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
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
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.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments