The eighteenth-century artist William Hogarth is best known for his satiricial and sometimes scandalous depictions of London life. Here are five things to know about one of England's most celebrated artists.
Hogarth and his contemporaries lived in a rapidly changing world
In the mid-1700s, following a century of conflict and war, Europe entered a period of relative peace and stability which brought economic prosperity and new opportunities. Artists became less reliant on money from the church, state and aristocracy. This gave them greater freedom to comment, to choose their subject matter and to address audiences directly.
Alongside a depiction of contemporary tastes and modern life in London, William Hogarth’s paintings reveal stark inequalities around class, race and gender. Simultaneously artists across Europe were painting parallel portraits in cities such as Paris, Venice and Amsterdam.
Yet, the depth of inequality is also evident in the way Hogarth falls into xenophobic tropes. This is clear in The Gate of Calais (1748) where Hogarth satirises the fussiness of French cuisine by showing starving Frenchman coveting a large joint of British beef, during a time of widespread food shortages (particularly meat) in France. Also mocked are a Jacobite, likely exiled to France during the Jacobite rising of 1745, who subsists on raw onion and a crust of bread, and France’s devotion to the Roman Catholic church, with a greedy priest “blessing” the beef joint by running his fat finger along it.
Hogarth’s use of contemporary stereotypes suggests how entrenched ideas of national loyalty and identity were at the time.
He had a wicked sense of humour
Humour is an important feature throughout Hogarth’s work. Gin Lane (1751) and Beer Street (1751) are a pair of prints created as propaganda in support of the new Gin Act. This law attempted to curb excessive gin-drinking by introducing a new tax on spirits.
While Beer Street is a jovial and prosperous scene, its contrasting pair reveals an array of gin-fuelled disasters, including a woman who is too drunk to even notice her falling son. Although a tragic scene, there is a dark comedy in the absurdity of the child’s open-mouthed shock as he plummets to his death.
Hogarth’s series have distinct moral lessons
Hogarth’s moralising is evident in A Harlot’s Progress (1732), which tells the story of Moll Hackabout, a young woman who arrives in London and is immediately seduced into sex work.
In the first scene in the series, Moll carries scissors and a pincushion, suggesting she planned to work as a seamstress. Instead, upon moving to the city, she becomes another neglected casualty in commercial society, leading to her decline in fortunes and eventual death. In the final scene, Moll’s coffin is used as a drinks rest and the funeral-goers seem indifferent to her fate.
Despite the cautionary tale of the throwaway treatment of young women, a young and beautiful sex worker looks out towards the viewer with a facial expression that mirrors Moll’s in the first plate as a parson delves beneath her skirt, revealing that the cycle of decay will continue undisturbed.
His interest in financial instability may have come from his family history
One of Hogarth’s most famous works, A Rake’s Progress (1735), uses a series of eight paintings to tell the story of the rise and fall of the fictional character Tom Rakewell - the rake of the title (a rake referred to a man of dubious or immoral character).
Tom begins by inheriting a large fortune from his father, but quickly squanders it on the tastes and fashions of the aristocracy, which is not his ‘birthright’. He ultimately descends into debt, imprisonment, madness and death, as a warning that people should not aspire above their station.
More widely, Hogarth was preoccupied with financial instability after his father fell into debt and ended up imprisoned in Fleet Prison around 1708, likely meaning Hogarth and his mother had to take on responsibility for providing for the family. Hogarth continually strove for artistic and financial independence, cutting out publishers and campaigning for the Copyright Act or Hogarth’s Act of 1735 which gave artists rights to their own work.
The publication of the prints after A Rake’s Progress were delayed until the Act came into law in June 1735, ensuring he never had to face the same financial ruin as Tom Rakewell or his family.
He is a major influence on contemporary artists
Hogarth’s lasting impact can be seen in the number of contemporary artists influenced and inspired by his paintings and prints which continue a role of social commentary in the 21st century. Lubaina Himid’s series of colourful cardboard cut-outs, A Fashionable Marriage (1987) updates Hogarth’s Marriage-A-la-Mode for the 1980s. Whereas Hogarth focused on 18th century aristocracy, Himid’s scene is filled with political figures from Britain and the US including Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister and head of the Conservative party credited with dismantling unions and the welfare state.
The relevance of Hogarth’s moral tales lives on today, with Paula Rego later re-working the same scene in The Betrothal: Lessons: The Shipwreck (1999), while David Hockney, Yinka Shonibare and Grayson Perry have both tried their hand at their own versions of A Rake’s Progress, continuing Hogarth’s legacy of social commentary.
See Hogarth and Europe at Tate Britain, 3 November 2021 - 20 March 2022.