A Life and a World
By Jenny Uglow
Farrar Straus Giroux. 794 pp. $45 (forthcoming)

Go to the first chapter of "Hogarth"

Go to Chapter One

Artist a la Mode

By Bruce Cook

Sunday, November 9, 1997; Page X01
The Washington Post

Under a pseudonym, I write a series of historical mysteries set in 18th-century London, a time and place I can reach only by means of other books. Of the library I've assembled, no book has been more helpful to me than a collection of 101 engravings by William Hogarth. He, who lived from 1697 to 1764, documented his age, caricatured and pilloried it, as no other artist has any other. It is difficult even to think of London in that time without calling to mind the pictures he painted and his even better known engravings. Across the space of over 200 years I've thanked him again and again for making plain some necessary detail of dress or architecture, or presenting with graphic exactitude some corner of the city where I wished to set a scene. Without Hogarth, how would we know the look of the forbidding interior of Bedlam, of the Fleet and Bridewell prisons, or the chaos of hanging day at Tyburn Hill? With some allowance made for the sort of exaggeration that he loved, he was the 18th-century equivalent of a master photo journalist -- oh, but more, so much more.

His peculiar genius was appreciated very early on. Less than 20 years after his death the first rough attempt at a biography appeared. There followed a trickle of print collections and biographies through the 19th century which in our own age of scholarly research has now gushed to a flood. The most widely acclaimed, because of its thoroughness, is Ronald Paulson's Hogarth: His Life and Times, first published in two volumes in 1971, and recently expanded to three. How expert reviewers (note that I disqualify myself) will compare this long single-volume work by Jenny Uglow to Paulson's is anybody's guess. I can say, though, that she, a professional biographer, has a way of bringing her subject and his milieu alive in a way which memory tells me Paulson's academic prose simply failed to do. Hers is a book that welcomes the reader; it is thoroughly researched, yet written with great enthusiasm for that mad, crude, besotted age and a great affection for the man who pictured it so well in all its grim glory.

He was born the son of a teacher, tutor and Grub Street writer, within sight of Newgate jail and the smell of Smithfield meat market. His father struggled to support his family but fell into debt and was forced into the "Rules" of the Fleet debtors' prison, the miserable slum where debtors, technically in jail, might live with wife and children. They were released after four years, but only when Parliament passed a Bill of Relief of Insolvent Debtors. The next year, 1714, William Hogarth was apprenticed to a silver engraver; he learned copper engraving as well, and set up shop at the age of 23. Fired with greater ambitions, however, he joined an artists' academy and began to teach himself to paint.

From the beginning, because of his humble origins, he showed a preference for painting street scenes, rather than learning by copying the works of the great masters as was the custom. He loudly advocated and would continue to advocate the founding of an English school of painting, one that would put aside the influence of the classicists and paint from nature what was there to be seen. This put him in opposition to James Thornhill, a successful English classicist who had trained abroad. It created a rather awkward situation when he sued for the hand of Thornhill's daughter, Jane; he won her but not her father's blessing. They married, and it was not until after some years of happy marriage that Jane Hogarth was able to bring her father and his son-in-law together -- and that was accomplished in no small part by winning Thornhill's respect for Hogarth's painting.

Because he had started as an engraver, Hogarth saw the good sense of turning his paintings into engravings that could be sold cheaply for shillings. He had done a series of engraved illustrations for Samuel Butler's Hudibras, and in 1730 he looked for a story that might be told simply in pictures. He found it in that most familiar 18th-century figure, the whore. In a series of six pictures he traced the rise and fall of one Moll Hackabout, from her arrival in London to her death from venereal disease not long afterward. The set of engravings was titled "The Harlot's Progress" and was available for a guinea. The spicy nature of its subject matter assured a quick sale, though Hogarth was content that he had told a moral tale with his pictures. Even with the cut taken by the printseller (after this, Hogarth would sell directly to the public), he made a tidy sum on the offering. The lesson was not lost on him. Over the years he turned out a number of these storytelling series, "The Rake's Progress," "Marriage a la Mode" and "Industry and Idleness" among them. Each told a moral tale and each made him a small fortune.

But Hogarth, as champion of the English school of painting, felt bound to prove he could paint as well as any of the classicists. He solicited portrait commissions and put it about that he could paint them as well as Van Dyck. He certainly could when he wished to do so. Samples of his portrait work, not nearly so well known as his oil-sketched impressions of London life or his etchings, support his claim. He believed profoundly that the face expressed the soul of the subject, and one has only to look at the (unfortunately small) reproductions of his work in this book to see how well he captured the essence of the men and women he painted, occasionally to their displeasure.

He was under five feet in height and was ever a fighter. When not engaged in defending his work, he was often in political wrangles of one kind or another. He prospered as an artist, bought a country house, and provided well for his wife and sister, the only family he had. He was engaged in controversy with many of the famous of his age, among them Joshua Reynolds and Horace Walpole. At the time of his death he was doing bitter battle with John Wilkes and Charles Churchill. An aneurysm took him; he had exploded in anger once too often.

There, in bare outline, is his life. If this were all that Hogarth: A Life and a World told us, then it would be a much shorter book. Jenny Uglow takes seriously the task of presenting the artist in the context of the society he lived in and painted. He was a focal figure; through him she focuses upon all of 18th-century London. Digressing frequently, though not without purpose and never without rewarding the reader, she herself paints a huge canvas of the city in a time when the modern age was struggling to be born.

Bruce Cook is the author of many books, which range from a study of the Beat Generation to a detective series set in the 18th century.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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