Martin Gayford

Ignore the wall text and focus on the magnificent paintings: Tate Britain’s Hogarth and Europe reviewed

Plus: the most significant painter at work in Britain between Turner and Francis Bacon is on show at Piano Nobile

Source for Hogarth’s Harlot? ‘The Flea’, 1707–1709 by Giuseppe Maria Crespi. Credit: Uffizi Gallery

There are, perhaps, two types of exhibition visitor. Those who read the texts on the walls and those who don’t. Personally, I instinctively tend towards the latter group, which is no doubt often my loss. In the case of Hogarth and Europe at Tate Britain, however, ignoring all the verbiage would be a huge advantage.

This concentrates with anxious obsessiveness on the topics of empire and slavery (with a little condemnation of sexism on the side) and has infuriated several of my colleagues: ‘wokeish drivel’ (Sunday Times), ‘non-aperçus — which range from the crass to the asinine’ (New Statesman), ‘some quite drastic misreadings’ (Observer). Well, I’m not going to dissent from any of those judgments. But on the other hand, if you just look at the pictures hung on the walls, you will find a magnificent sequence of works by Hogarth and also by his contemporaries in France, Italy and the Netherlands.

These carry an interesting art historical implication. Hogarth has branded himself as sturdily insular: a bluff British artist with a patriotic antipathy to all things foreign and particularly French. He gave trenchant visual expression to such feelings in the ‘O, the Roast Beef of Old England or “Gate of Calais”’ (1748), with its ragged, starving soldiers, obese and rapacious friar and other signs of continental misrule (‘a compendium of xenophobic stereotypes’ as Tate puts it).

This line of Hogarth’s was however extremely economical with the verité. The painter was well aware of the artistic world of Paris. Indeed, the magnificent joint of meat in this picture looks very much like a still life by Chardin, whom Hogarth had met in Paris (as the catalogue points out).

Nor did Hogarth have only French connections. In Amsterdam, there was Cornelis Troost, a painter with an intriguingly similar approach already known in the 18th century as the ‘Dutch Hogarth’.

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