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Review: Hogarth Place and Progress

First Blake at Tate Britain, and now this. We Londoners are being spoilt rotten with these two simultaneously-running exhibitions featuring our most beloved native artists.

Thanks to its canny eponymous benefactor, Sir John Soane’s Museum is already the lucky owner of two of William Hogarth’s (1697 – 1764) best-known series: The Rake’s Progress (1732) and the four Humours of an Election (1754-55). The latter remain in situ in their ground floor home attached to the famous swinging panels which usually open out to reveal Rake’s Progress on the reverse sides. However,  The Rake’s Progress have been removed and added to the main exhibition space of this show. In addition we are treated to Marriage A-la-Mode (1743) from the National Gallery. Hence, all of Hogarth’s painted series in the same building together at the same time! In the room with Marriage A-la-Mode, the museum has borrowed three surviving oil sketches of Happy Marriage one of which gives us the gawky dancers to which the artist later returned in hilarious engravings on the subject, notably an illustration in Analysis of Beauty

The Dance (The Happy Marriage ?VI: The Country Dance) circa 1745 by William Hogarth 1697-1764

Happy Marriage VI: The Country Dance. Tate.

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Country Dancers in a Long Hall (detail, from Analysis of Beauty)

But I digress. Complementing these Hogarth masterpieces are many of his most famous engravings, most of which from the private collection of Andrew Edmunds: A Harlot’s Progress (1734); Industry and Idleness (1747); The Four Times of Day (1736-37); The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751); and (of course!) Beer Street and Gin Lane (both 1751).

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The Idle ‘Prentice approaching the gallows at Tyburn.

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The Industrious ‘Prentice becomes Lord Mayor of London.

The name, or theme, of this marvellous exhibition – like Hogarth himself – is plain-dealing: ‘Progress’ – lifted from the harlot and the rake but applying to all his morality series; and ‘Place’ – London, of course, but using the extensive recent research which has precisely pinpointed the locations in most of the artist’s individual compositions. Here the curators have grouped the various series logically to contrast or complement one another.  One could argue, of course, that Hogarth’s subject matter is so rich that any pairings would do the trick. The main thing is, it works: how could it not?

Thought-provoking, yes. The joy of this show, though, is the opportunity to examine a large body of the artist’s work at very close quarters. An obvious thing to say, perhaps, but this is more important with Hogarth than probably any other artist. The detail he put into his compositions is quite phenomenal; if there’s another gag or pithy aphorism to squeeze in, in it goes. For example, there are tiny bits of writing all over the place that one would simply not pick up even in the highest-quality book. This is especially true of the paintings. A detail that I hadn’t noticed before and which pleased me in particular was Hogarth’s depiction of old London Bridge in all its dilapidated and rickety glory. We view it through the window in Marriage A-la-mode VI: The Lady’s Death. This will have been just 15 years before all the buildings on the bridge were finally demolished.

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Marriage A-la-mode: The Lady’s Death. National Gallery London.

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This exhibition has been curated with a great deal of thought, yet commendable lightness of touch. Our congratulations to the museum and gratitude to all the lenders. The show is on for just three months; it is a treat and a joy you must not miss.

Hogarth Place and Progress runs at Sir John Soane’s Museum from 9 October 2019 until 5 January 2020. Free entry by timed booking required.

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Review: William Blake, at Tate Britain. 

Very recently the precise location of William Blake’s body was identified in Bunhill Fields nonconformist cemetery just north of the City. There followed the unveiling of a brand new grave stone on 11 August last year. The organisers were caught out by the many hundreds of Blake fans (including around a dozen London Historians) who turned up to honour this eminent painter, poet, engraver, printer and visionary.

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Dedication of William Blake gravestone, 11 August 2018.

That occasion made it clear that he is revered, among Londoners in particular; he commands a place on the pantheon of British artists with fellow sons of the captial Dobson, Hogarth and Turner.

Apart from four years spent in Sussex (1800 – 04), Blake spent his whole life in London: in Lambeth during most of the 1790s but the rest always a stone’s throw from his birthplace in Broad Street (now Broadwick Street). It is horrifying to learn that the Blake family home was demolished as recently as 1963, replaced by an ugly block of flats named William Blake House, adding insult to injury.

It is marvellous that so soon after that momentous event of last year, Tate Britain is hosting the most comprehensive William Blake (1757 – 1827) exhibition in a generation. Over 300 of his works are on display, arranged chronologically. This is broken down in to distinct phases of his professional life. In Room 1 we learn about his family background and training as an engraver and how he rejected the methods and strictures of the Academy; we then go on to find out how he went on to earn a living, first as an engraver and then as a illustrator and printer, exploiting a printmaking technique of his own devising: ‘relief etching’. This allowed him to illuminate text on the same page. Subject matter came from many sources including the Bible, Chaucer, Shakespeare and of course, his own mysterious, other-worldly poetry. Out of this, emerged the likes of The Tyger and Jerusalem, though the larger body of his copious writing is forgotten by all but aficionados.

And here the medium commands the format, so virtually everything that Blake produced was perforce quite small, tiny even. Book size or smaller. Except for four or five pieces near the end of the exhibition, the largest pieces in this show a the roughly A3 sized series of 12 (including the rather unhappy Nebuchadnezzar, and bizarrely naked Newton) But it is mostly exquisite and no, you can only really appreciate it properly in the original rather than a modern book, however well printed.

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Nebuchadnezzar

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Newton

But what about the art? I’m a bit conflicted about Blake. All those beardy scary old men, endless in the biblical stuff; all those wraith-like female spirits whooshing diaphanously through the air or sea or stars; all those muscular bottoms! I feel I like him because I’m supposed to like him and that he’s a Londoner. I don’t think he’s technically good as an anatomical illustrator: all those muscles flatter to deceive. That said, his style and his imagination are unique. There’s an El Greco quality to the stretching of body and limb; there’s a Bosch quality to his animals, monsters and nightmare visions. You can examine all these 300 plus works and not become inured to the eeriness: all is fresh. There’s also a graffiti style to a lot of periphery of the illustrations which is quite interesting.

Very few of Blake’s images are standalone; mostly they are series, and mostly for publication. The Tate has assembled many complete series for this exhibition, one of my favourites of which is America A Prophecy, in 18 plates. Here, below, is possibly my favourite, Plate 15, ‘What Time the Thirteen Governors …’ The series was made in 1793 during Blake’s Lambeth spell, a nice mid-career example. What attracts me to this particular plate are the scary fish at the bottom which very much have a cartoony quality. There are, here and there throughout the show, images that make you smile a bit. You’d like to think that this is Blake having fun, being playful. But even for Blake experts, one feels you cannot be sure.

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Almost as you walk out of the exhibition, Blake bids you farewell with a version of the Ancient of Days, originally from 1794 as the frontispiece for Europe: A Prophecy. Yes, because it’s probably his most famous painting, yes, because it was one of his favourites but more than that because he was still creating versions of it right at the end of his life.  Like most of the works in this show, it is smaller than you imagined.

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Our Man from the Telegraph, Alistair Sooke, called this exhibition ‘over-curated’. As a perfectly straightforward chronological romp through William Blake’s life, surely the opposite is more likely to be the case? No, I think the Tate has kept it simple: displayed as many works in as much light as the mainly watercolour medium will allow; given visitors as much space as possible to get around these quite small works; and given just enough background information to prick the sufficiently curious to find out more.

I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Blake – I reckon I’m far from alone in that – but I do know I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition and should have given myself at least another hour. I must go again.

Other views:
Londonist
Evening Standard

 

The Blake Society
William Blake on Wikipedia

 


William Blake runs at Tate Britain until 2 February 2020. Standard adult entry is £18 with various discounts from there, including £9 for National Art Pass/Art Fund holders.

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Review: Two Last Nights! Show Business in Georgian Britain.
Foundling Museum. 20 September 2019 – 5 January 2020

title250Having made a spirited recovery in the late Stuart period following the Restoration and into early Georgian times, public entertainment venues in London remained few. This all changed as the 18C progressed and more of the population found themselves better off and with more leisure time. Pursuits that were mainly the domain of the well-off spread to the growing middle class. Simultaneously, forms of entertainment became more diverse, notably the emergence of pleasure gardens such as Vauxhall, Ranelagh, Bagnigge Wells and others.

