1902 Encyclopedia > William Hogarth

William Hogarth
English painter and engraver

WILLIAM HOGARTH (1697-1764). Apart from the story of his works, the life of the greatest English pictorial satirist, when divested of doubtful tradition, is singularly devoid of incident. It is mainly to be found in the autobiographical Memoranda published by John Ireland in 1798, and the successive Anecdotes of the antiquary, John Nichols. Hogarth was born in London on the 10th day of November 1697, and baptized on the 28th in the church of St Bartholomew the Great. His father was a school-master and literary hack, who had come to the metropolis to seek that fortune which had been denied to him in his native Westmoreland. His son seems to have been early distinguished rather by a talent for drawing and an active perceptive faculty than by any close attention to the learning, which he was soon shrewd enough to see had not made his parent prosper. "Shows of all sorts gave me uncommon pleasure when an infant," he says, "and mimicry, common to all children, was remarkable in me... My exercises when at school were more remarkable for the ornaments which adorned them than for the exercise itself." This being the case, it is no wonder that, by his own desire, he was apprenticed to a silver-plate engraver, Mr Ellis Gamble, at the sign of the "Golden Angel" in Cranbourne Street or Alley, Leicester Fields. For this master he engraved a shop-card which is still extant. When his apprenticeship began is not recorded; but it must have been concluded before the beginning of 1720, for in April of that year he appears to have set up as engraver on his own account. His desires, however, were not limited to silverplate engraving. "Engraving on copper was, at twenty years of age, my utmost ambition." For this he lacked the needful skill as a draughtsman; and his account of the means which he took to supply this want, without too much interfering with his pleasure, is thoroughly characteristic, though it can scarcely be recommended as an example. "Laying it down," he says, "first as an axiom, that he who could by any means acquire and retain in his memory perfect ideas of the subjects he meant to draw would have as clear a knowledge of the figure as a inan who can write freely hath of the twenty-four letters of the alphabet and their infinite combinations (each of these being composed of lines), and would consequent1y be an accurated designer,…I therefore endeavoured to habituate myelf to the exercise of a sort of technical memory, and by repeating in my own mind the parts of which objects were composed I could by degrees combine and put them down with my pencil." This account, it is possible, has something of the complacency of the old age in which it was written; but there is little doubt that his marvellous power of seizing expression owed less to patient academical study than to his unexampled eye-memory and tenacity of minor detal. But he was not entirely without technical training, as, by his own showing, he occasionally "took the life" to correct his memories, and is known to have studied at Sir James Thornhill’s then recently opened art school.

William Hogarth image

William Hogarth

"His first employment " (i.e., after he set up for himself) "seems," says Nichols, "to have been the engraving of arms and shop bills." After this he was employed in designing "plates for booksellers." Of these early and mostly insignificant works we may pass over The Lottery, an Emblematic Print on the South Sea, and some book illustrations, to pause at Masquerades and Operas, 1724, the first plate he published on his own account. This is a clever little satire on contemporary follies, such as the masquerades of the Swiss adventurer Heidegger, the popular Italian opera singers, Rich’s pantomimes at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and last, but by no means least, the exaggerated popularity of Lord Burlington’s protégé, the architect painter William Kent, who is here represented on the summit of Burlington Gate, with Raphael and Michelangelo for supporters. This worthy Hogarth had doubtless not learned to despise less in the school of his rival Sir James Thornhill. Indeed almost the next of Hogarth’s important prints was aimed at Kent alone, being that memorable burlesque of the unfortunate altarpiece designed by the latter for St Clement’s Danes, and which, in deference to the ridicule of the parishioners, Bishop Gibson took down in 1725. Hogarth’s squib, which appeared subsequently, exhibits it as a verv masterpiece of confusion and bad drawing. in 1726 he prepared twelve large engravings for Butler’s Hudibras. These he himself valued highly, and they are the best of his book illustrations. But he was far too individual to be the patient interpreter of other men’s thoughts, and it is not in this direction that his successes are to be sought.

To 1727-28 belongs one of those rare occurrences which have survived as contributions to his biography. He was engaged by a certain Morris, a tapestry worker, to prepare a design for the Element of Earth. Morris, however, having heard that he was "an engraver and no painter," declined the work when completed, and Hogarth accordingly sued him for the money in the Westminster Court, where, on the 28th of May 1728, the case was decided in his (Hogarth’s) favour. It may have been the aspersion thus early cast on his skill as a painter (coupled perhaps with the unsatisfactory state of print-selling, owing to the uncontrolled circulation of piratical copies) that induced him about this time to turn. his attention to the production of "small conversation pieces " (i.e., groups in oil of full-length portraits from 12 to 15 inches high), many of which are still preserved in different collections. "This," he says, having novelty, succeeded for a few years." Among his other efforts in oil between 1728 and 1732 were The Wanstead Assembly, The House of Commons examining Bambridge, an infamous warden of the Fleet, and numerous pictures of the chief actors in Gay’s popular Beggar’s Opera.

