William Hogarth

A brief history of William Hogarth's paintings at St. Bartholomew's Hospital (by Marion Hill, Archivist, Barts) and diagnosis of the sick depicted in the 'Pool of Bethesda' (by Prof David Lowe)

William Hogarth
William Hogarth
Three hundred years after his birth, William Hogarth remains as well known as he was in the eighteenth century for his paintings and engravings. He is usually remembered as the pioneer of a new genre of painting, 'The Modern Moral Subject': these works were lively studies of everyday life, almost caricatures in some cases, but always with a story and a moral 'message' to them. The most celebrated of them is probably 'The Rake's Progress', a series of paintings which told of the moral declines and tragic end of an extravagant young nobleman.
Hogarth's paintings at St. Bartholomew's Hospital are less typical, and less well known. They illustrate two Biblical stories: 'The Good Samaritan' and 'Christ at the Pool of Bethesda'. The paintings are on a very large scale, each canvas filling a wall of the Grand Staircase in the Hospital's North Wing, and represent the first of Hogarth's attempts at "the great style of history painting", as he called it. He later admitted to "a smile at my own temerity" in attempting pictures on such a grand scale with so little previous experience. Sadly, he received few other commissions for similar work, and, in his own words, "dropped all expectation of advantage from that source".

The Pool of Bethesda from the staircase at Bart's
William Hogarth gave his services free of charge to Barts, and a mixture of incentives seem to have prompted this act of generosity. He clearly wished to prove that an English artist could excel at the grand historical style (the Hospital Governors had considered inviting a Venetian to paint their newly-built staircase).

He had failed to secure royal patronage, and was perhaps seeking another source of comissions. He probably desired the status that becoming a governor of an institution such as Barts would bring. And, perhaps most important of all, Hogarth had strong local connections, having been born in Bartholomew Close and brought up in the shadow of the Hospital. Hogarth wished to participate in the philanthropic movements of the age, and what better way than to make a generous gesture to the Hospital he knew so well.

The Pool of Bethesda

Christ at the Pool of Bethesda.
'Christ at the Pool of Bethesda' was painted first, and it is this painting which excites must interest in visitors to the Hospital. The painting shows a scene from St. John's Gospel in which Christ heals a man who has been unable to walk for 38 years. The pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem was famed for its healing properties: periodically the water would be disturbed, supposedly by an angel, and whoever first entered the pool afterwards would be cured. It is widely believed that Hogarth used patients from the wards of St. Bartholomew's Hospital as his models for the crowd of sick and injured people gathered around the pool. There is no evidence for ths in the Hospital's archives, but the realism of the portraits makes it highly believable.

It will probably never be known if William Hogarth did make use of the Hospital's patients as models in creating his great gift to Barts. However, it is certain that his 'Generous and free Gift' given to St. Bartholomew's Hospital 260 years ago, continues to remind visitors of the healing purpose of Barts.

Introduction by Marion Hill, diagnosis of the sick by David Lowe, web presentation by Nick Loman. Scan of 'The Pool of Bethesda' kindly provided by Carol Gerten.

Last updated 02-Aug-1998