived within their means) a mark of their benevolence; far from indicating an acquisitive self-interest indifferent to the interest of the nation at large, it provided the opportunity to increase the sum of happiness in the nation by increasing the number of those in employment. This Hogarth believed that as Britain became richer by commerce, it would become not more corrupt but more polite, a nation in which the fine arts would flourish, by feeding at once the appetite for luxury and the desire for refinement. Solkin focused on Hogarth’s conversation-pieces rather than on the comic or satirical progresses – The Harlot’s Progress, The Rake’s Progress, Marriage-à-la-Mode – by which he became most famous. But his argument holds good for those paintings too. He reads them as images of the dangers of commercial society, of the way ‘it encourages its members to pursue misguided and irrational fantasies of opulence and status’. Their aim and effect, however, was not to portray a whole society devoted to self-destruction, but to distinguish between the proper and improper use of riches, and between the ideal ethical integrity of polite society and the sharp self-interested practices that could disguise themselves in the clothing of politeness.

The other Hogarth is described at length by Paulson himself, in his latest and longest account of the artist on whom he has been meditating and writing for over thirty years. This Hogarth is a more complex, more divided character than Solkin’s; like Solkin’s, ever aspiring upwards, anxious to improve his own social position and to raise the status of his art, but at the same time always the apprentice he once had been, his attitudes to refinement, to politeness, irrevocably shaped by the irreverence and dissidence of the street-culture in which he had been brought up. To some degree, these two identities could work for the same ends, for both are equally opposed to the theories of Shaftesbury and Richardson, the most influential writers on painting who had written at the start of the century. What was at issue here is once again the Englishness of English art: should English art efface or emphasise the signs of its Englishness? Should a national art address itself primarily to the connoisseur, and attempt to conceal its national origins by aspiring to the supposedly transnational character of the greatest Italian art? Or should it, as Paulson’s Hogarth believes, address a wider audience, and demonstrate that English civilisation, Protestant, less hierarchical, more robust and manly, was not only different from the civilisations of France or Italy but better?

For much of the time, however, the two identities of Paulson’s Hogarth act, or appear to act, with different aims in mind, and in the same image address themselves to two different groups – the polite, and a popular audience, actual or implied. The moral lessons taught by Solkin’s Hogarth then become a necessary cover for Hogarth the eternal apprentice, who always has the last irreverent laugh. This is particularly the case in the progresses and ‘modern moral subjects’. For the polite audience, the miserable or violent deaths which befall the prostitute, the rake, the gin-drinker, the idle apprentice, reaffirm the bourgeois virtues of honesty, frugality and industriousness, and teach the dangers of apeing one’s betters. But for the popular audience there is always a subtext: the vulgar, by apeing the manners of the polite, expose the apeishness of polite behaviour itself; economic success is the reward of hypocrisy and unscrupulous ambition; the punishments exacted for crimes are more inhumane than crime itself. The clue to these double readings was offered by Hogarth himself, most obviously in Boys Peeping at Nature, the subscription-ticket he gave out to intending purchasers of the engravings of some of his works: it showed a group of naughty putti in front of a herm of Diana of Ephesus, lifting her skirt to examine the (as it were) subtext beneath.

Faced with a choice between these two Hogarths, there can’t be much doubt that we’d rather believe in Paulson’s, who gets rich by exploiting the inability of the polite to see underneath the surface of his pictures, and shares the joke with the unruly apprentices on the street. This is a Hogarth who challenges more than the earnest efforts of a commercial nation to believe in its own imagined refinement: he questions also the tiresome gentility that characterises (or used to) the study of 18th-century British art in Britain, and the equally tiresome Anglophilia of many American scholars of 18th-century English literature, which required so many of them to impersonate a fantasy-version of the English gentleman. I have often wondered whether Paulson’s life-long allegiance to the impolite underside of Augustanism didn’t originate in irritation at the sherry and bow tie atmosphere of East Coast 18th-century studies in the Fifties and Sixties. To me at least Paulson’s Hogarth is considerably more attractive than Solkin’s, but he is also rather less convincing.