On the 23rd of March 1729 he was married at old Paddington church to Jane Thornhill, the only daughter of Kent’s rival above-mentioned. The match was a clandestine one, although Lady Thornhill appears to have favoured it. We next hear of him in "lodgings at South Lambeth," where he rendered some assistance to the then well-known Jonathan Tyers, who opened Vauxhall in 1732 with an entertainment styled a riclotto al fresco. For these gardens Hogarth painted a poor picture of Henry VIII. and Anna Bullen, and for them he also made some designs of the Four Times of the Day, which he afterwards elaborated into a finished series. The only engravings between 1726 and 1732 which need be referred to are the Large Masquerade Ticket (1727), another satire on masquerades, and the print of Burlington Gate, 1731, evoked by Pope’s Epistle to Lord Burlington, and defending Lord Chandos, who is therein satirized. This print gave great offence, and was, it is said, suppressed. To 1732 belongs that genial journey from London to Sheerness, of which the original record still survives at the British Museum in an oblong MS. volume, entitled An Account of what seem’d most Remarkable in the Five Days’ Peregrination of the Five Following Persons, Vizt., Messieurs Tothall. Scott, Hogarth, Thornhill and Forrest. Begun on Saturday May 27th 1732 and Finish’d On the 31st of the Same Month. Abi tu et fac similiter,—Inscription on Dulwich College Porch. The journal, wbich is written by Forrest, the father of Garrick’s friend Theodosius Forrest, gives a good idea of what a "frisk"—as Johnson called it—was in those days, while the illustrations were by Hogarth and Samuel Scott the landscape painter. John Thornhill, Sir James’s son, made the map. This version (in prose) was subsequently run into rhyme by one of Hogarth’s friends, the Rev. Air Gostling of Canterbury, and after the artist’s death both versions were published. In the absence of other biographical detail, they are of considerable interest to the student of Hogarth.

In 1733 Hogarth moved into the "Golden Head" in Leicester Fields, which, with occasional absences at Chiswick, be continued to occupy until his death. By this date he must have completed the earliest of those great series of moral paintings which first gave him his position as a great and original genius. This was A Harlot’s Progress, the paintings for which, if we may trust the date in the last of the pictures, were finished in 1731. The engravings, by the artist himself, were published in 1734. We have no record of the particular train of thought which prompted these story-pictures; but it may perhaps be fairly assumed that the necessity for creating some link of interest between the personages of the little "conversation pieces" above referred to led to the further idea of connecting several groups or scenes so as to form a sequent narrative. "I wished," says Hogarth, "to compose pictures on canvas, similar to representations on the stage." "I have endeavoured," he says again, "to treat my subject as a dramatic writer; my picture is my stage, and men and women my players, who by means of certain actions and gestures are to exhibit a dumb show." There was never a more eloquent dumb show than this of the Harlot’s Progress. In six scenes the miserable career of a woman of the town is traced out remorselessly from its first facile beginning to its shameful and degraded end. Nothing of the detail is softened or abated; the whole is acted out coram populo, with the hard, uncompassionate morality of the age the painter lived in, while the introduction here and there of one or two well-known characters like Colonel Charteris and Justice Gonson give a vivid reality to the satire. It had an immediate success. To say nothing of the fact that the talent of the paintings completely reconciled Sir James Thornhill to the son-in-law he had hitherto refused to acknowledge, more than twelve hundred names of subscribers to the engravings were entered in the artist’s book. On the appearance of plato iii. the lords of the treasury tropped to Leicester Fields for Sir John Gonson’s portrait which it contained. Theophilus Cibber made the story into a pantomime, and some one else into a ballad opera; and it gave rise to numerous pamphlets and poems. It was painted on fan-mounts and transferred to cups and saucers. Lastly, it was freely pirated. There could be no surer testimony to its popularity.

The favourable reception given to A Harlot’s Progress prompted A Rake’s Progress, which speedily followed, although it had not a like success. It was in eight plates in lieu of six. The story is unequal; but there is nothing finer than the figure of the desperate rake, in the Covent Garden gaming-house, or the admirable scenes in the Fleet prison and Bedlam, where at last his headlong career comes to its tragic termination. The plates abound with allusive suggestion and covert humour; but it is impossible to attempt any detailed description of them here.

