A Biography of William Hogarth
The following article on William Hogarth is taken from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, which is now out of copyright. The contribution was written by Austin Dobson, the leading Hogarth expert of the time. Many links are added to the text. However, the modern reader should bear in mind that some parts of the article, particularly the bibliographical references at the end, seem rather outdated nowadays. For additional information and a comprehensive current online bibliography on Hogarth, see The Site for Research on William Hogarth.
HOGARTH, WILLIAM (1697-1764), the great English painter and pictorial satirist, was born at Bartholomew Close in London on the 10th of November 1697, and baptized on the 28th in the church of St Bartholomew the Great. He had two younger sisters, Mary, born in 1699, and Ann, born in 1701. His father, Richard Hogarth, who died in 1718, was a schoolmaster and literary hack, who had come to the metropolis to seek that fortune which had been denied to him in his native Westmorland. The son seems to have been early distinguished by a talent for drawing and an active perceptive faculty rather than by any close attention to the learning which he was soon shrewd enough to see had not made his parent prosper. "Shows of all sorts gave me uncommon pleasure when an infant," he says, "and mimicry, common to all children, was remarkable in me. . . . My exercises when at school were more remarkable for the ornaments which adorned them than for the exercise itself." This being the case, it is no wonder that, by his own desire, he was apprenticed to a silver-plate engraver, Mr Ellis Gamble, at the sign of the "Golden Angel" in Cranbourne Street or Alley, Leicester Fields. For this master he engraved a shopcard which is still extant. When his apprenticeship began is not recorded; but it must have been concluded before the beginning of 1720, for in April of that year he appears to have set up as engraver on his own account. His desires, however, were not limited to silver-plate engraving. "Engraving on copper was, at twenty years of age, my utmost ambition." For this he lacked the needful skill as a draughtsman; and his account of the means which he took to supply this want, without too much interfering with his pleasure, is thoroughly characteristic, though it can scarcely be recommended as an example.
"Laying it down," he says, "first as an axiom, that he who could by any means acquire and retain in his memory, perfect ideas of the subjects he meant to draw, would have as clear a knowledge of the figure as a man who can write freely bath of the twenty-four letters of the alphabet and their infinite combinations (each of these being composed of lines), and would consequently be an accurate designer, . . . I therefore endeavoured to habituate myself to the exercise of a sort of technical memory, and by repeating in my own mind, the parts of which objects were composed, I could by degrees combine and put them down with my pencil." This account, it is possible, has something of the complacency of the old age in which it was written; but there is little doubt that his marvellous power of seizing expression owed less to patient academical study than to his unexampled eye-memory and tenacity of minor detail. But he was not entirely without technical training, since, by his own showing, he occasionally "took the life" to correct his memories, and is known to have studied at Sir James Thornhillís then recently opened art school.
"His first employment" (i.e. after he set up for himself) "seems," says John Nichols, in his Anecdotes, "to have been the engraving of arms and shop bills." After this he was employed in designing "plates for booksellers." Of these early and mostly insignificant works we may pass over The Lottery, an Emblematic Print on the South Sea Scheme, and some book illustrations, to pause at Masquerades and Operas (1724), the first plate he published on his own account. This is a clever little satire on contemporary follies, such as the masquerades of the Swiss adventurer Heidegger, the popular Italian opera-singers, Richís pantomimes at Lincolnís Inn Fields, and last, but by no means least, the exaggerated popularity of Lord Burlingtonís protťgť, the architect painter William Kent, who is here represented on the summit of Burlington Gate, with Raphael and Michelangelo for supporters. This worthy, Hogarth had doubtless not learned to despise less in the school of his rival Sir James Thornhill. Indeed almost the next of Hogarthís important prints was aimed at Kent alone, being that memorable burlesque of the unfortunate altarpiece designed by the latter for St Clement Danes, which, in deference to the ridicule of the parishioners, Bishop Gibson took down in 1725. Hogarthís squib, which appeared subsequently, exhibits it as a very masterpiece of confusion and bad drawing. In 1726 he prepared twelve large engravings for Butlerís Hudibras. These he himself valued highly, and they are the best of his book illustrations. But he was far too individual to be the patient interpreter of other menís thoughts, and it is not in this direction that his successes are to be sought.
