Hogarth: A Life and a World

Jenny Uglow

Read November-December 2005

I've always enjoyed Hogarth and Pieter Brueghel (the Elder, not his hack of a son) as satirists, moralists and allegorists, portraying and admonishing sin but always with either a sadness or gaity that suggests they aren't entirely on the side of the angels. Of the two, though, perhaps because of their choice of media, I've always thought of Brueghel as a much greater artist than Hogarth. Brueghel is also somewhat easier to read, because his work is more overtly moral and less temporal and political.

While browsing in the lovely Brattle Street Bookstore in Boston, I was overwhelmed by the realization that, due to time constraints, I haven't read a big book (as opposed to fat books) in a very long time—and I felt compelled to reverse that. When I stumbled on this biography of Hogarth by Uglow, subtitled ``A Life and a World'', I knew this was the antidote.

Uglow's book is stellar. Her agenda closely matches that of Hogarth himself: to restore his reputation from a mere scribbler of comic pieces to someone who deserved a firm place as a broad artist. It is perhaps fitting that Uglow fails to make this point compellingly, but you sense she was more interested in the challenge of the effort than in its success.

We learn surprisingly little about Hogarth's life, despite the relatively late date of his span. In part this is because he didn't leave behind much of a written record (indeed, there appears to be only one record of a letter he wrote to his wife), and that is perhaps just as well: he's an awful writer. More tellingly, what we do learn about him presents an obsessive man forever anxious about his place in history, bitter about foreign artists, given to pandering to xenophobic tastes: altogether, not a very pleasant figure. So Uglow gently leads us away from this person to his voice, his art, and surrounds this with a stellar portrait of London in the early and middle eighteenth century. Indeed, Smollett, Fielding and especially Garrick (who was a dear friend, and subject, of Hogarth's) appear in just about every chapter.

Uglow presents, in detail, Hogarth's clashes with Establishment powers, from his hatred of their passion for Italian, French and Flemish artists to his opposition to a Royal Academy. Indeed, as the majestic Joshua Reynolds glides through these pages, it is hard not to feel sympathy for the pug-like underdog Hogarth. Even when Hogarth was made Serjeant-Painter, his brittle ego took it as something of a slight, given the many greater honors he was not conferred.

Hogarth was an astute businessman, from his choice of topics to the haste with which he capitalized on them. It is impressive, then, that his output had any art at all; this itself is a testament to his great skill. He organized subscriptions and auctions, but the artist in him often had to delay delivery until he was satisfied with the quality of his work. He was conscious of the output end, too, working to obtain copyright protection for engravings. Uglow points out that such intellectual property protections were in the air, so Hogarth was no revolutionary, but he did succeed in extending the protections bestowed on ``higher'' arts to his rougher trade.

A constant and eventually overwhelming theme is Hogarth's desire for respectability as an artist. Having shewn his talent via engravings and sketches, he wanted to demonstrate he was equally at home in Portrait and History. Here, alas, tragedy strikes. While his work is of a very respectable quality, he fails to capture the public, much like a stereotyped actor trying to break out but being forced back into a typecast. To be sure, it is startling to see some of these works, having grown so accustomed to the canonical Hogarth engravings. But when Uglow tries to show us just how clever some of these works of Hogarth were, we can't help but feel the good lady doth protest too much. It is especially sad, for the poor reception of these pieces broke him in the end. Yet his genius at portrayal is never better expressed than in his print of Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, before Lovat's execution. It is an arresting picture, whose psychological richness only grows upon reading Lovat's story. If only Hogarth had known just how much brilliance he had endowed in this one image alone!

Uglow's eye for artistic detail is staggering. She finds details that, in some cases, can only be the result of work with a magnifying glass. (A good number of Hogarth's works are here, the better to accompany the prose.) When Uglow points out, for instance, that a tiny angel's hand has six fingers (p. 92), you can only marvel at her study. This level of detail is somewhat necessary, too, because the contemporary nature of Hogarth's work makes it difficult to grasp fully without the context Uglow provides. While I was part-way through this book I visited London, and spent some time looking at two series, An Election Entertainment and A Rake's Progress, in Sir John Soane's Museum—quite some time, in fact, given the level of detail I expected to find the book. I was shocked, then, to read the chapters on these works upon my return and find layer upon layer of hidden detail.

Ultimately, the Hogarth that emerges from these pages is warm and human, a product of his interesting times and an important actor in them. He was deeply involved in philanthropy for St. Bartholomew's Foundling Hospital. Rarely political, his is a contradictory life, disliking the trappings of offices even as he would have liked to have them himself; but in this, Hogarth reflects (and Uglow exposes) contradictions at the heart of all of us. His humanity is never quite as touching as in his portrait of his servants (p. 476), a rare topic in itself, and executed with great class and warmth. These little touches do more to elevate Hogarth over his rough art than any of his own aspirations for greatness can.

My only regret about this book is that it ends with Hogarth's passing. We don't learn about how the perception of Hogarth has evolved over time, or even much about what became of his physical legacy after the execution of his will. Even weighing in at just over 700 pages of prose (accompanied by several listings of additional material), this book feels light and fluid, and I wished Uglow had gone on.