A Rake’s Progress was dated June 25,1735, and the engravings bear the words "according to Act of Parliament." This was an Act (8 Geo. II. cap. 13) which Hogarth had been instrumental in obtaining from the legislature, being stirred thereto by the shameless piracies of rival printsellers. Although loosely drawn, it served its purpose; and the painter commemorated his success by a long inscription on the plate entitled Crowns, Mitres, &c., afterwards used as a subscription ticket to the Election series. These subscription tickets to his engravings, let us add, are among the brightest and most vivacious of the artist’s productions. That to the Harlot’s Progress was entitled Boys peeping at Nature, while the Rake’s Progress was heralded by the delighful etching known as A Pleased Audience at a Play, or The Laughing Audience.

We must pass more briefly over the prints which followed the two Progresses, noting first A Midnight Modern Conversation, an admirable drinking scene which comes between them in 1734, and the bright little plate of Southwark Fair, which, though dated 1733, was published with A Rake’s Progress in 1735. Between these and Marriage à la Mode, upon the pictures of which the painter must have been not long after at work, come the small prints of the Consultation of Physicians, Scholars at a Lecture, and Sleeping Congregation, 1736; the Four Times of the Day, 1738, a series of pictures of everyday 18th century life, the earlier designs for which have been already referred to; the Strolling Actresses dressing in a Barn, 1738, which Walpole held to be, "for wit and imagination, without any other end, the best of all the painter’s works;" and finally the admirable plates of the Distrest Poet, painfully composing a poem on "Riches" in a garret, and the Enraged Musician fulminating from his parlour window upon a discordant orchestra of knife-grinders, milk-girls, ballad-singers, and the rest upon the pavement outside. These are dated respectively 1736 and 1741. To this period also (i.e., the period preceding the production of the plates of Marriage à la Mode) belong two of those history pictures to which, in emulation of the, Haymans and Thornhills, the artist was continually attracted. The Pool of Bethesda and the Good Samaritan, "with figures seven feet high," were painted circa 1736, and presented by the artist to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where they remain. They were not masterpieces; and it is pleasanter to think of his connexion with Captain Coram’s recently established Foundling Hospital (1739), which he aided with his money, his graver, and his brush, and for which he painted that admirable portrait of the good old philanthropist which is still, and deservedly, one of its chief ornaments.

In A Harlot’s Progress Hogarth had not strayed much beyond the lower walks of society, and although, in A Rake’s Progress, his hero was taken from the middle classes, he can searcely be said to have quitted those fields of observation which are common to every spectator. It is therefore more remarkable, looking to his education and antecedents, that his masterpiece, Marriage à la Mode, should successfully depict, as the advertisement has it, "a variety of modern occurrences in high life." Yet, as an accurate delineation of the surroundings of upper class 18th century society, his Marriage à la Mode has never, we believe, been seriously assailed. The countess’s bedroom, the earl’s apartment with its lavish coronets and old masters, the grand saloon with its marble pillars and grotesque ornaments, are fully as true to nature as the frowsy chamber in the "Turk’s Head Bagnio," the quack-doctor’s museum in St Martin’s Lane, or the mean opulence of the merchant’s house in the city. And what story could be more vividly; more perspicuously, more powerfully told than this godless alliance of sacs et parchemins—this miserable tragedy of an ill-assorted marriage? There is no defect of invention, no superfluity of detail, no purposeless stroke. It has the merit of a work by a great master of fiction, with the additional advantages which result from the pictorial fashion of the narrative; and it is matter for congratulation that it is still to be seen by all the world in the National Gallery, where it can tell its own tale better than pages of commentary.

The engravings of Marriage à la Mode were dated April 1745. Although the painter by this time found a ready market for his engravings, be does not appear to have been equally successful in selling his pictures. The people bought his prints; but the more opulent and not numerous connoisseurs who purchased pictures were wholly in the hands of the importers and manufacturers of "old masters." In February 1745 the original oil paintings of the two Progresses, the Four Times of the Day, and the Strolling Actresses were still unsold. On the last day of that month Hogarth disposed of them by an ill-devised kind of auction, the details of which may be read in Nichols’s Anecdotes, for the paltry sum of £427, 7s. No better fate attended Marriage à la Mode, which five years later became the property of Mr Lane of Hillingdon for 120 guineas, being then in Carlo Maratti frames which had cost the artist four guineas a piece. Something of this was no doubt due to Hogarth’s impracticable arrangements, but the fact, shows conclusively how completely blind his contemporaries were to his merits as a painter, and how hopelessly in bondage to the all-powerful picture-dealers. Of these latter the painter himself gave a graphic picture in a letter addressed by him under the pseudonym of "Britophil" to the St James’s Evening Post, in 1737.

