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William Hogarth was a curmudgeonly satirical genius

Posted in Art, Artist, Historical articles, History, London on Wednesday, 31 October 2012

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This edited article about William Hogarth originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 775 published on 20th November 1975.

Hogarth self-portrait, picture, image, illustration

Self-portrait by William Hogarth (after)

The people who were crowded into the room had faces more like gargoyles than human beings. They were not, as might be imagined, inmates of a madhouse or a prison, but subjects for the brush of Mr. William Hogarth, who had brought them to his studio after wandering through the sinks of London in search of suitable sitters for one of his satirical paintings of London low life, for which he was justifiably famous.

William Hogarth began his career as a silver plate engraver, designing coats of arms and scenes, often of a humorous nature, on silver tankards and heavy furniture. We know his flair for casting a satirical eye on his fellow men was in evidence even when he was serving as an apprentice, for we have a story handed down by one of his fellow workmen, illustrating his very first attempt in this field. On a Sunday afternoon during his apprenticeship, he went off with three of his companions to a tavern in Highgate. While he was there, quietly drinking his beer, a quarrel ensued between two men, culminating in one hitting the other on the head with the bottom of a quart pot. The injured party’s facial reaction to this was so humorously rueful, that Hogarth was impelled to snatch out a pencil and sketch him as he stood.

By turning his hand to etching little scenes of town life for numerous booksellers, Hogarth gradually succeeded in withdrawing himself from the drudgery of his original profession, and rapidly established a name for himself for his satiric skill.

Ambitious and money conscious, Hogarth then turned his attention to the lucrative field of portrait painting. But to be eminently popular in portrait painting requires more than skill and talent. Hogarth was a man of plain manners and blunt speech, and quite incapable of charming a potential patron into giving him a commission. But time was to change that. As his fame grew, people came to him anyway, and eventually, when he came to paint a portrait of the great actor Garrick as Richard III, he received more than any English artist before for a single portrait.

Despite this he eventually came to the conclusion that he was more interested in capturing with his pencil and brush the life and times in which he lived, though he did return to portraiture from time to time at the insistance of the ‘phyzmongers’, as he called them, who were constantly importuning him to paint them.

Hogarth was now rich enough to take summer lodgings in the then fashionable Lambeth Terrace, and it was while he was there that he became intimate with the proprietors of the Vauxhall Gardens, a popular place of open air entertainment. After embellishing it with a number of his designs, the proprietors presented him with a gold ticket of admission for himself and a friend, which he used for many years.

After his series, ‘The Rake’s Progress’, charting in a series of graphic pictures the progress of a rake from his life as an indolent man about town to an incurable maniac chained up in a madhouse, Hogarth became one of London’s most famous characters. The crowd of visitors to his studio was now immense, thought not all of them came merely to watch him at work. Hogarth always drew his characters from life, often to the dismay and annoyance of many, who had come to see how Hogarth had painted them, including one young man who arrived in a temper at the studio after hearing that his father had been unflatteringly depicted in a painting, ‘Miser’s Feast’. Confronted with the painting he drew his sword and slashed the canvas before raging out of the studio.

Hogarth’s habit of painting from life often needed a quick accurate pencil for him to be able to sketch out on the spot any remarkable face which he felt was worth putting down on canvas. He was once observed in a coffee-house drawing something with a pencil on the thumb nail of his left hand. When he held it up to the friend with him, he saw that Hogarth had sketched out on it an excellent likeness of a person sitting nearby. In very much the same quick, almost casual manner, Hogarth was able to capture the likeness of Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, a Scottish nobleman, while he was on his way to his execution for treason.

Although he made enemies Hogarth had many friends among the rich and the famous, including Henry Fielding the novelist, and David Garrick, though his friendship with the latter was not without its storms. When Garrick complained that one of the paintings of him was lacking in dignity, Hogarth drew his brush across the face, an ill-tempered act of pique, which did nothing to enhance their relationship. Despite his friends, often in high places, he does not appear to have made his way into fashionable society. But then in some ways he was not a very likeable man. Insular to a remarkable degree, even in those days, he went to France on a visit, and complained of the people, the houses and the fare with such vehemence, that he was summarily escorted to the English packet ship by two guards and sent back to England. He was also fond of flattery, vain, over sensitive and an implacable enemy.

None of this, of course, detracts from his merits as an artist. Technically, he was uneven in his drawing and his work sometimes shows the marks of haste, even carelessness. But it is not as a draughtsman, or even as a painter, that he holds a unique position among English artists. It is as a humorist and a satirist, and as that he has never been equalled. His main desire as an artist was to capture on canvas all the vagaries of human nature, to point out its absurdities and to scourge every vice, in a series of searing pictures and in this he succeeded to a remarkable degree.

The life of this first English-born artist of international status ended when he died suddenly in his house in Leicester Square in the autumn of 1764, at the age of sixty-seven.

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