Brush with freedom

19th September 1997 at 01:00
Hogarth: A Life and a World By Jenny Uglow Faber amp; Faber #163;25

"Folly is seen at the height." So Hazlitt wrote of Hogarth's comic exuberance. Drunken excess, miserliness, greed, licentiousness and corruption were his subjects and he spared no detail in his pursuit of them. In the recurrent mayhem, chairs crash to the ground, dogs bark, roofs collapse, a brick flies in through the window.

Time and again his noisy, crowded prints portray a world on the edge of dissolution - and where there is no limit to the ugliness of human behaviour. In the final scene to Marriage la Mode, painted in 1743, the merchant father calmly removes the ring from his dying daughter's hand, to save the gold before her fingers stiffen.

"I was first drawn to Hogarth," writes Jenny Uglow, "because of his vitality and overflowing detail." Her book similarly pullulates with a lively array of characters, stories and facts. These help explain the topical allusions that Hogarth frequently blended into his plots, but they also recreate the texture and nature of the world in which he lived.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the first chapter where Uglow takes the reader through the Smithfield area of Hogarth's childhood, shows us the relevance of the annual Bartholomew Fair to Hogarth's interest in spectacle, and links our interest in this artist with local geography.

"Coming out of the lanes, the elongated diamond of Smithfield seems vast, dizzying. Distances slide as the eye adjusts from narrow to wide, dark to light. The sloping angles and strange perspectives of Hogarth's prints, which often seem those of the playhouse or the prison, also derive from this rough square, a natural stage set, with its isolated figures or swelling crowds. The space, like Hogarth's art, has an in-built contradiction, ruled simultaneously by butchery and healing: by London's greatest meat market and one of London's greatest hospitals. Brick, flesh and blood."

This ability to connect places and circumstances with Hogarth's development as an artist is one of the achievements of this book. It also helps surmount the problem caused by the scarcity of documents that reflect on Hogarth's inner life. His few letters and autobiographical jottings are misspelt and ungrammatical.

Yet Uglow is able at moments to make his character surprisingly vivid, and when he starts making retreats from London to his house at Chiswick, we gain further insight into his needs simply by reading Uglow's account of the house and garden. Here and elsewhere, she makes the reader want to set off immediately in search of what she describes.

A self-made man, Hogarth's energetic pursuit of success was partly driven by the memory of having seen, at the age of 10, his father imprisoned for debt. He had apprenticed himself to a silver engraver, but while embellishing teapots, he made himself familiar with the paintings James Thornhill had executed inside the Great Hall at Greenwich and the cupola of St Paul's Cathedral. These gave him a taste for "high" art.

He also moved from silver to copper engraving and set up on his own as an engraver of trade cards, letterheads and designs for plate. At the age of 23 he joined a newly-formed artists' academy in St Martin's Lane.

Though he remained self-taught as an artist, this affiliation marked the beginning of his life-long battle to improve the status of artists in England and to uphold native talent over the ship-loads of dead Christs, Holy Families, Madonnas and dismal saints that were then being imported into England in order to satisfy the taste for Italianate art.

As a painter, he first tried his hand at portraiture and developed a reputation for his "conversation pieces". These group portraits, he realised, "gave more scope to fancy". So too did his six versions of The Beggar's Opera, in which he enhanced his record of a contemporary event by adding social comment or satire.

But his ability to dramatise contemporary themes found its most brilliant outlet in his "modern moral subjects", such as The Rake's Progress, A Harlot's Progress and Marriage la Mode. These took the form of paintings as well as prints that sold well. London already had a rich graphic culture, but, as Jenny Uglow observes, Hogarth pushed its possibilities further than any of his peers. She also draws attention to the realism and tenderness found even in Hogarth's most outrageously satirical prints.

If at times extensive background information slows our appreciation of the larger issues in Hogarth's life, at other moments precise detail clarifies and makes transparent the main themes of his career. Uglow, for instance, is excellent on the hospital movement, on hierarchies within the world of medicine and on attitudes towards charitable giving.

As well as painting the walls of a staircase in St Bartholomew's Hospital,Hogarth gave crucial support to Captain Coram's Foundling Hospital in north London. He encouraged its association with artists, took responsibility for the decoration of its Court Room, designed the children's uniforms and is said to have vetted the choice of wet nurses.

When he decided to sell his The March to Finchley by lottery, he gave the hospital 157 of the 2,000 tickets that were made available. With such good odds, it is perhaps not surprising that the hospital won, and to this day the Thomas Coram Foundation remains the proud owner of this and other works by Hogarth.

There are many extraordinary moments in Hogarth's art and career. But there are also times when he abandoned satire, forgot about his "battles of taste" and painted what he saw. If his prints suggest he knew everything about human life, nowhere does he empathise more with his fellow human beings than in his famous portrait of six of his servants. Uglow calls it one of his "most profound and tender" paintings and "a tribute to the beauty of the 'ordinary'".

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