This is the subject of a new exhibition at the Foundling Museum. While the growth of the entertainment industry was nationwide, the fountainhead was inevitably London. This show examines primarily the business of public entertainment rather than the forms on offer, although we get a bit of that too. So we are primarily looking at the theatres themselves, the marketing, the consumes, the fashions and – most entertainingly – how the theatre-goers were perceived, and also satirised.

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Miss Rattle dressing for the Pantheon, 1770s.

Entering the exhibition we are first met with marketing materials mainly in the form of printed handbills. all are in the distinct period multi-typeface, centre-ranged, capital-heavy form of the time. Nonetheless, competition was stiff and it’s quite sophisticated stuff from which the title of this show derives.

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Handbill for Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.

Most of the ephemera on display relates to tickets. Except in the cheapest of cheap seats in the pit or the ‘pidgeon holes’ (crammed sections in the Gods with heavily constricted views), theatre-going remained quite pricy and I think this is reflected in the beauty of the engraved tickets which often featured the architecture of the theatre and other classical forms. Some even bore wax seals. They could be anything from modern post card size almost up to A4 in some cases.

But for me, the most fun part was relating to the audience. Hogarth’s famous Laughing Audience is here, of course, but there are many more along the same lines including the best of Rowlandson – one in particular which makes the point that country audiences in rough and ready theatres enjoy themselves far more than the stiffy, sniffy city types. It is a point which one might care to refute knowing the reputation of a typical London audience which – as is shown in several pictures – is separated from the players literally with a rows of metal spikes.

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Comedy in the Country, Tragedy in London. By Rowlandson.

I would have liked to have seen something on two forms of public entertainment which were invented in this period: Satire, as presented by Samuel Foote (1720 – 1777) at his own patent theatre in the Haymarket; and Astley’s Circus, as presented by Philip Astley (1742 – 1814). Both were almost instantly successful and the latter in particular begat imitators which have continued down to today.

Print, satire, entertainment, fashion. All flourished in the Georgian period, and all are bought together here in this exhibition in a most pleasing way.


The entry to Two Last Nights! is free with your Foundling Museum ticket which is £13.20 for adults. National Art Fund members get into the museum entirely free of charge. 

 

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London, City of Science 1550-1800, the new gallery at the Science Museum. This is a guest review by LH Member Laurence Scales, @LWalksLondon.

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From Holland Park to Tower Hamlets you cannot go far in London without crossing the path of a notable scientist or passing a place where an important innovation or experiment was made. The Science Museum in South Kensington has long been full of Londony objects, although even London Historians might be forgiven for not realising that.

When I visited recently, the Museum plans, signage and maps had yet to catch up with the opening of the new permanent addition, the ‘Science City 1550-1800’ gallery which is all about London. The new gallery, opposite the not-quite-so-new Clockmakers’ Museum (which relocated here from the Guildhall if you have not kept up with things) is on the second floor. It is, in part, a new and roomier setting for an old friend, the George III collection of scientific instruments, which has returned after a world tour of a couple of years or more. It is supplemented by some of the objects previously secreted in the archive of the Royal Society, rescued from the overflow store, or loaned from elsewhere.

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Astrolabe, check. Mural arc, check. Sextant, check. Orrery, check. The gallery has all the beautiful brass, copper, wood, enamel and (probably) ebony artifacts that you would expect. Though, if you are a stranger to the astrolabe, you are unlikely to appreciate more than its engraving, after a visit here. And I’m afraid I cannot do much to enlighten you either. (I once asked at the Oxford science museum how an astrolabe worked, and I clearly did not look intelligent enough to be granted an answer – though they were quite nice about it.) Now, I am not normally a fan of videos in museums. But here is one that is absolutely appropriate, and worth your time. It shows for a few minutes some of the craft that goes (went) into making these things – gears, mirrors, glass vessels and globes. (By the way, one of the segments was filmed at the Clockworks, West Norwood which is often a participant in Open House in September.)

