Hogarth: Life in Progress
by Jacqueline Riding
Profile Books, £30, 534 pages
William Hogarth (1697-1764) has a good claim to being the first major English painter. His Englishness is one of the most striking things about him; he instinctively recoiled from the predominant Palladianism of his contemporaries in the beau monde as championed by Lord Burlington and William Kent. But the picture is more nuanced than the massive fame of his prints, which paradoxically obscured his originality as a painter, might suggest. Foreigners are certainly targets for his scorn, yet he depended on the skill of French engravers to promulgate his graphic works. His difficult childhood – his father was in the Fleet and died young – made independence essential to him; he was determined to promote vernacular professionalism in the arts. In fact, he was so peeved to hear that the governors of St Bartholomew’s Hospital were considering a large commission for the Venetian painter Amigoni that he offered to do it for free, thereby manoeuvring himself into a governorship. The engraver and antiquary George Vertue called him “a good Front and a Scheemist”. Marriage A-la-Mode (1743) suggests that the lessons of Chardin and Boucher were not lost on him. His mature portraits show a close understanding of the baroque style, while refreshing it with touches of informal vivacity. The Analysis of Beauty (1753), with its call “to see with our own eyes”, had a wide continental readership with its emphasis on English particularity and memorable assertion that intricacy in art “leads the eye a wanton kind of chase”.
History painting in the classical style had been well established on the continent in the previous century, but Hogarth’s initial fame is attributable to his invention of “modern moral subjects” – the first attempt to introduce contemporary narrative and anecdote into the visual arts. The success of a small painting of a prostitute undressing, doubtless designed to titillate, led to A Harlot’s Progress (1732). He used the ensuing six paintings as a prospectus to encourage subscriptions for prints, establishing himself as an independent producer with direct access to a burgeoning middle-class market. Before the publication of its even more popular successor A Rake’s Progress (1735), he initiated a successful parliamentary campaign to legislate for copyright in the visual arts.
No painter more invites his biographers to capture a world as well as a life. Progresses and Worlds have preoccupied them since Peter Quennell’s elegantly written Hogarth’s Progress (1955) through Ronald Paulson’s Hogarth: His Life, Art and Times (1971), still indispensable for Hogarthomaniacs, and Jenny Uglow’s lucid study Hogarth: A Life and a World (1997). Jacqueline Riding’s title, Hogarth: Life in Progress, hints at something more postmodern. Hogarth is certainly a pivotal figure in the transition between predominant genres in English culture from the satire of Butler’s Hudibras, Rochester, Dryden, Swift and Pope to the novel via Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. He was so deeply immersed in both genres that it is difficult to separate caricature from character in his work. But as his career progressed, his insight into character deepened, as his self-portrait with his pug shows.
Riding is an accomplished scholar of the long 18th century; she offers good, if not particularly new, accounts of the pictures, and stresses the variety of Hogarth’s work. She is alive to the literary context in which he worked and especially to his connections with Fielding and the emergent novel. But the novelty of her book consists in an uncontrolled plethora of tenuously related detail and a style in which the ruling passion is either subjunctive or optative. The narrative is modishly structured with “Interludes” between chapters based upon the manuscript The Five Days’ Peregrination recording an impromptu trip made in 1732 by Hogarth and four chums to the Isle of Sheppey. This undertaking, “meandering and random” as the Thames itself, may delight some readers with its artifice as much as its flimsiness causes others to flinch. It matches a dizzying instability of style veering awkwardly from the vaingloriously high to the demotically familiar. This may conceivably be intended to imitate her subject, but it is hard to imagine the prospective reader of this book who needs to be told that Pepys is a diarist. Hogarth: Life in Progress carries all the sententious hall-marks of an academic writer gagging to be liberated into the trade press, while simultaneously scoring points for “impact” in the next Research Excellence Framework. An early admirer of Hogarth praised him for attending “to the crowd, not the critic”. Riding can’t quite make up her mind.
Fram Dinshaw is a Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund