JUST A LOAD OF JOHN BULL

He's called the father of British art, and his tercentenary will be lavishly celebrated. But though William Hogarth was a keen promoter of all things British, could he actually paint?
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This is William Hogarth's tercentenary, and about time we looked at the feeble reasons for his popularity. He was born in Smithfield in 1697 and died at his home in Chiswick - a house recently restored with Lottery money - in 1764. So he grew up under Queen Anne, lived through the reigns of George I and George II and had three years under George III. The state of the British crown meant a lot to him, but it's noticeable that his sizeable portion of the 18th century is often called "The Age of Hogarth", as though this belligerently middle-class painter represented the nation in a way that its sovereigns did not.

Britishness is indeed a theme of Hogarth's art, both in subject matter and in style. Not only did he vaunt his personal patriotism. He dreamt of a manner of painting that would owe nothing to the established canons laid down by foreigners: that is to say, the grand decorations of the Renaissance and Baroque traditions. Classical art he equated with falsity. In fact Hogarth, one of nature's great haters, disliked quite a lot of art. When his career began, in the late 1720s, a list of the painters he abominated would be much longer than a list of those he admired. He was always proud to say that he was self-taught, and that there were therefore no influences on his painting. It's true that his only formal instruction came from a brief apprenticeship to an engraver. But of course there were influences; and though Hogarth would not admit it, most of them were French.

Hogarth's two visits to France symbolise his relations with a foreign culture he personally loathed. The first shows how dependent he was on the French. In the early 1740s he was painting the series Marriage a la mode, now in the National Gallery, which is the most achieved of his works. However, he wanted the six pictures to be engraved, for this is how he earnt real money, and the best engravers were to be found in France. Hogarth didn't like Paris: he was jealous both of its sophisticated artistic culture and its picture trade, which supported many more artists than provincial London. So he was determined not to be impressed, and put the message in his painting. Throughout the Marriage a la mode series, Frenchness of manner is made to signal despicable foppery. But there's a paradox that undoes his nationalism. Whenever Hogarth's brush approaches continental techniques it becomes more fluent and expressive, as though he were joining exactly the kind of art he proposed to overthrow.

Hogarth suspected, correctly, that art is a delicate matter. There's one attempt to bring some totally British boorishness into its rarified arena. O the Roast Beef of Old England is the result not only of long-held opinions but of an affront to his person. On Hogarth's second visit to France in 1747 he got as far as Calais. He was sketching the city gate when French guards arrested him, believing Hogarth to be a spy, and put him on the next boat back to England. This incident prompted his ludicrous but certainly heartfelt picture. A huge joint of beef is being carried into France while the French look on in wonder and despair, for they eat only soup. That wretched figure in the right hand corner is a Scotsman. He is a Jacobite refugee, starving to death. Numerous other details mock the French populace and their Catholicism.

Since this canvas has such a prominent place in the Tate's exhibition "Hogarth the Painter", words have to be found to celebrate its qualities. "Piling every ounce of xenophobia into what is perhaps the largest and best-painted caricature in Western art," announces the Tate's Elizabeth Einberg, "he creates an imaginary theatrical tragi-comic tableau of clever plots and sub-plots ... " And then she goes on to praise the way that Hogarth "plugged astutely into a vein of popular sentiment" so that the picture has "entered the canon of British nationalistic imagery". Furthermore, just to bring matters up to date, Einberg adds that there is "a horrible irony in the current European crisis regarding infected British beef ... "

Reading these sentiments, one begins to worry about this year's Hogarth celebrations. What are we being asked to applaud? I think we should look at Hogarth more accurately. O the Roast Beef of Old England is not, properly speaking, a caricature. It is a fantasy conveyed by grotesque mannerisms. And it is not well painted, whatever Einberg's assertions. The issue of the BSE crisis has nothing to do with the picture. But the question of xenophobia is certainly relevant. Einberg seems to imagine that it was a strength, an aid in making a picture she admires. It is possible to argue exactly the opposite. However strong xenophobia looks, it usually conceals something weak and wrong - in Hogarth's case, uncertainty about his talents as a painter and a lack of imaginative feeling for people who did not come from his own narrow background.

Today, we live in a complicated, subtle, multi-racial society that is part of a European union. We are also much more appreciative of art than the British have ever been. Hogarth's prejudices surely have little place in contemporary life, though the organisers of this year's set of exhibitions - there will be no fewer than eight shows - obviously think otherwise. The establishment view is that Hogarth stands at the head of all things good and Brittanic. I regard him as a primitive of British visual culture, not at all as a father of our national school. Art in England improved in most ways with the generation after Hogarth, led by Reynolds (born 1723) and Gainsborough (born 1727), with whom many old Jacobites would rank Allan Ramsay (born 1713). In this generation Britain saw the emergence of a brilliant and delicate watercolour school, whose major triumphs were Turner's - the best of all artistic travellers to Europe, just as Hogarth was the worst.

Looked at in such a light, Hogarth's painting appears all the more crabbed and ineloquent. Little wonder that his followers were few. Hogarth's high reputation comes from the literary rather than the artistic side of the national heritage. It always has. Time and again over the centuries he is praised as an artist whom one reads. His compositions may be ungainly, his drawing weak, his touch crude, his colour ordinary and so on: but no matter, for if we pore over the pictures, and more especially their reproduction in engraving, we find that Hogarth tells a story. Or so the literary argument goes, and in fact it goes further. Hazlitt maintained that only Shakespeare was Hogarth's superior as a comic author.

