Status Anxiety: Hogarth Documented the 18th-Century Class Divide-But He Was Also a Keen Social Climber

By Aspden, Rachel | New Statesman (1996), February 5, 2007 | Go to article overview

Status Anxiety: Hogarth Documented the 18th-Century Class Divide-But He Was Also a Keen Social Climber


Aspden, Rachel, New Statesman (1996)


First among the 18th century's many gifts to middle-class job-seekers--novel-writing, landscape gardening, journalism--was the art of social climbing. From Defoe's Moll Flanders to Gainsborough's portraits of London high society, writers and artists celebrated a new breed of hero and heroine: bewigged David Beckhams and Chantelles who had clawed their way up to respectability while keeping those below them firmly in their place.

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Artists themselves were far from immune to such bouts of status anxiety. In 1743 William Hogarth published Characters and caricaturas, a single sheet tightly packed with engraved heads. It was not only a demonstration of his skill as a serious portraitist--a recorder of "characters"--but a put-down to his hack rivals, the "burlesque" scribblers of satirical cartoons. To overcome any lingering doubts about his credentials, Hogarth had encouraged his friend Henry Fielding to write, in the preface to his novel Joseph Andrews: "He who should call the ingenious Hogarth a burlesque painter, would, in my opinion, do him very little honour: for sure it is much easier ... to expose [a man] in some absurd or monstrous attitude, than to express the affections of men on canvas."

In Tate Britain's survey of Hogarth's work, which opens on 7 February, the artist's preoccupation with reputation leaps from every image. The show starts with the self-portrait The Painter and his Pug, which, as the curator Christine Riding says, "captures everything you need to know about Hogarth in one painting". Gazing out of an oval frame, he appears not in formal city clothes, but in a carefully dishevelled outfit of red silk morning gown and fur-trimmed cap: the Prada biker jacket and Pete Doherty trilby of the day. His portrait rests on three leather-bound volumes--Shakespeare, Milton and Swift--which nod to both his learning and his love of variety, tradition and satire. A palette inscribed with a serpentine line, in Hogarth's phrase "the line of beauty", rests in the foreground, a reference to his ambitions as a writer on aesthetic theory. But the painting is not a humourless PR exercise. Hogarth's beloved pug Trump, who famously resembled his owner, perches cheerfully in the foreground, and a theatrical green drape recalls the endearing hamminess of the man his friends described striding about Covent Garden, "his hat cocked and stuck on one side, much in the manner of the great Frederick of Prussia".

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Hogarth's playful but acute attention to status is ironic, given the accusations of populism that have dogged him ever since. Widely copied during his lifetime, his most famous works--the satirical engraving Gin Lane and serial paintings The Rake's Progress and Marriage A-la-Mode--are familiar from reproductions on pub walls and references in adverts, from theatre sets and newspaper cartoons (the exhibition includes a Steve Bell cartoon that brilliantly substitutes an underpants-clad John Major for the sozzled mother in Gin Lane). Because of his success as a satirist and his scorn for the classical themes thought proper to "high" art, Hogarth struggled to be taken seriously as an artist during his lifetime, and, until recently, art historians also remained sniffy about him. By showing the astonishing variety of his work--engravings alongside paintings, portraits alongside political satires--the Tate exhibition both confirms his "popular" links with industry, commerce and the middle classes and reveals qualities that contradict our own caricature of him.

Hogarth was particularly well qualified to observe the 18th-century interplay of aspiration, morality and manners. Like the hero of Fielding's Tom Jones, he was an entirely self-made man. Born in 1697, he was strongly influenced by his father, a hapless scholar whose attempt to run a Latin-speaking coffee house ended with the Hogarth family being imprisoned in Fleet debtors' gaol, a humiliating experience that the son refused to discuss in later life. …

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