Hogarth was a great satirist, but a storyteller above all

The Arrest, from the series A Rake’s Progress

William Hogarth shone a bright light on the human condition in the mid 18th century. His social commentaries focused on immorality and hypocrisy, vice and corruption at all levels of society, from the aristocracy to the lowliest commoner.

His best-known work is probably Gin Lane, which shows a baby tumbling from its gin-soaked mother’s arms. That’s in this splendid exhibition, the largest and most com­plete collection of Hog­arth’s work ever to be displayed, alongside its more positive companion, Beer Street.

Gin Lane was part of a successful campaign to bring in a Gin Act in 1751 to curtail the sale of gin; beer, in contrast, was seen as a convivial and healthy drink (London’s water was filthy and dangerous to drink).

Sir John Soane’s Museum has two of Hogarth’s series of paintings on permanent display, A Rake’s Progress, from early in his career, and Humours of an Election from 20 years later. For this exhibition, entitled Hogarth: Place and Progress, it has borrowed A Harlot’s Progress, Marriage A-la-Mode and The Happy Marriage, and all his other surviving series.

Hogarth was a satirist and social critic, but above all he was a storyteller with a great sense of humour and a sharp eye for the ridiculous. Many of his paintings and engravings are series of what he called “Modern Moral Subjects”, giving snapshots of, in most cases, someone’s fall from grace. The detail is amazing. Today he’d probably be a graphic novelist. The “place” of the exhibition title is London; most of the paintings and engravings are set in buildings and streets very familiar to the artist and to the purchasers of his engravings. The “progress” of the title is similar to that of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which influenced Hogarth (1697-1764): an individual’s journey to moral and spiritual redemption – or ruin.

Industry and Idleness, for example, is a set of 12 prints telling the story of two apprentices who start off working together, Francis Goodchild and Tom Idle; the first marries his master’s daughter and eventually becomes Lord Mayor of London; the other gets involved with criminals and prostitutes and ends his life on the gallows at Tyburn.

Astonishingly this exhibition is free, though you need to book a time-slot online at The Soane Museum, set in a couple of townhouses just around the corner from Holborn Tube station in the heart of London, is small and delightfully cluttered with its exhibits. These were collected and displayed in his own home by Sir John Soane (1753-1837), the neo-classical architect of the Bank of England, Dulwich Picture Gallery and many more public buildings.

The museum is a joy in its own right; this exhibition of Hogarth’s paintings and engravings makes it a must-see this autumn.

Hogarth: Place and Progress is at Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, until January 5, 2020