William Hogarth: an artist for our times? A new biography explores his rumbustious vision
Coffee houses, bawds, crowds surging around a gibbet, strolling actresses with overflowing white bosoms, raucous street-criers jostling for space with fiddlers, pickpockets, fine ladies and fat, glistening clergymen, taut faces of gamblers picked out by greed and candlelight, madmen howling in Bedlam, the damp, high walls of Fleet prison: 18th-century London, in short. Or rather, William Hogarth's visions of London life. But as more and more cheap reproductions of his prints found their way into generations of British homes, his images became confused and conflated with the society which inspired them. For the Victorians, especially, they were proof positive that their Georgian predecessors had been violent, vulgar, corrupt and immoral. Even now, it can be hard to remember that these emblems and satires were not accurate reportage, harder still to see Hogarth's art freshly.

Yet the biographer of Hogarth must try, because he left so little written evidence of his life. There are a few letters, some badly-spelt memoranda, only one, decidedly eccentric, published book. But reliable information on his beliefs is sparse. The details of his education remain a mystery. We have only hints about his sex life outside his marriage or his relationship with his wife inside it. And his social and religious origins were too marginal for him to figure extensively in the copious records of the great and powerful. So anyone wanting to write about Hogarth must rely even more than with most artists on the visual, and be able to interpret it both imaginatively and critically.

Jenny Uglow does this triumphantly in Hogarth: A Life and a World. Hers is not a perfect or a comprehensive biography. I doubt if any such could be written. But she has produced a beautifully composed, always lively and markedly well-researched work, probably the most accessible and sympathetic life we shall ever have.

She divides her story into four sections, taking her sub-titles from Hogarth's own print series The Four Times of the Day. "Morning", for him, began in Smithfield three hundred years ago this November. His father passed for a schoolteacher and writer, and the family struggled for its existence among resonant street names (Barley Mow Passage, Rising Sun Court, Duck Lane), ephemeral bookshops and small printers. Right from the start, then, Hogarth lived and breathed amid that newly-abundant, cheap and miscellaneous print culture which would make his own brand of art possible and profitable.

But he was also familiar from his beginnings with the instability of human fortunes. Siblings died. His father was flung into Debtor's Prison, his grand project of a "most splendid dictionary" coming to nothing as he was forced to peddle textbooks instead. There was no money to send a talented and artistic son to Italy or France to view the Old Masters. Even if there had been, there was no British school of art for him to attend. It was axiomatic in the early 1700s that only foreigners could paint. Home-grown practitioners were looked on as craftsmen only: "illiterate, vulgar and scarce sober" as one aristocrat put it. So Hogarth had to apprentice himself to a silver engraver, before setting up as an engraver of trade cards, invitations, note paper and tickets.

It is comfortable to argue that in retrospect this was a good start. Hogarth learnt crucial skills and how to work fast to order. He was made forcibly and fruitfully aware of the intimate connections between art and commerce. He was compelled into originality. Against this, however, must be set the professional and personal costs. He never acquired a secure background in the classical tradition of art, and this proved in the end lethal to his reputation. And like many survivors, he developed a selfish, occasionally self-wounding truculence, resenting it deeply when patronage was withheld yet often kicking against it if it was offered, seeking confrontations needlessly yet feeling wounded when enemies hit back.

The plus side of this divided, combative self was that it made him sensitive to the tensions within others, and resistant to bland and easy judgements. As Uglow demonstrates, his most famous sequences of superficially moralising prints, A Harlot's Progress (1732), A Rake's Progress (1735), and Industry and Idleness (1747), are susceptible to multiple interpretations. True, all show how London casually devours some of the young drawn into it, however beautiful, or rich, or impudent. But how blame is otherwise to be allocated is left to our judgement. Hogarth makes it unclear whether Moll Hackabout is a rural maiden duped or a sly opportunist who simply lacks the necessary survival skills. Tom Rakewell deserts his pregnant girlfriend, lays waste one fortune and marries another, but the artist never paints him as happy. And the more the idle apprentice, Tom, hastens to his feckless doom, the more Hogarth engages our sympathies on his behalf, and the more distant and unattractive the rival, virtuous apprentice appears.

