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Mark Hallett & Christine Riding
 With Contributions by Olivier  Meslay, Frédéric  Ogée & Tim Batchelor

 London: Tate Enterprises, 2006.
264 p. ISBN 1854376969 (Hardback) £39.99; 1854376626 (Paperback) £29.99.


Reviewed by Antoine Capet



If the suspicion remains in some minds that exhibition catalogues are ad hoc affairs, with little permanent value, it will be dispelled by this magnificent, international cooperative enterprise. It must be said that Hogarth (1697-1764) poses particular problems of interpretation. If it is true of all works of art that they require contextual comments to be fully appreciated, it seems to be even more true of Hogarth. Moreover, many of his works, like “The Times” (two prints, 1762-1763), present “myriad details” (to take up the authors’ vocabulary [233]) whose elucidation enhances our understanding and enjoyment of the scene depicted. The tools of the commentators, curators and authors of a Hogarth exhibition catalogue are naturally those of the historian of art—but they have to be seriously supplemented in his case by those of the cultural, social and political historian.
Hence perhaps Hogarth’s special place (arguably with that of Gillray) in “British Studies”—that loose expression which aims to cover not only history in the strict acceptation of the word, but also the wider “cultural” environment: literature, the fine arts, music on the one hand, with “the history of thought” and all its practical derivatives on the other (from political theory to actual political mores; from moral theories—notably the various Protestant forms of the Judaeo-Christian ethical tradition in Britain—to actual everyday mores in the various classes of society). We sense that full appreciation and enjoyment of Hogarth’s prints and paintings—their visual “impact” and “meaning”—can only be achieved by full mastery of all these components of “British Studies.” This is of course an ideal, and as such it will probably never be achieved by anyone, but this Catalogue, largely thanks to its cooperative nature, it can be supposed, goes a long way to approaching it. Many of Hogarth’s prints, like John Wilkes Esq. (etching with engraving on paper, 1763), are often used to “illustrate” history text books—whereas it should be for history books to “illustrate” his works. They generally do not, and it is left to “mere” catalogues like Hogarth to fulfill that function, which it does admirably.

Now, the first quality that one expects of a book of this nature is the technical quality of the reproductions. This is the proverbial necessary, if not sufficient, condition. The first thing that one notices, with great pleasure, is that the continuing, extremely irritating practice of reproducing paintings as black-and-white photographs has no place in the Catalogue: as far as I could ascertain, all original works in colour are reproduced in colour. We can incidentally note the progress since the days of the first great illustrated monograph by Ronald Paulson in 1971. In Hogarth : His Life, Art, and Times all we have is four colour plates, of doubtful fidelity to the colour balance of the original. All are in volume I; in volume II, even the frontispice (captioned Self-Portrait with Pug—Hogarth has The Painter and his Pug [1745]) is in black-and-white.1
So, Hogarth respects the original medium of the works: the prints are “naturally” in black-and-white and the paintings are equally “naturally” in colour. Needless to say, the technology of colour reproductions has made great strides since 1971; still, many of Hogarth’s paintings are a challenge to the printers because he often likes to leave important, even essential, details in the shade, in the literal sense. One case in point is the series of four oils on canvas entitled The Four Times of the Day (1736), with Morning in Covent Garden, Noon in Soho, Evening in Islington and Night in Charing Cross. Even Noon, which logically benefits from the light of day, has a number of details in the shade—which are unfortunately barely visible on the Catalogue [132]. The technical difficulty becomes even worse with Morning [131]—which is in fact very early morning, before dawn, at seven, in winter—and Night, in which the painter not unexpectedly tries to render the nocturnal atmosphere in spite of the presence of a slightly clouded full moon [134]. To compound the difficulty, Hogarth has a number of barely legible inscriptions in dark paint on a dark background, like “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi” below the clock on St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden or “The New Bagnio” in Night. To lose the philosophical comment in Morning and the allusion to the brothel (because this is the meaning of “Bagnio” in the context) in Night is of course to miss a lot—and these are only two examples among many.
It must be said that the colour reproductions in Hogarth are of very high quality, but they unfortunately often fail to render all these capital details—perhaps it is in fact impossible to obtain perfect fidelity if only because of the inevitable reduction in size. For instance, the portrait of the celebrated philanthropist, Captain Thomas Coram (oil on canvas, 1740), measures c. 240 x 150 cm in real size. Taking full advantage of the large size of the Catalogue (c. 30 x 23 cm), and allowing for the minimum margins, the reproduction measures c. 26 x 16 cm—a reduction factor of almost ten. Inevitably, some of the detail must be lost. One of my favourite Hogarth paintings happens to be O The Roast Beef of Old England (The Gate of Calais) (c. 80 x 95 cm, oil on canvas, 1748), but the elaborate composition necessarily leaves the zones under the arch in the shade and they are extremely difficult to reproduce accurately, often making the ray-fish on the left and the meagre pittance of the Jacobite Scot on the right almost invisible.2
Finally—we could of course multiply this kind of examples, but our point is made—one could also mention the “myriad details” of the  four scenes of The Election (all c. 100 x 130 cm, oil on canvas, 1754-1755), some of which are probably impossible to reproduce adequately. Still, when one compares Morning in Hogarth and Morning in Hogarth: His Life, Art, and Times (one of the four colour plates), one is struck by the difference: in the earlier reproduction, one does not even see that there is an inscription below the clock—whose hands are also almost totally invisible. All in all, then, and bearing in mind the limitations due to size, Hogarth probably offers the best quality currently available in the field of colour printing.

