Hogarth at Tate Britain

    Make lots of time for the Hogarth show at Tate Britain. There’s so much going on in it. You’ll be there for hours, following its story lines, identifying its cast, marvelling at their indiscretions, enjoying Hogarth’s cheek and working out who is doing what to whom, and with what. But leave time also for some tut-tutting over Hogarth’s less endearing aspects. There are issues of racism, sexism and extreme scatology to weigh up as well. Since the show itself has avoided all those, you certainly should not.

    Art historians tend to sound prissy on the subject of Hogarth’s rank as they try to position him exquisitely as “the first truly modern native artist” and all that. The most obvious truth about him is that he was the first great displayer of unmistakable Britishness in art. With Hogarth, a set of qualities and attitudes forced its way into the visual arts that could only have come from here. And, as I’ve already noted, that wasn’t always a good thing.

    The Tate has organised his occasionally scary native outpourings rather cleverly. Who would have believed a Hogarth display might profitably commence with a room focusing on the hugely difficult theoretical tome he published in 1753, The Analysis of Beauty? I have had several goes at finishing this treatise, and failed. It is not only its mannered 18th-century linguistic tedium that dissuades me but, more critically, my lack of faith in its insights. Beauty is simply not a topic on which Hogarth is a convincing authority. The sexual appetites of priests, yes. The indiscretions of the rich, yes. Cruelty, yes. Fun-poking, yes. But the theoretical basis of a universal beauty, no. The show sidesteps this by reducing Hogarth’s laboured ideas on the subject to a single useful equation: beauty = variety. It’s a useful thought because it allows the journey, which is magnificently varied, to appear to be following the artist’s own agenda. Which it isn’t.

    Hogarth’s early life was grim. His father was a dotty dreamer who sank his money into – get this – a London coffee house in which the clients were expected to speak Latin. For some reason, it failed. And the Hogarths found themselves living in debtors’ lodgings near Fleet Prison. Raised on a potent gruel of poverty, jealousy, fear, suspicion, mistrust and ruthlessness, little William Hogarth, who was born in 1697, was in immediate need of his gallows humour. He trained as an engraver, and engraving in the English manner is an excellent vehicle for taking pops at people. Witness the hilarious early print about the Freemasons, in which a group of glowing wise men in ridiculous Oriental robes lead a parade through the streets of England, with their Grand Master having his arse kissed by a novitiate. Apparently, these are Hogarth’s observations on “the mysterious rites of masonic initiation as exercises in sodomitical arse worship”.

    A few prints after the Freemasons, he pounces on the case of Mary Tofts, who claimed, in 1726, to have given birth to some rabbits. Hogarth shows Tofts being inspected in her bedroom by the fashionable French doctors who backed up her claim, and by the celebrated male midwife Sir Richard Manningham, who can be seen groping happily under Tofts’s skirt and exclaiming: “It pouts, it swells, it spreads, it comes.” Nobody will ever have any difficulty tracing a direct line of descent from Hogarth’s engravings to the modern Sun headline. As Manningham thrusts his arm under the nightshirt of the spread-eagled Tofts, his caption reads: “The occult Philosopher searching into the Depth of Things.”

    Engraving taught Hogarth how to be an amusing story-teller, how to pack his pictures with characters, incidents and details, how to be outrageously rude and, perhaps, how to churn stuff out. When he took up painting, in the 1730s, he continued this approach. Among the earliest of his paintings is a startling two-parter, Before and After, showing an amorous couple in a wood. In the first picture, a charming gentleman is sweet-talking an innocent country girl. In the second, he has raped her and lies slumped at her side, his slimy tackle hanging out of his breeches. Is this the first representation in British art of pubic hair?

    Working in series in that way was new in art and certainly suited Hogarth’s talent. The famous painted cycles he produced next, the six-part Harlot’s Progress and the eight-part Rake’s Progress, unfold like a novel in chapters. They are invariably described as moral tales, because they warn of the misfortunes that befall the harlot, Moll Hackabout, and the rake, Tom Rakewell. But there’s a complication. The prints that were made of these deliciously scabrous pictorial cycles were not aimed at the man in the street. They cost one shilling a time, which was considerably more than the common man could spare. Only the privileged could afford to enjoy the sight of themselves being mocked by Hogarth.

    He’s guilty, therefore, of a complex form of complicity. When he has a pop at a notorious rake for fondling one of his maids, or at the members of a drinking club for boozing themselves senseless, the suspicion remains that he isn’t actually delivering a stinging reprimand, but involving himself in some convoluted bonding. The real and unmistakable hatred on show here is directed at pretentious Frenchmen and silly Italians. And the writer David Dabydeen was certainly right to be dismayed by Hogarth’s treatment of black people, who get lumped in with the fashionable foreign trinkets and sniggered at as signs of exotic decadence.

    So far, all this, although impeccably paced and cleverly presented, doesn’t strike you as particularly new. Hogarth’s output is familiar. The Tate showed much of this work in the last big Hogarth show, in 1997. But that stops being true in the fabulous collection of conversation pieces, many borrowed from American collections, that arrives next as continuing proof of his variety. The conversation piece was a delightful invention of English 18th-century art in which a family of aristocrats, or a bunch of friends, was shown together in an informal group portrait. Conversation pieces depicted a conversation taking place, but had hidden ambitions to start another one: this was art that set out to be talked about.

    Hogarth was a master of the genre. He knew exactly how to engage your interest with astute characterisations and naughty details. Captain Lord George Graham in His Cabin shows the captain attempting to slouch in the manner of an important admiral, but his effort at confidence is subtly undermined by the chap bringing in the food, who spills gravy down the back of a friend’s coat. In the so-called Hervey Conversation Piece, one of the friends of John, Baron Hervey is tipping a priest into the river with a surreptitious poke of his walking stick. It’s naughty, delightful, irreverent and interestingly difficult to understand.

    Having given itself permission to go everywhere in Hogarth’s oeuvre by coming up with the variety theme, the show makes a decent fist of covering all his achievements. When he turned to the grand style of portraiture in the 1740s, he ended up being spectacularly good at it. Middle-aged men were his unusual speciality. His masterpiece in the genre, the magnificent full-length of Captain Thomas Coram, the kindly founder of the Foundling Hospital, shows one of those bluff, solid, red-cheeked Englishmen who are the human equivalent of a Sunday roast. Hogarth is good at children, too, and at full-bodied English wives, whose healthy rosiness he admires and whose rural sexiness he hints at. This is brilliant and highly original portraiture.

    The other less familiar aspect of Hogarth that the show attempts to big up is his history painting: the religious scenes and Shakespearian moments with which he attempted to climb the artistic hierarchy. Various large claims are made for this corner of his output. But I’m afraid I remain unconvinced. Having made the trek on several occasions to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, near Smithfield, where Hogarth’s most ambitious wall painting, of Christ healing the sick at the Pool of Bethesda, remains in situ, I know for a fact that he was good at lepers and bad at Christs.