Hogarthian Grotesques

The Arts

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.

 

31 comments on “Hogarthian Grotesques”

  1. Keith Page says:

    I’ve had a copy of Jenny Uglow’s ‘Hogarth’ for years.It’s certainly fascinating. I make a point of ignoring all
    stupidly ‘woke’ comments and resist being lectured .I make up my own mind about things.

  2. Stu-I-Am says:

    There is little question that viewed through a modern lens a good many of Hogarth’s portrayals are ‘problematic’ or certainly eyebrow-raising. Yet, where does his long admired  subversive social satire end and the realities of his times begin — as uncomfortable to modern sensibilities though they may be ?

    In Hogarth’s London, African slaves were status symbols, the very thing he often satirised. Setting aside the facile and clearly tortured interpretations of the kind CF mentions in connection with the wall text for the self-portrait, ‘ ‘Hogarth Painting the Comic Muse,’ the Tate exhibition, to my mind, again raises the the always contentious issue of whether you can (or should) separate the art from the artist and their milieu — whatever a contemporary perspective or point of view.

  3. Helen+Martin says:

    Sometimes a chair is just a chair.
    Every age puts its own interpretation on works of art but if you are talking about a work in the context of its own age then you use the standards of that age not ours for interpretation. What did Hogarth intend?

  4. Debra Matheney says:

    I adore Hogarth for his send up and satire of society. I admire how he promoted the copyrighting of artists’ work. Jenny Uglow’s biography is a revelation and well worth a read.
    I totally agree with Helen and Martin. Applying our values to the past is pointless. I thought the point is to appreciate art, music and literature through the lens of its age. That to me is the pleasure of my forays into 18th century works.

  5. Peter+T says:

    How can anyone who works for a museum essentially founded by a sugar magnate and named after him lecture others on obscure aspects of wokeness? To use their own words: ‘Sugar made from syrups and cane shipped from the colonies via routes that also shipped enslaved people.’ Pot, kettle, etc.

  6. SteveB says:

    Jenny Uglow wrote another book I would greatly recommend ‘The Lunar Men’ which is about Britain on the cusp of the scientific and industrial revolution

  7. Jan says:

    Helen has not long said this in a much better way than I could ever hope to.
    Very well said in fact Helen. But I am going to ramble for a paragraph or two. Cos I put in for my old age pension today and I want my soon to be a pensioners say!

    I’m pretty sure though that I must be missing somee thing major here. I.E. I just can’t understand why this Farquarharson fella’s (if indeed this Farquarson is a person of the male gender) “avowed intention” to interpret Hogarths work as being of a cosmopolitan nature with a view toward Europe is any more or less mistaken or come to that appropriate than this idea Rachel from the Guardians got about Hogarths pictures being something to do with slavery. Both these Ps.O.V seem misplaced and irrelevant to me.

    Pictures and stories and folks attitudes come from their times don’t they? Ideas and views are made out of their time and are only really are relatable in or to that context. Both ideas this interpretation of the European/ cosmopolitan stance and this connection with slavery seem barmy to me. Both about as daft as each other. You can’t back read the topics relevant to today’s Britain back onto the work of previous centuries.

    If I were asked about Hogarth (not that I know much to be sure.) I would say that what strikes me of the couple of his famous pictures like Gin Lane that I know show that the gin which I think originated in Holland and was taken up by London distillers cos it was cheap to make and cheap for punters to purchase ( – perhaps this cosmopolitan leaning towards Europe was in fact more of a drunken stagger!)

    Well the thing that strikes me is how similar the effects of the fast produced and cheap gin had on the lower classes of London had to the much later and development of crack in the late 20C early 21 C. Rich man’s booze came down to poor man’s booze as upmarket cocaine became crack. Sure Hogarth’s a satirist but it seems like a valid social comment to me.

    Again this is a back reading projecting the reality from now back into the past. What I see for sure is that this cheap gin was like the crack cocaine of its day. What happens when the recreational substances of the rich become accessible to the poor. But this in the end though I like this thought meself it is no better than what Farquarharson finger and Rachel from the Guardian think. Stuffs is of its time. Simple as that. (Read what Helen says its better and makes more sense)

  8. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter +T Peter, Henry Tate was in his teens when slavery was abolished in 1833 and after a good deal of scrutiny over the decades, there is no evidence he or his family were slave owners or directly profited from slavery. But, it is also true that without it the British sugar industry would not have existed in the form and the scale which brought him great wealth — part of which funded the Gallery bearing his name.

    And, of course, there is the uncomfortable fact that many pieces from ancestral collections contributed to the Tate were  given by or associated with, individuals who were slave owners or whose wealth came from slavery. Interestingly, Hogarth often juxtaposed art or art-related objects with black figures as a way of expressing his distaste for the fact that many dealers or collectors of art (‘black Masters,’ he called them) were also dealers in slaves. During his time, the term ‘patron’ had the dual meaning of ‘owner of slaves’ and ‘supporter of arts,’

  9. Jo+e says:

    I think the Tate have missed a trick. There is a Hogarth and Light Lunch Offer (£30):

    We’ve paired some of our new seasons dishes to our Hogarth inspired ale. Enjoy the balanced harmony of flavours of the roast butternut, red onion and leek tart or Wookey Hole cave aged Cheddar and this special brew.

    A Hogarth inspired Gin Lane Special may have been a better route than the Beer Street Tart and in sufficient quantity would make all the written drivel, including that in the cafeteria, more bearable. Or there again that might require the Crack Alley option.

  10. Peter T says:

    I thought of making a bonfire of our mahogany dining room furniture because of the symbolism. Decided against it because of the consequent CO2, particulates and NOx.

  11. Paul C says:

    A very enjoyable book in a similar vein is City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth Century London by Vic Gatrell (2006) which concentrates on the bawdy satirical art of Gillray, Cruikshank and Rowlandson. If you like Hogarth you’ll probably enjoy this book too.

    High time the woke mob fell into a long sleep

  12. Liz+Thompson says:

    Pulling down a statue of a slave trader in Bristol I can understand, particularly after 10 years of campaigning with no result. Destroying a chair? Not sure what point that would make. And if we’re going down that route, I wonder what stone masons were paid and how they were treated when they built our numerous cathedrals, minsters etc. Target the commemoration or honouring of the actual perpetrator, yes, but not their art or produce. The history is of interest as an account of a previous reality – and Gin Lane shows that very well. But we hardly need to look at the production of the canvas, the brushes, the paints, the frame to assess a picture’s merits. Not sure the production of the gin shows us much about why they were drinking it to excess, either.

  13. Roger says:

    Going by Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, Stu-Am, there wasn’t much difference between a patron as an owner of slaves and a patron as a supporter of arts,

  14. SteveB says:

    LOVING the new book! One of Admin’s best so far.
    “she resembled the late-career Simone Signoret, which for some senior clients was no bad thing” … totally brilliant! I got the picture immediately!

  15. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter+T Peter — If you happen to check out the work of Sonia E. Barrett (sebarrett.com), the British artist who decided Hogarth’s chair might somehow symbolize slavery, you’ll find she seems to have a thing for furniture.

  16. Stu-I-Am says:

    First congrats on the publication of ‘Hot Water.’ I too am enjoying it, but may I make a suggestion ? No ? Okay, then I won’t suggest having Titan seriously consider replacing the reference to B&M on the cover (if at all possible) on the next run or the initial run, if incomplete. I fully understand why the marketing people thought the association would be helpful but in the end, I think it does you and ‘Hot Water’ a disservice.

    The only thing it has in common with B&M is you. Certainly enough for we faithful and those who know your non-B&M work. My concern is tepid or negative reviews by others who know you primarily from B&M and feel compelled to compare ‘Hot Water’ with the series. Not sure removing the direct association or ‘reminder’ in favour of something like ‘Best Selling International Author’ would completely do away with this continuing possibility, but it may be something to consider going forward.

  17. Paul C says:

    Just stumbled across the fact that Nikolai Gogol the great short story writer was born in Ukraine. Think I’ll read some of his tales again – Diary of a Madman seems the most apt.

    A growing number of factories in Newcastle are flying Ukrainian flags and pennants. Are they visible elsewhere ?

  18. Peter+T says:

    Stu, As somone who likes wooden furniture, I found that website quite painful. I agree on the B&M reference on the Hot Water cover, but I guess it’s a case leveraging some reflected glory.

  19. Joel says:

    the word “woke” has now been lumped into the same category as “politically correct”, “snowflake”, and “liberal”…they all initially meant showing people and their experience of the world respect and dignity…but gods forbid showing “others” respect and dignity would take away a white man’s raison d’etre for his existence and possibly show him for the uneducated, shallow, greedy, entitled, fearful asshat that he is…art of any kind should be viewed through the lens of the time it was created, and then, if needed, explained to children etc as to why these attitudes and actions are not the way humanity should be moving forward and maybe how we have progressed, or not. hogarth is a hoot

  20. Helen+Martin says:

    Joel, you have said it concisely. As time goes by I find it more and more difficult to refrain from slitting my wrists. What stops me is the mess that would result, just one more white person’s mess for someone else to clean up.

  21. Ed+DesCamp says:

    Oh, Helen. Where is your sense of righteous indignation? It’s not your wrists that need slitting, my friend. Even if only metaphorically, we need to slit a few woke wrists, and goodness knows, you have the vocabulary to do it. Go forth and do so! I’m too damn old to start paying for any crimes other than my own, and am happy to let the true asshats enjoy my point of view.

  22. Roger says:

    “hogarth is a hoot”
    That’s the important thing about Hogarth. Slavery, racism and exploitation are important too, but the connexion between them and Stubbs, Gainsborough, and other eighteenth century landscape and portrait artists are much stronger than the links with Hogarth.

  23. snowy says:

    Joel, I think it was you that said, when discussing history it should be: complete, accurate, fair and balanced, [forgive me if I haven’t got it quite correct, it comes from a memory not guaranteed 100% accurate.] Taking that as a basis for discussion let us begin.

    ‘Snowflake’ and ‘liberal’ are ‘attack words’ used by the political right and can be dismissed here as just name calling. The political left have an even larger vocabulary of insults: ‘fascist’, ‘reactionary’, ‘Zionist’ etc.

    That leaves ‘woke’ and ‘politically correct’, synonyms for much the same thing, [at least in the UK context.]

    And a nebulous construct at best, so to progress further, we need to split that particular mares nest into the ‘human’ and the ‘political’.

    The ‘human’ has largely been addressed over time culminating in the UDHR, perhaps not a perfect document, but it covers the essentials of life. [Any imperfections are minor given the wider tendency of some governments to completely ignore the provisions when they find it politically inconvenient].

    That leaves ‘Woke’-[political].

    Hmmmm… any discussion is as fraught with peril as trying to clear a mine field with a ‘Space-hopper’, [never an endevour that is going to end well].

    But let’s be bold!

    ‘Woke’ has become reviled for the same reasons ‘PC’ did, it is infested with self-appointed ‘activists’ who have their own personal agendas. And they wield ‘Woke’ like a club to further their personal ambitions for status and money.

    They demand respect, but never ever give it to anyone that dare oppose them.

    Ask them to produce a source for their argument, the stock response is that “it is common knowledge”. Further probing will eventually reveal it was something somebody told them once in a pub/something they saw in a film/read on twitter.

    They carefully nurse grudges over events that happened several centuries ago, long beyond any meaningful remedy.

    They very carefully pick their ‘facts’, and will absolutely deny anything that would weaken their argument.

    They deny that anyone on their side has ever done anything wrong, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

    Refute any of their ‘truths’, they will produce a dozen more equally inaccurate, [and some quite barking mad].

    Continue to challenge them and they will accuse you of being a bad human and demand your immediate ‘cancellation’.


    These people, [the self-appointed activists], have ‘weaponised’ willful ignorance to unparalleled levels, each new accusation of ‘wrong-doing’ requires vast amounts of time and effort to refute. [Time and effort that would be better spent fix the problems of today].

    Even if the time and effort is expended, [you could argue wasted], proving their accusation wrong, they refuse to listen.

    And if you do finally get them to accept that they are wrong on one thing they have hundreds more old ‘bones’ to pick over.

    If you ever could get through every single one of the grievances it would be to no avail, they will just invent new ones from whole cloth.


    They all use the same tactic, to hector and browbeat people into excepting their point of view. Under such a constant barrage good ordinary people, the sort of people that look after their friends, neighbours and community irrespective of who they are or where they came from become tired of constantly be accused of being culpable for things they have never done.

    Only two things can happen then:

    Ordinary people disengage completely from the debate, who wants to be constantly told they are evil even though they are not.

    Ordinary people become angry about being endlessly falsely accused of ‘crimes’ they have never committed.


    Both are horribly dangerous, if everybody tunes out calls for help from the ‘X’ community because most are nonsense, what happens when something important threatens them? They will try to call out for help and discover no-one is listening anymore.

    Angry ordinary people can inadvertently give fuel and comfort to the really dangerous who become emboldened enough to act out in the real world.


    Yours sincerely and respectfully S.

  24. snowy says:

    Oh bollocks! If you can’t beat ’em join ’em.

    I hereby announce the foundation of a new political movement open to all irrespective of age, sex, creed or colour.

    Among the demands in our manifesto is full demographic representation in all fields of human endeavour, specifically:

    All Caribbean steel bands in Britain to have at least 87.4% white members inc. one ginger.

    All Chinese dragon dancing troupes to ensure that their performers represent the demographics of the wider community, there are a lot of Morris dancers standing about idle late Jan – early Feb it would be good to give them something to do.

    All producers of Musical theatre to move towards making the cast and crew of every production straighter, with a view to achieving a 90% breeder benchmark by the year 2035.

    A urgent and rapid increase in the number of female sperm donors, an historically under-represented group.

    An end to female domination in the worlds of Primary School teaching, Nursing and Pole dancing, it is about time that men were allowed to be cross all the time, stick things into people and wave their bums about.

  25. Paul C says:

    Brilliant – sign me up, Snowy

  26. Tim Lees says:

    I’ve seen some similar approaches here in the US. Well-intentioned, perhaps, but ultimately misleading. Some years ago the excellent Field Museum ran an exhibition on Haitian voudo. It attributed the inherent violence and grotesquerie of various voudo figures (some of which are portrayed as maimed) to the legacy of slavery. So far, so good; I’m sure that’s true. But there was literally nothing about the way Papa Doc used voudo imagery to enforce his rule, which I’d have thought was a significant part of the religion’s history. Better to tell the whole story, warts and all, rather than obscure a part of it because someone — it doesn’t matter who — might be offended.

  27. Joel says:

    snowy, thank you for much to think about and to define…i do not find the word liberal an attack, i am quite proud to be one as it is defined as: 1.a supporter of policies that are socially progressive and promote social welfare.
    2.a supporter of a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise. much like the word queer, which i am and love, i am proud to be both liberal and woke. the word woke is defined as : “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” …that’s all…not sure who your “they” is/are…but sounds to me like the fringe left, which is just as frightening to me as the fringe right…my experience with all you have written is that neither i nor the people whom i love and associate with have ever been “woke” as you describe, in fact, we lean into the aforementioned definition of liberal and woke…i try to be helpful to others, harm no one, and hopefully leave my spot on this earth better than i found it…thank you for the opportunity to better understand what i believe and be able to define it

  28. Stu-I-Am says:

    Sorry snowy — a bit too pat (your complimentary close notwithstanding). Fact is — surveys show that few Brits even know what ‘woke’ means. Slightly less than a third questioned claim to have never heard the term and the rest are about evenly split as to whether being called ‘woke’ is an insult or a compliment.

    Not surprising, since ‘wokism’ is a fairly recent import. It has become essentially a political football which, along with its companion phrase ‘cancel culture,’ has gotten so far removed from its original core concern by the U.S. Black community for meaningful accountability, that is now almost exclusively about how we  generally communicate within a binary, right versus wrong framework.

    The hyperbolic rhetoric and fear-mongering primarily from the right is at one end of the spectrum and at the other, a frequently knee-jerk, sanctimonious pietism. Both are to be called out, but whilst the latter tends to be centered in or around government and academe, the ginning up of ‘woke’ grievances and their related conspiracies by the government and rabid right media in advancing a cynical and self-serving populism is far more dangerous to the community at large. The other very real issue is that these invented grievances and related conspiracies too often replace or displace legitimate ones which don’t lend themselves as well to glib dispatch and attention-getting hype. ‘Wokism’ in its best and highest sense and purpose is awareness — the caution or understanding that we are flawed — some of us, deeply flawed — and that we must continue to seek our better angels lest we be condemned to repeat an often inglorious past.

    ‘So do the shadows of our own desires stand between us and our better angels, and thus their brightness is eclipsed.’ — Charles Dickens, ‘Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty’

  29. Helen+Martin says:

    We had a male kindergarten teacher at my last school and the NHS nurse who demonstrated the fact of my Bell’s palsy to a younger nurse was male. I have not seen a demonstration of pole dancing so I couldn’t say how things are in that realm. Things are definitely changing in the realm of female career choices but it is very difficult to get answers to questions when you live in a nation where the population was as badly treated as it was here. There is a lot of natural deep-seated resentment and it will take two more generations before white people asking for information are not assumed to have the worst intentions. You really do have to know the person you’re asking very well indeed before asking serious questions.

  30. Alan R says:

    Chris, your blog and your readers’ comments have interested me in taking a more serious look at Hogarth’s work and life. His famous quote “OK Dad, I’ll call in to see you at the debtor’s prison on my way home from Beer Street and Gin Lane – if I can still walk”, obviously does not do justice to his massive contribution to art.

    I will look at furniture in his work in a more detailed way to identify sinister hidden meanings, like we did playing the Stones LP backwards, or reading Ginsberg reflected in a mirror in an attempt to find the chemical “recipe” for LSD.

    The interpretation of a chair – “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?” – has enlightened and increased my sensitivity. For example, I just came across the Hogarth picture of a tailor measuring a young boys outside thigh. A Rake’s progress?

    With my new higher sensitivity and the resultant lowering of reasons to offend me, I now have a list of 20 offensive interpretations from this art piece alone.

    Stephen Fry wrote “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.”

    I’m with you Stevie babes, but it is now so much more fun adding my own interpretation of creative works or historical facts, without having to have any real knowledge on those subjects what so even. I’m free.

  31. Helen+Martin says:

    People who say “I’m offended by that” are indicating that they are a small bomb subject to random explosion. There are so many other things to say or do when someone utters words that do not take context into account.

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