Hogarth's London: Satire and the Street: As Tate Britain This Month Opens a Major Exhibition Devoted to the Artist, Christine Riding Looks at William Hogarth's Particular View of the Street Life of 18th-Century London, and at What His Interpretation Presents in Comparison with the Artistic Offerings of His Continental Competitors
Riding, Christine, History Today
HOGARTH'S AMBITION was to present himself, an English artist and a Londoner, as the visual interpreter of contemporary urban life. Given the dominance of his vision today, he clearly succeeded. No other artist has come to define a period of British history as powerfully and enduringly. Today the phrase 'Age of Hogarth' is often used to describe the early-Georgian period, just as 'Hogarthian London' has come to characterize its capital city. In his own time, William Hogarth (1697-1764) was appreciated as the most dynamic and influential artist working in Britain. He was also prolific. His output, whether in engraved or painted form, encompassed an astonishing variety of artistic genres, stretching into portraiture, history painting and art theory. Even so, it is his reputation as the brilliant satirist and as the great interpreter of modern urban life that resounds in the present. What is it about Hogarth's vision of London that makes it so compelling?
As a roving satirist, Hogarth never tired of moving among the urban crowd, taking pleasure in the sights and sounds of the street, meanwhile exposing the absurdity, folly and vice of its inhabitants. While charting the dissolute rise and ignoble fall of the Moll Hackabouts, Tom Rakewells and Viscount Squanderfields of this world, he also sought to capture the throb of the city's streets and the diversity of its occupants and locales. Hogarth was himself a Londoner, born in a house on Bartholomew Close, just off Smithfield meat market in the City of London. By the time of his death in 1764, London was the largest city in Europe, with a population of 750,000. Its unique mixture of environments, communities and activities created a lively and diverse urban culture, one that was ripe with satirical possibilities. London was thus the bedrock of Hogarth's art: from the City of London in the east, with its strongly mercantile and financial character, to the fashionable 'West End' with its aristocratic residences and, in between, the print shops, theatres, coffeehouses, artists' and craftsmans' showrooms (as well as brothels and molly houses) of Covent Garden, the Strand and St Martin's Lane. These areas of commerce, wealth and privilege abutted those of poverty and depravation, most famously the slums of St Giles to the north of Covent Garden, which Hogarth used as a backdrop to 'Gin Lane'. The contrasts and contradictions of London life must have impressed themselves on Hogarth from an early age, given the area around Smithfields where he grew up, where public benevolence, in the form of St Bartholomew's Hospital was juxtaposed with the criminal court of the Old Bailey and the infamous Newgate Prison. And in 1707, the ten-year-old Hogarth and his family moved into debtor's lodgings in Fleet Prison, after his father's Latin-speaking coffee house (perhaps unsurprisingly) failed.
Hogarth's extensive knowledge and experience of the city was brought to bear in his celebrated 'modern moral subjects', 'A Harlot's Progress', 'A Rake's Progress' and 'Marriage A-la-Mode'. Each constitutes a tour of London life that mingles high and low, and features locations as diverse as Drury Lane, St James's, Marylebone, the Fleet and Bridewell prisons, Bedlam Hospital and the Thames embankment at old London Bridge. Hogarth developed the idea of the urban tour still further in 'The Four Times of Day', which, unlike the series mentioned above, is staged entirely out of doors. What unites each scene to the other is not the individual characters, none of whom are repeated, but the passage of time itself, denoted by the titles 'Morning', 'Noon', 'Evening' and 'Night'. Each scene is set in a distinct area of London, the viewer journeying from the piazza of Covent Garden, famous for its market and brothels, to Soho with its French Huguenot community, to the aspirant bourgeoisie of Islington (then on the outskirts of the city) and finally to the taverns and Freemason lodges of Chafing Cross, an area historically associated with the English Civil War and its political repercussions. …