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On the trail of Hogarth

Robin Simon finds the artist in some unexpected places, both here and abroad

21 September 2006

10:08 AM

21 September 2006

10:08 AM

‘All gilt and beshit’. That was Hogarth’s crisp verdict on French interiors when he visited Paris in 1748. As an image it is hard to fault, conjuring up gilded boiseries and the bird-droppings of rococo plasterwork. ‘In the streets [of Paris],’ the eye-witness report continued, ‘he was often clamorously rude.’

Hogarth sounds like a modern-day football fan. And he characterised the French in his pictures, if not as cheese-eating surrender monkeys, then as scrawny frog- and fish-fed skeletons, victims alike of a tyrannical monarchy and a grasping Roman Catholic Church. In contrast, as a proud member of the Society of Beef Steaks (motto, ‘Beef and Liberty!’; song, ‘O The Roast Beef Of Old England!’) Hogarth saw Britons with a fonder eye: fat with beer and beef, gorged on freedoms won by yeomen over centuries.

Or did he? Hogarth was not that simple. Whenever ‘Beer Street’ comes to mind, remember ‘Gin Lane’. In the first, in Hogarth’s words, ‘Industry and Jollity go hand in hand’, but in the second we witness the curse of cheap gin, the cynical result of native protectionism, where there is ‘distress even to madness and death’.

In the same way, Hogarth’s attitude towards the French was never one-sided. His gut instinct was that of the mob, forever banging on about foreign muck and foreign habits. Yet he carried out a prolonged publicity campaign in France, exporting his engravings with elaborate explanatory essays in French. This soi-disant xenophobe was the first British artist to break into the European market and to enjoy a Continental reputation.

And so what would Hogarth have made of the fact that, from 20 October, he is the subject of an exhibition in, of all places, the legendary home of French tyranny, the Palais du Louvre? I think I know. Hogarth, all five feet of him, would have been intolerable with conceit: puffed up like a turkey-cock, preening and strutting, as he was wont to do, in a way that infuriated even his most admiring contemporaries.

The truth is that Hogarth owed an immense, but carefully concealed, debt to French art and artists. After all, he was trained by one, Louis Chéron, himself twice winner of the French academy’s Grand Prix de Rome. In middle age, Hogarth told friends making a trip to Paris to be sure to call in at the studios of the still-life painter Chardin and the pastellist La Tour. The implication is that he himself had done so, not only in 1748 but also on his previous trip to Paris in 1743. Hogarth’s paintings and engravings are packed with reflections of contemporary French art.

The Louvre exhibition resurfaces here at Tate Britain in February 2007 before, more oddly, travelling to Madrid in May. But this international focus on Hogarth comes only as the high point of a quietly growing conviction at home that he is the most extraordinary artist we’ve ever produced. Hogarth’s genius is Shakespearean in its inclusivity, and beside him even Turner appears one-dimensional.

This summer, on a peaceful evening in Tate Britain, those two stalwarts of British satire John Bird and John Fortune were presented with the ‘Golden Trump’, a new award made to those who best maintain the satirical spirit of Hogarth. This gilded canine Oscar is based on an 18th-century marble of Hogarth’s favourite pug dog, Trump, who is familiar from the great Self-portrait with pug in the Tate collection. The marble original belongs to the Hogarth Group, a cluster of Hogarth enthusiasts made up of scholars, writers and even satirists (chairman, Ian Hislop).

One of the Hogarth Group’s projects is to publicise a Hogarth Trail through central London, aimed not only at tourists but also at us natives who don’t realise how much there is to see. It is possible to find more than 30 of his most important paintings within the space of an easy stroll, before you even think of visiting the Tate, with its couple of dozen more. Along the way, you can take in some of London’s most spectacular hidden treasures.

Start at the exquisite Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square, which has three of Hogarth’s finest works, including ‘The March to Finchley’. From here, wander off to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Sir John Soane’s Museum, where ‘A Rake’s Progress’ and ‘An Election’ can be enjoyed amid a riot of architectural eccentricity. The hall of Lincoln’s Inn itself houses one of Hogarth’s less successful works, the massive ‘history painting’ of Paul before Felix. Hogarth had no training for working on such a large scale, and it shows.

Nearby, in Smithfield, two earlier, and yet more massive, paintings are much better, because Hogarth filled them with his dazzling observations of humanity. This is the Great Staircase of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, decorated with ‘The Pool of Bethesda’ and ‘The Good Samaritan’. The medics at Bart’s have realised that, so accurate is Hogarth’s eye, a diagnosis can be made of each of the horrible afflictions that he depicts.

Alas, the paintings at Bart’s are under threat, because of the condition of the roof above them, neglected for many years. The World Monuments Fund has recognised their importance, however, which is yet another feather in the cap of Hogarth’s international reputation. Around £6–£10 million is required but the rescue committee, formed by Professor Dame Lesley Rees, has discovered that channelling funds towards the project will be of Byzantine complexity. Hogarth’s paintings belong to the historic foundation of Bart’s but, and here is the problem, the North Wing and Great Hall, accessed by the staircase, belong to the London National Health Service Trust…Enough said.

The Trail leads on to the National Portrait Gallery, with, in addition to an important group of Hogarth paintings, its unforgettable terracotta portrait of the man himself by his friend Louis-François Roubiliac — who was, of course, French. (They even shared a studio.) And, finally, there is the National Gallery, which contains supreme examples of Hogarth’s art: ‘Marriage A-la-Mode’, ‘The Graham Children’ and ‘The Shrimp Girl’.

What a lot of magnificent paintings there are to be found, then, by someone still best known for his satirical prints, or vaguely recalled as a ‘cartoonist’. Of course, the next few months may not be the ideal time to try out the Trail, since so many of these paintings will be gathered together in the Hogarth exhibition. It will be the first time Hogarth’s work has been on view in France and Spain. Here at home it will be a timely reminder of the astonishing range of our greatest artist.

There are just two more events to remember in this Year of Hogarth: an evening of music at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, to celebrate his birthday on 10 November; and, in December, the publication of a brilliant new book, Hogarth, France and British Art. Reader, I wrote it.

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