The New York Times, November 30, 1997
An 18th-Century Paparazzo
A biography of Hogarth examines the art and times of the engraver and painter.


A Life and a World.
By Jenny Uglow.
Illustrated. 794 pp. New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $45.

At something under five feet tall, squarely built, a flashy dresser, pugnacious and irreverent, William Hogarth must have cut a figure as distinctive as that of the many fops and swindlers he satirized. Though snobs were his lifelong targets, he himself aimed at the smart life. But he was congenitally rough-edged, the sort of person who made enemies even when he didn't mean to.

He was in his art a kind of paparazzo before the fact, and a rabble-rouser who nevertheless prudently echoed the popular consensus. He was vain, and sometimes acted out of foolish vanity. Battered by the sort of critical caning that, for decades, he had dished out to others, he revealed in his last years an increasingly morbid sensitivity and pessimism. The product of a Dickensian childhood in the near-slum of Bartholomew Close, he rose to be Serjeant-Painter to the King -- an honor only up to a point, because it remained a position under the auspices of the Board of Works, which also paid plumbers and masons. It was typical of Hogarth that he sought the post, which his father-in-law had held, then belittled it once he had it, out of insecurity and an inclination to regard everything, even his own ambition, as suspect.

This extravagantly detailed biography by Jenny Uglow is less a book of art history than a history of Hogarth's milieu. Much of his character, and the book's, is encapsulated in the colorful story Uglow recounts of a woman named Mary Tofts, who claimed to have become so obsessed with rabbits after failing to catch several of them in a field she was weeding that she suffered a miscarriage and began to deliver animals and animal parts. Fashionable medical men verified her story, among them a certain Nathanael St. Andre, a Swiss who was Anatomist to the Royal Household and a teacher of fencing and dancing before he took up surgery, who announced that he had personally delivered her of several rabbits.

This put Londoners off rabbit stew for a while. Then Mary conceded the hoax and St. Andre was forced to make a public apology. It was the sort of ripe event that Hogarth, like any tabloid cartoonist today, couldn't resist: absurd, bawdy, a perfect opportunity to skewer self-proclaimed experts like St. Andre and his fellow quacks, and also to strike a blow against mystification, which Hogarth despised in all forms, whether from doctors or politicians or art critics. His print ''Cunicularii,'' or ''The Rabbit Warren,'' sold briskly.

The episode exemplifies the essential theatricality of Hogarth's vision of London, which Uglow depicts as a swarming capital, a city of masquerades and freaks, and, at the other end of a widening social spectrum, of preening financiers, the victors in a shifting and unsteady economy. The streets were bursting with fish stalls and beggars and were noisy from the clatter of brewers' barrels rumbling down the pavements. Gambling dens and brothels sometimes doubled as coffeehouses (the tip-off, Uglow tells us, was the image of a woman's arm holding the coffeepot on the sign outside). The city was certainly not a place to find justice if you were poor. Uglow recalls a raid on a Covent Garden bagnio, where several debauched young aristocrats were carousing. The magistrate let the men go, but the women with them were crammed into a pit at the St. Martin's Lane lockup without water or much air, and several of them died. No one swung for their deaths.

Uglow's book is rightly subtitled ''A Life and a World.'' Hogarth's art can be elusive to someone unfamiliar with the events to which he referred and the people he portrayed. It already seemed that way by 1818, when Keats asked, ''And do not Hogarth's pictures seem an old thing to you?'' Uglow makes Hogarth's dated allusions comprehensible.

She is an English literary biographer, so her interest is also in the literary climate of the era, which is fortunate because England was, as it has always been, a literary more than a visual culture. One can even say that Hogarth's art has a literary character: the unfolding plot of a series like ''A Harlot's Progress'' is a narrative, like a play or a book.

Hogarth also hung around writers as well as painters. Uglow recalls an amusing story from Boswell, who described Hogarth visiting the house of Samuel Richardson and finding, along with the novelist, ''a person standing at a window in the room, shaking his head, rolling himself about in a strange, ridiculous manner.'' Hogarth took him to be an idiot. It was Samuel Johnson. Famously, Hogarth also based several works on John Gay's ''Beggar's Opera,'' which depicted the city as a money-grubbing fool devouring itself. He overlapped with Swift, who wrote, ''How I want thee, humorous Hogart! / Thou, I hear, a pleasant rogue art,'' after seeing ''The Rake's Progress'' in 1736.

