Born at the end of the 17th century into a period of growing social inequality, William Hogarth’s engravings and paintings are one of the best insights we have into the people’s world of the early Georgian period.
Hogarth’s work is more than outwardly critical of the society in which he lives. Each of his engravings is intricately done, with minute details adding yet more context to the face-value story they’re telling.
And, of course, it’s the story-telling which makes Hogarth’s pieces so memorable. The Rake’s Progress, perhaps his best known piece, is remarkable for the way in which not just a man’s life, but the strata of society, is conveyed through just eight images. Tom – the anti hero of the cycle – journeys from middle class comfort to the gaudy excess of the New Moneyed elite before tumbling downwards the debtors prison and, finally, Bedlam.
No section of society escapes the harsh wit of Hogarth’s brush. In his world, the rich are vapid, the poor wretched, and the protagonists unlikable. In The Harlot’s Progress, a precursor to The Rake’s Progress, a priest passes by on his horse while an innocent Moll (soon to become the titular Harlot) is inspected by a brothel-keeper and a pimp. Even the clergy are objects of ridicule in this step beyond the normal into the absurd, and every detail of the world has been scrupulously created, down to Moll’s date of death inscribed on her coffin, noting the age of this “old woman” – 23.
Hogarth’s social world also gives us an insight into the rich diversity overtaking London. Forget the white-washed façade you’re probably imagining. Looking into the engravings, there are African prisoners, Jewish merchants, syphilitic prostitutes and French dancing masters, showing off a rich tapestry of characters coming from a distinctly London-centric artist. There’s glorious chaos in almost all of Hogarth’s pictures of the lower classes, painting a world for his wider audience which speaks of a city expanding as they begin to reach further across the globe.
And all the time, he’s doing this with his audience in mind. Hogarth’s paintings are more than simply critical of the world he lives in. They’re deeply satirical. As well as commentating on the state of things as they are – and Gin Lane, perhaps his most famous painting, showing a mother so intoxicated by gin that she throws her baby into the river whilst laughing manically – doesn’t just comment on the poor who were driven to cheap alcohol. It’s also a comment on the demonization of these same poor, particularly by the wealthy, who viewed them not just as another class, but as another species. When he draws an image of Moll the prostitute, sat on her bed aging and syphilitic, he does so in resemblance of the Annunciation of Christ. No object is sacred from Hogarth’s scathing brush, least of all established religion.
His work also turns towards the upper-middle and elite classes, especially in London. In Marriage a-la-mode, our two protagonists have entered into an arranged marriage in which they both engage in a purely superficial version of “love” masked by the fripperies of velvet and lace. In true Hogarth style, the story soon takes a dark turn, with the wife’s lover murdering her husband and the subsequent suicide of the widowed wife. Pretty grim. But also a morality tale with a clear message to the observer: don’t get caught up in money and material goods, not when it comes at the expense of true feeling. That’s some deep stuff, direct from the pen of the 18th century’s artist of choice. But it’s not all Protestant work ethic and rejection of the trappings of middle class life. Check out some of Hogarth’s jokes hidden in the plain sight: in the scene Shortly After Marriage in Marriage-a-la-mode, the wife’s spread legs underneath her broad skirt indicate that someone’s been enjoying at least some of the advantages that marriage can bring.
The first true social commentator and satirist, Hogarth was an artist who worked everything around him into his pictures and engravings. To look at his work is to get a glimpse into the complicated world of early 18th century London, to walk in the streets and hide behind the velvet curtains of a wealthy family’s drawing room. Hogarth’s work was characterised by its biting social commentary, and even today we can maybe learn something from looking at ourselves through the lenses of another world.
IMAGE/ Wikipedia Foundation