To 1727-1728 belongs one of those rare occurrences which have survived as contributions to his biography. He was engaged by Joshua Morris, a tapestry worker, to prepare a design for the Element of Earth. Morris, however, having heard that he was "an engraver, and no painter," declined the work when completed, and Hogarth accordingly sued him for the money in the Westminster Court, where, on the 28th of May 1728, the case was decided in his (Hogarthís) favour. It may have been the aspersion thus early cast on his skill as a painter (coupled perhaps with the unsatisfactory state of printselling, owing to the uncontrolled circulation of piratical copies) that induced him about this time to turn his attention to the production of "small conversation pieces" (i.e. groups in oil of full-length portraits from 12 to 15 in. high), many of which are still preserved in different collections. "This," he says, "having novelty, succeeded for a few years." Among his other efforts in oil between 1728 and 1732 were The Wanstead Conversation, The House of Commons examining Bambridge, an infamous warden of the Fleet, and several pictures of the chief actors in Gayís popular Beggarís Opera. On the 23rd of March 1729 he was married at old Paddington church to Jane Thornhill, the only daughter of Kentís rival above mentioned. The match was a clandestine one, although Lady Thornhill appears to have favoured it. We next hear of him in "lodgings at South Lambeth," where he rendered some assistance to the then well-known Jonathan Tyers, who opened Vauxhall in 1732 with an entertainment styled a ridotto al fresco. For these gardens Hogarth painted a poor picture of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and he also permitted Hayman to make copies of the later series of the Four Times of the Day.
In return, the grateful Tyers presented him with a gold pass ticket "In perpetuam Beneficii Memoriam." It was long thought that Hogarth designed this himself. Mr Warwick Wroth (Numismatic Chronicle, vol. xviii.) doubts this, although he thinks it probable that Hogarth designed some of the silver Vauxhall passes which are figured in Wilkinsonís Londina illustrata. The only engravings between 1726 and 1732 which need be referred to are the Large Masquerade Ticket (1727), another satire on masquerades, and the print of Burlington Gate, (1731), evoked by Popeís Epistle to Lord Burlington, and defending Lord Chandos, who is therein satirized. This print gave great offence, and was, it is said, suppressed.
By 1731 Hogarth must have completed the earliest of the series of moral works which first gave him his position as a great and original genius. This was A Harlotís Progress, the paintings for which, if we may trust the date in the last of the pictures, were finished in that year. Almost immediately afterwards he must have begun to engrave them—a task he had at first intended to leave to others. From an advertisement in the Country Journal; or, the Craftsman, 29th of January 1732, the pictures were then being engraved, and from later announcements it seems clear that they were delivered to the subscribers early in the following April, on the 21st of which month an unauthorized prose description of them was published. We have no record of the particular train of thought which prompted these story-pictures; but it may perhaps be fairly assumed that the necessity for creating some link of interest between the personages of the little "conversation pieces" above referred to, led to the further idea of connecting several groups or scenes so as to form a sequent narrative. "I wished," says Hogarth, "to compose pictures on canvas, similar to representations on the stage." "I have endeavoured," he says again, "to treat my subject as a dramatic writer; my picture is my stage, and men and women my players, who by means of certain actions and gestures are to exhibit a dumb show." There was never a more eloquent dumb show than this of the Harlotís Progress. In six scenes the miserable career of a woman of the town is traced out remorselessly from its first facile beginning to its shameful and degraded end. Nothing of the detail is softened or abated; the whole is acted out coram populo, with the hard, uncompassionate morality of the age the painter lived in, while the introduction here and there of one or two well-known characters such as Colonel Charteris and Justice Gonson give a vivid reality to the satire. It had an immediate success. To say nothing of the fact that the talent of the paintings completely reconciled Sir James Thornhill to the son-in-law he had hitherto refused to acknowledge, more than twelve hundred names of subscribers to the engravings were entered in the artistís book. On the appearance of plate iii, the lords of the treasury trooped to the print shop for Sir John Gonsonís portrait which it contained. The story was made into a pantomime by Theophilus Cibber, and by some one else into a ballad opera; and it gave rise to numerous pamphlets and poems. It was painted on fan-mounts and transferred to cups and saucers. Lastly, it was freely pirated. There could be no surer testimony to its popularity.
