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Hogarth

7 February 2007 – 29 April 2007
Tate Britain, London

William Hogarth (1697–1764) was a Londoner born and bred. The son of a Latin teacher, who had endured a spell in the Fleet Prison when a business venture failed, Hogarth was apprenticed at sixteen to a silverplate engraver, Ellis Gamble, but by 1720, his apprenticeship incomplete, had set up his own business as painter and engraver. Thereafter he pursued a successful career, and was acknowledged to be the most dynamic and influential artist working in the kingdom by the time of his death in 1764. This Tate Britain exhibition covers the whole of his career and incorporates the full range of his work.

Hogarth’s work epitomises London, its variety, activities and people, both rich and poor, high and low. The artist’s work on show in ten rooms inevitably brings to mind the judgement: “All human life is here”. Hogarth did not flinch from any subject. Sexuality, debauchery, crime, political corruption; these are all to be found vividly depicted in his work. But so is the serene and the beautiful, the work of charity, and the world of faith. Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that Hogarth was an essentially moral artist. He did not lack humour, and was quite willing to provoke a smile on the face of anyone who viewed his work, but his humour, even when it was almost savage, did not disguise the moral imperative of his artistry. His great moral series, so well known from the widespread distribution of the engravings they generated, underlines that truth. All are on show here – A Harlot’s Progress; Industry and Idleness; A Rake’s Progress; The Four Times of Day; The Four Stages of Cruelty; and, perhaps the most famous of them all, Marriage A-la-Mode. There was no more acute social observer and commentator on contemporary mores – or the lack of them – than William Hogarth. A very good example of Hogarth’s genius here is the three versions of the paired works ‘Before and After’ of 1730–31. A young man seduces (or rapes) a young woman; the first picture shows the seduction. The second, ‘After’ reveals the couple, their clothes in disarray and their features shamefaced, immediately after sexual intercourse. The moral is that of Aristotle: Omnium Animal Post Coitum Triste – Every animal is sad after sexual intercourse. Here the sadness so vividly depicted is that of shame for the lustful performance of an immoral act. The paired works recall Genesis 3:7.

Hogarth’s outstanding work as a portrait painter is often overlooked, but is very well represented in this exhibition. Pride of place goes to his great portrait of Thomas Coram, the founder of the London Foundling Hospital, of which Hogarth himself was an active and energetic governor. But the visitor should not overlook his 1747 portrait of Thomas Herring, then archbishop of York but soon to be nominated to Canterbury, or the 1741 portrait of Hogarth’s friend Benjamin Hoadly, the controversial and radical theologian who by that date was enjoying a somewhat sedate semi-retirement as Bishop of Winchester and Prelate of the Order of the Garter. Episcopal portraiture followed long-established canons, but in these two works Hogarth shows how well and skilfully he could refresh them without transgression.

Of particular interest to students of Biblical art are the works in this exhibition that are inspired by Old and New Testament themes. There is here Hogarth’s study of c.1735 for his vast ‘Pool of Bethesda’ (Jn.5:2-9) which still has pride of place at St Bartholemew’s Hospital in the Smithfield area of London in which the artist had grown up. Also to be seen in the exhibition is Hogarth’s poignant ‘Moses brought before Pharaoh’s daughter’ of 1746 (Exod.2:9) which he painted for the Foundling Hospital. The instruction of Pharaoh’s daughter in respect of Moses, who had been saved from the savage judgement of Pharaoh ((Exod.1:15-22) was “Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages”. In the London of the mid-18th century, when so many children, especially those born in abject poverty or out of wedlock, were simply abandoned, no charitable work was more deserving of attention than that of Coram’s Foundling Hospital. The command of Pharaoh’s daughter could have served as a motto.

University of Wales, Lampeter has a particular interest in Hogarth. Its Founders’ Library houses a remarkable collection of 126 magnificent engravings of his work, a collection much sought-after and consulted by scholars. These engravings can all be seen on-line. Nonetheless, there is no substitute for seeing the originals. Hogarth at Tate Britain provides one such, rich and deeply engrossing, opportunity.

John Morgan-Guy
February 2007

 

The Hogarth Archive, Lampeter | Hogarth Exhibition

Engraving showing Hogarth at work on a painting.William Hogarth, 1764 (Founders' Library, University of Wales, Lampeter)