Gin Lane (by William Hogarth) image

Gin Lane

But, if Hogarth was not successful with his dramas on canvas, he occasionally shared with his contemporaries in the popularity of portrait painting. For a picture, executed in 1746, of Garrick as Richard III. he was paid £200, "which was more," says he, "than any English artist ever received for a single portrait." In the same year a sketch of Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, afterwards beheaded on Tower Hill, had an exceptional success. Our limits do not, however, enable us to refer to his remaining works in detail, and we must content ourselves with a brief enumeration of the most important. These are The Stage Coach or Country Inn Yard, 1747; the series of twelve plates entitled Industry and Idleness, 1717, depicting the career of two London apprentices; the Gate of Calais, 1749, which had its origin in a rather unfortunate visit paid to France by the painter after the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle; the March to Finchley, 1750 ; Beer Street, Gin Lane, and the Four Stages of Cruelty, 1751; the admirable representations of election humours in the days of Sir Robert Walpole, entitled Four Prints of an Election, 1755-8 ; and the plate of Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, a Medley, 1762, adapted from an earlier unpublished design called Enthusiasm Delineated. Besides these must be chronicled three more essays in the "great style of history painting," viz., Paul before Felix, Moses brought to Pharaoh’s Daughter, and the, Altarpiece for St Mary Redcliff at Bristol. The first two were engraved in 1751-2, the last in 1794. A subscription ticket to the earlier pictures, entitled Paul before Felix Burlesqued, had a popularity far greater than that of the prints themselves.

In 1745 Hogarth painted that admirable portrait of himself with his pug-dog, Trump, which. is now in the National Gallery. In a corner of this he had drawn on a palette a serpentine line with the words "The Line of Beauty and Grace." Much inquiry ensued as to "the meaning of this hieroglyphic and in an unpropitious hour the painter resolved to explain his meaning in writing. The result was the well-known Analysis of Beauty, 1753, a treatise" to fix the fluctuating ideas of Taste," otherwise a desultory essay having for pretext the precept attributed to Michelangelo that a figure should be always" Pyramidall, Serpent-like, and multiplied by one two and three." The fate of the book was what might have been expected. By the painter’s adherents it was praised as a final deliverance upon aesthetics; by his enemies and professional rivals, its obscurities, and the minor errors which, notwithstanding the benevolent efforts of literary friends, the work had not escaped, were made the subject of endless ridicule and caricature. It added little to its author’s fame, and it is perhaps to be regretted that he ever undertook it. Moreover, there were further humiliations in store for him. In 1759 the success of a little picture called The Lady’s Last Stake, painted for Lord Charlemont, procured him a commission from Sir Richard Grosvenor to paint another picture "upon the same terms." Unhappily on this occasion he deserted his own field of genre and social satire, to select the story from Boccaccio (or rather Dryden) of Sigismonda weeping over the heart of her murdered lover Guiscardo, being the subject of a picture by Furini in Sir Luke Schaub’s collection which had recently been sold for £400. The picture, over which he spent much time and patience, was not regarded as a success; and Sir Richard rather meanly shuffled out of his bargain upon the plea that "the constantly having it before one’s eyes would be too often occasioning melancholy thoughts to arise in one’s mind." Sigismonda, therefore, much to the artist’s mortification, and the delight of the malicious, remained upon his hands. As, by her husband’s desire, his widow valued it at £500, it found no purchaser until after her death, when the Boydells bought it for 56 guineas. It was exhibited, with others of Hogarth’s pictures, at the Spring Gardens exhibition of 1761, for the catalogue of which Hogarth engraved a Head-piece and a Tail-piece which are still the delight of collectors; and finally, by the bequest of the late Mr J. H. Anderdon, it passed in 1879 to the National Gallery, where, in spite of theatrical treatment and a repulsive theme, it still commands admiration for its colour, drawing, and expression.

