I’ve written before about the multi-talented H.B. Wheatley. The latest of our reissues of his works is Hogarth’s London (1909), and the first thing I learnt from Wheatley is that Hogarth’s name was probably pronounced ‘Hogart’ – Swift makes it rhyme with ‘rogue art’. But biographical detail is not Wheatley’s main purpose: like it says on the tin, London, as exemplified and so terrifyingly satirized in Hogarth’s works, is his subject, as it was of his three-volume London Past and Present.
Hogarth has been claimed as the first British artist – or rather the first one we can put a name to. Earlier painters we think of as ‘British’, from Lucas Horenbout and Holbein to Van Dyke and Kneller were, of course, mostly from Germany and the Low Countries. William Hogarth, by contrast, was born and raised close to the centre of London, in Smithfield, where he was baptised in St Bartholomew’s church.
His schoolteacher father had come to London from Westmorland, and attempted to make a living by publishing textbooks in Latin and Greek, and by running a Latin-speaking coffee house. This sounds a rather fun idea, and might have worked at a time when Latin was still the language in which the learned across Europe exchanged ideas, but sadly it didn’t, and bankruptcy and imprisonment for debt in the Fleet Prison followed. Like Anthony Trollope’s father, he had a Big Publishing Proposition – a Latin dictionary –which failed to find a publisher.
This loss of income meant no prospect of higher education for William, who, by the time his father died in 1718, had been apprenticed to a silver-engraver. (Avid collectors of Hogarth prints would later take impressions of engraved silverware attributed to him – only one of these is believed to be genuine – and melt down the precious metal afterwards.) He set up in business as a copper-engraver, but also took lessons in painting from Sir James Thornhill, whose masterpiece was the Painted Hall in the Royal Hospital at Greenwich, and whose daughter Hogarth later married.
Hogarth’s own work (rather like Bewick‘s later) began with small pieces of jobbing work – business cards, funeral notices – but he began to produce book illustrations, and then the stand-alone prints and sets of prints which made him famous. Wheatley’s book, which attempts ‘the illustration of the manners of the eighteenth century as seen in London by the greatest graphic delineator of manners that ever lived’ is organised to survey different aspects of life in London though Hogarth’s works. The chapters have titles such as ‘High Life’ and ‘Low Life’, ‘Church and Dissent’, ‘Business Life’, ‘Tavern Life’ and ‘Theatrical Life’.
In each chapter, Wheatley discusses Hogarth’s works, the people and places portrayed in them, and the easily overlooked small details such as the writing on handbills or inn-signs, as well as the context of contemporary politics and events. He provides information on the possible originals of some of the characters, descriptions of London life from contemporary authors, and insights into the social, intellectual and philanthropic circles of Hogarth himself.
Hogarth was a passionate supporter, and a founding governor, of Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, and one of his greatest paintings, still part of the hospital’s collection is of the benevolent captain; another appropriately depicts ‘Moses before Pharaoh’s Daughter’. He designed the hospital’s coat of arms, and encouraged other artists to donate paintings to its picture gallery, which became a fashionable meeting place for high society.
Henry Fielding (whose posthumous portrait by Hogarth is the only image we have of him), David Garrick, Samuel Johnson and Mrs Piozzi were among his other friends. (Mrs Piozzi claimed, according to Wheatley, to have been the model for ‘The Lady’s Last Stake’.) Extraordinarily, the little black servant in the print ‘Taste on High Life’ (1746) is said by Wheatley to be ‘said to be taken from Ignatius Sancho, whose portrait in later life was painted by Gainsborough’. This is tenuous evidence – and since Sancho would have been in his late teens at this stage, it seems a little unlikely. Of course, Sancho was far from being the only small black boy taken on as a slave/servant by a fashionable lady, but it’s interesting that Wheatley has heard of this possible connection. And it’s not impossible that Hogarth knew Sancho, as they had a mutual friend in David Garrick.
Wheatley claims another of ‘our’ authors as the subject of a Hogarth print. Lewis Theobald, described here as ‘the highly respected commentator on Shakespeare’, is allegedly the model for ‘The Distressed Poet’, sitting at the window of a garret in his dressing gown while his wife mends his breeches. The milk-woman is at the door, demanding payment of her bill, the food cupboard is bare, and various undergarments are drying in front of a meagre fire, while a dog has its nose round the door, sniffing at a tiny joint of meat left on a chair. Only the cat, who with her kittens is nestling comfortably on top of the poet’s best coat on the floor, shows signs of comfort and content. (In the original painting for the print, the undergarments are male, in the print female: was the change intended to make the print more or less amusing?)
Even if we can’t take all of Wheatley’s specific attributions as correct, this is still a wonderful and eminently readable book about eighteenth-century London, from the highest to the lowest life, and all the stages in between. From the actress who was the first Polly Peachum and then married a duke, to the significance of Queen Caroline’s birthday to ‘The Rake’s Progress’, ‘All Human Life is Here’, as the News of the World used to say before it began its long descent into sleaze, scandal, criminality and oblivion – a scenario which Hogarth would have loved to depict.