The comparison with Shakespeare is inexact, to say the least, but it's true that Hogarth brought painting close to theatre - closer than any other British artist, including scene painters. Hogarth's paintings are regularly devised as stage sets - one reason why his interiors are so much more successful than his exteriors. Hogarth's people are conceived as characters, their gestures are histrionic, their clothes are costumes. Their positioning is arranged according to dramatic conventions and the canvas is dominated by flats and backdrops. Here was Hogarth's answer to the outmoded practices of history painting, and very effective it is too. For history painting demanded some amount of historical knowledge from the viewer, often classical knowledge. Hogarth's brand of history painting was imaginary contemporary theatre, and therefore closer to a popular audience. This was his invention.

An early theatrical subject was Falstaff Examining his Recruits. It's a jolly picture, not least because Hogarth - for the only time in his career - is not intent on the moral criticism of his main character. More important than Shakespeare, for Hogarth's purposes, was John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Hogarth immediately twigged that he could illustrate this contemporary success. Then he saw that his illustrations could be engraved and issued separately, or as an album. He could make a book. Furthermore, the process of engraving would sharpen the outlines that he couldn't get right with his brush. Detail would be added and made more telling. The more detail, the more there would be in a picture for someone to "read".

Hence, inevitably, the tendency to include more detail than the picture or engraving could take. The plates comprising A Harlot's Progress and The Rake's Progress are fussy as well as moralistic. A Harlot's Progress, the earlier series, did not begin in such a way. Hogarth had started with a single picture of a prostitute getting out of bed at noon. (The idea was not far from two pairs of canvases, all four now in America, recording seductions. They are rather indecent, and very French-influenced. I doubt if these paintings will be given much of a role in this year's Hogarthography, but we'll see.) Anyway, the point is that Hogarth decided that he could pursue the prostitute through a series, recounting events from a country girl's arrival in London to her life as the mistress of a rich man (he is Jewish, Hogarth is at pains to point out, and his servant is a black boy), and thence to her downfall and death.

The Rake's Progress is less disagreeable in tone and translates well to engraving. This time the idea was to follow the fortunes of an upper- class miscreant. First he's a young heir, then he's surrounded by the wrong people; he drinks, gambles, is placed in debtor's prison and finally is seen naked and dying in Bedlam. Once again the series, when engraved, was a huge success. Famous from that day to this, The Rake's Progress is regarded as a classic of British art. The plain fact that it's a piece of exaggerated moralistic tosh is never mentioned. One wonders why this should be. Probably the answer is that museum people and art historians don't listen enough to artists' voices, or for that matter the voices of rakes. I do, and now report that I've never known a good artist who liked Hogarth's paintings and can't think who was the last artist to take him seriously. Holman Hunt, in the 1850s?

There is of course one thing that almost everyone finds impressive about Hogarth. It's not his art, but the idea we have of his character. We know that he was born to a life in which he could see little hope of reward. His father - no rake but a teacher and a jobbing writer - died after a term in a debtors' prison, to his son's mind the victim of booksellers (whom he was to beat at their own game) and "great men" (whose airs and tastes he would constantly mock). Hogarth the younger came to eminence through industry, not inheritance. He was independent, feared no man. Most of his beliefs were democratic. He honoured his servants by painting their composite portrait. Hogarth proclaimed his own nature in the self portrait The Painter and his Pug. An aristocrat would have had a more distinguished dog, at his heels. Hogarth's companion takes centre stage, next to a palette. His master is an artist, but he is also John Bull.

Against this idea of the artist, however, we must place another: and one which is altogether sadder in its implications. It reveals, not the sturdy Englishman, but a failed painter confronting aesthetic emptiness. In the National Portrait Gallery is Hogarth's The Artist Painting the Comic Muse, a self-portrait of an old man before an easel. On his canvas he seems to have sketched out a classical theme. There was (is) in truth a Muse of comedy. She is Thalia, who kindly guides festivals, and inspires pastoral or comic poetry. Traditionally Thalia is portrayed as holding a comic mask and leaning against a pillar. Hogarth has managed this, but the rest of his canvas is bare. The man who so liked to paint pictures- within- pictures is now helpless. The country graces, the harvests and happiness - or sweet weddings, the true end of comedy - all these things belonged to Thalia's realm; but Hogarth had never tried to represent them. This strange picture admits a lifetime's failure.

As anyone can imagine, the mere sight of John Bull in the distance would be enough to send Thalia skipping off to some other olive grove. She and Bull are antithetical characters. It's odd that literary folk commend Hogarth for "lashing" and "excoriating" the "vices and follies of the day" (to employ the cliches we will hear many more times this year) while at the same time maintaining that his pictures are full of good jokes. Hogarth's muse was too sour for the humour that helps mankind to rejoice. I think he had some dark revelry in precisely the things he claimed to criticise. If only he had painted more often with the freedom and spontaneity we find in The Shrimp Girl. There's no evidence that Hogarth particularly valued this uncontrived sketch. Yet it liberated him from the travails of classicism and Frenchness, the things he most feared. If one came upon The Shrimp Girl without knowing the picture, it might be difficult to assign it to a national school. It's a kind of international, or non-national painting - and quite unsuitable for engraving.

'Hogarth the Painter': Tate, SW1 (0171 887 8000), from 4 Mar.

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