London: Tate Enterprises, 2006.
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 ) 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.
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 ) is in black-and-white.1
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:
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:
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” .
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:
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 .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.
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: http://www.h-net.org/~museum/reviews.html 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