Kind and generous as well as talented, William Hogarth immortalised the lives of London’s poorest, writes Peter Gruner
26 August, 2021 — By Peter Gruner
Self-Portrait of William Hogarth, 1732-5. Right: Gin Lane, ‘chaos, suffering and death’, 1751
THE scene is a pub in 18th-century Highgate. A fight has broken out, involving a lot of spilt blood, with two men bashing each other with large drinking tankards.
Suddenly, a young onlooker decides to take action. No, he’s not going to try and break up the brawl. Instead he pulls out a sketchpad and pencil and animatedly starts drawing the two combatants.
The artist is a young Billy Hogarth from Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square). It’s just one of the fascinating anecdotes in a new comprehensive book about William Hogarth, the artist and satirist, in Hogarth: Life in Progress, by former Islington resident, historian Dr Jacqueline Riding.
The pub (not named in the book) is thought to have been The Flask in West Hill, Highgate, which dates back to 1663 and has been serving beer for more than 300 years. The Hogarth incident is referred to on the pub’s history page.
In the fight blood is running down one chap’s face, and he’s obviously in pain. In fact he presents a “hideous grin” for the artist to quickly sketch. The story is a “superb illustration” of Hogarth’s habit of drawing wherever and whenever inspiration struck.
Not only did he capture the times with his portraits and satirical work, Hogarth was also a kind and generous man who supported many good causes. He donated to Bart’s in the City, Britain’s oldest hospital originally founded in 1123, and later to the Bloomsbury-based Foundling Hospital for unwanted or abandoned babies and children.
Most people have heard of Hogarth but few, me included, know a great deal about him. Riding admits information about him is often sketchy but her 500-page book contains a treasure trove of stories about his life.
Born in Clerkenwell in 1697, he lived for 66 years, which wasn’t bad for those days. His childhood home was not far from Smithfield where Scots hero William Wallace and Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, were executed.
Dr Jacqueline Riding
His father Richard, a former schoolteacher, was a man of many talents, including a speaker of Latin. He even opened a coffee house for Latin speakers at St John’s Gate. But Hogarth senior soon fell on hard times and in 1707 was imprisoned in Fleet prison for debt for three years. It would have been highly traumatic for young Billy, who years later drew upon his father’s experiences in a famous series of paintings called A Rake’s Progress.
Growing up, Billy was particularly proud of a distinctive long and deep facial scar above his right eye – the result of an accident in youth. He liked to think the scar suggested he might have been engaged in a noble battle.
“Our artist was many things,” Riding writes. “Loyal, kind jovial company,” particularly when entertaining friends at the Bedford Arms Tavern in Covent Garden. “But also chippy and at times easily affronted.”
Riding writes that Hogarth deals “very sympathetically” with London’s workers and street criers, particularly girls and women.
Sexual imagery, all very innocent compared with today, was often a popular theme, as in his two engravings Before and After (1736) show. “Before” shows a chap trying to seduce a young woman and After we see them now on the ground in apparent post-coital collapse.
Today, we worry about pollution and litter. What must it have been like in Hogarth’s time, living close to piles of rotting garbage and human excrement, with animal waste from Smithfield Market adding to the appalling stench?
Human waste would be carried by night soil men through the streets, and dumped in the Thames. Hogarth introduced a soil man at Charing Cross in the engraving Four Stages of Cruelty. The picture shows a rampaging ox tossing a man into the air in front of frantic herders.
Hogarth’s Gin Lane etching depicts the squalor and despair of a community raised on gin. It was set in St Giles, a notorious slum district that Hogarth depicted in several works. Desperation, death and decay pervade the scene. The only businesses that flourish serve the gin industry. Riding points out that the epidemic or “gin craze” was made possible due to the removal of licensing and the wholesale production of cheap drink using low-grade barley, unfit for brewing beer.
A struggling artist, Hogarth married Jane Thornhill in 1729, which was not received well by her father, the very distinguished royal historical artist Sir James. But within a few years, with Hogarth’s reputation rising, the two became a lot friendlier.
However, Hogarth faced much competition from other leading artists. He was commissioned to paint the royal family of George II. “He duly turned up at the chapel to sketch the assembly,” Riding writes, “but was very quickly and unceremoniously removed from the premises. “Apparently William Kent, now safely ensconced as royal painter, complained that Hogarth was encroaching on his territory.”
When Hogarth offered to paint Bart’s hospital staircase he discovered that the management were also considering another important artist, the Italian Amigoni. So Hogarth offered his services free and of course he got the job. In fact the management were so pleased that they even made him a hospital governor. Well, he was born at Bart’s after all.
But it was the newly created Foundling Hospital for abandoned children and babies, opened by Thomas Coram in 1741, where Hogarth gave his heart and mind.
Babies in those times were being abandoned to die in the streets by parents unable to cope. Hogarth not only donated money to the venture, he also painted Coram’s portrait, which hung inside the charity’s first temporary building at Hatton Garden and later at Bloomsbury. “He also designed the institution’s coat of arms – the multi-breasted Venus (symbol of nature) alongside Britannia and a naked infant, the motto simple and powerful ‘Help’.”
Big question: Who should play Hogarth should they make a film from Riding’s book?
The author said: “I think Robert Pugh would make an excellent older Billy, with Mark Stanley – he was Clarkson Stanfield in Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner – as Billy the Younger.” Dr Riding helped research Mr Turner, which starred Timothy Spall.
“Whoever it is they would need to balance the kindness and good humour with a lurking danger,” said Riding.
Hogarth died in 1764 and was buried at St Nicholas’s Church, Chiswick. His friend, actor David Garrick, composed the following inscription for his tombstone:
“Farewell great Painter of Mankind
Who reach’d the noblest point of Art
Whose pictur’d Morals charm the Mind
And through the Eye correct the Heart.”
- Hogarth: Life in Progress. By Jacqueline Riding. Profile Books, £30