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In the near future the Science Museum is going to open a temporary exhibition on The Art of Innovation. But it has always been quite possible to treat the Science Museum as a refreshingly different and eclectic art gallery. City of Science continues that strand. There is a portrait of Georgian aeronaut Mrs Letitia Sage, and a view of old Westminster Bridge being constructed with the aid of pile driver developed by (Huguenot?) James Valoue. Bibliophiles will be pleased to glimpse early editions of great works by John Evelyn and Robert Hooke.

And now, welcome to geeks corner. With the opening of this gallery, the Science Museum can boast two different dividing engines on display in different rooms! Just so you know, it’s a kitchen range sized rotating table for marking an accurate scale on a sextant or theodolite. (The one by Troughton long displayed downstairs is the one to see.) However, it was seeing a surveying chain made by celebrated instrument maker Jesse Ramsden and a piece of St Paul’s Cathedral’s original lightning conductor where I found my goosepimples pleasurably elevated. But that might not be the effect on everyone!

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What is in the gallery is admirable. But ‘science’ is a misnomer, and an oversimplification. This is a physical science and technology museum. This gallery offers an informative but blinkered view of science over the period in question. Here, you would not guess that there were advances during this period by Londoners unconnected with, or even disdained by, the Royal Society. Also, physiology (William Harvey?) and natural history (Hans Sloane?) are scarcely represented but for Robert Hooke’s magnified louse and other drawings. But the Natural History Museum is next door.

The unfortunate thing about the Science Museum (and any science museum) is that exhibits which are not pure art may be difficult to enjoy from a standing start. In this case, it may be worth glancing at Wikipedia to refresh your memory on the subject of the Royal Society and its early great names before you visit. Even when such care has been taken over the captions, it would aid understanding to have someone next to you getting excited at times, or making a connection with something more familiar – I think. Science City 1550-1800 is an attractive gallery. I hope it may whet the appetite of history enthusiasts to see more of the Science Museum, but note that it probably will not wow the average child for more than about a second.


Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in the history of science and technology in London, and a volunteer in the archives of both the Royal Institution and Royal Society of Arts. His tours cover the period from about 1550 to recent times.

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It seems obvious now you mention it, but it took someone to notice and then do something about it: Hogarth’s pictures are often very noisy. Whether outdoors or in, his compositions variously feature musicians, crying babies, street criers, yapping dogs, yowling cats, noisy children, yelling crowds and sometimes all of the above. Cacophony. This new exhibition at the Foundling Museum is called Hogarth & The Art of Noise.

Anyone who knows a little Hogarth if prompted about noise, will of course cite The Enraged Musician (1741), for many, his most amusing piece.

The Enraged Musician 1741 by William Hogarth 1697-1764

The curators claim 19 sources of racket in this image. I only managed to pick out 14. How about you? Here’s a bigger version.

But the centrepiece of this exhibition, the painting from which all else in the show is derived, is the museum’s own Hogarth masterpiece: The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750). It is Hogarth at his most opinionated, prejudiced and spiky. In short, at his best. It depicts the then fairly new Guards regiments in their mitre style headgear carousing in Tottenham Court prior to marching off to quell the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Many of the noisy elements from The Enraged Musician are present – e.g. yowling rooftop cats: Hogarth was never shy of recycling a good visual joke. The point of the picture is to contrast the virility and virtue of Hanoverian Protestant Britain on the left with the weak, immoral and Catholic late Stuarts on the right.

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Larger version of this painting here.

Elsewhere in this quite small exhibition we have other examples from many of Hogarth’s work and noise, e.g. The Laughing Audience, alongside comparisons with his near contemporaries. To add further context, you can also listen via headphones to readings from Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe and others.

William Hogarth and the Founding Museum are inextricably connected. He was a founding Governor of Captain Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital (1739)  for (mainly) illegitimate babies. Along with GF Handel and others, he did pro bono work for the hospital, such as designing its logo, as well as participating in fund-raising art exhibitions along with contemporary artists. He and his wife Jane – childless themselves – also occasionally fostered children from the hospital at their home in Chiswick.

This is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking exhibition. It’s further reassuring to see one of its consultants was Elizabeth Einberg, author of  the most scholarly book on Hogarth’s work ever produced. Most of all, though, it presents the opportunity to examine a Hogarth masterpiece completely unhindered by glass, distance or crowds. Don’t miss it!


Hogarth and the Art of Noise runs at the Foundling Museum until 1 September 2019.

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Very recently this 20 feet wide panorama by the French artist Pierre Prévost (1764 – 1823) has been put on display at the Museum of London. Painted around 1815 just after the Battle of Waterloo, it shows a 360 degree view of London as observed from the tower of St Margaret’s church, Westminster. It was done in watercolour on paper and is glued onto a canvas backing. It was a preparatory piece for a much larger monumental panorama, now lost.

The museum acquired the painting for £200,000 at auction held at Sotheby’s last July.

On Thursday last week I went to see it for the first time. It is lovely. It is not the museum’s fault that the digital versions released since the acquisition cannot possibly do justice to the original version. The colour is far more vibrant for a start. But there is great pleasure to be had zooming in on the detail, which I shall try and demonstrate here. Clearly the artist had a great deal of fun with it.

But also, just to note, for the first time I now properly understand the topography of the old Palace of Westminster: how it stood in relation to the river, Westminster Hall, Old and New Palace yard, and so on.

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Old Palace of Westminster, the centrepiece of the painting.

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New Palace Yard and Westminster Bridge.

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New Palace Yard looking further east to the new Strand Bridge, later Waterloo Bridge, and St Paul’s beyond.

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Detail. Carriages in New Palace Yard.

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Detail. New Palace Yard. A small crowd listening to a speaker, perhaps, or street vendor or performing animal.

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Detail. Two men having a punch-up! Onlookers.

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Detail. Charming depiction of a collier and his cart.

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Middlesex Guildhall, now the Supreme Court.

My only quibble with the display is that the three glass covers of the display cabinet are joined by strips of metal which are actually rather intrusive. I hope these can be improved upon somehow.

That aside, the panorama is a wonder, giving a superb depiction – albeit idealised – of London two hundred years ago. Do go and see it!


More about this at the Museum of London. 

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A guest review by LH member Laurence Scales, of the new Channel 5 series. 

Feeling a bit lost at present on Saturday nights without a Swedish murder to mull over I turned to Channel 5 and its series, ‘How the Victorians Built Britain’, fronted by Michael Buerk The viewer is invited to bask in the glow of beautifully restored steam engines, magnificent dams and tiled Turkish baths. Land of Hope and Glory is playing in my head even if you cannot hear it. Yes, Victorians were wonderful in many ways. We should all know, of course, that they were frightful in many others. Victorian novelist Thomas Hughes invented ‘rose tinted spectacles’ and we are definitely wearing them here.

It may be that a few more things have been restored to their original glory today, but I doubt that otherwise this series would stand much comparison with a repeat of Adam Hart-Davis’s ‘What the Victorians Did for Us’ on the BBC in 2000. (His book is still obtainable.) This Channel 5 series is too sugary and ought to be paired with the health warning of another BBC series, from 2013, ‘Hidden Killers: The Victorian Home’, not just because it adds healthy roughage to the factual diet but because it gives perspective: mistakes were made in the process of building our world.

I knew that I would find myself shouting at the screen. But I did not shout myself hoarse. Michael Buerk is filmed interviewing bona fide experts but these wise heads are topped and tailed with some careless talk. It was said last week that Joseph Bazalgette’s sewers swept all that human ordure away to be treated in east London. Bazalgette did nothing of the sort. He just poured the noxious waste into the river there. He could do nothing else until treatment was invented. This week it was power stations. The first large scale power station was in Newcastle, apparently. (And they did not mean William Armstrong’s personal hydro electric generator at Cragside.) I wondered where they got that idea from. I checked. It turns out that Newcastle had the first power station with turbo alternators. You can easily change a fact into fallacy by losing a few words at the end of a sentence!

The production is easy on the eye and might serve to tempt people out to visit their local heritage and find out more. (As a part of that local heritage, I hope so!) Whatever the evils of the more sanctimonious or avaricious Victorians, the great thing is that their cavernous cisterns, mighty pistons and vaulting viaducts now belong to all of us, whether we were born in Somalia or Stevenage.

Laurence Scales

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