In 1761 he was sixty-five years of age, and he had but three years more to live. These three years were embittered by that unhappy quarrel with Wilkes and Churchill, over which most of his biographers are contented to pass rapidly, Having succeeded John Thornhill in 1757 as serjeant painter (to which post he was reappointed at the accession of George III.), an evil genius prompted him in 1762 to do some "timed" thing in the ministerial interest, and he accordingly published the indifferent satire of The Times, plate i. This at once brought him into collision with his quondam friends, John Wilkes and Churchill the poet; and the immediate result was a violent attack upon him, both as a man and an artist in the opposition North Briton, No. 17. The alleged decay of his powers, the miscarriage of Sigismonda, the cobbled composition of the Analysis, were all discussed with scurrilous malignity by those who had known his domestic life and learned his weaknesses.The old artist was deeply wounded, and his health was failing. Early in the next year, however, be replied by that squinting portrait of Wilkes which will for ever carry his features to posterity. Churchill retaliated in July by a savage. Epistle to William Hogarth, to which the artist rejoined by a print of Churchill as a bear, in torn bands and ruffles, not the most successful of his works. "The pleasure, and pecuniary advantage," writes Hogarth, "which I derived from these two engravings" (of Wilkes and Churchill), "together with occasionally riding oil horseback, restored me to as much health as can be expected at my time of life." He produced but one more print, that of Finis, or The Bathos, March 1764, a strange jumble of "fag, ends," intended as a tail-piece to his collected prints and on the 26th October of the same year he died of an aneurism at his house in Leicester Square. His wife, to whom he left his plates as a chief source of income, survived him until 1789. He was buried in Chiswick church-yard, where a tomb was erected to him by his friends in 1771, with a well-known epitaph by Garrick. Not far off, on the road to Chiswick Gardens, is the now tumble-down house, in which, for many years of his life, he spent the summer seasons.

From such records of him as survive, Hogarth appears to have been much what from his portrait one might suppose bim to have been—a blue-eyed, honest, combative, little man, thoroughly national in his prejudices and anti pathies, fond of flattery, sensitive like most satirists, a good friend, an intractable enemy, ambitious, as he somewhere says, in all things to be singular, and not always accurately estimating the extent of his powers. With the art connoisseurship of his day he was wholly at war, because, as he believed, it favoured foreign mediocrity at the expense of native talent; and in the heat of argument he would probably, as he admits, often come "to utter blasphemous expressions against the divinity even of Raphael Urbino, Correggio, and Michelangelo." But it was rather against the third-rate copies of third-rate artists—the "ship-loads of manufactured Dead Christs, Holy Families, and Madonnas"—that his indignation was directed; and in speaking of his attitude with regard to the great masters of art, it is well to remember his words to Mrs Piozzi:—"The connoisseurs and I are at war you know; and because I hate them, they think I hate Titian—and let them!"

But no doubt it was in a measure owing to this hostile attitude of his towards the all-powerful picture-brokers that his contemporaries failed to adequately recognize his merits as a painter, and persisted in regarding him as an ingenious humorist alone. Time has reversed that unjust sentence. He is now held to have been an excellent painter, pure and harmonious in his colouring, wonderfully dexterous and direct in his handling, and in his composition leaving little or nothing to be desired. As an engraver his work is more conspicuous for its vigour, spirit, and intelligibility than for finish and beauty of line. He desired that it should tell its own tale plainly, and bear the distinct imuress of his individality, and in this he thoroughy succeeded. As a draughtsman his skill has sometimes been debated, and his work at times undoubtedly bears marks of haste, and even carelessness. If, however, he is judged by his best instead of his worst, his work will not be found to be wanting in this respect. But it is not after all as a draughtsman, an engraver, or a painter that he claims his pre-eminence among English artists—it is as a wit, a humorist, a satirist upon canvas. Regarded in this light he has never been equalled, whether for his vigour of realism and dramatic power, his fancy and invention in the decoration of his story, or his merciless anatomy and exposure of folly and wickedness. If we regard him—as he loved to regard himself—as "author" rather than "artist," his place is with the great masters of literature,—with the Thackerays and Fieldings, the Cervantes and Molières.

Additions to Hogarth literature have not been numerous of late years. 1n 1860 Mr G. A. Sala contributed some picturesque pages to the Cornhill Magazine, which were afterwards republished in book form. Much minute inforination has also been collected in Mr F. G. Stephens’s Catalogue of the Satirical Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, now in course of issue. Pictures by Hogarth from private collectious are constantly to be found at the annual exhibitions of the Old Masters in the Royal Academy; but most, of the best known works have permanent homes in public galleries. Marriage à la Mode, Sigimonda, and his own portrait are in the National Gallery; the Rake’s Progress and the Election Series in the Sloane Museum; and the March to Finchley and Captain Coram at the Foundling Hospital. There are also notable pictures in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge, and the National Portrait Gallery at South Kensington. The Lady’s Last Stake, to which reference has been made, is at present (1880) in the possession of Mr Louis Huth. (A. D.)

The above article was written by Henry Austin Dobson; Principal Clerk, H. M. Board of Trade, 1901; author of Proverbs in Porcelain, At the Sign of the Lyre, Thomas Berwick and his Pupils, Lives of Fielding, Steele, etc.; Four Frenchwomen; Eighteenth Century Vignettes, A Paladin of Philanthropy, etc.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries