Charles Lamb, the great English essayist, who was born in London a decade after Hogarth died in 1764, 250 years ago, said of him: ‘Other pictures we look at – his prints we read’. Hogarth, too, was a Londoner, and was one of the great chroniclers of the City, capturing the high life, and low life of its inhabitants. In the background of Gin Lane can be seen the distinctive steeple of St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, atop of which stands a statue of George I, dressed, curiously, in a toga, and the Cartoon Museum lies virtually in its shadow. He also engraved the interior of this imposing Hawksmoor church on at least two occasions, one entitled The Sleeping Congregation and the second, Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism, which ridicules secular and religious beliefs and the over-enthusiasm of the Methodist movement.
His first series of narrative prints, made from paintings, charting The Harlot’s Progress, turned Hogarth into an overnight success and celebrity, However, the engravings were widely pirated and turned into all manner of popular material, from pamphlets, prints, pottery, fans and even a stage play. Three years later he produced his even more biting, A Rake’s Progress, the original paintings now hang in the John Soane Museum in Lincoln Inn Fields, where, every half hour, an attendant unfolds hinged wall panels to reveal the series mounted on the reverse of the paintings. Before Hogarth turned his attention on him, a rake was an impressionable young man from literary traditions, who hailed from the country and went up to London with his inherited wealth to visit its fleshpots and subsequently fell into bad company, got wasted, ripped off, caught syphilis, went to prison for debt and died. The end. His engravings however, depict a London that was peopled by thieves, whores, pickpockets and ne’er-do-wells, consumed by greed, ambition, cruelty and exploitation.
He does not spare the viewer from the human condition that had spread across the capital like a cancer, focusing on the fate of the lower orders and the pretentions of the aspiring middle classes. He was born into poverty himself, and made his way up in the world with his wit, imagination and ability to depict the foibles and characters of his day. Gin Lane and Beer Street are probably his most famous and popular engravings, and deservedly so, with the former showing the influence of foreign-imported gin on the denizens of St Giles parish, where the squalor, sickness and suffering are brought about by the availability of the spirit, and where the pawnbroker thrives. ‘Drunk for a penny – dead drunk for tuppence – free straw for nothing’ read the signs all over the City. Beer Street, on the other hand, is full of happy, thriving and industrious people, nourished by the native English ale, and the only business that is in trouble is the pawnbroker.
In The Four Stages of Cruelty, he takes his observations one step further in his depiction of depravity and they are not for the faint-hearted. Tom Nero is seen as a child torturing a dog by inserting an arrow into its rectum, while in the background, other boys are burning the eyes of a bird with a red-hot needle, tying cats together, fixing bones to another dog’s tail and throwing another cat out of a high window attached to a pair of inflated bladders. In the Second Stage, he is seen, as a man, beating his overloaded horse, which has collapsed with a broken leg, with other gruesome acts of cruelty to animals abounding. In the third plate, Cruelty in perfection, Tom has moved on from mistreatment of animals to the theft and murder of his lover, having persuaded her to steal from her mistress. Her head and hand are nearly severed, such is the severity of the attack. In the final print, The Reward of cruelty, Tom is found guilty of murder, and is hanged and his body suffers the final indignity of being publicly dissected by surgeons in the anatomical theatre, with a dog gorging on his entrails in an act of poetic revenge.
There is little doubt that his successful career was influenced, if not motivated by, his father-in-law and fellow freemason ,Sir James Thornhil, an accomplished painter himself, but whose daughter he eloped with. Later, he accepted Hogarth into the family. A victim of unscrupulous publishers and dealers Hogarth, had successfully lobbied in Parliament for the Engravers’ Copyright Act in 1735, which vested copyright of prints in the artist rather than the publisher, which soon became known as ‘Hogarth’s Act’. His tradition and legacy have been kept alive by such extraordinary cartoonists as Ralph Steadman, who had a retrospective at the Cartoon Museum eighteen months ago, and Martin Rowson, who is a trustee, so we are in good hands.