The name of progress

William Hogarth's subversive nature helped produce engravings that captured the foibles of his age, but it also hindered his grander ambitions as a painter. On the eve of an exhibition commemorating his tercentenary, Andrew Graham-Dixon assesses the artist's legacy

One evening towards the end of May 1732, William Hogarth went out to celebrate the enormous popular success of A Harlot's Progress. Hogarth's engravings, graphically telling the tale of a whore's decline, from pox to poorhouse to early death, had sold far beyond his expectations and he suddenly found himself a rich and famous man. What began as a drink with four friends in Covent Garden turned into an impromptu five- day excursion down the Thames.

The trip became a boozy, low-life parody of the Georgian milord's Grand Tour, taking in the taverns of Gravesend and Rochester instead of the art galleries of Florence and Rome. The friends engaged in a variety of rowdy activities, and it was noted that Hogarth showed particular skill (appropriate to a satirist) in the art of flinging dung.

Hogarth's unruliness remains his most endearing characteristic, partly because it was unruliness of such an innocent kind - a childless man, he remained something of a child himself long into adulthood - and partly because it suggests a secret sympathy between the satirist and his targets. The idea that Hogarth regarded erring humanity with a kind of complicit benevolence lies behind a popular but sentimental view of his satirical art - namely, the belief that his moralising savagery masked more humane instincts, above all a desire to celebrate life in all its rich diversity. There may be a grain of truth in this but to see Hogarth's art as essentially life-affirming softens him too much.

The titles of Hogarth's best-known works, the Rake's and Harlot's "Progresses" were borrowed from John Bunyan's Nonconformist Christian allegory The Pilgrim's Progress. But where, in Bunyan, the pilgrimage leads upwards to God, Hogarth's characters only ever proceed down, towards the pit and damnation. Duped by inappropriate ambitions, deluded about their place in life - the Harlot dreams of wealth and respectability, while the Rake apes the lifestyle of a wealthy aristocrat - their lives are object lessons in the stupidity and sinfulness of harbouring unrealistic aspirations.

There was an element of sadism here, an unwillingness on the part of the artist to allow his creations the worldly success which he himself had enjoyed. Hogarth's Progress, in which he rose from being the son of an impoverished schoolteacher, to become the son-in-law of a knight of the realm and, eventually, Serjeant-Painter to the King, was itself a counter-argument to the doomy inevitability of his best-selling prints. His life showed just how far an ambitious person could rise in the unprecedentedly fluid social world of 18th-century London.

He was born near Smithfield Market, which was transformed each November by Bartholomew Fair. Hogarth seems to have spent a lot of time visiting the booths of the fairground, where hack actors and actresses performed theatrical entertainments of greatly varying quality; and much later in life he wrote that "shews of all sort gave me uncommon pleasure when an infant". Then, when Hogarth was 10, the Latin-speaking coffee-house which his father had opened, in the naive hope of making his fortune, failed and the family went bankrupt. Hogarth's mother was reduced to hawking patent medicines and his father was confined to the debtor's prison, the Fleet, for several years.

The memory of "shews" and the Fleet, theatre and the spectre of prison, would recur constantly in Hogarth's work. The two themes are explicitly linked in one of his earliest paintings, in which he depicted a prison scene as played in the theatre (which he had seen in John Gay's Beggar's Opera) and they are implicitly linked in much of his other work, above all in the Progresses. In the preface to his novel Joseph Andrew, Henry Fielding wrote in praise of Hogarth that his figures do not only seem to breathe "but to think". In fact, they look even more as if they are acting, as if the painter had imagined not life itself but life as it is played in the theatre. Hogarth's vaunted "realism" is almost always on the edge of slapstick or melodrama. The Rake, vainly shaking his fist at the fates in Bedlam, is clearly not a real lunatic but a stage madman. Hogarth's interiors (and most of his scenes are set indoors) often look like stage sets. This is not necessarily a failing, theatre being an appropriate metaphor for his black view of life itself as a kind of theatrical imposture, each person acting the person they would like to be, trapped by an unrealisable fantasy. In this sense, theatre and prison became the same place.

Hogarth's own unrealisable fantasy was the dream that he might one day be recognised as a history painter: a painter of high rather than low subjects, a master of the sublime instead of the ridiculous. It was a dream he conceived as a young man, when he went to see Sir James Thornhill's enormous, if somewhat grandiose, painting on the ceiling of Greenwich Naval Hospital - then the most ambitious exercise in narrative art ever carried out by an Englishman.

The desire to create something to rival it stayed with Hogarth throughout his life. It prompted him, once he had started his own business as an engraver, to broaden his horizons by enrolling in Thornhill's art academy, where he first learned to paint; and it must have had at least something to do with his decision to pursue and marry Thornhill's daughter, Jane, thus making the artist whom he wished above all others to emulate into, so to speak, his father.