From the MSS. of George Vertue in the British Museum (Add. MSS. 23069-98) it seems that during the progress of the plates, Hogarth was domiciled with his father-in-law, Sir James Thornhill, in the Middle Piazza, Covent Garden (the "second house eastward from James Street"), and it must have been thence that set out the historical expedition from London to Sheerness of which the original record still exists at the British Museum. This is an oblong MS. volume entitled An Account of what seemíd most Remarkable in the Five Daysí Peregrination of the Five Following Persons, Viz'., Messieurs Tothall, Scott, Hogarth, Thornhill and Forrest. Begun on Saturday May the 27th, 1732 and Finishíd On the 31st of the Same Month. Abi tu et fac Similiter. Inscription on Dulwich College Porch. The journal, which is written by Ebenezer, the father of Garrickís friend Theodosius Forrest, gives a good idea of what a "frisk"—as Johnson called it—was in those days, while the illustrations were by Hogarth and Samuel Scott the landscape painter John Thornhill, Sir Jamesís son, made the map. This version (in prose) was subsequently run into rhyme by one of Hogarthís friends, the Rev. Wm. Gostling of Canterbury, and after the artistís death both versions were published. In the absence of other biographical detail, they are of considerable interest to the student of Hogarth. In 1733 Hogarth moved into the "Golden Head" in Leicester Fields, which, with occasional absences at Chiswick, he continued to occupy until his death. By December of this year he was already engaged upon the engravings of a second Progress, that of a Rake. It was not as successful as its predecessor. It was in eight plates in lieu of six. The story is unequal; but there is nothing finer than the figure of the desperate hero in the Covent Garden gaming-house, or the admirable scenes in the Fleet prison and Bedlam, where at last his headlong career comes to its tragic termination. The plates abound with allusive suggestion and covert humour; but it is impossible to attempt any detailed description of them here.
A Rakeís Progress was dated June 25, 1735, and the engravings bear the words "according to Act of Parliament." This was an act (8 Geo. II. cap. 13) which Hogarth had been instrumental in obtaining from the legislature, being stirred thereto by the shameless piracies of rival printsellers. Although loosely drawn, it served its purpose; and the painter commemorated his success by a long inscription on the plate entitled Crowns, Mitres, &c., afterwards used as a subscription ticket to the Election series. These subscription tickets to his engravings, let us add, are among the brightest and most vivacious of the artist's productions. That to the Harlot's Progress was entitled Boys peeping at Nature, while the Rakeís Progress was heralded by the delightful etching known as A Pleased Audience at a Play, or The Laughing Audience.
We must pass more briefly over the prints which followed the two Progresses, noting first A Modern Midnight Conversation, an admirable drinking scene which comes between them in 1733, and the bright little plate of Southwark Fair, which, although dated 1733, was published with A Rakeís Progress in 1735. Between these and Marriage à la mode, upon the pictures of which the painter must have been not long after at work, come the small prints of the Consultation of Physicians and Sleeping Congregation (1736), the Scholars at a Lecture (1737); the Four Times of the Day (1738), a series of pictures of 18th century life, the earlier designs for which have been already referred to; the Strolling Actresses dressing in a Barn (1738), which Walpole held to be, "for wit and imagination, without any other end, the best of all the painterís works"; and finally the admirable plates of the Distrest Poet painfully composing a poem on "Riches" in a garret, and the Enraged Musician fulminating from his parlour window upon a discordant orchestra of knife-grinders, milk-girls, ballad-singers and the rest upon the pavement outside. These are dated respectively 1736 and 1741. To this period also (i.e. the period preceding the production of the plates of Marriage à la mode) belong two of those history pictures to which, in emulation of the Haymans and Thornhills, the artist was continually attracted. The Pool of Bethesda and the Good Samaritan, "with figures seven feet high," were painted circa 1736, and presented by the artist to St Bartholomewís Hospital, where they remain. They were not masterpieces; and it is pleasanter to think of his connexion with Captain Coramís recently established Foundling Hospital (1739), which he aided with his money, his graver and his brush, and for which he painted that admirable portrait of the good old philanthropist which is still, and deservedly, one of its chief ornaments.
In A Harlotís Progress Hogarth had not strayed much beyond the lower walks of society, and although, in A Rakeís Progress, his hero was taken from the middle classes, he can scarcely be said to have quitted those fields of observation which are common to every spectator. It is therefore more remarkable, looking to his education and antecedents, that his masterpiece, Marriage à la mode, should successfully depict, as the advertisement has it, "a variety of modern occurrences in high life."
Yet, as an accurate delineation of upper class 18th century society, his Marriage à la mode has never, we believe, been seriously assailed. The countessís bedroom, the earlís apartment with its lavish coronets and old masters, the grand saloon with its marble pillars and grotesque ornaments, are fully as true to nature as the frowsy chamber in the "Turkís Head Bagnio," the quack-doctorís museum in St Martinís Lane, or the mean opulence of the merchantís house in the city. And what story could be more vividly, more perspicuously, more powerfully told than this godless alliance of sacs et parchemins—this miserable tragedy of an ill-assorted marriage? There is no defect of invention, no superfluity of detail, no purposeless stroke. It has the merit of a work by a great master of fiction, with the additional advantages which result from the pictorial fashion of the narrative; and it is matter for congratulation that it is still to be seen by all the world in the National Gallery in London, where it can tell its own tale better than pages of commentary. The engravings of Marriage à la mode were dated April 1745. Although by this time the painter found a ready market for his engravings, he does not appear to have been equally successful in selling his pictures. The people bought his prints; but the richer and not numerous connoisseurs who purchased pictures were wholly in the hands of the importers and manufacturers of "old masters." In February 1745 the original oil paintings of the two Progresses, the Four Times of the Day and the Strolling Actresses were still unsold. On the last day of that month Hogarth disposed of them by an ill-devised kind of auction, the details of which may be read in Nicholsís Anecdotes, for the paltry sum of £427,7s. No better fate attended Marriage à la mode, which six years later became the property of Mr Lane of Hillingdon for 120 guineas, being then in Carlo Maratti frames which had cost the artist four guineas a piece. Something of this was no doubt due to Hogarthís impracticable arrangements, but the fact shows conclusively how completely blind his contemporaries were to his merits as a painter, and how hopelessly in bondage to the all-powerful picture-dealers. Of these latter the painter himself gave a graphic picture in a letter addressed by him under the pseudonym of "Britophil" to the St Jamesís Evening Post, in June 1737.
But if Hogarth was not successful with his dramas on canvas, he occasionally shared with his contemporaries in the popularity of portrait painting. For a picture, executed in 1746, of Garrick as Richard III he was paid £200, "which was more," says he, "than any English artist ever received for a single portrait." In the same year a sketch of Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, afterwards beheaded on Tower Hill, had an exceptional success.
We must content ourselves with a brief enumeration of the most important of his remaining works. These are The Stage Coach or Country Inn Yard (1747); the series of twelve plates entitled Industry and Idleness (1747), depicting the career of two London apprentices; the Gate of Calais (1749), which had its origin in a rather unfortunate visit paid to France by the painter after the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle; the March to Finchley (1750); Beer Street, Gin Lane and the Four Stages of Cruelty (1751); the admirable representations of election humours in the days of Sir Robert Walpole, entitled Four Prints of an Election (1755-1758); and the plate of Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism, a Medley (1762), adapted from an earlier unpublished design called Enthusiasm Delineated. Besides these must be chronicled three more essays in the "great style of history painting," viz. Paul before Felix, Moses brought to Pharaohís Daughter and the Altarpiece for St Mary Redcliffe at Bristol. The first two were engraved in 1751-1752, the last in 1794. A subscription ticket to the earlier pictures, entitled Paul before Felix Burlesqued, had a popularity far greater than that of the prints themselves.