Awareness that human beings were at one and the same time fallible, guilty creatures and victims of arbitrary constraints and brutal bad luck also underlay Hogarth's sympathy for the plight of women, particularly women on their own. In private life, he was very much a man's man, a relisher of clubbery, hard drinking, freemasonry and fisticuffs. Yet he cherished the women of his family. His two redoubtable sisters who set up their own milliners business were each accorded portraits which communicate their evident plainness but also their integrity and guts. An actress beaten up by her employer, a stinking, cheerful shrimp girl, even a servant turned triple murderess all became heroines of a kind on Hogarth's canvas. And the most glowing of his portraits is of Mary Edwards, an heiress who had her marriage declared invalid as the only way to divest herself of a spendthrift husband. By contemporary standards this made her a whore and her son a bastard. But Hogarth paints her triumphant in red silk, the whole globe beside her, and against a bust of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, in proud control again of her life and fortune.

Uglow does full justice to these themes and more. If the last third of her book falters somewhat, this is partly because it is too long, but also because by the 1750s Hogarth's own life and work were faltering. He became trapped by his enormous success, by the public's appetite for his crowded, perceptive prints and satires. He tried desperately to diversify, but failed. His stabs at religious art were accomplished enough but ultimately unconvincing. And when at the end he aimed for the grand manner and invested all his yearning to be treated as a serious artist in Sigismunda mourning over the heart of Guiscardo, the response was incredulity and laughter. Rightly so, because the painting is very bad.

There was snobbery, though, behind at least some of the laughter. Lingering still, even among those patricians who purchased his work, was the sense that Hogarth was a craftsman who did what he did brilliantly, but no more than that. Even his appointment as Serjeant-Painter to George III seemed to reinforce this, the very title suggesting that he was not officer material. But there was more to the frustrations of Hogarth's later years than class prejudice and his having to confront the limits of his talent. At base, the problem was that Hogarth's world was his no longer. Britons no longer wanted to mock themselves in the same way. Nor could London be represented acceptably any more as a den of thieves, rascals, and fashionable greed. It was now the capital of a world power which expected to be taken far more seriously.

This, I am sure, was a prime reason why demand for Hogarth as a portraitist declined so conspicuously in his last decades. The elite, and those who aspired to it, demanded instead swagger portraits by the likes of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the men posed in classical fashion and the women elongated in lavish drapery. A portrait of the kind Hogarth had produced for William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington back in 1741, conveying his wit and humanity not his acreage or power, was no longer what the market wanted.

Hogarth was perhaps too radical for a changing, imperialistic Britain, and radical in the wrong ways. One of the few flaws of Uglow's biography is that it does not investigate as it might have done Hogarth's politics, or how these were connected with his religion. Yet it is surely relevant that his background was in Protestant Nonconformity. Nonconformists were in a paradoxical position in Georgian Britain. At one level, they enthusiastically supported the status quo because it accorded them religious toleration. At another, they resented that in law they remained second-class citizens, the great universities and the top jobs being still closed to them either in theory or in fact.

This surely helps to explain Hogarth's own ambiguous treatment of the British state and its leaders. He could be crudely, joyously patriotic, glorying in homespun liberties, hammering Jacobites who threatened the Protestant Succession, and invariably lambasting the Catholic French. Yet at the same time his treatment of those in authority in his own country was not just mocking, as is often thought. It was savage. One of his earliest satires, the alarmingly strange Royalty, Episcopacy and the Law (1724), represents the powers that be as no more than things, assemblages of pieces of clothing, coins, teacups, playing cards and tools. In this vision, kings, priests and judges have no brains or souls. They are, literally, no bodies. By the same token, his only comment on George III's coronation, The Five Orders of Periwigs (1762), reduces the grandees present to depictions of their fake hair. That the resulting rows of wigs and pigtails bear a lively resemblance to an exhibition of pendulous genitals and gaping vaginas is not accidental. For what else were the upper classes, at base?

This kind of deconstruction of the great, together with his celebration of outcasts, villains and the ordinary, and his experimental, often radically minimalist graphic skills, lie behind much of the revival of Hogarth's reputation in recent decades. There have been a succession of major exhibitions of his work in London since 1971, and a string of important books devoted to him, to which Uglow's is the latest, significant addition. Obsolete and out of step though it appeared by the end of his life, Hogarth's art adjusts well to our now populist, post-imperial, unillusioned Britain. We are still self-obsessed, still greedy, still highly creative. Men and women still gamble, suffer, lust, strive, and are ruined within our borders. But we are no longer grand. We no longer worship our leaders from afar. And we know we are frequently ridiculous. Hogarth fits us like a glove.

! `Hogarth: A Life and a World' by Jenny Uglow is published by Faber at pounds 25