A quick brush with satire

18th April 1997 at 01:00
Hogarth's Progress BBC2 Sunday April 20 8.00-8.50pm

There's an enjoyably old fashioned look to this 50-minute documentary about William Hogarth (1697-1764), pictured right, which is being broadcast as part of his tercentenary. It has a clear structure - Hogarth's progress both as a painter and as a man is charted in four neat stages. There's a solid, unquirky presenter in Andrew Graham-Dixon. We see the paintings and relevant people talk about them - people like Hogarth's biographer Jenny Uglow, cartoonist Gerald Scarfe and satirist Richard Ingrams.

The story of the "father of British art" is both familiar and surprising. The familiar part is Hogarth the satirist: his Roast Beef of Old England is splendidly over-the-top Euroscepticism, his Harlot's Rake's Progress sequences show his bawdy yet moralising side; and his Marriage a la Mode is a more up-market but still rumbustious satire on men, women and fashion.

The unfamiliar and touching part of the story is Hogarth's constant sense of dissatisfaction with himself. His father was a hack writer and, in financial terms, a walking liability. Hogarth had a poor childhood and, although he always retained his sympathy for the poor, he was determined to be rich. He achieved this when his trendy satirical prints became popular.

But despite his success he craved academic respectability as a painter. He wanted to paint royalty and to create great historical studies. But he couldn't quite achieve the degree of abstraction required - he wasn't able to keep a straight face, couldn't stop creating real people rather than idealised figures.

Even his great portraits - like the one of Sir Thomas Coram - were never fully accepted by the artistic establishment. He shouldn't have minded, but he did.

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