I have a fantasy about William Hogarth (1697–1764) being in heaven, drinking beer with fellow satirists, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Swift, Fielding. (Once you’re up there, date of birth is immaterial.) He’s talking about how pleased he is by our reverence for his work. In times past, some connoisseurs have been condescending towards his oeuvre. But during the last half century, Hogarth has been the subject of quite a few major exhibitions and numerous scholarly analyses. Contemporary artists, such as David Hockney, Paul Rego and Ralph Steadman, have reinterpreted his images.
Hogarth relates he’s content with heavenly living but misses his home in what is now Leicester Square and his second home in tranquil Chiswick. He’s touched, he adds, that his house in Chiswick has just been restored and re-opened to the public. Shutters and panelling have been repaired, fireplaces unblocked, wooden floorboards uncovered, plaster and paintwork renewed. The house is much brighter than it would have been in Georgian times when houses were candlelit, and indeed much brighter than many restored ‘heritage’ houses, which are often underlit. Alas, a six-lane highway now nears the house; and Chiswick Common is no longer part of the landscape.
Visitors enter through a pretty garden, and once inside discover an extensive collection of the artist’s prints, such as the sequential series ‘A Harlot’s Progress’, ‘The Rake’s Progress’, and ‘Marriage á la Mode’. On permanent display are Hogarth’s palette and the tools he might have used for engraving – burins, which are small, sharp chisels, and steel knives. There’s an interesting exhibition explaining the history of the house. In the drawing room hangs a print from a sketch by Sir Peter Blake of Hogarth’s pug, which was used to help raise funds for a statue of Hogarth in Chiswick High Road. There are replica pieces of 18th-century furniture, commissioned from the Chiswick Art Workers’ Guild by Lieutenant-Colonel Shipway, who bought the house in 1901. He restored and opened it to the public in 1904. In what was the kitchen there’s a gallery for temporary exhibitions.
The house was built in 1710 by James Downes, a baker, in a corner of his family’s orchard, as a speculative venture. Hogarth and his wife, Jane, bought their ‘retreat’ in 1749 from the son of a pastor associated with a German Lutheran church in Bloomsbury. Hogarth’s sister, Anne, and Jane’s cousin, Mary Lewis, also lived in the house. The marriage appears to have been a happy one, albeit childless, and the household most congenial.
The six-mile journey from Leicester Square would have taken about two hours by carriage. The carriage enabled Hogarth to bring copper printing plates to Chiswick – the plates are heavy and the metal has to be packed carefully as it’s soft, says local historian and William Hogarth Trust trustee, Val Bott. But Hogarth did enjoy riding; it made him feel mentally and physically energetic, notes Sheila O’Connell, another trustee, and a former Keeper at the British Museum of British Prints created before 1880. There was a stable at the bottom of the garden, with Hogarth’s studio above. The Hogarth household could have travelled by river; there was a causeway beside the parish church where wherries could land. In the nearby villages of Hammersmith, Strand-on-the-Green and Chiswick one could buy provisions, mostly from the locality, including a good variety of fish from the River Thames. It’s likely there were peddlers too.
‘The family was involved the local community’, reveals Val Bott. ‘Mrs Hogarth made donations to support the parish school, and she and her women friends appear in a local will as beneficiaries and left bequests to women friends in Chiswick and Hammersmith.’ Hogarth was a founding governor of the Foundling Hospital, and as part of his active role he was inspector for wet nurses in Chiswick. Ms Bott explains that ‘in the late 17th century, like other Middlesex parishes, Chiswick Parish was already taking in “nurse-children”, either paupers placed by their city parishes or the children of wealthy women who were unable to breast feed themselves…’. It’s possible that the Hogarths entertained foundling children at the House.
After Hogarth’s death, the house remained in the family until 1808. In 1814, it was bought by the local curate, Rev Henry Francis Cary. He was a poet and translator of Dante’s The Divine Comedy and a librarian at the British Museum. Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Thomas de Quincey frequented his dinner table. The house was tenanted for a good while. Alfred Dawson bought the house in 1890. He ran the Typographic Printing Company, sited just over the garden wall of North End. When Dawson put the house up for sale, it was threatened with development. But thanks to a prominent campaign, Lieutenant-Col Shipway came to the rescue. He gave the house to Middlesex County Council in 1909; Hounslow Council assumed ownership in 1965.
