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
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
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 apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape