A Smile at My Own Temerity

John Barrell

  • William Hogarth: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings by Elizabeth Einberg
    Yale, 432 pp, £95.00, November 2016, ISBN 978 0 300 22174 9

The word ‘Hogarthian’ first appeared in print in 1744, in a translation of La Fontaine’s The Loves of Cupid and Psyche. By this time Hogarth had become well known, in particular, for the engraved versions of his graphic novels: the ‘progresses’, illustrating the lives of Tom Rakewell and Moll Hackabout, and Marriage à la Mode, the story of the disastrous arranged marriage of a city merchant’s daughter to the son of an earl. By issuing these and other series of his paintings as prints, Hogarth had gained more currency for his work than any other 18th or early 19th-century painter. There was no other whose name was commonly adjectivised: we don’t find ‘Reynoldsian’, for example, or ‘Turnerian’, in familiar use. But how far these prints were ‘Hogarthian’, as that term came to be understood, is debatable. The OED defines it, capaciously enough, as ‘of, relating to, or characteristic of William Hogarth or his style; resembling or characteristic of the subjects depicted in Hogarth’s work’, and explains that ‘much of the work of Hogarth is characterised by the use of satire to examine questions of morality, and often features vivid characterisations of the disreputable side of 18th cent. English life.’ But the quotations cited in support of this definition seem to tell a different story. They include a letter of 1829 by Charles Lamb, in which he speaks of ‘true broad Hogarthian fun’, and an essay by Carlyle of 1837: ‘There is nothing more Hogarthian comic.’ Next comes Swinburne, fifty years later, speaking of ‘an excellent Hogarthian comedy, full of rapid and vivid incident, of pleasant or indignant humour’. In 1978 Cecil Beaton attributes to the society philanthropist Lady Anne Tree ‘an oversize personality and character – rorty, Hogarthian and with exquisite understanding of character’, and in 2003 a writer in the Economist evokes a ‘Hogarthian throng of cheerful tradesmen and naughty ’prentice boys’.

‘March of the Guards to Finchley’ (1750)

In a thoughtful essay Lamb himself attacked the notion that what is most Hogarthian about Hogarth is what is most broadly comic, most boisterous, most fun. This, he claims, is ‘the vulgar notion respecting Hogarth’, exemplified in particular in a critique of his work by the Irish painter and critic James Barry. Acknowledging Hogarth’s merit – his ‘admirable fund of invention’, the moral quality of his satire, ‘seldom or never employed in a dishonest or unmanly way’ – Barry had nevertheless claimed that his ‘general aim’ was not to ‘reach the heart’, but only to ‘shake the sides’.

As thoroughly Hogarthian as anything else by Hogarth, in the terms, at least, of the quotations in the OED, is the magnificent March of the Guards to Finchley (1750), in the Foundling Museum, formerly the Foundling Hospital, near Russell Square. There are only three Hogarths there, but it is absolutely the best place to enjoy his amazing variety without getting tired. The scene of the March of the Guards to Finchley is Tottenham Court Road turnpike, looking up towards Highgate on its distant, sunlit hill; on one side of the road is a pub, the Adam and Eve, on the other a four-storey inn-cum-brothel, with whores leaning out of every sash window and looking down on the mayhem in the street below. During the Jacobite invasion of 1745, this is where soldiers were required to muster prior to marching off to the encampment on Finchley Common and thence northwards; but those who have come to report for duty look in no condition, physical or emotional, for military service. In the centre of the painting is a sergeant, wielding the halberd that denotes his rank, and vainly trying to keep in order a noisy, drunken rabble of grenadiers. In front of him stands the most sober of them, a handsome guard, whose farewell to his pregnant girlfriend, a poor but pretty ballad-seller, is being violently interrupted by an older woman who may be his wife, and who, if we believe the account of the picture by Hogarth’s friend Jean André Rouquet, is also pregnant. The two women are rivals in politics as well as in love, the younger selling pro-Hanoverian papers, the older Jacobite ones. Apart from a very upright guard in front of the brothel, who has something of the air of Jacob Rees-Mogg, this handsome grenadier is the best behaved of the lot. Among the others, one has a painful case of the chaude-pisse, and is urinating against a fence bearing an advertisement for a quack cure. Another is kissing a young milkmaid, and feeling her up under her bodice; the milk slopping from her pail is eagerly scooped up in his hat by another soldier. Yet another filches a pie from the tray of a pie-seller; another has punctured a barrel of gin carried by a porter, and is catching its contents in his water-bottle; a third has fallen down drunk, but turns his head away from the water offered by a barely more sober comrade while making a grab for a noggin of gin being poured out by a sutler.

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