The pleasant intimacy of the house, sketches of local history and displays of Hogarth’s work cannot fail to stimulate greater interest in the great man’s life and his extraordinarily diverse portfolio of engravings and paintings. The enterprising Hogarth was a true ‘modernist’, never afraid to challenge and experiment.
Hogarth was born in 1697 in the City of London. He grew up in an urban culture of squalor, depravity, mercantile prosperity and aristocratic elitism, which informed his art. His father, Richard, a schoolmaster, linguist and author, ran a coffee house in which customers were meant to converse in Latin. When the venture failed, the family – including Richard’s wife, two daughters and ten-year-old William – were forced to live in debtor’s lodgings near Fleet Prison for four years.
Hogarth was apprenticed to a silver plate engraver when he was 17. In 1820, he set up on his own as a copperplate engraver, producing book illustrations, trade cards, theatrical benefit tickets and, most significantly, political and social satires – ‘modern moral subjects’ – singly or in a series, sales of which brought him much prosperity throughout his life.
Hogarth also became a fine painter, particularly commended for his creative and colourful use of paint and for his work’s texture, tone, and brushwork. Not surprisingly, his first ventures were satirical canvases such as the series of pictures depicting a scene from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.
Unlike many prominent artists of his era, Hogarth was never ‘formally’ trained, though he did attend an academy run by the French history painter Louis Cheron and the English artist John Vanderbank, and also studied at James Thornhill’s academy. Thornhill was celebrated as a history painter, and also for successfully competing with foreign rivals, securing, for example, a commission to decorate the dome of St Paul’s. At the time, European painters working in London exercised substantial influence over British painters, as there was no recognized British painting ’movement’. Hogarth married Thornhill’s daughter, Jane, in 1729.
Hogarth’s impressive group portraits are what contemporaries referred to as ‘conversation pieces’ – gatherings of prosperous merchants and nobility enjoying genteel pursuits such a drinking tea, playing cards and admiring works of art in decorous settings. We also applaud his history paintings – pictorial treatments of the great texts of literature, history, religion and mythology – which include scenes from Milton and Shakespeare, and the monumental The Pool of Bethesda and The Good Samaritan, both of which he presented to St Bartholomew’s Hospital.
Portraiture is another of Hogarth’s painterly triumphs. Two such examples are The Shrimp Girl and the portrait of Captain Thomas Coram, the philanthropist who set up the hospital for foundling children of which, as noted, Hogarth was a founding governor. Hogarth donated his portrait of Coram to the hospital. He encouraged other artists to donate work, establishing in effect the first permanent public museum of English art.
Hogarth also founded his own Academy of Painting. Unusually for the period, he ran the school on informal lines with few prescriptions regarding how models should be drawn or posed. He encouraged students to observe and use their imagination, rather than copying casts or Old Master paintings. Unfortunately, when he published his ‘unconventional’ theories about art in Analysis of Beauty (1753), he was ridiculed.
In our staircase hangs an engraving of Hogarth’s painting (1742) Taste in High Life. It reveals the vanity and pretentiousness of Francophile connoisseurs. An exquisitely made-up man and a woman with tight pin curls, dressed in exaggerated French fashions, are marvelling over a tiny cup and saucer. The expanse of the woman’s hooped skirt is as wide as two-thirds of the image. To their left stands a sumptuously dressed lady stroking the chin of a seated small black boy wearing a turban. A monkey in the foreground is looking at a menu featuring rabbits’ ears and duck’s tongues.
What Hogarth depicted then could be pictures of today, though the scenery and costumes are different. We are still slaves to pretension and prejudice; poverty and deprivation are widespread. In fantasy number two I’m reflecting with Hogarth upon the colours of life, while walking with him and his pug on Chiswick Common. Wisdom is timeless.
Photograph of watercolour of Hogarth’s house by T. M. Rooks, 1897, courtesy of Hounslow Local Studies (Chiswick Library).
This article first appeared in Cassone: The International Online Arts Magazine of Art and Art Books in the January 2012 issue.