In 1745 Hogarth painted that admirable portrait of himself with his dog Trump, which is now in the National Gallery. In a corner of this he had drawn on a palette a serpentine curve with the words "The Line of Beauty." Much inquiry ensued as to the meaning of this hieroglyphic; and in an unpropitious hour the painter resolved to explain himself in writing. The result was the well-known Analysis of Beauty (1753), a treatise to fix "the fluctuating ideas of Taste," otherwise a desultory essay having for pretext the precept attributed to Michelangelo that a figure should be always "Pyramidal, Serpent like and multiplied by one two and three." The fate of the book was what might have been expected. By the painterís adherents it was praised as a final deliverance upon aesthetics; by his enemies and professional rivals, its obscurities, and the minor errors which, notwithstanding the benevolent efforts of literary friends, the work had not escaped, were made the subject of endless ridicule and caricature. It added little to its authorís fame, and it is perhaps to be regretted that he ever undertook it. Moreover, there were further humiliations in store for him. In 1759 the success of a little picture called The Ladyís Last Stake, painted for Lord Charlemont, procured him a commission from Sir Richard Grosvenor to paint another picture "upon the same terms." Unhappily on this occasion he deserted his own field of genre and social satire, to select the story from Boccaccio (or rather Dryden) of Sigismunda weeping over the heart of her murdered lover Guiscardo, being the subject of a picture in Sir Luke Schaubís collection by Furini which had recently been sold for £400. The picture, over which he spent much time and patience, was not regarded as a success; and Sir Richard rather meanly shuffled out of his bargain upon the plea that "the constantly having it before oneís eyes, would be too often occasioning melancholy ideas to arise in oneís mind." Sigismunda, therefore, much to the artistís mortification, and the delight of the malicious, remained upon his hands. As, by her husbandís desire, his widow valued it at £500, it found no purchaser until after her death, when the Boydells bought it for 56 guineas. It was exhibited, with others of Hogarthís pictures, at the Spring Gardens exhibition of 1761, for the catalogue of which Hogarth engraved a Head-piece and a Tailpiece which are still the delight of collectors; and finally, by the bequest of Mr J. H. Anderdon, it passed in 1879 to the National Gallery, where, in spite of theatrical treatment and a repulsive theme, it still commands admiration for its colour, drawing and expression.
In 1761 Hogarth was sixty-five years of age, and he had but three years more to live. These three years were embittered by an unhappy quarrel with his quondam friends, John Wilkes and Churchill the poet, over which most of his biographers are contented to pass rapidly. Having succeeded John Thornhill in 1757 as serjeant painter (to which post he was reappointed at the accession of George IlI), an evil genius prompted him in 1762 to do some "timed" thing in the ministerial interest, and he accordingly published the indifferent satire of The Times, plate i. This at once brought him into collision with Wilkes and Churchill, and the immediate result was a violent attack upon him, both as a man and an artist, in the opposition North Briton, No. 17. The alleged decay of his powers, the miscarriage of Sigismunda, the cobbled composition of the Analysis, were all discussed with scurrilous malignity by those who had known his domestic life and learned his weaknesses. The old artist was deeply wounded, and his health was failing. Early in the next year, however, he replied by that portrait of Wilkes which will for ever carry his squinting features to posterity. Churchill retaliated in July by a savage Epistle to William Hogarth, to which the artist rejoined by a print of Churchill as a bear, in torn bands and ruffles, not the most successful of his works. "The pleasure, and pecuniary advantage," writes Hogarth manfully, "which I derived from these two engravings" (of Wilkes and Churchill), "together with occasionally riding on horseback, restored me to as much health as can be expected at my time of life." He produced last one more print, that of Finis, or The Bathos, March 1764, a strange jumble of "fag ends," intended as a tail-piece to his collected prints; and on the 26th October of the same year he died of an aneurism at his house in Leicester Square. His wife, to whom he left his plates as a chief source of income, survived him until 1789. He was buried in Chiswick churchyard, where a tomb was erected to him by his friends in 1771, with an epitaph by Garrick. Not far off, on the road to Chiswick Gardens, still stands the little red-brick Georgian villa in which from September 1749 until his death he spent the summer seasons. After many vicissitudes and changes of ownership it was purchased in 1902 by Lieut.-Colonel Shipway of Chiswick, who turned it into a Hogarth museum and preserved it to the nation.
