An artist with a social conscience, William Hogarth’s sketches and paintings summed up much of what was rotten with 18th century England – the society in which he lived – much as Dickens’ writing did in the following century.
Hogarth was a native Londoner – he was the son of Richard Hogarth, a Latin teacher and publisher, in Smithfield in 1697. Despite the ups and downs of his father’s fortunes (during Hogarth’s childhood, Richard Hogarth was confined to the Fleet Prison for debt for five years following an unsuccessful venture running a coffee house), at the age of 16 William was apprenticed to an engraver named Ellis Gamble.
Following his apprenticeship, he set up his own shop in 1720 and it was at this time that he started producing political satires. Hogarth was also painting and around this time met with artist Sir James Thornhill. He became a regular visitor to Thornhill’s art academy in Covent Garden and their friendship grew, so much so that Hogarth eventually married Thornhill’s daughter Jane in 1729.
In the early 1730s, having established himself as a painter – both of portrait groups and some early satirical painting – Hogarth turned to painting his ‘moral tales’, the first of which, A Harlot’s Progress, was published in 1732 and tells the story decline of a country girl after coming to London. It was followed by A Rake’s Progress in 1733-35 (now at the Sir John Soane’s Museum).
In 1735 Hogarth was also successful in lobbying to have an act passed to protect the copyright of artistic works – it was unofficially known as “Hogarth’s Act”. The same year he also established St Martin’s Lane Academy – a school for young artists and a guild for professionals.
In the late 1730s, Hogarth turned his hand to individual portraits of the rich and famous. Among his most famous works at this time is a magnificent portrait of Captain Thomas Coram (founder of the Foundling Hospital – it can still be seen at what is now the Foundling Museum), and another of actor David Garrick as Richard III for which he was paid the substantial sum of £200, an amount he apparently claimed was more than any other artist had received for a single portrait.
In 1743, Hogarth completed his landmark work Marriage a-la-mode, a series of six paintings which can now be seen at the National Gallery. He was also painting historical scenes – like Moses brought before Pharoah’s Daughter (for the council room of the Foundling Hospital) and Paul before Felix (for Lincoln’s Inn). In 1747, he published a series of 12 engravings, Industry and Idleness, which tells the parallel stories of two apprentices – one successful, the other not – and this was followed by a series of prints such as Beer Street, Gin Lane, and The Four Stages of Cruelty illustrating some of the less savory aspects of everyday life.
Other works completed around this time included The March of the Guards to Finchley – which looks back to the mid-1740s when the Scottish Pretender’s Army was believed to be about to threaten London, The Gate of Calais – which draws on Hogarth’s own experience of being arrested as a spy when he visited France in 1748, and the Election series – four painting which take for their subject the Oxfordshire election of 1754.
There were some clouds on his horizon at this time with unfavourable criticism of his works and beliefs about art but even as he was engaging in a robust debate with critics of his works (largely through a written work he produced called The Analysis of Beauty), Hogarth was appointed in 1757 to the post of Sergeant-Painter to King George II (he commemorated the event in a painting).
Hogarth ran into further trouble in his later years with works deliberately created to provoke – among the more famous was The Times, a work which led to a breach in his friendship with influential MP John Wilkes who then launched a personal and devastating attack on Hogarth in his newspaper The North Briton. Hogarth responded with a non-flattering engraving of Wilkes.
His last work – The Bathos, an apocalyptic piece – seems to capture his gloomy mood at the time, and having suffered a seizure in 1763, Hogarth died at his house in Leicester Fields on the 25th or 26th October, 1764, possibly of an aneurism. Buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas in Chiswick, he was survived by his wife Jane to whom he left his properties – these included his country home in Chiswick, now known as Hogarth’s House. She made her living reprinting his works until her own death five years later.
Hogarth’s legacy lies in the impact of his works which not only attacked some of the evils of his day but have since inspired countless artists and been adapted in all manner of artistic endeavours over the ensuring centuries. Hogarth’s works can still be seen at various galleries around town – including that of the Foundling Museum – and there is a fine statue of him and his pug dog, Trump, in Chiswick High Road (pictured) as well as a bust in Leicester Square.