No one captured the image of Georgian England better or more succinctly than the artist William Hogarth (1697-1764).
He was a social critic and moralist whose work ranged from traditional portraiture, to etchings, caricatures, and storyboard style morality tales that have since earned him the reputation as the first sequential artist and his most famous pieces include the Rake’s Progress and Gin Lane.
Much of our modern day perceptions of the Georgian Era and the great social divide that so marked it come from the images of Hogarth and the beautifully crafted words of the novelist, Jane Austen.
Hogarth was born the son of an often unemployed and impoverished Latin teacher who was to spend five years in Fleet Prison for debt following the failure of his idea for a Latin themed Coffee Shop, the shame of which the later successful William would refuse to acknowledge or ever speak about.
At the time, and despite the difficulties that ensued, it meant little to the talented young William desperate to pursue a career as an artist and fascinated by the city of his birth – London.
He would walk its streets sketching its people, its markets, its fairs, its great social gatherings. It was a monster, the greatest metropolis on earth, a place of splendour and filth in equal measure whose streets said to be paved with gold were in fact covered in sewerage, that made the fortunes of some but ruined the lives of many more.
Though William was soon to be recognised as a talented artist and was earning commissions from wealthy patrons for traditional art works it would always be in the street life of his youth that his passion remained.
In 1731 he painted the Harlot’s Progress, a series of six paintings that depicted the downfall of Moll Hackabout, a naive young girl from the country who was to fall in with a bad crowd and be seduced into a life of prostitution.
It was to prove a great success and four years later was followed by the Rake’s Progress which was the similar story of Tom Rakewell, the son of a wealthy provincial merchant who coming to London is corrupted by its vices and squanders his fortune on sex and drink and other debaucheries before spending time in Debtor’s Prisons and finally ending up in Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane.
A critic of the Government of Sir Robert Walpole much of Hogarth’s middle years were to be spent satirising the iniquities of “Cock Robin’s” Administration, though careful not to alienate those he relied upon for his livelihood he did so in pictures rather than words – it was better to criticise with humour than oppose on the hustings.
He is perhaps most famous now for his etchings inveighing against the evils of alcohol such as Gin Lane and Beer Street, not that Hogarth himself was by any means teetotal.
His close friend the novelist and magistrate Henry Fielding, who along with his blind half-brother John was to found the Bow Street Runners, the first recognisable police force, was to distribute the Hogarth’s images of drink-sodden London in his campaign to restrict the availability of gin (Mother’s Ruin) and price it out of the reach of the common people.
Though Hogarth is viewed now as a political artist, in particular his paintings of violent and corrupt electioneering, fraudulent financial shenanigans, and the iniquities of the justice system, his art was used more by others for political point-scoring than himself. He merely cast a critical eye.
He died on 26 October 1764, a rich, famous, much-lauded and well-connected old man.
The eulogy at his funeral was read by the famous Shakespearean actor David Garrick who also composed the epitaph 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 connect the Heart.