Hogarth: A Life and a World
by Jenny Uglow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
William Hogarth was one of the greatest English men to live, or at least Jenny Uglow makes a very convincing case for this. After having finished this biography, I’m inclined to agree.
Uglow does exactly what a historian should do: she brings to life the world her subject lives in while exploring various themes that resonate with us today. She has a fitting subject in Hogarth. He was a talented and proud artist, perhaps even worthy of being called the grandfather of English art - definitely the first big English illustrator and painter. He was a self-made man, climbing his way up from simple origins, but never losing sight of where he came from. More impressively, he never completely bowed to the privileged who he relied on for the sales of his work. He built his reputation on taking down the arrogant and rich with his satirical illustrations, sometimes to the detriment of his career.
Hogarth lived through the first half of the 18th century and was instrumental in setting up two things that we now take for granted: arts academies (he set up St. Martin's Lane Academy, a precursor of the Royal Academy) and charities (he was one of Captain Thomas Coram’s main supporters in setting up the Foundling Hospital in 1741.) Jenny Uglow subtly compares Hogarth and Coram to each other, who were friends and represented the rise of a type of hardworking, rags-to-riches Englishmen who were also patriotic and compassionate. One of Hogarth's masterpieces, a portrait of Thomas Coram, hung at the hospital’s entrance, and even the hospital's first printed papers used a design by Hogarth on their header.
Uglow goes through every important work in Hogarth’s career (the book is filled with many images of them), explaining their context and importance. But what really grabbed me was the Enlightenment world he lived in. Sir Isaac Newton, Voltaire, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift were his contemporaries. Near the end of his life, Benjamin Franklin showed interest in his work. Other interesting facts and stories that crop up in the biography:
- English society was divided in three group types: prostitutes, people who used them and people who knew them. Venereal diseases were a major preoccupation and a central topic in the coffee shops that had just appeared in London and were all the rage. Prostitutes painted disease spots on their bodies with black ink, making them look like Dalmatians. They feature a lot in Hogarth's work.
- Homosexuality was acceptable in private. Male whorehouses, known as “Molly Houses”, were just as popular as their female equivalent, and although sodomy wasn’t legal, punishment wasn’t as severe as centuries later.
- There was a lot of singing all over London, all the time. The news was delivered through broadside ballads, which people bought in the morning on cheap paper and learnt the tune from the seller. They'd then walk away humming the tune, to memorise it, while learning the ballads to share with friends and family later, which could be about anything from love and religion to current political issues or disasters. This made me think of the explosion of popular music in Britain in the 20th Century and how it's actually something in the island’s blood.
- A “celebrity”, Mary Toft, fooled the great physicians of the time by making them believe she was giving birth to rabbits. She was a sort of ancestor to Darren Brown.
- A favourite past time of royalty in London was to come out and watch fires destroying homes, and even try to help put them out.
Just as I was finishing this biography, I stayed at a friend's in West London, not too far from Hogarth's Chiswick country home. It's now a museum worth visiting; you get an idea of where he escaped to when he needed a bit of countryside, and where he lived with his family towards the end of his life. A mulberry tree from his lifetime still stands in his garden. It was nice to see it and imagine whether Hogarth used to sit underneath it as he worked on his sketches.View all my reviews