But the closest literary analogue to Hogarth was probably his friend Henry Fielding: Tom Jones fell in with the same sort of quarreling, cheerfully dissolute Englishmen Hogarth lampooned in works like ''The March to Finley.'' Jones is like Hogarth's ''Rake,'' but with a happy ending.

So we learn more in this book about Fielding than Reynolds, more about Garrick than Gainsborough. And aside from a few passing mentions of Dutch artists, whom Hogarth despised -- no doubt because the comparison hit close to home -- there is almost nothing about such Europeans as Pietro Longhi, a genre painter like Hogarth.

This is too bad, because the 18th century was a time of increasing social fluidity throughout Europe, when artists everywhere found a new audience among the emerging middle classes and delighted in tweaking the powers that were, or at least in observing them with a canny eye. Hogarth was not alone, in other words, and what makes him interesting is partly what makes him emblematic.

Though it has often been told, the story of his battle against European art and European academies of art is also important, and Uglow gives less attention to it than one might expect. The vast growth of the British art market in the 1700's was based on the plunder of Europe for Old Masters and antiquities. John Brewer, in his recent book ''The Pleasures of the Imagination,'' says that between the 1720's and 1770's innumerable antiquities, half a million etchings and engravings and 50,000 paintings were imported to Britain from Italy, France and the Netherlands alone. Contemporary English painters were marginalized, unwanted by gentlemen collectors except for what was regarded as the relatively mechanical business of portraiture.

Hogarth refused to love what was old just because it was old. He couldn't stand that sort of pomposity and kowtowing. His struggle to control the reproduction and distribution of his engravings, which paved the way for copyrights, was an esthetic, not just a commercial battle on behalf of the value of his work. Still, it misinterprets his legacy to see him only on the ramparts. As David Bindman, a Hogarth scholar, has pointed out, he was really someone who ''worked, however uncomfortably, with the grain of society rather than against it, and whose picture of society did more to reassure those in power than perturb them.'' His friends would have been downright baffled by the modern image of him as at odds with the social hierarchy; he was, like everyone else, just trying to get ahead. A moralizing work like ''Industry and Idleness'' merely emulated the gentry by instructing the lower classes on how to behave.

The lack of an official British academy -- like the one in France -- gave Hogarth a certain freedom: he could aspire to be at once a populist, a theorist, an engraver, a portraitist and a history painter. The fact is, he wanted to be recognized for the same achievements prized by the European academicians he mocked, and the general ridicule of ''Sigismunda,'' Hogarth's ultimate attempt at history painting, broke his heart. In his work and in his taste, he was a contradiction: he groaned about Raphael, but he echoed Poussin. He was a Francophobe, except when it benefited him to use French engravers more skilled than the English ones. His treatise, ''The Analysis of Beauty,'' announced in Fielding's Covent-Garden Journal, was in part an argument for the Rococo, a suspiciously Continental style.

And he was stung, it seems, by the verdict of the Abbe Le Blanc, a French cleric writing on English art who, on the basis of the prints, declared Hogarth a man of genius but a bad painter. The abbe had a point. Uglow, mostly clear-eyed about her subject, overvalues his paintings: ''Nowhere else in 18th-century art does paint convey such movement and rhythm,'' she writes. I don't think so. Hogarth could paint a fresh, sensuous picture like ''The Shrimp Girl,'' proving his argument, in ''The Analysis of Beauty,'' that only pretentious connoisseurs think dead statues are more beautiful than live women. His paintings of ''The Beggar's Opera'' are true to life, and so is his great portrait of Thomas Coram. But he could be a pokey painter, too, and even his prints, sometimes shockingly violent, lack the shrewd facility and subtlety of a Rowlandson.

His great virtue, in the end, was his humanity. Uglow doesn't speculate about Hogarth's relationship with his wife -- wisely, because we don't know much about it -- but she nonetheless makes clear the character of a man who, though he had no children of his own, donated energy and money for the establishment of the Foundling Hospital and sometimes took care of its orphans. A bear in public, he was evidently a Saint Bernard in private.

Until his death in 1764, at 67, his soul resided in Drury Lane and Grub Street, the bailiwick of actors, tradesmen and engravers like himself. Centuries before Pop Art, he exalted London's sign painters, whom he regarded as geniuses of an underappreciated native school. His admiration for them makes him seem like an artist of modern sensibility. But in truth he was the quintessential man of his time -- a roast-beef Englishman.

Michael Kimmelman is the chief art critic of The Times.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company