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Hogarth: A Life and a World
794 pages, over 100 illustrations
If there is a chief pleasure in Hogarth: A Life and a World, above and beyond the pleasures of biography itself, it is that William Hogarth's biting satirical prints are given detailed interpretation: a visual trip through their taut, exquisitely skillful composition, a dissection of the iconography drawn from references of the time, and a discussion of the social pressures behind the artist's choice of subjects. Hogarth did not hesitate to employ sensationalism; but he yoked it to an end, and in elaborating on the portraits of his creations, Moll Hackabout and Tom Rakewell among them, Jenny Uglow shows the sympathy he invests even as he reveals his subjects' folly and vulnerability to social evils. Aptly titled, Hogarth: A Life and a World brings new depth to a knowledge of the artist, his art, and the times that formed them both.
And what times. The London into which Hogarth was born in 1697 was just shaking off its bear-baiting, Elizabethan roots, poised at the dawn of our modern era. It was a London more vital, teeming and earthier than we know it, a city of "Dung, guts and blood," "muck and glamour," power, greed, and corruption. "The impulse to describe this bursting, swarming city was irresistible: its imaginative identity was being shaped as fast as its physical streets were being built" -- and William Hogarth was the man to capture it. Engaged as a humble silverplate engraver's apprentice, he turned his engraving skills to the new popular print trade, taking the ambitious step of becoming an independent satirist. Well-served by his quick eye, his ability for graphic "catching," and his ability to visually frame barbed, mordant observations of the follies of London's political and public life, from that point onward his history was inextricably bound with social satire, social reform, and the history of British printmaking itself.
Uglow's biography presents Hogarth as a man of extraordinary energy, passionate, pugnacious, and dedicated. If he was ambitious, one feels he was justifiably so; yet he was not without his own sympathetic causes, the Foundling's Hospital among them, nor without a warm and ready friendship for those who shared his views. Though he was a thriving commercial artist exploiting a public market (as were his contemporaries), the subject matter of his prints nearly all reflected his passion for social reform. And there were certain things, it seems, that only a personality like Hogarth's could have accomplished: notably, he was the first to take on the British printmakers, who until that time absorbed almost all an artist's profit from an illustration; he undercut them by selling prints directly from his own studio, withstood the backlash that followed, and ultimately championed the Engraver's Act, passed by Parliament in 1735: the first instance of copyright for artists. As deeply involved in fine art as he was in his commercial prints, Hogarth produced accomplished oil works throughout his lifetime, distilling his views into an authoritative treatise, The Analysis of Beauty, and moved with desire for an artistic academy. But his hoped-for reception into the world of fine art never materialized. His belligerence, and his reputation as a satirist, interfered with portrait commissions; and his history painting Sigismunda, which he expected to be received as an apotheosis of artistic taste, was brutally snubbed by his peers.
Hogarth's contribution to history was to lie elsewhere. After his death, "although Turner later donated Hogarth's palette to the Royal Academy and Whistler recognized him as a forebear, his legacy was not the founding of 'an English school of painting.' That was left to the classicists, Reynolds and his heirs. Instead Hogarth's spirit flowed on through the popular graphic arts, into the cartoons of Gillray and Rowlandson and the graphic narratives of Cruikshank." It was, perhaps, inevitable: his fine art works were skilled, his capacity for satire transformed into a development of a sincere and very serious appreciation of beauty; but his paintings could not compete with the bawdy, raucous, instantaneous accessibility of his popular prints.
Though his paintings survive to enchant and delight (including the besnubbed Sigismunda), it is his prints we know best: the dire fate of Moll Hackabout in A Harlot's Progress, the dissipation of Tom Rakewell in A Rake's Progress; the moralizing tale of Industry and Idleness and the bitter messages of The Four Stages of Cruelty. They are filled with a pointed and unflinching illumination of society's failings, from the greedy investment machinations of the South Sea Bubble to the Election campaigns of the 1750s. In the two-print set Beer Street and Gin Lane, he contrasted the healthfulness of beer with the devastating effects, both social and personal, of that cheaply-distilled anesthetic, gin. Uglow's own delight in "reading" Hogarth's prints is everywhere. Detailing Gin Lane, she invites us to see:
These images are as striking today as they were 200 years ago. But, as Uglow notes, "although Hogarth seems so open and accessible, many details of his work are elusive, full of references and jokes that his contemporaries could read in a way lost to us." Hogarth: A Life and a World stands as remedy, bridging the chasm between the vernaculars which separate two societies historically related and distanced by time. Farrar Straus Giroux deals nobly with fitting the broadsheets to a 9"x6" page format, capturing their linework with crisp precision; but size alone renders many of the teeming, tiny particulars, and the engraved annotations at the bottom, smaller than the eye can see. Readers may well enjoy as a companion volume Sean Shesgreen's Engravings by Hogarth: 101 Prints (Dover Publications: 1973), where the 12-by-18-inch engravings with their exquisite detail are reproduced at or near original size.
In Hogarth: A Life and a World Jenny Uglow steeps the reader in the bawdy rough-and-tumble of Hogarth's life and times. It is a sympathetic portrait of an exquisitely skilled artist: pugnacious in temper, afflicted with vanity, champion of the Foundlings' Hospital and the copyrights of artists. Along with an understanding of the man himself, it invites appreciation of his legacy: his paintings, to be sure; but most of all, his popular prints, whose wit, energy and fire have carried them down through the centuries as popular images. Uglow leaves one wishing for a Hogarth, with eye as keen as the bite of his burin, to scribe in mordant imagery the folly and distemper of our present day.
--Katherine Rook Lieber
Editorial Note: All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the reviewed book itself.
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