My name is Martin Rowson. I am a political cartoonist for the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday, the Scotsman and many others. I am interested in William Hogarth because he is the grandfather of the political cartoon as we now understand it, having established in the eighteenth century that you could take visual satire almost to the level of art.
Hogarth is interesting and important because of the way he managed to straddle so many different parts of the world with the arts. He was a portrait painter, he was a history painter, he established an entirely new British school of painting but he is exciting because he was a print maker. He was a kind of proto cartoonist and in producing these prints, what he was doing was simply journalism. I would argue that one of the most famous iconic images of the eighteen century is Gin Lane and we are standing roughly where Gin Lane possibly could have been. Everybody knows this image, it’s a scene of degradation, of drunkenness, of horror, but it’s also funny, but funny in that eighteen century way we think we understand when we look at Hogarth and we think about the world that Hogarth was portraying.
But the interesting thing about Gin Lane is that in fact it was a piece of journalism. It was inspired by a story about a woman who had murdered her infant daughter in order to sell her clothes to buy gin. In that way it was the equivalent of what you today have in a tabloid headline about somebody murdering an OAP to buy crack. It’s been pastiches and stolen by subsequent artists and cartoonists over and over again including me.
That’s how Hogarth managed to sum up an entire age and he summed it up in the same way that journalists have always done but it’s an age which is wonderfully dark, wonderfully, rambustiously filthy and funny. To prove his polemical point Hogarth produced the antidote to Gin Lane in Beer Street which is meant to show you how to enjoy responsible drinking. Unfortunately from my point of view it is a dull picture without the earthy majesty of the filth of Gin Lane.
I am standing here in Ludgate Circus, in the eighteen century it would have been just as noisy, just as full of bustle and traffic but behind me where Farringdon Road now runs would have run the Fleet Ditch, a notoriously stinking and pestilential open sewer which flowed from Smithfield Market to the North to the River Thames to my left. Behind me is the old City of London which would then, when Hogarth was born in 1697, still have been bearing the scars of the Great Fire of London, the new St Paul’s was slowly being built and in front of me down Fleet Street we are moving towards the Law Courts so there was this almost iconic river of filth, the Fleet Ditch, running between the two nexuses of power in Georgian London.
Hogarth himself was born just beyond Smithfield in Clerkenwell and the story of his career is really how he managed to cross the Fleet Ditch, get away from the miasma and the stink and the blood and the guts which almost typify what we think of as eighteen century London, to move West to make money and to move in the worlds of power and also of fleshpots in the growing metropolis which was to turn into the greatest city the world has ever seen.
Hogarth was the first truly urban artist that Britain had produced. He depicted a city which was growing all the time and he showed the people living in it, the poor, the rich, the pretentious, the fashionable, the ludicrous. In The Times of Day he shows morning, noon, evening and night: people enjoying the petty catastrophes of the street coming out pretentiously from church, showing off their finery or just going for a walk in the wide open countryside at Islington because London has always been like that, its almost organic, it’s a living creature itself and its inspired people throughout the generations but the great thing about Hogarth is that he portrayed it visually.
It goes straight from the eye to the reptile brain and therefore comes alive more immediately than any amount of text written by his contemporaries and London all around now is still this living, vibrant, exciting, preposterous, ludicrous, idiotic city with people doing idiotic and magnificent and wonderful and funny things and that’s why Hogarth is still relevant and why he still inspires people like me who want to satirise a city which is a centre of power and also the centre of so much sin and misery.
Hogarth himself was one of the giants of his age despite the fact that he was only about five foot tall. He managed to stride early Georgian London like a colossus. After the publication of the Harlot’s Progress he was an overnight success and with it became wealth he was responsible for pushing the first Copyright Act through Parliament to protect his own business interests and also influence. He patronised charities, he was a man to be seen with around town and with wealth came power as well.
He was eventually the sergeant painter to the King, a man who started off his life by loafing with the daughter of a then sergeant painter and so inevitably once he became respectable, once he became the satirisable as opposed to the satiriser people turned on him, towards the end of his life the whole of London seemed to turn on him. After a row with John Wilkes the radical politician he was hounded by other print makers by poetasters and other satirists and he was more or less driven to his grave a broken and embittered man.
We don’t necessarily remember Hogarth the great artist but we remember Hogarth the print maker and Hogarth the satirist. Hogarth who summoned up a whole eighteenth century world which we typify as Hogarthian. We don’t mean grandeur, we don’t mean power, we mean a satirising of grandeur and power. The important thing about Hogarth was that he was filthy and he was fun.