A Century of British Painters

By Samuel Redgrave; Richard Redgrave | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
WILLIAM HOGARTH

'WHEN things are at the worst they will mend', and truly things were at the worst, so far as art goes, when sturdy William Hogarth (born in London, 10 November 1697), after passing honestly through his seven years' apprenticeship as an engraver on silver plate, began to think for himself, and found that copper, under the influence of true art, far transcended silver merely graven with fine lines and dead repetitions. Began to think for himself!--here is the true master-key --began to look at the world around him instead of at dark canvases, pictures over which Time had swung his scythe, and which, if once good, men had so botched and tinkered, so toned and begrimed, that their original identity was lost and gone; began to think that gods and goddesses had had their day, and that we might have had enough, even of saints and martyrs at second hand--that even 'Beer-street' and 'Gin-lane' might be made to teach better morality, and would certainly lend themselves to form a fresher art; 'grew so profane', he says of himself, 'as to admire nature beyond the finest productions of art', and acknowledged he saw, or fancied, delicacies in the life so far surpassing the utmost effort of imitation that when he drew comparison in his mind he could not help uttering blasphemous expressions against the divinity of even Raphael, Correggio, or Michelangelo. For this, however, he adds, 'though my brethren have most unmercifully abused me, I hope to be forgiven'.

Here was the man wanted; the reformer the art needed; one who was determined not to follow, but to lead; one who had formed his art upon the observation of nature only, and who on that ground protested against schools which he called academies. His nature and character well fitted him for the task he had imposed upon himself; even his education as an artist proved the most suitable for him. A man almost of the people, mixing with the artisan, the manufacturer, and the tradesman daily and hourly; watching their weaknesses and foibles, studying their dispositions and characters, and 'habituating himself', as he tells us, 'with a view of making new designs, which was his first and greatest ambition, to the exercise of a sort of technical memory'; and again we learn how, 'by repeating in his own mind the parts of which the objects were composed, he could by

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