A Scene of Furniture

Rosemary Hill

  • Hogarth: A Life and a World by Jenny Uglow
    Faber, 794 pp, £14.99, September 1998, ISBN 0 571 19376 5

An artist who becomes an adjective is difficult for the biographer. The Hogarthian world of teeming streets, lubricious drawing-rooms and earthy taverns has been softened by censorship and repetition until Gin Lane has, somehow, come to seem part of Merrie England. The occasion for this book was the 1997 tercentenary of Hogarth’s birth, which was also marked by several small exhibitions. The Tate, the British Museum and the National Gallery all showed the works in their own collections, but there was no attempt to form an overview or to revise his reputation in a single, major display. Perhaps this reflected the fact that while the paintings and their details remain eternally popular the moral world they represent is one in which the late 20th century is not at ease.

At the National Gallery, where Marriage à la Mode was on show, accompanied by Judy Egerton’s fine catalogue, there was also a video, narrated by Alan Bennett. As it finished on the day I was there, the woman in front of me said to her friend: ‘Well, I should hope they weren’t all like that.’ It was a very Bennett moment, as distinct from a Hogarthian one. ‘Missing the point’ was not in Hogarth’s repertoire of satire, which drew harder, darker lines, telling us that we are all like that, given the chance.

Uglow’s book takes us into this strange, deceptively familiar world. It is full of ‘intricacy’ in the sense the 18th century admired, the play of light and shade that makes the view properly complicated. Her dual themes – ‘life and world’ – are not always in balance: there are biographical gaps in which Hogarth has to be extrapolated, like the subjects of many of his pictures, from the surrounding circumstances, but they are always in focus. From time to time Uglow drops broader views like stage flats into her narrative, lengthening the imaginary vista in a manner particularly suited to Hogarth, who conceived many of his works as dramatic scenes and said: ‘my picture was my stage.’

The son of a schoolmaster whose attempts to make his way in life had led only to debt and disappointment, Hogarth was born in Smithfield in 1697. He was unusual among the men who made London culture in his lifetime in being a native – Johnson and Garrick, Smollett, Boswell and Samuel Richardson were all incomers. Uglow makes telling use of Hogarth’s progress across the capital, from Smithfield to Covent Garden, from the city to ‘the town’ and from trade to art. Not that the distance between the latter was so great. In Drury Lane, the painter Vanderstaeten turned out continuous landscapes on rolls of canvas to be cut up and sold by the yard. The great Sir Godfrey Kneller expected to do no more than the head and shoulders of a portrait before passing it down the studio line to the man who did the hats, the lace painter and so forth.

The conventions of Renaissance, indeed of medieval art and practice, were still palpable in England in Hogarth’s day, and in his own work. His strange early satire of 1724, Royalty, Episcopy and Law, depicts a symbolic group of ‘inhabitants of ye moon’. Their faces are symbolic objects – a guinea for the King and a Jew’s harp for the bishop – while beside them a lady and gentleman, or rather a teapot and a periwig, engage in a tête à tête. This, Uglow points out, is still the language of the emblem book, where images stand, hieratically, for ideas.

By 1762, in Five Orders of Periwigs, the process is reversed, objects no longer generalise but particularise. The accoutrements of daily life reveal, indeed create, the personalities of individuals. The whole is a satire on taste, sartorial and architectural, aimed squarely at public figures, with the wig-maker’s block standing in for James ‘Athenian’ Stuart. The emergence of personality in portraiture, already apparent in Kneller’s work, was extended in Hogarth’s to the whole material world.

Having made the transition from Smithfield to Covent Garden, Hogarth moved on again, leaving behind his apprenticeship to a silver engraver to become an artist. Throughout his career, as the gaps in the cultural fabric opened – between upper and lower classes, between artist and craftsman, between court literature and folk art – he was always somewhere in the middle, a position that was by turns commanding and insecure.

It was here in the new world of the ‘polite’, that he sought to create an English school of painting. The new gentility was precarious, a kind of Swiftian flying island, on which the emergent middle classes perched and where the bric-à-brac of a still forming taste proliferated: porcelain, newly imported tea bowls, fans, massive antiquities and tiny tables. It was ‘reserved to Hogarth’, as Horace Walpole said, ‘to write a scene of furniture’. In his comic pictures things are often disordered, broken or overbalancing; the world of polite taste makeshift, the abrupt descent into the madhouse or the gutter imminent.

This was the audience for whom Garrick cut the coarser scenes in Hamlet and Handel composed ‘Il Moderato’, a balancing tail-piece to his settings of ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’. Meanwhile, the heads of Jacobites rotted on London Bridge, and Walpole’s complacent note on the firework display at which ‘but two persons were killed’ catches exactly the level of brutality in the new civility.

Hogarth himself, even allowing for some gloss of hindsight in his own accounts of his life, charted an impressively steady course through the shifting scenes. Through the book we follow his sturdy little figure – he was only five feet tall – as he makes a beeline for Sir James Thornhill, the most eminent painter after Kneller, becomes his pupil and then, to Thornhill’s initial annoyance, marries his daughter, Jane.

While it was probably a happy marriage, it was undoubtedly an advantageous one. It set a pattern of enlightened self-interest that recurred throughout Hogarth’s life. In almost all his activities – his campaign for a copyright law to protect engravers, his generosity to the Foundling Hospital, the offer to St Bartholomew’s to paint the great murals there gratis – there was some advantage to himself. As Uglow says, in a finely judged phrase, ‘he never felt a conflict between altruism and self-advertisement.’

