A brush with kidding Billy

Jan Marsh meets the evergreen satirist with a soft heart but savage art: Hogarth by Jenny Uglow, Faber, pounds 25

One night in 1732, as a youngish married man, William Hogarth set off with four friends on an impromptu jaunt, proposed in the tavern and then executed forthwith. Amid non-stop drinking from the Thames to the Medway, they flung dung at each other in mock fights, lost an overcoat (but held onto their wigs) and were nearly marooned on a mudbank. In the churchyard at Hoo, Hogarth dropped his breeches and perched on a grave rail, "having a motion"; whereupon one of his companions swished his bum with a bunch of nettles, obliging him to finish the business with his back against the church door.

Such irreverence, to both the deceased and the Church, was woven into Hogarth's art as well as his life. It is a clue as to why, despite his aspirations to honours in history painting, he remained always a satirist of genius, a scatological comedian seldom invited into the solemn purlieus of High Art.

Today, 300 years after his birth into the world of the Protestant succession, exploding consumerism and Augustan wit, sequences like The Rake's Progress, Marriage a-la-Mode and The Election (all on view in a tercentenary exhibition at the British Museum opening on 25 September, together with works by William Frith and David Hockney) are integral parts of our visual heritage. Despite the loss of context, their crowded, vigorous and inventive mockery is endlessly available for re-use, like a sort of Spitting Image pickled in aspic.

One can easily transport Hogarth out of time, imagining the asperity he would direct at current follies and evils: the celebrity weddings, the greedy speculators, the savage tabloids, the miscarriages of justice, the self-important scribblers. And his grim vision of Gin Lane is, pari passu, that of apocalyptic essays on death and destitution from the "menace of drugs" in the present day.

Jenny Uglow makes use of all the scholarship that now attends Hogarth studies, and has resolutely kept her subject within his historical place and time. She resists notions of universality, offering more of a synthesis of latest knowledge than a personal view. Occasionally, indeed, her Hogarth is almost lost in his world, like a short (he was under five feet tall) unfashionable figure in a busy street.

The narrative of Uglow's previous biography was propelled by the breathless speed of Elizabeth Gaskell's own letters but - while his paintings and prints are full of movement and noise - so few of Hogarth's words survive that we strain to hear his voice.

When we do, the sound is as vivid as the pictures. For instance, he writes about the rendering of baroque angels as swarms of babies' heads with duck wings under their chins, "supposed always to be flying about, and singing psalms, or perching on the clouds", and yet so agreeable that their absurdity is forgiven: "St Paul's is full of them."

Or the cant of the art dealer, who talks up a dismal Old Master-piece and then, "Spitting on an obscure Place and rubbing it with a dirty Handkerchief, takes a Skip to t'other end of the room, and screams out in Raptures - `There's an amazing Touch! A man shou'd have this picture a twelvemonth in his Collection, before he can discover half its beauties!'"

Hogarth was a Londoner, born hard by Barts Hospital and Smithfield. He was apprenticed to engraving and set up shops in Leicester Fields, as it then was. This central area, between the City and the Court, was that of the newspapers, print shops, theatres, studios, coffee houses and taverns where all men who lived by their talents in the arts and media met.

He had a chip on his shoulder, because his Cumbrian-born father - a struggling schoolmaster with a vast, unpublishable dictionary - was for some time imprisoned for debt. This surely fuelled Hogarth's stubborn independence and insistence that his deserts were greater than his rewards, as well as his refusal to play the polite ape, which could have brought preferment. His friendships were those of honest fellowship. In portraiture, he could never flatter for frankness was his best tribute.

Culturally, in his lifetime, satiric wit gave place to refinements of sentiment, which he seems not to have felt. Yet the most remarkable testimony to affection is glimpsed in a brief note to his wife of 20 years, which begins "My dear Jenny, I write to you now, not because I think you may expect it only, but because I find a pleasure in it, which is more than I can say of writing to anybody else." If the postman brought news of her return it would be better than the music of a kettle-drum, but she was not to hasten home.

To both Jane and her Billy, the lack of children must have been a deep, if silent grief, poignantly refracted in Hogarth's energetic, extended support for Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital, where a sequence of orphans were renamed William and Jane Hogarth. As well as a savage brush and burin, their benefactor had a sympathetic heart.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn