LONDON — The painter William Hogarth, chief English chronicler of the messy, lubricious, howling turbulence of London life in the mid-18th century, was, unsurprisingly perhaps, one among many on the European scene. 

Well of course he was! Why would painters of other European nationalities show any degree of restraint when the same trodden-down and besmirched human material was ripe for intense and thrilling scrutiny in all its minute particularities? These are painters roaming wide and free, having thrown off the shackles of aristocratic patronage.

By this I am speaking of the whole uproarious gamut of subjects on view in Hogarth and Europe, an exhibition of prints, paintings, and a few sculptures currently on view beside a sullenly gray autumnal Thames at Tate Britain. The subject matter ranges from a print of a sad wretch street-peddling a mawkishly sensationalistic poem about some freshly hanged man to a painting showing off some just-a-tad-more-than-a-leg madam in a boudoir; from chamber pots serving as vomit bowls to displaced wigs and drunkenly swinging tavern signage. 

William Hogarth, “Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants” (c. 1750-55), Tate

All this serves to set William Hogarth the Londoner among his continental friends and rivals who were working in Amsterdam, Paris, Venice, and elsewhere. They didn’t half move around, these self-employed artists/entrepreneurs. Hogarth skipped off to the Continent; Canaletto, bored by reprising yet another Grand Canal-side scene of Venice for those puffed-out, sedan-chaired idlers on the Grand Tour, decamped to Beak Street in London to sprinkle a bit of his visual magic in the direction of unsuspecting English clients. 

And in so doing they learnt all the tricks of the trade from each other — how to ramp up the excitement by making a painting look like a theater set, for example. Or they stole each others’ poses. And they all, of course, agreed to agree that human life was a stinking and dirty business once you had skimmed the froth off the top.

William Hogarth, “Miss Mary Edwards” (1742), The Frick Collection, New York (photo by Joe Coscia Jr.)

To get to the heart of what Hogarth really thought about himself and those who immediately surrounded him, you need to look at just three of what feel like hundreds of his paintings in this show — there is so much, in fact a wearisome amount, of documentation on display in this exhibition. 

Here, for example, is Hogarth’s “Self-Portrait” of 1745, showing off a studiedly unglamorous man of middling age who is staring at himself in the mirror. He is in the company of his dog, a pug, together with a few books — he rests his arm on them rather unceremoniously, as if merely to ratchet his elbow up to the just-so height — along with a palette and a pipe. This is a man who has no particular wish to self-preen or puff himself up. It’s a take-me-as-I-am sort of a portrait, as different in feel from another self-portrait also on display, by his Dutch contemporary Cornelis Troost, as you could ever wish to see. 

Troost’s is of a painter staring into a mirror too, but this Lowlander is dressed to the nines in a powdered periwig, and he looks very pleased with himself, making quite a lot of his own handsomeness. Yes, it’s undeniable, he is fairly handsome, but you cannot help but feel that he may have flattered himself in the depiction, too, by improving himself slightly. Is that not a dab of rouge on his hectic cheek? 

William Hogarth, “The Painter and His Pug” (1745), Tate

Not so Hogarth. Pudgy-faced Hogarth even seems to wish to make a bit of a show of the scar on his forehead — how did he come by such a scar? Others painters would have been more than tempted to smooth it away. And consider this pug of his, too. It is not a fashionable creature by any means. It’s not a poser of a dog like one of those silly, brainless King Charles’ spaniels, which so often seem to be yapping around the painfully wasted legs of Stuart monarchs. It is merely a solid sitter of a creature that looks most of all like a dependable companion of a dog. What is more, it is almost as big as its master, and therefore not a mere adjunct. 

There are other details worth noting, too: see how splendidly gilded and fussily ornamented is the mirror in which Troost decides to show himself off. And his painting palette, too, so much more glamorous than Hogarth’s dull, brown, workaday effort. And the fine bristle and shine of Troost’s brushes! And the range of excitable colors he promises to deal in! It’s the case of the jobbing painter happily doffing his cap to the glitzy socialite.

The other two paintings by Hogarth worth taking a long, hard look at depict his sisters, Mary and Anne, and they were both painted around 1740. These two are good, solid working women — they owned their own shop. He paints them without fuss or flourish. They are evidently prosperous (they both wear a string of pearls around their necks), but he does not talk up their looks or their prosperity by trying to suggest they are something that they are not or by setting them in the eye-beguiling company of expensive frippery. It is a long, level stare into what looks and feels like the unvarnished truth of the matter.

William Hogarth, “Marriage A-la-Mode: 2, The Tête à Tête” (1743-45) (© The National Gallery, London)

This is not to say that Hogarth was a particularly virtuous man, free of racism or colonial taint, or other forms of viciousness or skullduggery. This show goes to great pains to demonstrate that he is not, pulling in outside interpreters to make it clear to us what a blackguard he was. And it is all true — he was often no better than the worst of them. He also happens to have been a great painter of all that was flying back and forth through the mayhem of the streets of London, from the happy boozers sozzling their fragile lives away in Gin Lane to the scheming rat of a lawyer finely bedizened in his frock coat. So unpretty. So morally repugnant. So enthralling.  

Hogarth and Europe continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, London, England) through March 20, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Alice Insley, Curator, British Art c. 1730–1850 and Martin Myrone, former Senior Curator, pre-1800 British Art, Tate Britain. 

Michael Glover

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times,...