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William Hogarth

Books: Is Hogarth the greatest British artist of all time?

Three publications illuminate the subject of Tate Britain’s major exhibition

It used to be that exhibitions inspired publications. Perhaps the best example is the Reynolds show at the Royal Academy 20 years ago which inspired a continuing flow of monographs, including a catalogue raisonné, as well as many other studies. Now, in a bid to increase sales and use the bandwagon of marketing only available to the organisers of blockbuster exhibitions, books are published to coincide with shows. Three such books are under review here: a gallery-­published monograph written some time ago, the catalogue of the Hogarth exhibition at Tate Britain (until 29 April) and a weightier wider-ranging study that will stand the test of time and may prove to be the show’s greatest legacy.

The iconographic content of Hogarth’s works has encouraged much analysis, often from those with a literary rather than an art-historical background. Matthew Craske’s short study, part of the series of concise, attractive monographs produced by Tate Publishing, examines a series of themes in Hogarth’s works relating them to current political and intellectual thought. They present the artist as a man of his time, and reinforce the notion of the popular ­constraining label, “Age of Hogarth”.

The second book, the ­catalogue to an exhibition that has already been shown to great acclaim in Paris and, after its run at Tate Britain, will transfer to Madrid, provides an attractive introduction to the artist’s work. It includes a ­balanced range of prints and paintings; indeed there are few major works by the artist that are omitted, though, sadly for the specialist, there are also few surprises. Christine Riding and Mark Hallett, writing in an engaging style, provide entries that coax the visitor to study the exhibits with greater ­concentration. Dr Hallett and his French colleagues, Frédéric Ogée and Olivier Meslay,

provide introductory essays. Works by Hockney, Rego and Shonibare inspired by the The Rake’s Progress provide a prelude to the exhibition, a theme that may have been better studied in a separate show. It is an elegant production but one that has a clear face value.

There is no feeling of déjà vu in the third book under review. For a study that at first appears to examine a limited range of Hogarth’s output, Robin Simon’s monograph is the most expansive of the three books examined here and contains information that has a bearing on the whole period. The product of 40 years consideration, it is written with authority and originality, using many new images and ideas. The author couples his understanding of Hogarth with an extensive knowledge of French art, English literature, theatre and opera, and he demonstrates that the satirist’s attitudes were formed as a reaction to the influences and attitudes that surrounded him and to those that were deemed superior across the channel. Contacts were provided in Paris by the raft of creative Huguenot geniuses that had ­settled in London after having been driven out of France in 1685. Hogarth was conscious of the superiority of so much French talent, not least amongst their engravers, a skill that Hogarth could and did exploit. As a figure with wide interests and razor-sharp intelligence who prided himself in knowing all that there was to know, he was conscious of his responsibility to establish a British school of painting. He shaped its ­direction through an understanding of the strengths and ­weaknesses in parallel organisations and events in France. Addressing the near absence of official commissions in Britain, he developed other strategies, most famously his “modern moral subjects”; contemporary histories, as they have been described.

The second section of the book examines the artist’s ­reaction to other disciplines. Dr Simon does not shy from ­finding visual sources for Hogarth’s ideas amongst contemporary images and the work of old masters. The originality of the Progresses becomes apparent once one realises that they ­predate the novels of Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson. His ­abilities to illustrate exact lines in plays by John Gay or ­contemporary adaptations from Shakespeare illustrate his ­comprehension of the dramatic moment. Fed by contemporary sculptural practice, the immediacy he brought to portraiture flies in the face of the traditional poise and ­decorum of established portrait painting. Details in his work reflect the reaction against Italian opera in the 1730s and the wit and detailing in some of his portrait groups shows a full appreciation of the ribaldry in some parts of 18th-century society.

The production of the book fails to live up to the importance of Dr Simon’s contribution. Segregating the colour plates (sometimes of muddy quality) is old fashioned and the use of a single column of text makes the book unnecessarily difficult for the reader. But it is a book, unlike the others, that with its wealth of illustrations helps to explain Hogarth’s genius and demonstrates his extraordinary legacy. Robin Simon’s conclusion is that Hogarth is “one of the most spectacular painters—perhaps the very finest—that Britain has produced”, and after reading his book this statement is very persuasive.

o “Hogarth”, Tate Britain, until 29 April

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The greatest British artist of all time?'