It was evident to everyone except Hogarth that he was temperamentally incapable of painting solemn narrative works. His efforts in this genre amount to a gallery of almost unknown Hogarths: The Pool of Bethesda and The Good Samaritan, for St Bartholomew's Hospital; Moses Brought Before Cleopatra, for the Foundling Hospital; and Sigismunda, his last painting in the tragic vein, which so disgusted Lord Grosvenor, who commissioned it, that he told the artist he could not bear to keep it in his house.

This last episode seems almost to have broken Hogarth's spirit, plunging him into illness and depression for more than a year; the final disappointment of his ambition to be taken seriously, it accounts for the unrelieved bleakness of those late prints, The Cockpit and The Bathos. In these works, the expression of his final disenchantment, both with himself and the world, Hogarth did actually achieve something like the grandeur he dreamed of creating in his histories - a new form of satire so extreme it has turned into something else, a negative sublime that anticipates the brilliant, troubled graphic work of Goya.

Hogarth's greatest gift was his ability to mimic and mock the established genres and conventions of art - to subvert them from within and to produce, as a result, something entirely his own. This is evidently true of the Progresses, which are deliberate low-life parodies of high narrative art. This same spirit of parody hovers behind everything that Hogarth ever touched, as if the spirit of subversiveness was so strong in him that he couldn't resist falling into pastiche even when it was not quite appropriate. It explains the disastrous weakness of his history paintings - despite himself, Hogarth has made them look mock-serious, his Cleopatra a fishwife, his Saint Paul a London streetcrier.

Something similar, albeit in a less obvious form, also accounts for Hogarth's tremendous originality as a painter of portraits - the most underrated aspect of his oeuvre. There is something unruly even in his quietest group portraits, like the wonderful Graham Children - where the mannequin stillness of that most stultifying form of Georgian painting, the conversation piece, has been disrupted by a powerful, turbulent sense of life. While the children smile and play, the cat is about to kill the goldfinch in its cage. This mood of perpetual unquietness is perhaps the most quintessentially Hogarthian aspect of Hogarth's art.

One of the saddest aspects of his career is the fact that he himself seems to have considered his most original invention, the "Modern Moral Subject", as he called the "Progresses" and Marriage a la Mode, as a bit of a music-hall turn designed to exploit a new-found middle-class market; a debased form of the grand narrative era that he really wanted to practice. He was, in many ways, a man divided against himself, and there were several other aspects of Hogarth's art which Hogarth himself did not fully value. He was capable of extreme sensuality, as the Shrimp Girl, perhaps the most popular of his works, more than adequately proves - but she represents almost the only passage of entirely unmoralised and unjustified beauty he ever allowed himself to paint. It is as if Hogarth, who started his life as an engraver, distrusted his own abilities, as a painter, to create such beautiful phantoms - the puritanical side of his nature hated the idea of art that was merely lovely, rather then useful.

The most important part of his legacy lay not, perhaps, in any specific aspect of his oeuvre, whether as painter or printmaker, but in what he was. In Britain, until the mid-18th century, nearly every artist had been resigned if not reconciled to the role of a rich man's hireling. But Hogarth was one of the first British artists to earn his own living in his own way, to form a career independent of the patronage of the wealthy. His moral example was of incalculable importance to the generations of artists who came immediately after him. Looking at the most famous of his self- portraits, the Tate's Self-Portrait with Pug, we see that a new spirit entered art in Britain with the arrival of Hogarth - a new pride, a new sense of what an artist might amount to and, indeed, of what art itself might be.

When Hogarth died, he was writing his autobiography. He never finished it, but he did complete the dedication. It sums up his truculent, determined spirit of independence. He called it "The No Dedication" and it may stand as his epitaph:

"Not dedicated to any Prince in Christendom for fear it might be thought a Bold piece of arrogance.

Not dedicated to any man of quality for fear it might be thought too affecting.

Not dedicated to any learned body

of either of the universities, or the

Royal Society, for fear it

might be thought

An uncommon piece of vanity.

Nor dedicated to any particular friend

for fear of offending another.

Therefore dedicated to nobody

But if for once we may suppose

Nobody to be everybody as everybody

Is often found to be nobody,

then is this work

Dedicated to anybody

By their most humble

and devoted, W. Hogarth."

`Hogarth the Painter' opens tomorrow at the Tate Gallery, London, SW1 (0171-887 8000), to 8 June; Andrew Graham-Dixon is presenting BBC2's tercentenary tribute to William Hogarth, due to be screened in April

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?