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’.

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