Drawn to Sin; (1)EXHIBITION (2)William Hogarth Was Compelled to Paint Pictures of London's Seedier Side. Now His Work Is on View in a New Exhibition

The Evening Standard (London, England), January 31, 2007 | Go to article overview

Drawn to Sin; (1)EXHIBITION (2)William Hogarth Was Compelled to Paint Pictures of London's Seedier Side. Now His Work Is on View in a New Exhibition


Byline: PHILIPPA STOCKLEY

WILLIAM Hogarth was not destined for greatness. He was born in 1697, near Smithfield, to an ordinary family. When he was 10, his schoolmaster father, Richard, was declared bankrupt and sent to the debtor's prison along with his whole family (the custom at the time). Richard had been trying to run a coffee house where customers had to speak Latin. Not surprisingly, this quirky, foreign notion flopped.

The family stayed incarcerated for four years.

Richard never recovered from the humiliation and crushing poverty. Young William acquired the contempt that he cherished his whole life for the notion of "foreign" - in art, but also in manners and dress. He also became a workaholic.

The minute the family was free, Hogarth apprenticed himself to an engraver and stayed for six years before setting up, aged 20, on his own.

London had only just recovered from the Great Fire of 1666. Despite rebuilding itself (including St Paul's Cathedral), the city was still undergoing rapid expansion and gentrification, mainly towards the west, but also in the City. It was on its way to becoming the largest city in Europe, with a thriving immigrant population.

But there were also plenty of slums, whose horror and squalor Hogarth would immortalise in the engravings Gin Lane and Beer Street, based on the streets around St Giles (known as the Rookery), where gin-sodden swindlers, cutthroats and prostitutes crammed into insanitary rooms and walked streets with open sewers.

Though a talented engraver, Hogarth had a higher ambition - to paint. He studied at the St Martin's Lane Academy, and worked for the famous painter James Thornhill.

In 1729, he eloped with Thornhill ' s daughter, Jane. The couple set up house in rakish Covent Garden, bustling with theatres, such as Drury Lane, print shops, clothes shops and coffee houses. The painting Morning shows that it looked much as it does now.

From 1731 to 1732, Hogarth worked on the six paintings that make up A Harlot's Progress, his tale of a country girl who comes to town, only to be lured into prostitution and a swift spiral of success, disease and death. By turns salacious, comic and tragic, the story, rich with Hogarth's trademark incidental detail, was engraved for mass consumption. As popular as any novel by Daniel Defoe, it made the painter famous.

He and Jane moved to the more fashionable Leicester Square. Here he repeated the success of satirical - but morally stern - series of storytelling paintings with The Rake's Progress. Then, at the height of his power in 1745, he produced Marriage-a-la-Mode.

Mocking the cosmopolitan tastes of the nouveau-riche, Marriage-a-la-Mode tells of an impoverished old Earl who marries his son to a rich alderman's daughter. In the first picture the Earl clasps his family tree, while the pretty alderman's daughter and vapid viscount sit, backs turned, on a fashionable canape sofa while their fate is sealed. …

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