From such records of him as survive, Hogarth appears to have been much what from his portrait one might suppose him to have been—a blue-eyed, honest, combative little man, thoroughly insular in his prejudices and antipathies, fond of flattery, sensitive like most satirists, a good friend, an intractable enemy, ambitious, as he somewhere says, in all things to be singular, and not always accurately estimating the extent of his powers. With the art connoisseurship of his day he was wholly at war, because, as he believed, it favoured foreign mediocrity at the expense of native talent; and in the heat of argument he would probably, as lie admits, often come "to utter blasphemous expressions against the divinity even of Raphael Urbino, Correggio and Michelangelo." But it was rather against the third-rate copies of third-rate artists—the "ship-loads of dead Christs, Holy Families and Madonnas"—that his indignation was directed; and in speaking of his attitude with regard to the great masters of art, it is well to remember his words to Mrs Piozzi:—"The connoisseurs and I are at war, you know; and because I hate them, they think I hate Titian—and let them!"
But no doubt it was in a measure owing to this hostile attitude of his towards the all-powerful picture-brokers that his contemporaries failed to recognize adequately his merits as a painter, and persisted in regarding him as an ingenious humorist alone. Time has reversed that unjust sentence. He is now held to have been a splendid painter, pure and harmonious in his colouring, wonderfully dexterous and direct in his handling, and in his composition leaving little or nothing to be desired. As an engraver his work is more conspicuous for its vigour, spirit and intelligibility than for finish and beauty of line. He desired that it should tell its own tale plainly, and bear the distinct impress of his individuality, and in this he thoroughly succeeded. As a draughtsman his skill has sometimes been debated, and his work at times undoubtedly bears marks of haste, and even carelessness. If, however, he is judged by his best instead of his worst, he will not be found wanting in this respect. But it is not after all as a draughtsman, an engraver or a painter that he claims his unique position among English artists—it is as a humorist and a satirist upon canvas. Regarded in this light he has never been equalled, whether for his vigour of realism and dramatic power, his fancy and invention in the decoration of his story, or his merciless anatomy and exposure of folly and wickedness. If we regard him—as he loved to regard himself—as "author" rather than "artist," his place is with the great masters of literature—with the Thackerays and Fieldings, the Cervantes and Molières.
AUTHORITIES. —The main body of Hogarth literature is to be found in the autobiographical Memoranda, published by John Ireland in 1798, and in the successive Anecdotes of the antiquary John Nichols. Much minute information has also been collected in F. G. Stephens's Catalogue of the Satirical Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. But a copious bibliography of books, pamphlets, &c., relating to Hogarth, together with detailed catalogues of his paintings and prints, will be found in the Memoir of Hogarth by Austin Dobson. First issued in 1879, this was reprinted and expanded in 1891, 1897, 1902 and finally in 1907. Pictures by Hogarth from private collections were constantly to be found at the annual exhibitions of the Old Masters at Burlington House; but most of the best-known works have permanent homes in public galleries. Marriage à la mode, Sigismunda, Lavinia Fenton, the Shrimp Girl, the Gate of Calais, the portraits of himself, his sister and his servants, are all in the National Gallery; the Rakeís Progress and the Election Series, in the Soane Museum; and the March to Finchley and Captain Coram in the Foundling. There are also notable pictures in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge and the National Portrait Gallery. At the Print Room in the British Museum there is also a very interesting set of sixteen designs for the series called Industry and Idleness, the majority of which formerly belonged to Horace Walpole. (A.D.)
For further information on Hogarth, see The Site for Research on William Hogarth.