He was anxious to get on in the world he satirised. He could paint the ladies of the Woollaston family, holding tiny tea bowls that show off their delicate hands and use the same gesture in Taste in High Life to satirise the vanity of an old woman, whose fashionable dress and dowager’s hump conspire to turn the whole figure into an inverted tea bowl. The wit is always double-edged, sometimes it seems two-faced. It is hard to agree with Walpole’s judgment, the settled opinion of the later 18th century, that the intention was always ‘improvement’. It is easier to see what Uglow analyses in Hogarth and his contemporaries as the parodic cast of mind.

One of the few episodes in Hogarth’s life to have been documented at the time was his trip to North Kent in the early summer of 1732. He and four friends set off from Covent Garden late one night on the spur of a drunken whim, coming back nearly a week later. They wrote up this Shandyesque anti-Grand Tour as An Account of What Seemed Most Remarkable in the Five DaysPeregrination of the Five Following Persons etc, illustrated by Hogarth and Samuel Scott.

A parody of Grand Tour memoirs and antiquarianism, and a satire on its own authors, this comic history – labelled Volume One, though there was never any intention of making another – includes an account of the behaviour of the natives of the Isle of Sheppey. A careful transcription of an epitaph and a detailed description of Hogarth shitting against a church door are accompanied by pictures of the party with a lettered key. The centre of these self-reflecting, riddling satires, round which, as in Sterne, the mind revolves as much amazed as amused, is at ‘D: Mr Hogarth drawing this drawing’.

Hogarth’s great invention, the narrative series of ‘modern history painting’, was a product of the same parodic mood. Satire thrives in a tight place, and in the space between high and low society which he – like Gay, Fielding and Sterne – inhabited, there was scope to bounce constantly off both sides. Although we are invited to deplore the slovenliness of the couple in Marriage à la Mode, the self-righteous beholder catches his own unattractive reflection in the Squanderfields’ finger-wagging Methodist steward.

Hogarth himself is perhaps harder to find in his comic paintings than Uglow suggests. She sees, for example, in his satire on Mary Tofts, who claimed to have given birth to live rabbits, a relative sympathy for the ‘strong supine woman’ in contrast to the absurdity of the wise fools inspecting her. Yet Mary Tofts, gesturing to her stomach, her head flung back, mouth open, is a parody of a woman parodying childbirth. Our sympathies, as ever, ricochet around the picture, unable to settle.

The parodic cast of mind is better suited to negative than positive statements. Hogarth and his contemporaries often debated the nature of art and the hierarchy of the genres, but it was easier to see what painting should not be than what it should. Jonathan Richardson’s Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715) set off boldly from the notion that the artist must not merely represent nature, only to suggest awkwardly that art should portray what was rarely seen or ‘what never was, or will be in fact, though we might easily conceive it might be’.

Hogarth’s attempts at the high-style idioms of history and religious painting often led to a similar kind of limbo. Uglow makes a stout attempt to defend him, complaining that the critics who suggest that he was out of his element merely repeat one another. Yet it is surely true. His paintings for the Church of St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, showing scenes from the Resurrection and Ascension, are full, as Uglow shows, of Hogarth’s scepticism, his dislike of the clergy and his fondness for dramatic action. But this does not make them a success. ‘Panic and uncertainty’ are not the appropriate mood for an altarpiece in a great medieval church.

The three pictures, now in the Bristol City Art Gallery, were originally wedged awkwardly into the building, not fully visible from any one spot, and blocking the East window. The mood of England at the time was no more in sympathy with the sacred and with Gothic architecture than was Hogarth himself. In The Analysis of Beauty, imbued as it is with the Rococo aesthetic of shell forms and graceful asymmetry, he suggests that, had Wren not been constrained by the conventions of religious symbolism, he would have topped off St Paul’s Cathedral with a pineapple.

Where Hogarth touched the older conventions and transformed them was in portraiture. Here the parodic could be pushed into something transforming. The slight stiffness of the Wollaston family, a shyness perhaps on the part of both painter and sitters, had disappeared by the 1740s. In the great painting of the philanthropist, Captain Coram, the formality of state portraiture is applied to a red-faced seaman whose dignity comes from his goodness not his grandeur. Set against a background that might have served Batoni, the Captain’s weatherbeaten features and the globe at his feet show that he is far from being merely a tourist.

Hogarth’s aesthetic sympathies, as they emerge between his own ambitions and his satire, lay with the vernacular. He was for the English and the local against Greece and Rome. As he wrote endearingly in The Analysis of Beauty, ‘a good deal of this will look like resentment,’ adding: ‘I will be ingenuous enough to confess that something of this may be true.’ But it was also the first glimmering of a preference which in the next century would become a battle of the styles between the Gothic and the Classical.

Already in the late 1740s a Gothic tinge was creeping over England, promoting sensibility rather than taste. This was not what Hogarth meant at all. Taste, Horace Walpole said, was necessary for Antiquity: for Gothic only passion was required; and he affected to be scandalised when the ageing Hogarth, quizzing him about the contents of his forthcoming Anecdotes of Painting in England, announced that it was ‘owing to the good sense of the English, that they have not painted better’.

Yet if the mood was turning against Hogarth, the frustration, amounting to bitterness, that he seems to have felt in his last years was out of all proportion to his professional difficulties. The quarrels he engaged in, his obsession with the failure of his painting Sigismunda were beyond reason, so too was the apocalyptic vision of his Tailpiece or The Bathos, of 1764. Time lies expiring in the ruins of art. A satire on the taste for ‘dark’ pictures – that is, for old paintings regardless of quality – it is itself a dark work. Hogarth was, Uglow says, ‘thinking of those giants of his youth, Swift and Pope’. He was also, as always, thinking of himself. His own time ran out that year. He had never been, as he took pains to point out, a caricaturist. He drew what he saw ‘tamquam in speculam’. Yet the mirror followed the curve of his own mind, like the concave landscape glasses of the 18th century, able to contain a world.