The necessary condition of excellent printing quality being met, the reader can concentrate on the text proper—a cooperative enterprise, as already underlined. After the useful Foreword by Stephen Deuchar, the current Director of Tate Britain, who pertinently reminds us of the evolution in the perception of Hogarth—at least among specialists and art historians—since the last great exhibition of his works at the Tate, in 1971,3 we have a welcome contextual introduction, “Hogarth’s Variety” by Professor Mark Hallett of York University, one the two main co-authors of the book, and co-curator of the Tate exhibition, which starts with “Variety,” the title of one of the chapters of Hogarth’s theoretical treatise of 1753, The Analysis of Beauty, and also the motto which figures under the famous serpentine “Line of Beauty” which illustrates the title page. Facing this page of text, we have a superb full-page detail of Marriage A-la-Mode: 4—The Toilette—each of the twelve chapters beginning with one of these excellently reproduced, large scale full-page details. The contextual introduction continues with a chapter written jointly by Professor Frédéric Ogée, of Université Denis Diderot, Paris, and Olivier Meslay of the Louvre, who collaborated in curating the French version of the exhibition. In that chapter, I particularly appreciated their analysis of the paintings, conventionally called “conversation pieces,” which are shown in the room of the exhibition entitled “Pictures of Urbanity,” with their very apt recourse to Solkin’s description of them as “a collective tapestry of politeness.”4 Their fundamental idea of a mise-en-scène perfectly confirms my impression when visiting that particular room:

However, one can always feel an element of ‘staginess’ in these tableaux, occasionally underlined by the presence of a dark curtain on the side (see The Strode Family, no.54). The primary impression, possibly desired by those who commissioned the pictures, is that a veil has been lifted from over this ‘genteel comedy’, allowing the beholder to ‘dis-cover’ its characters, who are caught apparently unawares in their natural private conversation. Yet, the theatrical framing also suggests that here is a collection of players, acting well-distributed parts and expressing a very precise ideological programme. [27]

Naturally, the cue for this comes from Hogarth himself. His well-known phrase figures prominently on the back cover of the book: “I have endeavoured to treat my subjects as a dramatic writer: my picture is my stage, and men and women are my players.” This “theatrical” theme is taken up in “Introducing Hogarth: Past and Present,” the chapter by Christine Riding which corresponds with Room 1 in the exhibition, where she writes:

To commentators in the decades Hogarth’s death […] his genius was primarily that of the satirist. In his Anecdotes on Painting in England (1780) the aristocrat and art-connoisseur, Horace Walpole, celebrated Hogarth’s pre-eminence as a satirical printmaker. Significantly, Walpole located Hogarth’s work within the world of literature and drama, rather than of art, describing him as ‘a writer of comedy with a pencil’ in the spirit of Molière and Congreve. This comment in some measure echoes Hogarth’s own description of his work in theatrical terms. [33]

Christine Riding of course perceives the dangers of this reductionist approach, which can lead to unjustifiably belittling Hogarth’s talents as a painter, and she concludes her very detailed discussion of the question with a hypothesis which I personally find extremely seductive because I always find myself overwhelmed by the wealth of (often cryptic) details in his work: “Perhaps the layers of symbolic meaning and narrative that are so crucial to Hogarth’s work still distract us from his astonishing abilities with the brush” [37].

