Today we celebrate William Hogarth‘s 313th birthday. He was a Londoner and a patriot, a loving husband and a passionate humanitarian. And, of course, a fabulous dauber.
I first became interested in Hogarth about ten years ago, for parochial reasons, really. An unveiling of his 300th anniversary statue was to take place a few hundred yards from where I worked in Chiswick. This was in 2001, some several years after the actual anniversary. I clearly remember waiting patiently in the freezing rain with hundreds of other Hogarth fans, including Ian Hislop and David Hockney, for the Mayor of Hounslow to do the honours. His Worship was so late that it fell on Hislop to do the deed, as I recall it, but at least the rain let up for the key moment. The fundraising for this monument had been so successful that the organising committee were able to add Hogarth’s famous pug to the commission.
Most of us are familiar with Hogarth’ s work – The Rake’s Progress, Marriage à-la-mode and so on. What makes them so enjoyable is their cartoonic qualities, indeed their strip cartoonic qualities in many cases. You can admire a landscape or seascape or still life or formal portrait. But you can love a Hogarth. Gin Lane or The Hay Wain? It’s no contest.
Of course, as an artisan painter and engraver, he did plenty of jobbing work too – commissioned portraits, book illustrations, etc. But his pictures are ultimately all about people, always the people, many of them grotesque characactures, yet brimming with humanity. They tell us as much about 18th century life as thousands of words from so many historians.
What I really admire about Hogarth is that outside of his talent, he was a practical businessman and energetic philanthropist, and one has to wonder where he found the time, given his prodigious output.
Two of his innovations stand out.
Hogarth became frustrated at copies of his engravings being sold in their thousands with not a penny accruing to him. So he did something about it. It was largely thanks to his lobbying that Parliament, in 1734, passed the Engraving Copyright Act, informally known as Hogarth’s Act. This protected all makers of original engravings from being ripped off. It was eventually superceded by the Copyright Act of 1911. How many writers, artists, musicians and film makers today realise the debt they owe to Hogarth?
Hogarth was a keen supporter of the establishment of Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital which was a care home for abandoned children. Indeed he and his wife Jane, who were childless, ran a wet nursery in support of the hospital from their home in Chiswick. Hogarth donated some paintings to the hospital and came up with the idea of encouraging other artists to do the same and then holding fund-raisers by inviting rich people to come and see the paintings. So it can reasonably be argued that Hogarth was the inventor of the public art gallery. Although I knew there were Hogarths at the Foundling Museum, I only learned about all of this a matter of weeks ago when I visited the museum for the first time.
Tonight we will be toasting Hogarth’s memory in gin. I’m not sure he would have approved, but the proceeds will all go towards restoring his old house on the south side of the A4 in Chiswick. It will reopen to the public next summer. We’ll keep you informed.
So, Cheers! Happy Birthday, Bill. Can I call you Bill?