Philip Hensher

How William Hogarth made Britain

His portraiture was sublime and his mastery of rude comedy beyond compare. Yet this titan of the 18th century does not always get the recognition that is his due

Hogarth self-portrait c. 1735-40. Credit: Bridgeman Images

Has any artist ever had a wider impact on the world than Hogarth? He was the motivator behind the most important legislation protecting artists’ copyright, meaning that artists from ordinary backgrounds no longer had to depend on the whims of rich patrons. Like Dickens, he used his art to laugh at and root out abuses — the proposals for electoral reform in the great ‘Humours of an Election’ series are as specific as satire ever gets (the haggling over the bribes, the man who somehow votes despite being dead). His early and energetic commitment to Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital did much to discourage the widespread practices of infant abandonment and murder. He also set an example to other artists by donating his portrait of Coram to the hospital — one of the finest portraits in British art. After that gesture, more and more enlightened people would start to think that there was no reason why a child deprived from birth of all opportunity should not be offered the sight of the greatest art. That would transform British society.

He was an original thinker about art, too. The Analysis of Beauty, his tract born of years of idiosyncratic thought, introduces the notion of underlying abstract forms, with his explanation of the serpentine line, the line of beauty. You can understand a lot about how perspective works from the glorious 1754 ‘Satire on False Perspective’ — cattle grow larger with distance, rather than smaller, and a man on a remote hill lights his pipe from a candle held out from a house in the foreground.

He did a great deal to professionalise the arts, with the founding of the first academies. He is always thought of as the most English of artists, with his robust humour, his mockery of overdressed foreign musicians, his praise of English beef and enjoyment of English drunkenness.

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