The gallery’s new exhibition is curatorially confused, with wall texts imagining that the viewer cannot think for themselves, says Hettie Judah
I have a soft spot for William Hogarth’s pug Trump. In his self-portrait from 1745, Hogarth occupied a picture within a picture. Bohemian in his cloth cap, he looks more relaxed, respectable than tall.
The oval frame of Hogarth’s portrait rests on books by Shakespeare, Swift, and Milton. Next to it is a palette showing the serpentine curve he called the “Line of Beauty”.
These objects point to the line of storytelling and satire in which Hogarth positioned himself, as well as his theory of aesthetics.
Meanwhile, Trump is sitting at the front of the painting, his tongue lolling and his graying face with a Hangdog expression. He appears as Hogarth’s alter ego, the old dog who observes human follies and misadventures from the ground up.
Trump the Pug reminds us that the appearances in Hogarth’s paintings are never rectilinear. A dog is not just a dog, a glass is not just an empty vessel.
Hogarth is a body and action painter: people and objects crowd together, react to one another, provoke chains of events. These are dynamic works that draw your gaze on a hopping path. What is happening on the periphery comments on what is happening in the center: the paintings on the wall, the pots by the fireplace, the servants and musicians, each one adds an additional facet to the drama.
As a satirist and observer of city life, the periphery is where Hogarth locates himself. Sometimes he positions us there too. In O the roast beef of Old England (1748) we look out of an archway onto a daylight-flooded street scene in front of the gate of Calais.
Ragged and skinny French soldiers eat thin broth while a thick half of beef is inspected by a stout monk. Pious old women enjoy fresh fish, and a neglected Scot sits on the stone floor under the shelter of the arch.
On the left the artist can be seen with his sketchbook, just as a hand reaches for him. Hogarth was actually accused of espionage in Calais. He was not a spy in the formal sense. But he was a covert observer of people and ruthless when it came to identifying their weaknesses.
Vanity, drunkenness, lust, avarice, flattery, hypocrisy, carelessness, cruelty, pride, snobbery, waste: everything provided ammunition for its loaded brush.
In the midst of the crowd that is pushing towards us The March of the Guard after Finchley (1749-50) a milkmaid is groped by a soldier while another steals milk from her pail.
An incompetent guardsman with crooked gaiters lolls in a dirty puddle while his friend tries to pour more schnapps into his mouth. A mother with a small mug looks on with interest, perhaps about to steal a sip of alcohol. Women lean against the windows of a tall building, their profession is marked by a row of cats on the roof.
Approved men exchange gossips while a lot of bets are placed on two pugilists who are waist-naked and ready to land a blow.
Many of these characters are grotesque, but not all. There’s room for compassion: the pregnant woman holding a soldier’s arm as he goes to war, the nice little piper boy who drives the troops on. Hogarth offers all of life’s dramas as they unfold.
London in its day was filthy, unruly, dangerous and cramped. For the destitute, it took spirit and cunning to flourish: woe to the pure in heart.
Hogarth’s popular series – A whore’s progress (1732), The progress of a rake (1734) and Fashionable marriage (c. 1743) – are presented here as moral narratives, but is something so simple in his work? In addition to some prints commissioned to convey a specific message (the 1751 Gin Lane, for example) Hogarth seemed to regard almost all fair game as ridicule.
There are some fantastic loans on this show. His patron Miss Mary Edwards (1742) is usually in the Frick Collection in New York.
She appears in a flood of fine red silk, her neck studded with pearls and diamonds, and a hunting dog stares at her wildly but adoringly.
Edwards was one of the richest women in England at the time, and her intellect is indicated by the globe, scrolls and classical busts. She is a living presence that is portrayed with affection. Portraits of the artist’s sisters – loans from Yale – depict strong, formidable women.
In contrast, Sir Francis Dashwood – libertine, supporter of the Hellfire Club and Chancellor of the Exchequer – is portrayed in a parody of St. Francis praying, who worships a naked woman and an erotic novel instead of the cross and the Bible. Groups of men appear in advanced drunkenness – in the engraving A modern conversation at midnight (1733) Chairs tip over, wigs fall, and the chamber pot is fuller than the punch.
Charity in the basement (1739) offers a drunken quintet, one of which has fainted and the others are arranged like a religious tableau over a sea of empty bottles. We meet Hogarth’s friend Francis Matthew Schutz the morning after a heavy night in bed and vomit vinous fluids into his chamber pot.
As is so often the case at Tate Britain, the appeal of such highlights needs to be tempered with a few caveats about the show itself. Notice the title – Hogarth and Europe – to like Van Gogh and Great Britain, this is more of a contextual survey than a solo excursion. Hogarth’s work is shown alongside European contemporaries, what dandy is, as long as you know how to expect it.
The original concept was to question Hogarth as a specifically British figure and instead show an exchange of ideas between London, Paris, Amsterdam and Venice.
If we focus on this European context, we lose a lot more: there is no discussion about Hogarth’s ideas about art, nor about the influence of earlier Dutch chroniclers of pub and street life like Jan Steen.
There is no mention of the disapproval Hogarth received from contemporaries like Joshua Reynolds for his commitment to ordinary – rather than large – subjects.