Critical roasting

4th July 2003 at 01:00
William Hogarth was the first native born British artist to achieve international fame, a fact all the more remarkable given his humble origins. Born the son of an impoverished schoolmaster, his formal artistic training was limited to a seven-year apprenticeship to a silver engraver.

Yet, despite lacking all material and physical advantages (he was barely five feet tall), he was nevertheless pugnacious, enterprising and ambitious.

Much of Hogarth's early reputation rested on portraiture, a genre he reinvigorated with unprecedented emphasis on informality, character and expression. But it was as a commentator on political life and social mores in mid-18th century Britain that he became best known. In works such as "Marriage A-la-Mode" (National Gallery, London) and "A Rake's Progress" (Sir John Soane's Museum, London) he pioneered a new type of moral subject in which the narrative unfolded in a series of richly textured and detailed images like scenes from a play. Using a similarly realistic approach, Tate Britain's "O the Roast Beef of Old England" is nevertheless a more overtly political image.

Painted in 1748, the picture records an event that took place in July that year during Hogarth's second visit to France. Following the May armistice at the end of the War of the Austrian Succession, Hogarth and several other artist-friends took advantage of the reopening of the Channel to travel to Paris and the Low Countries. Returning via Calais, Hogarth took out his sketchbook and drew some views of the drawbridge at Calais Gate - the old English tower fortifications. He was promptly arrested by French soldiers as a spy and hauled off to the city's governor. Hogarth quickly established his artistic credentials but was nevertheless confined to his lodgings before being dispatched on the next available boat back to England.

Humiliated and aggrieved, he took his revenge in a painting - subsequently reproduced as a print - in which he ridiculed his captors and gave vent to an outpouring of patriotic vitriol against the French.

Set against the backdrop of the medieval Calais Gate, the centrepiece of the painting is the arrival of a huge side of British beef, carried by a cook and destined for the establishment of Madame Grandsire, a hotel that catered for English visitors to the town. A variety of Gallic stereotypes, familiar from English caricatures of the period, look on longingly. These include a fat Franciscan friar, the only well-fed Frenchman in the picture, whose gluttony leads him to prod the beef covetously and pat his girth with barely concealed anticipation. To the right, a group of scrawny French mercenaries, eating gruel, gaze in ravenous amazement at the succulent British beef. In the foreground, a starving Scotsman, one of the Jacobite refugees who fled to France after the unsuccessful uprising of 1745, huddles in the shadows nursing his meagre meal of an onion and a piece of bread. On the opposite side of the arch sit a group of grotesque French fishwives, ridiculing a skate whose disturbingly human features resemble their own. Hogarth himself appears just to the left of the Gate, sketching the drawbridge while the guard's hand clasps his shoulder, ready to make the arrest.

Like many of his compatriots, Hogarth thought the French were characterised by "poverty, slavery and insolence". He attributed these failings to the absolutism of the French monarchy and the power of the Catholic church, and these views not only inform the personifications of individual figures - the fat friar, the malnourished soldiers, the destitute Scot and the coarse women - but are also underscored in various other sub-plots and signs in the painting.

Through the arch of Calais Gate, for example, can be glimpsed further evidence of the evils of Catholicism in the scene of priests parading the host and the cross before an adoring and ignorant populace. The image of the Holy Spirit, a symbol of spirituality and individual conscience, is relegated to a sign above an inn, while a large black crow defiles the stone cross at the top of the Gate and bends its beak greedily towards the side of British beef.

Hogarth's Francophobia was in many ways typical of his age. A long succession of wars between the two countries lasting nearly a century had aggravated national rivalries and encouraged perceptions of France as a priest-ridden aristocracy, inferior to Protestant England but presenting a threat to national security. Clubs such as the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks, to which Hogarth belonged, celebrated English beef as opposed to French culinary effeminacy: even the title of this picture is that of a popular contemporary song.

The renewal of nationalistic feeling that surfaced during the recent row about British beef provides an interesting example of the longlasting nature of these Anglo-French rivalries. Hogarth builds up a damning contrast between British wealth, fairness and freedom, and French poverty, corruption and enslavement. Yet the painting far exceeds political propaganda, balancing the sharpness of the satire with the artist's keen observation.

Joanna Banham is head of education, Tate Britain


Key stage 1-2

* How many different types of food can you see in this painting? What do they look like? Make a picture showing your own favourite food or meal.

* How realistic are the figures in Hogarth's painting? Are their expressions and gestures exaggerated?


* Describe the events shown in Hogarth's painting from the points of view of the fat friar and the hungry Scotsman. How do their feelings and reactions differ?

* Perform a play or write a newspaper story describing Hogarth's arrest in Calais and his interview with the city governor.

* Draw a caricature of yourself, a person you know or someone famous.


* Discuss Hogarth's views of the French. How does he convey his feelings about them?

* What other examples of national stereotypes can you think of in art and in literature and events today?


* Make your own cartoon or write a satirical story based on a current political event.

* Compare Hogarth's work with that of other 18th-century figure painters such as Francis Hayman, George Romney or Joshua Reynolds. How are they different, both in terms of subject and in their treatment of the figure?

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