The main problem is that he left no trace at all in his own period, except in his pictures as interpreted by Paulson. If Solkin, by Paulson’s account, has missed the double address of many of Hogarth’s works, he is in good company. The same mistake was made by Fielding, Hogarth’s close friend and a propagandist for his work, with whom Hogarth might have been expected to share the joke: but according to Paulson, Fielding ‘misread’ his friend’s work in much the same way as Solkin does. Indeed, Hogarth himself made the same misreading, and persisted in believing that his images of low life were unambiguous condemnations of deviant behaviour, a fact which Paulson explains by suggesting that Hogarth’s pen and pencil expressed the two different sides of his double identity. The only contemporary support Paulson adduces for this reading of Hogarth comes from those to whom the subtext of his popular prints was addressed – the London apprentices and the London poor. Such people may have seen Hogarth’s engravings in the windows of print-shops or on the walls of taverns, and though no hint of what they may have made of them survives, it may make sense to attempt to adopt their point of view in order to suggest how the cold virtues of the industrious apprentice, or the fat and prosperous drinkers in Beer Street, might have looked from street level.

The obvious problem of such a heuristic strategy is that it might involve assuming that all apprentices and all the poor were of the same mind; the obvious limitation is that the strategy would tell us nothing about how Hogarth’s pictures were intended to be read, only about how they might perhaps have been read. For Paulson, however, it is a strategy that offers immediate access to a subtext whose meanings are fully intended by the artist. ‘The popular or “plebeian” audience,’ he writes, ‘perceived a meaning that questioned the status quo,’ and they perceived it ‘immediately’; the apprentice, he asserts, saw the subversive subtext ‘at once’; the poor understood ‘straightaway’. The subjects of these verbs assert the existence of an entirely homogeneous popular audience, all dissidence and no ambition; the tense of the verbs announces that its response to the pictures is a matter of record; the intensifying adverbs suggest that the existence of the subtext is not something implied or inferred, but (from the right point of view) a palpable matter of fact and artistic intention. Paulson’s Hogarth is authorised by an absent text, the unanimous, unambiguous, silent voice of the poor.

I have never found it easy to grasp the rules of evidence that apply in Paulson’s writing. Much that another critic would offer as possibility, suggestion, inference, is announced by Paulson as a simple, even an obvious matter of fact. The most improbable allusions are identified between text and text; patterns of iconography are rediscovered all over the place, but so transformed as to remain unrecognisable to me even when Paulson has pointed them out. In these three volumes, whenever (or almost whenever) a woman is depicted with more décolletage than is decent, she becomes a version of the multi-breasted Diana of Ephesus, and so calls attention, once again, to a secret subtext. When Solkin, in Painting for Money, discussed Joseph Wright’s painting of a group of students drawing a plaster cast of Venus with a single breast exposed, Paulson in his review announced that she, too, was a version of the goddess of Nature, Diana Multimammia. ‘Solkin does not see this,’ he remarked, and nor for the life of me do I.

Such moments (the first two volumes of Hogarth are full of them, and they carry much of the argument) are probably best understood as a tax Paulson levies on the knowledge he imparts; and if I pay up so reluctantly, it isn’t that I don’t appreciate what I learn from everything he writes, but that I learn so much more when the learning comes tax-free. For when his fancy has exhausted itself in the search for parallels and transformations, Paulson becomes a brilliantly illuminating reader of texts and images: the account in the final volume of Hogarth’s last years, from the writing of the Analysis of Beauty to the politics of the two parts of The Times, is by some way the best thing I have ever read on Hogarth, better than anything even by Paulson himself. His reading of the Analysis, a theory of art based on the pleasures of the erotic, and so in direct confrontation with the theory proposed by Shaftesbury and founded on the suppression of desire, is thoroughly convincing; so is the marvellous discussion of the four paintings of An Election in the context of the politics of the early 1750s. Most exciting of all, perhaps, is his reading of The Cockpit, where he draws on Peter de Bona’s discussion of the sublimity of Pitt’s oratory in the context of the financial excesses of his ministry, and makes luminous sense of one of Hogarth’s most apparently obscure images.

From one point of view, whether or not we are convinced by Paulson’s interpretations will matter a good deal to our sense of the achievement of Hogarth, as well as of Hogarth himself. From another point of view it won’t matter much at all; for with all its idiosyncrasies, this is an astonishing book, and I don’t know when I last read anything on the 18th century from which I learned as much. It is a quite remarkably full chronicle of Hogarth’s life, based on the exhaustive information Paulson has exhumed from manuscript records, from newspapers, and from the writings of his contemporaries; it situates his work in the most extraordinarily detailed context of London life, and of contemporary politics, writing and art – and it does this again and again, so that each of Hogarth’s most important images can he understood in terms of how the cultural environment in which he was working changed month by month, even week by week. Nothing so ambitious has been attempted for any other British artist of the period, and no one else would have the range of learning necessary to make the attempt.