Hogarth at Tate Britain

IAN COLLINS Let’s go to the pictures – to see work that might have inspired modern movies about low morals in high places. Ian Collins is knocked out by a Tate show of Hogarth prints and paintings.

IAN COLLINS

William Hogarth is a very English - and largely London - artist whose stormy times and savage works seem to pursue me wherever I go. At last, I understand why: I get the picture.

The clues to the life are clear enough. The Smithfield fair and market area of the City, where the satirist was born, in Bartholomew Close, in 1697, still carries a faint scent and flavour of his heyday - albeit ever less sourly and sharply, given the gentrification of recent decades.

Coffee was all the rage in his childhood, just as it is now. But when his dreamer-schemer father opened a coffee house in which customers had to speak Latin… a terrible morality tale was about to unfold.


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Richard Hogarth was soon declared bankrupt and, along with his whole family, carted off to the Fleet debtors' prison. William was 10 - and the next four years of semi-incarceration brought a lesson lasting all his life.

It was all about the importance of pride in proper work and the need to earn a living. Apprenticed to an engraver from the age of 15, he became a workaholic. At 20 he was setting up on his own - charting his own course and looking at the wobbly world around him with a very jaundiced eye.

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He studied at St Martin's Lane Academy, and worked for the famous painter James Thornhill (decorator of St Paul's Cathedral and the Royal Naval College in Greenwich) - before eloping with the master's daughter.

In 1729 the couple set up home in rakish Covent Garden - where all around the market there were theatres, print shops, coffee bars, tarts, peddlers, beggars and thieves. Hogarthian traces linger, at least in historic architecture, to this day.

Here he produced the six paintings that make up A Harlot's Progress - a pictorial saga of a country girl who comes to Cheapside only to be lured into prostitution and a swift spiral of success, disease, imprisonment and death.

Saucy, comic and tragic, the story proved a best-seller when released as mass-edition prints. They made the artist famous.

Acclaim, and growing fortune, allowed a move to fashionable Leicester Square. Today's queues at the cinemas for the most salacious and hoodlum blockbusters are modern Hogarth audiences, although morality and movie-making often seem poles apart.

Here, in what is now the heart of British film-land, the artist produced two more stupendous series of story-telling pictures.

The Rake's Progress follows young Tom Rakewell, who hits London bent on spending his family fortune in cutting a fashionable dash. And it is indeed a swift dash - via wine, women and song - from bed to Bedlam, ending up as a dribbling lunatic in the last image.

Then, at the height of his power in 1745, Hogarth produced Marriage-a-la-Mode.

Mocking both aristocratic decay and nouveau-riche vulgarity, the marriage pictures follow the consequences of an impoverished old earl who marries his wastrel son to a rich alderman's daughter.

The young marrieds move into the grand new house her dowry money has provided, furnished with hideous taste. Both descend into lives of debauchery (the husband leading his eager partner into wild ways that leave them both exhausted at breakfast).

A luxurious and lascivious life does for the wife in the end - though not before it has done in the husband.

Attended by a castrato singer and dance master, she is seen being wooed by her lawyer-cum-lover, Silvertongue, who whispers an invitation to a masked ball.

Then Silvertongue stabs the new earl in a fight over the countess, who dies diseased and penniless soon afterwards. The End. (Quick, send the script to Matt Damon, Johnny Depp and Cate Blanchett - and Bill Nighy could be brilliant as the old earl).

I have often enjoyed signs of the painter-printer's passion for the scenery of London and compassion - as witnessed in wonderful group portraits of his servants, now in the Tate, and the fact that he gave pictures to Captain Coram's Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury (just as Handel donated music).

I've loved visiting Hogarth's House in Chiswick - the “little chocolate box by the Thames” the artist chose for its quiet location out of London, but whose attractive gardens now give way to sprawling suburbia and the teeming Great West Road. The famous series of engravings can be savoured here for free.

Best of all is my beloved Sir John Soane's Museum in Holborn, whose picture gallery contains - cunningly concealed in panelling for rotational display - the eight original paintings of The Rake's Progress and the four for The Election. (Again entry is free.)

Ah, yes, politics. Hogarth's view of low morals in high places was shaped during the more than two-decade rule (almost a reign) of our first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole.

This Norfolk squire, who gave us the phrase “every man has his price”, and who gave himself Houghton Hall plus a picture collection fit for a National Gallery, was easily lampooned as he prevailed in office thanks to nepotism, cronyism, bribery and corruption.

He also steered us from war to the business of making money through commerce, which is a considerable improvement of course. If only Hitler, after failing as an artist, had merely longed to be a billionaire.

But what strikes me afresh and most forcefully at Tate Britain's magnificent Hogarth show - a riotous assembly already wowing Paris - is the terrible truth of the old cliché about power corrupting.

If the message of the pictures is ultimately sobering, the route via ink and pigment is an absolute hoot.

But before you head to London, a visit to Norwich Castle Museum is also good for a Hogarthian laugh. Here you'll find a picture called Francis Matthew Schutz in His Bed, an image commissioned by the sitter's (and spitter's) furious Norfolk wife.

Wanting to show her spouse the error of his drunken ways, Mrs S had him pictured in bed and vomiting into a chamber pot. On the wall hangs a very telling lyre - symbol for a sinner who hasn't kept his word on self-improvement hitherto.

But Francis Matthew's children had more respect for their dear old dad, so they had the study altered - casting him as a model of rectitude, who liked nothing better than to read a book in bed…

Recently the painting was restored, to remove the book and return the chamber pot. A photo hangs alongside of the work in its adultered state. I adore that Norfolk story. It's pure Hogarth.

t Hogarth is at Tate Britain until April 29. Open 10am to 6pm daily. Admission £10, concessions £8 (Entry to the permanent collection is free.)

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