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.

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