London: Hogarth and Europe @ Tate Britain

Here’s another one of those early modern exhibitions I was talking about in my previous post, and this one is firmly in my wheelhouse: Hogarth and Europe: Uncovering City Life at Tate Britain (which runs until 20th March 2022 and costs £18 to enter, or £9 with Art Pass). I absolutely love William Hogarth. I took a course on Restoration and 18th century literature as an undergrad, which was my first real exposure to the long 18th century from a non-biased perspective (the American 18th century history that you learn in school tends to be mainly about the American Revolution and the evils of the British), and I completely fell in love with the Georgians. They were just so fun compared to the boring Puritans of the 17th century (and the dour Victorians, but their obsession with death is what I love about them, so I’m not going to rag too much on that), and the cartoonists of the 18th century, including Hogarth, were a huge part of what makes them fun, so I was pretty excited to see this exhibition and enjoy something a bit lighter than the predictable but sad end to the Elizabeth and Mary exhibition at the BL I’d seen the week before.

 

However, Hogarth, though he included comic touches in many of his works, was more than just a satirist. He was also a moraliser, and this exhibition dwelt on not only his political and ethical views, but also the relationship between Britain, Europe, and the transatlantic slave trade. When looking up the exhibition to refresh my memory in order to write this post, I stumbled upon some newspaper reviews, and man, they were not happy at all about the slave trade angle. Part of me can kind of see their point, since Hogarth, as far as I know, had no direct involvement in the slave trade, other than enjoying a higher standard of living as a result of the increased range of products and wealth available because of forced labour in the colonies, which was true of basically everyone in Britain at that point, but another part of me absolutely gets what the Tate is trying to do. If you’re talking about an artist and how he fits into the wider world of the 18th century, it only makes sense to mention the slave trade, since it played such an integral part in shaping society. And you do see the physical marks of slavery in Hogarth’s paintings in a very direct way. He often depicts Black servants with a silver collar around their neck, which was a direct mark of ownership, and deeply disturbing once you start noticing it. Honestly, I thought the commentary on slavery was interesting and it was not anywhere near as distracting or obtrusive as many of the professional reviewers seemed to find it, but I do write purely for my own enjoyment rather than to push a specific angle, so I can be as honest as I like. I can’t say the same for journalists working for right-leaning publications.

 

I also don’t think it detracts from Hogarth’s work to point out examples of his hypocrisy. Yes, he was flawed, but who isn’t, and learning about his personal beliefs adds even more dimension to his work. I think Hogarth is fascinating because of these contradictions. He called out the ills of society and the class system whilst being firmly Establishment, particularly in his later years. He seemed to be somewhat pro-women’s rights, through his pointing out the evils of forced prostitution and arranged marriages, but he also painted pictures that played into horrible Georgian ideas of women enjoying rape, particularly his racist portrayal of a Black sex worker “luring” men into an orgy. He seemed to have an affinity for the lower classes, often portraying them sympathetically, and fostering a number of foundling children with his wife, but also mocked people he saw as members of the non-deserving poor, i.e. alcoholics or the “idle”.

 

But that’s enough about the politics, let’s get down to the paintings and the engravings! The main reason to love Hogarth is for his work, and there were some great pieces on display here. You can view most of his famous engravings at various museums in London in print form, and of course I’ve seen them many times before, but I always enjoy an opportunity to look at them again because the level of detail means I’ll pick up things I’ve missed in the past. Usually, it’s whatever is going on with the background figures, which pretty much always includes a dog or cat (or more depressingly, an enslaved person), like the dog in the picture above left, who is dressed up like a human and standing on his hind legs. I also love Trump, Hogarth’s pug, who was a pug back before pugs had been bred into the completely flat faced things that struggle to breathe that they are today. He’s also probably the only thing named Trump that you will ever hear me speaking affectionately towards. Trump appears in one of Hogarth’s most famous self-portraits, but you’ll also spy dogs that look very much like him hidden in the corners of some of Hogarth’s other works.

 

Hogarth was also known for the deliberately uncomplimentary way he approached portraiture of the rich and famous, and it was trendy amongst the upper classes to have their portraits painted by Hogarth just to see how unflatteringly realistic he would make them. I particularly like the reverend with devil horns and an ass’s ears. His most famous moralising works were here too, including Gin Lane and Beer Street, Marriage a-la-Mode, The Rake’s Progress, The Harlot’s Progress, and many more. These are all great, but I actually prefer some of the lesser known (and less moralising ones) like The Enraged Musician (I wrote a paper on it for my MA), which was here too (the print, not my paper, obviously).

 

I was clearly very keen on the Hogarth parts of the exhibition, but I was less enthused by the Europe bits. These were meant to show how Hogarth influenced and was influenced by various European painters (to make him seem less of a John Bull type, which I guess can happen when you spend a lot of your career painting offensive caricatures of the French), but most of the other artists didn’t do a whole lot for me, save for the Dutch guy (whose name I can’t remember) who painted a bared buttocks with a face on it being hung out of a window (so my type of low-brow humour!). I did like the giant maps in the section on various European cities, including Amsterdam, Venice, Paris, and London, though London is really the only one of those cities I know well enough to have been able to make comparisons between the 18th century layout and the present day. Overall though, I don’t think the “Europe” part of the title added much value to the exhibition, and I would have preferred if it had been on Hogarth alone with a more in-depth look at 18th century British society, which would also have made the role of slavery in the British Empire a more natural inclusion.

 

Simply because I love Hogarth and his work so much, I did slightly prefer this to the Elizabeth and Mary exhibition at the BL, though speaking as someone who is well-versed in the period, and contrary to the opinions of the professional critics mentioned earlier, I think they could have dug even deeper below the surface with their analysis of many of the pieces on display here. There are many details in Hogarth’s works that would have been obvious to his contemporary viewers, but aren’t easily apparent to modern ones, and I think the exhibition could have done a better job of pointing these out. Some of the works didn’t have any real interpretation at all other than commentary from a modern artist saying what they thought of the painting, which isn’t massively useful when it comes to understanding Hogarth’s work. The work itself though: *chef’s kiss*. Great selection, and I could absolutely have looked at this stuff all day if there had been fewer people waiting their turn (still nowhere near as crowded as Paula Rego though). 4/5.

 

4 comments

  1. I’m a huge Hogarth fan — saw an excellent show of his in London years ago — so this was a treat, another vicarious treat.

    1. I know. I swear I just read some pissy article by George Osborne about the National Trust and the direction heritage is moving, although those views coming from him were certainly not a surprise. Don’t know what the British Museum was thinking when they made him Chair.

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