Streets of shame
'London 1753', British Museum, 020 7323 8299, until Nov 23
An exhibition depicting London in 1753, the year the British Museum was founded, is dominated by Hogarth's horrifying, squalor-filled images.
If London 1753 were not such a good exhibition, I'd say the Prints and Drawings
Department of British Museum had pulled a fast one. Billed as a celebration
of life in London in the year when the 250-year-old museum was founded, it
could just as easily have been called "William Hogarth and his World".
|William Hogarth, Gin Lane, 1 February 1751. Etching
and engraving with engraved lettering. 385 x 320mm.
For, although there are sparkling impressions of prints after Reynolds,
Thomas Frye, Thomas Hudson and Zoffany, magnificent watercolours by the brothers
Thomas and Paul Sandby, and objects including Chelsea and Bow porcelain figures,
bronzes, maps and manuscripts on view, all play second fiddle to Hogarth's
This is as it should be. Just as 19th-century Paris is the city of the Impressionists,
and just as Berlin in the 20th belonged to the Expressionists, we still see
18th-century London through Hogarth's eyes. No other British artist so completely
identified himself with the city of his birth.
Like Dickens, Hogarth celebrated the squalor and the spectacle of London life.
During his rambles through the city, his eye fell on prostitutes and parvenus,
apprentices and aristocrats, the up-and-coming and the down-and-out. Much
of the Georgian city depicted in his prints has disappeared, but we can still
see from the location of the spire of St George's Bloomsbury in the distance
that his famous print Gin Lane is set in slums not far from the British Museum,
or note that in Plate 12 of the series Industry and Idleness the Lord Mayor's
procession to the Guildhall passes through Cheapside. But then Hogarth's contemporaries
would have recognised the setting for virtually every one of his London views.
Hogarth is called the father of English painting because he was the first
artist to have painted pictures in genres we now take for granted, from middle-class
portraits to moralising genre subjects and scenes from Shakespeare. The show,
selected and catalogued by Sheila O'Connell, represents all these facets of
his genius, but then uses objects and comparative material to enrich and enliven
even the most familiar images.
Take, for example, Hogarth's great portrait of Captain Thomas Coram. The standard
critical line is that, by allowing the kindly sea captain to pose without
a full-bottomed wig, wearing a plain suit, wool stockings and a rough coat
without embroidery, Hogarth adapted the conventions of aristocratic portraiture
to accommodate a middle-class sitter. All this is true enough. But such considerations
are less important for understanding the portrait than the question this show
asks about Coram himself.
What had the wealthy ship's captain actually done to merit Hogarth's friendship
and approbation? Certainly, Coram had founded London's first hospital for
orphans in 1739, and Hogarth sat on the board of governors. But what brings
home to us the reality of Coram's charitable work is a collection of "foundling
tokens" hanging next to James McArdell's mezzotint after Hogarth's portrait.
These are the objects mothers left with the babies they abandoned, so that
if, at some future date, their luck changed they could return to identify
and claim their child.
If inanimate objects can be described as anguished, these resonate with the
pain of separation. Each is a novel in itself. Whoever left their child clutching
a finger ring with a tiny gold padlock and key inscribed in Latin "Take care
of me or you will lose me" had both the money and the education to look after
the infant she was leaving at the gates of Captain Coram's institution. But
was it a "she"? Or was it a young father disposing of an unwanted infant after
the death in childbirth of a wife or mistress?
Speaking to us just as eloquently - but of poverty and degradation - are a
gambling token in the shape of a fish and an enamelled bottle label lettered
"ALE". Without Coram's charitable intervention, we realise, the children attached
to these tokens would have been killed at birth or died in early childhood.
Similarly, Hogarth told the harrowing tale of a country lass who falls from
virtue and dies of syphilis in his early narrative cycle, The Harlot's Progress.
But he was not the only artist of the period to treat the subject of prostitution.
When you juxtapose his depiction of a whore's life with brothel scenes by
artists such as Louis Philippe Botard or Charles Mosley, you find that these
lesser artists guffaw so loudly at their own broad humour that they tell you
very little about what a prostitute's life was actually like. Hogarth alone
shows us the relative comfort in which a woman lucky enough to find a wealthy
protector might live, as well as the utter squalor she could expect if she
lost her looks or became ill.
And disease was pretty much what the women and their clients could expect
- at least if we take James Boswell's medical history as typical of the period.
On view (a first, I think, for the BM) is a pair of 18th-century pigskin condoms,
tied at the base with two pretty pink ribbons, and accompanied by an impeccable
label informing us that they are re-useable.
The show is a cornucopia of information about both London and British social
history. But one subject runs through the exhibition: the chronic addiction
of Londoners to violence. Whether in Hogarth's Gin Lane, The March to Finchley
or his scathing portrait John Wilkes, you feel the ubiquitous presence of
the London mob - at its least destructive, drinking itself stupid and then
pissing, puking, drooling, groping and brawling in the streets; at its worst,
a seditious tinderbox that any demagogue could incite to revolution.
You can choose almost any of his prints at random and see the moral degradation
in which the British of all classes lived. Take The Cock Pit, a horrid image
capturing the sheer nastiness of an entertainment in which the birds were
fitted with cockspurs, the more efficiently to tear teach other to shreds.
A manuscript list of the rules of conduct in a cockpit include the interesting
information that men who didn't settle their wagers were suspended in wicker
baskets from the ceiling before being expelled from the rooms.
For the first time I understood that the otherwise inexplicable shadow that
hangs over Hogarth's image represents just such a miscreant, whose profile
we see only by implication. He got off lightly. If you were caught by the
law and sentenced to the more public humiliation of the stocks, you could
easily be beaten to death. Hangings were public events. And I was fascinated
by Pierre Charles Canot's etching after George Budd's view of the huge crowds
that gathered to watch the beheading of two Jacobite noblemen at the Tower.
After their deaths, as Hogarth's print The Rewards of Cruelty makes plain,
they could expect their cadavers to be dissected in public, and their hearts
and livers fed to dogs.
Even religion was steeped in violence. Whitefield's Chapel in Tottenham Court
Road, built in 1756, was the world's largest non-conformist place of worship,
seating up to 8,000 people. Hogarth, who had to have his say on pretty much
every significant social and political issue of his time, responded with the
etching Enthusiasm Delineated in 1761, a rollicking satire on the fainting,
gibbering credulity of evangelical believers, crossed with a somewhat obscure
attack on Roman Catholicism.
Hogarth, I sometimes suspect, understood these social evils so well because
he was part of the problem. At least in his prints, he was as violent as the
subjects he depicts. The evidence here suggests that the British have had
a genetic disposition towards violence, which the deportation of criminals
in the 19th century and two world wars in the 20th have, until now, kept in
And, while it is true that the exhibition covers high culture too - in prints
that take note of the presence in London of the young Mozart, George Frederick
Handel, the sculptor Louis-Franois Roubiliac and the collector and man of
letters Horace Walpole - the city that most visitors to this show will recognise
is Hogarth's stewpot for the simple reason that, in all fundamental respects,
it hasn't changed.
Gallery opening times
Sat - Wed 10.00 - 17.30, Thurs - Fri 10.00 - 20.30
Great Russel Street, London
Underground stations: Holborn, Tottenham Court Road, Russell Square, Goodge
Bus routes: New Oxford Street: 7, 8, 19, 22b, 25, 38, 55, 98 Tottenham Court
Road, northbound and Gower Street, southbound 10, 24, 29, 73, 134 Southampton
Row: 68, 91, 188