Reflecting on Hogarth’s political prints from Brexit Britain

Published 7 October 2019

William Hogarth revelled in the vanity and corruption of London’s rakes and harlots. But his Comic History paintings also draw sobering parallels with Britain’s political climate today, writes Simon Wilson.

  • William Hogarth was a painter, draughtsman, printmaker, satirist, social commentator, agitator, art entrepreneur, art theorist and art educator. In 1735 he established the St Martin’s Academy, a forerunner of the Royal Academy, presiding over it for the next 20 years or so. He is undoubtedly one of the great names of British art, but he was also a highly eccentric figure, at odds with his time, and his place in art history remains equivocal.

    Now, however, a fascinating new exhibition, Hogarth: Place and Progress, at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, takes a highly focused look at the group of works that lies at the very heart of his achievement, the sets of paintings that he called “Modern Moral Subjects”. By bringing together all surviving works in the series the exhibition enables us to see how significant that achievement was.

    Born into an age when art in England was wholly dependent on continental and classical models, Hogarth was a passionate advocate of an English art, rooted in English life and culture. In his desire to create a true English School, Hogarth had a major problem: the dominance of art by what was called ‘History’, otherwise known as ‘High Art’.

  • To remind us, History meant the painting (or sculpting) of subjects from classical history, classical myth or the Bible. Yet Hogarth’s problem was not exactly History painting itself, to which he aspired. It was that he was thwarted in this ambition by British collectors, who, for the most part, stubbornly sought out only examples from the genre’s original Renaissance creators and their successors. In this situation Hogarth’s stroke of genius was to reinvent History to refer not to the manners and mores of gods, heroes and prophets in a distant past in Greece, Rome and the Holy Land, but to the England of his day and the manners and mores of its people.

  • Hogarth’s stroke of genius was to reinvent History [painting] to refer not to the manners and mores of gods, heroes and prophets in a distant past... but to the England of his day and the manners and mores of its people.

    Simon Wilson

  • Having initially called these paintings “Modern Moral Subjects”, he later adopted the term “Comic History”, seeing that it made clearer his purpose – comic, in this context and at that time, meaning pertaining to the drama of everyday life. These works presented vivid, richly observed, enormously entertaining but brutally frank stories of contemporary life, which – while sparing no detail of, even revelling in, the follies and vices depicted – always ended up by drawing a moral.

    Hogarth had two further brilliant ideas: to create these dramas as sets of serial images – pictorial novels in effect – and then to reproduce his original oil paintings of them as prints that would reach a much wider market. It is of further significance that Hogarth engraved many of these prints himself; they constitute an important contribution to the history of original artist printmaking in Britain. Hogarth’s plates were reprinted and reprinted, to their detriment, but the exhibition illuminatingly includes rare early impressions that reveal their true quality.

  • William Hogarth, The Humours of an Election, II: Canvassing for Votes

    William Hogarth, The Humours of an Election, II: Canvassing for Votes, 1754-55.

    © Sir John Soane's Museum, London.

  • The two most famous of these series are A Harlot’s Progress, of 1732, now known only from the engravings as the paintings are lost, and A Rake’s Progress, of 1734, from which comes one part of the exhibition title. At that time, again, the term “progress” carried a slightly different meaning to that of today, of a moral or spiritual journey, and in Hogarth’s usage thus loaded with irony. Not the least original aspect of Hogarth’s Modern Moral Subjects is that these journeys are also very specifically through London, hence the term “place” in the exhibition title. A unique feature of Hogarth: Place and Progress is that it explores, through supporting topographical material, the settings of the stories.

    In the light of this, the venue of this exhibition itself, Sir John Soane’s Museum, is a stroke of curatorial brilliance. Located in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, this late-18th-century architectural jewel is a place of total enchantment, the home created for himself by another of Britain’s great eccentric geniuses, the architect John Soane RA.

  • A generation or more younger than Hogarth, he clearly recognised the painter as a kindred spirit. Soane acquired, at different times, two of the painted series of Modern Moral Subjects, A Rake’s Progress and The Humours of an Election, that by coincidence well represent the panoramic range of Hogarth’s social vision. The first illustrates in eight scenes the corrupting power of money on a young man who inherits a fortune. He dissipates it on fashionable living, whoring and gambling, and ends up insane and confined in Bethlem Hospital, known as Bedlam. The Humours of an Election presents in four scenes a savage satire of the corruption of the electoral system, and the immorality of politicians who put their own and party interests before those of the nation.

    The Humours of an Election has strong contemporary echoes; it reminds us that the fundamentals of human nature and human society that Hogarth targeted throughout the Modern Moral Subjects change very little, which is why his extraordinary evocations of his own time still speak so powerfully to us today.

    Simon Wilson is an art historian and columnist for RA Magazine.

    Hogarth: Place and Progress is at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London from 9 October – 5 January 2020.