Discussing Hogarth’s early work, in the 1720s, (the object of Room 2, “Pictorial Theatre”) Mark Hallett in fact takes up the same thread, with a very convincing explanation of the fundamental link between the prints and the paintings which is made clear from the works exhibited in that room—and in fact can apply to his whole oeuvre:

They include paintings such as The Denunciation (no.35) and The Christening (no.36), which fuse the traditional vocabulary of Dutch genre painting with the contemporary preoccupations and forms of pictorial satire. Such paintings are noticeable not only for their darkly comic focus on deviant sexuality, professional corruption and fashionable excess but also for their concentration on highly theatrical forms of legal and religious exchange, in which groups of spectators gather around men and women acting out choreographed forms of ritual. […] At the same time they reveal the rapid development of Hogarth’s skill in using the human figure to create intricate, flowing forms of pictorial narrative and see him promoting himself as both an exceptionally inventive pictorial satirist and a highly refined painter. [56]

To avoid repetition, it can only be said that Christine Riding and Mark Hallett provide illuminating comments—both aesthetic and thematic—for practically all the works exhibited and reproduced in the Catalogue. It also goes without saying that all the great series of prints and paintings are fully covered, sometimes in great detail (we could add, in welcome and much-needed detail for the more cryptic scenes). It would naturally be extremely tedious for the reader if we were to discuss all these individual comments in the present review. All we can say is that they incorporate the insights of classic commentators like Paulson5 as well as the more recent research, for instance Mary Webster’s discovery that the death of one of The Graham Children (oil on canvas, 1742) had intervened by the time the picture was completed [176].6

I compared the five-column Bibliography with that of the Royal Historical Society7 (which, by the way, already includes Hogarth). The RHS does have more references—but then the Catalogue has George Vertue’s invaluable Note Books, and it can be supposed that the copious number of works selected will more than fulfill the needs of the general reader. Also very useful is the synoptical six-page Chronology, showing both contemporary events and events in Hogarth’s life—the Chronology indirectly confirming the impression already underlined that, with Hogarth more perhaps than with any other British artist, a discussion and appreciation of his art cannot in any way be dissociated from British Studies. Of course, reading Hogarth cannot replace a visit to the actual exhibition (though it is recommended reading before going)—but it will no doubt provide useful enlightenment and endless enjoyment to those who have not been able to go and see the originals. All University Libraries, Colleges of Art and Departments of British Studies and European History should have a copy.

1. Ronald Paulson, Hogarth : His Life, Art, and Times, 2 Vol. (New Haven & London: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 1971). Of course, the case was different for Hogarth’s Graphic Works (2 Vol. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1965 [revised: 1970 & 1989]) since it dealt only with black-and-white originals. back

2. The picture is fully discussed in Pascal Dupuy, Calais vu par Hogarth (Calais : Musée des beaux-arts et de la dentelle, 2003 [ISBN 2911716124]). back

3. See the full review of the 2007 exhibition on the H-Museum site: back

4. David H Solkin, Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven & London: published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 1993). back

5. To cite only one example, the commentary on the series of twelve prints on “Industry and Idleness” rightfully takes up Paulson’s earlier discussion of the ambiguity of the industrious hero: “Yet he [Hogarth] was himself, to some extent, rising in just the same way: his mingling of art and business, of patronage and popular support, showed the complexity if not the ambivalence of his feelings in his life, while the Harlot and the Rake showed it in his art” (Hogarth : His Life, Art, and Times, Vol. II, 73). back

6. Mary Webster, “An Eighteenth-Century Family: Hogarth’s Portrait of the Graham Children,” Appollo CXXX, no. 331 (1989), 171-73. back

7. Free online access on back




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