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Hogarth: Life in Progress by Jacqueline Riding. A guest review by London Historians member, George Goodwin.

coverIf today’s well-educated Londoners were asked for one image that summed up the lot of the lower classes in 18th Century London, there is no doubt that the majority would choose Hogarth’s “Gin Lane”. Very few would select “Beer Street”, the sunnier engraving designed to accompany the artist’s depiction of despair. Aside, of course, from London Historians, almost as few would even know of “Beer Street’s” very existence. But to know of the two is to know of Hogarth’s intentions. To have produced “Gin Lane” alone would have made Hogarth a mere chronicler of misery, whereas with the two together he could, in the tone of the accompanying poems, praise the “balmy juice” of beer, whilst condemning the “poisonous draught” of gin. For Hogarth introduced something new: he visualised a moral tale, he then painted it in a succession of scenes that merged everyday life with symbolic references and in a style that blended his exceptional skill at creating likeness and mood with his gift for caricature. He then had the scenes engraved, printed and sold in sets. This was a revolutionary and highly-successful blend of art and commerce.


Beer Street (1751)

Hogarth – through his satires contrasting the extravagance and the waste of  the monied with the degradation and desperation of the poor – was able to make a lot of money himself. This success by no means came to him by accident, as he himself had to develop his talent from scratch and needed to overcome serious obstacles to its fulfilment. Certainly he had some initial patronage and support, but he had also to face serious opposition, much of it of his own creation and often due to his opting to attack with vigour rather than charmingly disarm.

But he was far more than a mere depicter of his age and an artist of skill and talent. He was also a complex and active human being who was living within the society he drew. As such, he is worthy of a thorough and considered biography that captures the man of the time as well as the artist. That is exactly what Jacqueline Riding has brilliantly provided.

“Life in Progress” is a clever sub-title as the author returns repeatedly to a jaunt of Hogarth and four friends, down the Thames, into Kent and onward to the Isle of Sheppey. If a life progresses through a succession of steps onward, this was a time of a major step upwards for Hogarth, as his breakthrough “A Harlot’s Progress” series had just made his name. Yet the jaunt itself is a bawdy series of tales on a secular pilgrimage with a Chaucerian flavour. Finally, it is our progress too, as we travel in spirit alongside Hogarth, as the author acts as our guide. That journey takes us through the physical entity of London and then along the Thames to the sea, it follows the vicissitudes of Hogarth’s life and artistic endeavours, and it places him very much in the times in which he lived. To match the many byways of 18th century London, Dr Riding takes us down a very great number of narrative equivalents, as she adds details and contexts and anecdotes in her depiction of Hogarth’s life and times. That is not a criticism at all, because it lets readers proceed at their own optimum pace. Thus one can either slowly enjoy each single element that such an expert on the period can provide, or one can proceed more speedily and absorb the atmosphere of the 18th century before stopping here and there to take in more detail.

Perhaps one should read the book while listening to Handel (the author being a former director of the Handel House Museum) so that one can fully complement her evocation of Hanoverian London up to the first years of George III. Certainly there is a mood of the period. And if the sentences of the very first page were designed to stir a distant memory of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels – published just a couple of years before Hogarth and chums set off on their 1730 jaunt – then they are highly-successful in doing so. More overarchingly, if the aim was to encourage the reader to refer to Hogarthian London to precede Dickensian London a century later, then that is also successfully achieved.

In fact, there are a lot of personal similarities between Hogarth and Dickens. Both were snatched away from formal education by the bankruptcies of their fathers. In the case of John Dickens it was very much his fault; in that of Richard Hogarth, it was largely the fault of others. Both sons were then forced into occupations they despised and though William Hogarth did not have to face the shame of the blacking factory, he took vastly longer to move from being an apprentice silver engraver to something more congenial as his own master. Both men had a chip on their shoulder from their earlier lives and they never lost the desire to fight for society’s honest victims. They also had extraordinary powers of representation: for Hogarth it was pictorial, for Dickens it was verbal. They were both able to add the capacity for hard work to their exceptional talents. Most importantly, they both revolutionised their respective professions and, in so doing, they were both extremely capable of falling out with people. Then, once successful, they were bitterly resentful of anyone who ignored their copyright and all the more so because it was so difficult to gain redress.

John Wilkes

Caricature of John Wilkes, 1763.

As Jackie Riding demonstrates, Hogarth wanted to control how his art was produced and sold. He was far happier in producing work designed to appeal to a vastly wider market than the traditional client base of individual patrons and institutions; and he took the novel step of cutting out the auctioneer middleman and selling his paintings himself from his own studio. He had strong friendships with individual artists, but spent no effort in conciliating the artistic profession as a whole. He banned all bar a select few artists from his sales. He showed his mastery in a complete range of painting disciplines and decried the efforts of others, whether in terms of their technique, or their slavish following of Italian and French influences, or their desire to create what he considered to be a “closed shop” institution in what would ultimately become the Royal Academy under the leadership of Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of his great competitors. Such a disregard for convention and collaboration was a hostage to fortune, all the more so after Hogarth’s publication in 1753 of The Analysis of Beauty, which sought to democratise artistic interpretation. As Jackie Riding describes, “Hogarth also encouraged his readership to seek out the beautiful within the world before and around them, rather than rely on the mediation of self-appointed experts.” This was to stoke raw personal attacks over the next dozen years ¬– the last of Hogarth’s life – and then beyond. The aggression having become all the more vicious after John Wilkes and Hogarth disagreed politically, and Wilkes, the master of media manipulation sought, in the modern parlance, to “cancel” Hogarth with such force that even close friends such as David Garrick held back in fear of getting similar treatment.


The Analysis of Beauty (1753). Title Page.

Yet, as Dr Riding shows, within a short time, the importance of The Analysis of Beauty would be recognised at the core of the artistic community. It was, in the words of Benjamin West, Reynolds’ successor as President of the Royal Academy, “of the highest value to everyone studying” art, while acknowledging that Hogarth’s “strutting” had been one reason for earlier resistance.

This book, similarly, is of the highest value in showing there was so much more to Hogarth than “Gin Lane”, but also in explaining exactly why he was able to create such a lasting image of his times.
George Goodwin is the author of Benjamin Franklin in London.

Hogarth: Life in Progress (544pp) by Dr Jacqueline Riding is published in hardback by Profile Books with a cover price of £30 but available for less. 

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