SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 109 - May 2007

London’s biting satirist


Tate Britain

Reviewed by

Manny Thain

CASH FOR VOTES and political sleaze. Insatiable appetites of the rich. Riots and unruly youth. Drunks sprawled on London’s violent streets. Little seems to have changed since William Hogarth (1697-1764) took satirical swipes at life in Britain. The recent exhibition at Tate Britain – an overwhelming 200 works – showcased Hogarth’s incredible output over 40 years: paintings, engravings and drawings; portraits, conversation pieces, exquisite cartoons and high art.

Hogarth was an observer and chronicler, a savage satirist with a moral message. His images have lost none of their bite. His home was in early Georgian London, a city in the throes of massive population growth as people were sucked in from rural areas to feed the young capitalist capital. It was a bustling city, a centre of international commerce and culture, home to diverse populations of European immigrants and political refugees, a cosmopolitan hub.

Hogarth recorded the rampant political corruption, the excesses of the ruling elite, and the dire conditions of the poor on the teeming streets. Famous for exposing the dirt and brutality, Hogarth makes room for tender portrayals, too. His pictures predate great humanitarian artists, such as Francisco Goya (1746-1828).

He began his career as an engraver, a modest occupation at the time. By 1720 he was producing his own material, advertising, reproducing and selling it, an independent artist and brand 200 years before Andy Warhol.

His first engraving, South Sea Bubble (1720), illustrates the collapse of European financial markets, an attack on stock exchange gamblers. The Lottery repeats the warning of the dangers of gambling, and the impoverishment of the poor – morally as well as financially. Another early engraving, Royalty, Episcopality and the Law, is remarkable for its surrealist touches: a coin for a king’s face, a mechanical pump pumping money into a bishop’s chest.

The Punishment Inflicted on Lemuel Gulliver (1726) is an excruciating depiction of little people forcing an enema on the giant from the satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels, published the same year by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). The message is that the Whig (predecessor of the Liberal party) government and church are shafting Britain.

The Election series satirises the scale of bribery and corruption by the Whig and Tory parties to win rural elections. The third image is of a broken-down coach, representing Britain, failed by the political establishment. It could be a comment on British politics now.

Every decade of Hogarth’s career has its classics, a testament to his consistency. The 1730s throw up some fine examples. A Harlot’s Progress is a six-piece series of paintings of a young woman, Moll Hackabout, arriving in London from the country to look for work. An economic migrant in a strange city, she falls prey to people she does not know, and is forced into prostitution, her ‘progress’ being towards destitution, jail and a syphilitic death in her 20s.

A Rake’s Progress unfolds over eight paintings as Tom Rakewell inherits a fortune and starts living it up. Inevitably, gambling and debauchery take their toll with Tom ending up destitute in Bedlam, a sad, insane curiosity on show to paying visitors. All but one of these pictures are gloomy interiors, dull greens, dirty browns and black, claustrophobic and oppressive. But Tate Britain exhibited them along with the engravings of the same pictures. It is an interesting contrast. The engravings leap into life. They are much clearer, lighter and more dynamic. They are what Hogarth did best.

In all this indignation, of course, there is a trade-off, one familiar to modern mass media. Sleaze, corruption and salacious stories make great material and there was and is a lucrative market sensationalising them. It was how Hogarth earned his living. Hogarth mocked the over-the-top lifestyles of the rich and famous, poking fun at their balls and masquerades. Some of those he lampooned were among his clientele. There is a parallel with so-called ‘celebrity culture’ today, the obsession with the minutiae of superstars’ lives as though they were important.

Hogarth’s London is filled with chancers, thieves, rogues and drunks from all walks of life, mobs and riotous behaviour. It is ugly and pretty, brutal and kind. Two worlds coexist and collide. Rich and poor. Drunk and upright. In Four Times of Day, workers and sellers go to the early morning market, their paths crossing late-night drinkers falling out of pubs and brothels in Covent Garden, Soho, Islington and Charing Cross. It looks like still frames from CCTV. Hogarth’s crowds do not only spectate, they are part of the spectacle – like ‘reality’ TV.

In the 1740s, Marriage à la Mode provides another six-piece classic, this time starring the Earl of Squander in a marriage of convenience between two families. The two chained dogs spell out that the marriage will be a disaster. This was a trademark device of Hogarth’s. His paintings and engravings are full of little, telltale details in shop windows and inn signs, books, pictures within pictures, subtexts. It means that it is necessary to get up close, which was very difficult at this exhibition given the amount of people it attracted. Hogarth could have depicted well the huddles of people elbowing and jostling to get a better view.

Hogarth’s portraits are mainly of merchants, churchmen, scientists and professional people, most of them, with a few notable exceptions, as staid as their subjects. But his Shrimp Girl is a beautiful picture of a working woman, painted in bold brush strokes. Hogarth’s portrait of six servants is also a sympathetic portrayal.

Patriotic anti-French themes recur, as do jibes against Italian fashion and artistic pretensions, although Hogarth displayed more than a few pretensions of his own. He attempted to prove his own artistic credentials in high art paintings, trying a bit too hard. He published The Analysis of Beauty in 1753, a treatise on aesthetics, competing with European texts.

Produced in 1751, the well-known Gin Lane and Beer Street engravings tackle the issue of alcoholism among the working class and poor. In the former, Hogarth captured the instant when a drunken mother lets her baby slip from her hands, leaving to the imagination of the viewer the likely tragic consequences. It is a comment on the effects of excessive alcohol and could be seen as a criticism of the uncouth habits of the poor. But it is also an exposé of the appalling living conditions of the mass of the population and so provides a social context. In other works Hogarth frequently showed magistrates ‘as drunk as lords’, showing up the hypocrisy of ruling-class attitudes to drunkenness and, maybe, Hogarth’s own ambiguity.

In a similar vein, Industry and Idleness follows Francis Goodchild and Tom Idle as the two apprentices make their way through life. Superficially, the moral seems straightforward: work hard and you can get to be mayor; or end up a drunken crook swinging from Tyburn gallows. Yet Goodchild is portrayed as ever more uncaring and detached from the realities of life, whereas Idle takes on the image of a suffering victim. It is an exposition of society’s brutality as much as a cautionary tale.

Four Stages of Cruelty is similarly ambiguous. Starting with a young boy inflicting sadistic cruelty on a dog, moving on to a man mercilessly beating his horse, then murdering his pregnant wife, it ends with harsh justice, the death penalty. A clear message? But in that final scene – the most graphic – the man’s corpse is being butchered for medical research, his eyes gouged out, his innards pulled out, a dog eating his heart. So, where does the brutality originate, from the individual or the brutal system?

Tate Britain’s exhaustive exhibition may have ended but Hogarth’s works hang in a number of galleries and deserve to be seen. Through his vivid images, Hogarth has shaped our view of eighteenth century London like no one else. What he created is still fresh 250 years later. He was, after all, describing a modern capitalist society. His pictures snarl and shout against corruption. They plead and demand. They ridicule. Hogarth showed that in the middle of obscene wealth the vast majority of the population are dumped in the gutter to struggle and fight. These pictures indict profit-driven, politically bankrupt capitalism. That is why they are instantly recognisable today.


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