Saturday, March 31, 2007

Book Review : Hogarth : A Life and a World by Jenny Uglow (Faber & Faber 1997)

One cannot dissociate Hogarth from 18th Century London - he was its quintessential chronicler, his paintings and prints encapsulating the teeming bustle, the filth and grime, the political chicanery, the lies, hypocrisy and sexual adventure that made up this brash and busy age. Therefore it is appropriate that Jenny Uglow, in this splendid, compendious biography, should choose to focus on the historical context as much as on Hogarth's life, since, fascinating though it is, without an understanding of the politics, of Walpole and Fox, Bute and Pitt, and of the characters, such as Mother Douglas the Bawd, or Jenny Tofts who gave birth to rabbits, one cannot fully appreciate the true depths of Hogarth's wonderful "progresses" and other satirical paintings and prints.

London itself looms large as a character, Hogarth's Smithfield with its fair and sidestreets being readily recognisable today. Covent Garden was largely disreputable, but Leicester Fields was a prestigious address for a young artist and engraver to set up shop. Further afield, the leafy villages of Chiswick and Islington provide respite for Hogarth and his characters.

Hogarth himself was proud and prickly, yet at the same time a tireless worker for the public good. He never had any children in his close and loving marriage with his wife Jane, and much of his paternal instincts were channelled towards Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital. He painted for it, was a committee member and took an active interest in the children. At the same time, he founded Britain's first Academy of Fine Art and was involved in the Society of Artists.

Yet it is as a private individual that Uglow's portrait is most vivid. Hogarth appears as a kind man who loved his wife and cared for animals, yet popular and clubbable, with a keen sense of humour and an appreciation for life. The description of the "peregrination" around North Kent that he and some friends undertook is delightful, full of drinking, practical jokes, singing and general foolery - immediately recognisable to any young man who has gone on a short holiday with friends today. As he aged and his health diminished, however, he became more and more temperamental. The last years of his life was overshadowed by his disappointment with the reception of his painting Sigismunda which he couldn't move on from, and by his vicious feud with Wilkes and Churchill. This decline is sensitively documented by Uglow.

However, the greatest part of this book is given over to discussion of Hogarth's work - his portraits, his history paintings but especially his progresses and satirical engravings. All his published engravings are reproduced (albeit in a format which could have been larger) and described in detail. It is this detail which is telling. When looking at the first print of "The Harlot's Progress" a 21st c. viewer can see the fresh young Moll Hackabout arriving in London to be greeted by the bawd Mother Needham and overseen by a somewhat lascivious-looking character with his hand thrust deep into his pockets. But when one understands that this gentlemen is Colonel Francis Charteris - convicted rapist, fraudster, libertine and political associate of Walpole - the character takes on new dimensions.

Hogarth did not waste strokes of his burin. Virtually all the detail in his prints has some significance - some lost in the mists of time but much of it decodable by Hogarth's contemporaries and by the Art Historians of today. It is Jenny Uglow's ability to bring this detail alive that makes this such a good book. Hogarth's London is brimming with life and controversy, with political debate and satire, and with friendships and feuds. It really is an exceptionally good book.

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