Henry Fielding's Debt to William Hogarth

V de S Pinto, 'William Hogarth', in The New Pelican Guide to English Literature 4. From Dryden to Johnson, 1997. Vivian Pinto was Professor of English Literature at Nottingham University.

Hogarth's relationship to Henry Fielding was certainly very close indeed, and can be described without exaggeration as a collaboration between two artists of equal stature and ability. RE Moore has shown that Fielding's dramatic burlesques (1730-37) are considerably influenced by Hogarth's early satiric prints, and there is no doubt that Hogarth and Fielding were working in close co-operation at the time. The pattern of Fielding's career closely resembles that of Hogarth's. His first successes, the dramatic satires of the 1730s, correspond closely to Hogarth's early, topical satiric prints. Like Hogarth, he found his true strength when he turned to comic, realistic narrative, and Hogarth undoubtedly showed him the way to the new art of Joseph Andrews. By 1742, when Fielding published his first novel, Hogarth had already produced A Harlot's Progress, A Rake's Progress, The Four Times of the Day, and The Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn, as well as such minor masterpieces as A Modern Midnight Conversation and The Laughing Audience. Already in 1740, in his periodical The Champion, Fielding had praised 'the ingenious Mr Hogarth' as one of the most 'useful Satyrists that any Age has produced'. Of course, all sorts of ingredients went to make the delicious compound of Joseph Andrews. The influence of Hogarth, however, was certainly one of the determining factors in Fielding's new art of fiction. It seems to have been Hogarth who taught him not, indeed, the critical commonplace that there was a difference between burlesque and comedy, but the inward meaning of that difference and the immeasurable superiority of comedy:

Now what Caricatura is in a painting, Burlesque is in writing; and in the same manner the comic writer and the painter correlate to each other...He who should call the ingenious Hogarth a burlesque painter would, in my opinion, do him very little honour; for sure it is much easier, much less the subject of admiration, to paint a man with a nose, or any other feature, of a preposterous size, or to expose him to some absurd or monstrous attitude, than to express the affections of men on canvas. It has been thought a vast commendation of a painter, to say his figures seem to breathe; but surely it is a much greater and nobler applause, that they appear to think!

These words from Fielding's Preface to Joseph Andrews are full of significance. He undoubtedly had a strong tendency towards burlesque and caricature. It was the example of his friend Hogarth which taught him to restrain the tendency and to create three-dimensional characters that not only 'breathe' but 'think', such as Joseph Andrews, Parson Adams, Mrs Slipslop, and the rest. Although there are a few specific borrowings from Hogarth's pictures in Joseph Andrews, it is clear from references throughout the book that Fielding had them constantly in mind and pictures his scenes as they would appear to the painter. The famous scene in which Joseph, after being robbed, is found naked by the stagecoach, where the lady shrieks in horror but nevertheless looks at the naked man through ther sticks of her fan, comes straight from the last plate of where she is seen ogling a naked Bedlamite through the sticks of a fan.

Tom Jones is, perhaps, even more indebted to Hogarth than Joseph Andrews. Three important characters, Mrs Bridget Allworthy, Partridge, and Square, are lifted (with generous acknowledgements) straight out of pictures by Hogarth. Again, throughout the story, we are constantly shown scenes and characters in terms of Hogarth's painting. 'O, Shakespeare! had I thy pen! O, Hogarth! Had I thy pencil!' Fielding exclaims, and then promptly, as it were, takes up Hogarth's 'pencil' and paints 'the pale countenance, staring eyes, chattering teeth, faltering tongue, and trembling lips' of the servant who comes to tell Squire Weston of Sophia's disappearance. But Fielding's debt to Hogarth in Tom Jones is not merely to be found in detailed borrowings. The breadth, the vigour, the delight in every aspect of life, the crowded scenes, and the genial but unsentimental humour of Tom Jones are exactly the qualities of Hogarth's great picture. Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones are, in fact, Hogarthian 'progresses' in literary form.

A writer in the Times Literary Supplement has described the relationship between the great painter and the great novelist in words that can hardly be bettered:

Hogarth and Fielding revelled in the human medley. There is such a temperamental and intellectual bond between them that it can be said that Hogarth's pictures give a more exact idea of Fielding's attitude to life than the novelist does in the theories propounded in the celebrated preface to Joseph Andrews.