Abandoning a friend in a pub, Tony Hancock says, ‘Very well, I shall leave you in the company of these Hogarthian grotesques.’ And everybody knew what he meant. William Hogarth had been the moral chronicler of his times, those being the first half of the eighteenth century, but his power still resonated in the twentieth.
It’s surprising, considering he was associated with the pre-modern age before Gainsborough, Turner and Constable. In 1971, the year of a major Tate retrospective, the museum’s director was suspicious of Hogarth, feeling that he was too awkward to be placed with the masters. He had been carefully isolated in a room of his own for years, but the exhibition proved revelatory, and it was clear that the British public preferred him to, say, Reynolds’ society portraits.
For here was London in all its rambunctious life; narrative art, caricatures and satire, paintings and etchings filled with codes and secrets. He was also a superb portrait artist, but his fame rests on his morality tales like Marriage A-La-Mode and The Rake’s Progress, and his savage parodies of social behaviour.
Marriage A-La-Mode chronicles the rise and fall of a union between a duplicitous high-ranking gentleman and a spendthrift wife. It is so stuffed with references that it needs the book-length study by Robert LS Cowley to decode it. Like The Harlot’s Progress, The Four Stages of Cruelty and The Four Times of the Day, they are less pictures than catalogues, each picture forming part of a comprehensive overview of human nature.
High-born ladies hide venereal disease, arrogant nobles dismiss debts, clergymen gorge themselves and commoners drink to insensibility. In Francis Matthew Schmitz in his Bed, the subject is shown throwing up the previous night’s alcohol intake into a chamberpot. The painting was supposedly commissioned by his wife to warn him about his intemperate life, but his descendants had the chamberpot painted out and replaced with a newspaper. The pot has since been put back.
So we come to Tate Britain’s major new exhibition of some sixty artworks entitled ‘Hogarth & Europe’, which attempts to place the artist in relationship to his European contemporaries. The show has been ten years in the making, with art loaned from galleries spread around the world. I particularly wanted to see the painted version (there is also an etching, as was normal with Hogarth) of Southwark Fair, which shows a populace in orchestrated chaos, from its rooftop tightrope walkers to its rope dancers, boxers and jugglers.
The painting is usually in Cincinnati, and I wonder what the locals make of its very English complexities, especially as it’s meant to be seen as the epilogue to The Rake’s Progress, kept in London. What a shame it was sold off to the diminishment of both.
But the issue here is what the Tate makes of it, and therein lies the problem. The academics’ caption panels accompanying the painting are less interested in discussing the artist’s relationship to Europe than his assumed attitudes to race, and represent a zenith of patronising woke finger-wagging.
Most notorious is the shark-jumping ‘chair’ moment. One of the paintings, ‘Hogarth Painting the Comic Muse’ features the artist seated in a chair, painting. According to a wall text written by Sonia Barrett, the 1757 self-portrait must be seen within the context of slavery. ‘The curvaceous chair literally supports him and exemplifies his view on beauty. The chair is made from timbers shipped from the colonies via routes which also shipped enslaved people. Could the chair also stand in for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?’
Er, no love. Other captions consistently push emotional buttons, referring to those in the paintings only as ‘white people’ again and again. The nation’s critics rounded on the Tate director Alex Farquharson for allowing ‘wokeish drivel’ to spoil an otherwise important exhibition and sideline its real avowed intentions, to reveal Hogarth as a cosmopolitan looking toward Europe. The Guardian’s critic Rachel Cook said; ‘The longer I stayed, the more the feeling grew in me that I was not really allowed to enjoy what I was seeing, and that if I did, I was a bad or insensitive person.’ The Times asked, ‘Why has Tate Britain spoiled a fabulous exhibition with fantasy readings of his intentions?’
I’ll happily attend a show about colonial perceptions in English painting, but this was not the place to squeeze in such an agenda. I’ll go again; it’s too big to fully take in at one go, but I’ll be reading Jenny Uglow’s wonderful ‘Hogarth’ this time, not a briefly fashionable academic viewpoint.