Tom Sutcliffe: From William Hogarth to Martin Amis, it's hard to resist an amoral monster

 

My question this week: which did Hogarth enjoy drawing more – Gin Lane or Beer Street? Or to put it a different way, which panel do you think he drew first?

Which part of that famous double image was the fun bit and which the follow-up spadework, required to make the moral contrast work? It's really not a difficult one this, I think. You just have to ask yourself where your own eye first travels. And it seems obvious to me that it's to Gin Lane, with its vista of human depravity. In Beer Street, everything – apart from the pawnbroker down on his luck – is seemly and meet. It's a scene of industry and plenty. And it's just a bit dull. By contrast, Gin Lane is a vision of moral ruin. And yet that's the picture we're drawn to and – surely – the picture that Hogarth most relished working on.

I found myself thinking about this while reading Lionel Asbo, Martin Amis's latest novel. On Radio 4's Today programme, he suggested that it is a Dickensian exercise in social observation (or at least that Dickens was his admired model). But it is also quite Hogarthian in some ways – a doubled study of divergent fates rather in the manner of Hogarth's didactic series Industry and Idleness, which contrast the fate of two different apprentices. In Amis's case, the industrious apprentice is Desmond Pepperdine, a young orphan who raises himself by reading, and the idle 'prentice is his Uncle Lionel – an inner-city grotesque who at one point explicitly excoriates the idea of learning anything in life.

And if you ask yourself a similar question about Amis and the creation of his novel – which character did he enjoy writing more? – I think you come up with a similar answer. Desmond may be the moral centre of the book, the character who gives it heart, but you're never sorry when Lionel lurches into the room, steam rising gently from his swart body. And though this might be the projection of a reader's interest, I think Amis's prose also brightens when he arrives. It isn't really surprising. Just as Hogarth would have sensed the difference between drawing a conventionally pretty housemaid in Beer Lane and the gin-addled slattern who visually echoes her, Amis responds to the greater liberty for invention. Beauty has its rules and its conventions. Ugliness – moral or physical – takes off the brakes.

Any caricaturist, of course, has a professional dependency on the grotesque. As one latter-day Hogarthian, the cartoonist Martin Rowson, put it when I asked him about the issue: "All satirists are there to lower the tone." He also confirmed the tendency for caricaturists to become infatuated with their monsters.

But Amis's difficulty with this effect in his novel is rather different to that of Hogarth, I think, because it undermines the very moral case he is making. You can be fascinated by Hogarth's vision of drunken fecklessness without being drunk and out of it yourself. The mind probes the jagged edge of the worst thing imaginable – dropping your baby to its death – but you are never really implicated in that atrocious loss of control.

That's less true of Lionel Asbo. The book is partly about the perversion of values that holds celebrity (and notoriety) at a higher price than actual achievement. But it also effectively requires us to respond with a tabloid reader's avidity for base gossip. What keeps us reading is the desire for something worse to happen, for the story to take a darker twist. Without giving anything away, I think Amis's plot eventually rebukes that appetite in us. But his book wouldn't work at all if it didn't feed it first. He implicitly asks, in dismayed tones, why it is that we've become so obsessed with the badly behaved and the self-indulgent. And he answers the question with his monstrous hero.

A change of tone, but is it Bardic?

Cyril Nri, who plays Cassius in the new RSC production of Julius Caesar, pictured, gets more than usual out of his line predicting Caesar's death will be "acted o'er/In states unborn and accents yet unknown" – because he delivers it in an African accent.

The setting, a post-colonial African state, works well, but I did wonder about the vocal costuming. In the 1980s, Michael Rudman's Caribbean Measure for Measure worked beautifully – something about the cadences of West Indian English. I was less sure about the marriage here, if only because an African accent often breaks a word up into syllables of equally weighted stress, which can run against Shakespeare's metre.

Advice to a struggling artist

Advice to young artists: if in doubt, repeat with variation. And if you don't think it works go and see Haunch of Venison's show of photo pieces by Nancy Holt, many of which feature grid-like arrangements of photographs.

They offer a neat demonstration of the way in which a collection of similar images is almost always more than the sum of its parts.

One photograph of a derelict western grave? Just a tourist snapshot. Sixty photographs of western graves, printed on archival rag paper? A haunting meditation on mortality and impermanence.

One straggly pine tree? A dull picture. Forty-eight different straggly pine trees all in the same format? An interrogation of landscape traditions.

The method is not absolutely infallible, but it is definitely worth trying if you're in trouble.

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit