William Hogarth As Chronicler

Hogarth’s position as a chronicler is indisputably higher than his place as an artist. In the latter respect Sir David Wilkie, who painted similar subjects in the following century, is easily his superior; but Wilkie never attained the infinite variety, the humour, pathos, and satire, which stamp Hogarth’s pictures as mirrors of contemporary life. His purview was a wide one, embracing various ranks and aspects of society, but dealing in an especial manner with poor and ” middle-class ” people and with more or less humble surroundings. His works constitute in the aggregate a vivid picture of eighteenth-century life and eighteenth-century London; and what a life, and a London, it was 1 If the majority of his paintings deal with humanity’s less-virtuous side ; if some of them are, indeed, so coarsely-conceived as to revolt the finer susceptibilities of to-day, it must be remembered that they were the product and reflection of a coarse and vicious age, whose aspect could only be faithfully transferred to canvas by preserving what was typical of the vice as well as the virtue of that time. If we glance cursorily at the history of Hogarth’s period, we shall find his pictorial narrative as true in its general features as are the pages of ” Joseph Andrews ” and ” Peregrine Pickle.” What Fielding and Smollett did in literature, Hogarth accomplished with his burin and brush. They were all the offspring of a gross and corrupt age ; and each has left us, as the result of his genius, a legacy of intimate acquaintance with the character, the habits, and the customs of the time. From the Court downwards, English society was permeated with avarice, corrupt practices, and offences against virtue of a more specific character. The two monarchs who occupied the throne during Hogarth’s lifetime, George I. and George II., were alike in respect of their personal vices ; they were if anything less worthy to bear England’s saintly name than the fourth gentleman so denominated. With such a lead from the throne, it is small wonder that political and social circles became equally infected with licence and corruption, the dregs of which, filtering through intervening grades, at length joined the natural coarseness of the mob, with results which only Hogarth’s pencil could truthfully depict. As a ruling force the King was a mere puppet. Sir Robert Walpole pulled the strings of state and practically controlled the political destinies of his country—a bullying, coarse-minded man, against whom a verdict of guilty was found by the House of Commons on the charge of ” notorious corruption ” ! Bribery was openly practised in political life. Votes and heads were alike split in consideration of coin of the realm, and it may safely be said that the result of scarcely any election represented the honest convictions of the majority. Society took its cue from the Court and Parliament. An imperfect morality held sway among the nobles and the gentry. Drunkenness and gambling, if not actually counted as virtues, were at least so commonplace that they became as a natural part of existence. Libellous pamphleteers and vulgar cranks, among whom John Wilkes was a typical light, poisoned the minds and inflamed the prejudices of the ignorant. Controversy resolved itself into coarse satire and ribald jest. Humour and respectability were broadly divorced. Cruelty to animals and children reigned unpunished. It was an age of social and moral decadence, and the national honour was shaken to its foundations.

Such was the picture which presented itself to Hogarth in his adult years. His gift of natural observation, added to his deft portraiture and sense of humour, equipped him splendidly for the task of setting down a permanent record of life and its incidents. He had as a boy drawn hastily the contorted visage of the toper bleeding from a pot-house wound ; he was now to draw contortions originating in malice, in passion, in evil purpose and suggestion. The smiling companions of his school-days, whom he had so often sketched for amusement, were to find their continuation in the merry crowds thronging the fair at Southwark, or among the faces of The Laughing Audience. His genius sought inspiration in a wide -field : in high and low life ; among ale-house brawlers and scheming politicians ; with Industry striving at the loom and Idleness gambling at the grave’s-head. At Hogarth’s magic touch the king’s. soldiers leap to life and action ; the rumbling stage leaves the inn-yard ; the “tried and true” electors return their candidate. Now we are in the streets at early morning, or witnessing a scene of midnight revelry. We penetrate to the poor poet’s dwelling, the palatial home of my Lady the Countess, the court of ill-balanced justice, the maniac’s cell, the miser’s parlour—wherever an aspect of life presented itself which the artist desired to portray. And in this extensive panorama are humorous or pathetic details, attaching to individual figures, of such multitude and variety that it is almost impossible to drink in the fullness of any one picture until it has been searched again and again. A tiny scrap of paper, or neglected trinket upon the floor, may convey its important meaning to the whole scene; or the pointed finger of a seemingly-obscure character in a public crowd directs the eye to some piece of excellent fooling. This plenitude of intention adds naturally to the interest of many of Hogarth’s pictures, which show us not only a group or a crowd of men and women, but on scrutiny give to every individual figure an independent action and at the same time a definite relationship to the whole composition. If Hogarth lacked frequently that “infinite capacity for taking pains” which has been proclaimed the constituent of genius, there can be no question as to the thoroughness with which the smallest details were thought out and incorporated. Taking his many works together, remarkably few details appear incongruous to the subjects. In the duel scene in Marriage d-la-mode the Watch is perhaps too speedily introduced, and it has been objected that the girl who releases the Rake from his custodians in Scene IV. could hardly have produced her gold in such an unlooked-for contingency. The fact, however, that criticism so precise can only point to a few isolated in-stances of this kind, is in itself testimony enough to the consistent faithfulness of Hogarth’s treatment. Facial and personal exaggeration, it is true, characterizes hundreds of his figures ; but a caricature is not necessarily unfaithful. It has been amply demonstrated that Hogarth as a chronicler was thoroughly accurate, and with only the natural bias of a disposition at war with crime and injustice.

An objection raised against the value of Hogarth’s pictures as complete presentments of their time is, that whereas he only painted scenes of human frailty and misfortune, there existed a virtuous aspect even in the society of that degenerate age ; consequently that at best he is only an ex parte chronicler. To this it must be answered that, first of all, the view is hardly accurate ; secondly, that Hogarth’s value as a recorder of life is not necessarily lessened because he painted only those aspects of society which he desired to assail. To depict every side of London’s vitality would indeed have been a Herculean task Hogarth depicted pathos, virtue, and innocence ; but just as these were the possessions of com paratively few, so they occur infrequently in his pictures. Yet when they do occur the examples are touching and dignified. The wife of The Distressed Poet supplies an instance where Hogarth delineates an industrious and virtuous woman, whose expression, to quote Lamb’s words, is “sweetly conciliatory,” one of the tenderest faces ever created by the painter. In The March to Finchley are several groups of virtuous domesticity. In particular, note the pretty child who turns in its mother’s arms, attracted by the performance of the drummer, whose own tearful wife lends an element of pathos to the scene. And for sheer abandonment of grief, what can equal the disconsolate child in Noon, whose pie-dish, too forcefully rested upon a wayside post, breaks in twain and serves the meal to Fate for a libation ! Search where we will through the abundant out-put of Hogarth’s genius, similar rewarding pieces of detail and portraiture will be found. These have all their place and purpose, their degree of importance and true relation, in the scenes thus easily and realistically described. It is, then, as a pictorial chronicler that Hogarth has chief claim upon the admiration of posterity. In this respect his works are a perpetual source of interest and instruction.