A History of Art in England (18): All change; it’s William Hogarth!

As we enter the 18th century in “An Introduction to English Painting”, John Rothenstein reflects on the course of art-making in England so far. The Reformation meant a near-deserted landscape for visual culture with the destruction and distrust of any religious and church art tradition. When we do find painting, it is within the closed circles of power, the monarchy and aristocracy, to which artists from the continent for the most part have been invited to create an art of ‘magnificence’, of show and display, echoing and reflecting the glamour and ostentation of European counterparts. For three centuries, any free opportunity for artists to explore painting and creativity had been severely restricted; even in aristocratic portraiture – the dominant art form – the demand was for little more than “stylish and flattering likenesses”.

And whilst there were studios and workshops with apprentices, they were making art to order: there were no art schools as such.

All of this would gradually change through the new century.

The painters at work in England… had two attributes in common: they one and all exalted, in the persons of kings, noblemen, statesmen, merchants and clergy, the established order of society, and none of them made any comment upon it.

Enter William Hogarth (1697-1764)

Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; William Hogarth

Hogarth’s Self-portrait (‘Portrait of Hogarth, painting the figure of Comedy’)

[1754; National Portrait Gallery; artuk.org]

Given the word-based culture of England in which his art is rooted, Hogarth was what we might call a story-teller painter; importantly he looked at the world around him, everyday London society, its events and characters.

His idea was that his paintings might be akin to theatrical productions, but based on the “dramatic possibilities of contemporary life.”

And looking through the artuk.org website, it’s interesting to note that Hogarth often painted actual theatrical performances, such as:

Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; A Scene from 'The Beggar's Opera' VI

“A Scene from ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ VI” [1731; Tate]

As the Tate notes:

This is one of the first paintings made of an English stage performance. It depicts a climactic scene from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, first performed at the Lincoln’s Inn Theatre in 1728. Here the opera’s central character, a highwayman named Macheath, stands chained, under sentence of death, between his two lovers, the jailer’s daughter, Lucy Lockit, and the lawyer’s daughter, Polly Peachum.

But more than just the scene from the play: At either side of the stage Hogarth has included members of the audience, and there is a wry nod to the current of gossip, for amongst the audience is, notably at the far right the Duke of Bolton, real-life lover of the actress Lavinia Fenton, who played the part of Polly Peachum.

 In recording a particular performance then, Hogarth takes in the broader contextual theatre of human relationships on and off the stage.

That (very Shakespearean) sense of the human drama comes across even in Hogarth’s early ‘conversation pieces’

 A conversation piece is an informal group portrait popular in the eighteenth century, small in scale and showing people – often families, sometimes groups of friends – in domestic interior or garden settingsTate

Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; Woodes Rogers (c.1679-1732), and his Family

Woodes Rogers (c.1679–1732), and his Family [1729, National Maritime Museum]

It’s very interesting to read the National Maritime Museum’s commentary on this painting: Rogers was a famous Bristol seaman and would become the Governor of the Bahamas – note the globe, the ship, the map, the tropical fruit – and if you’ve seen David Olusoga’s recent “A House Through Time” [BBC i-player] you’ll realise immediately that this is all connected with the Atlantic slave trade and the creation of Empire.

Again, it’s both the on-stage and off- that matter when it comes to looking at Hogarth’s paintings.

Hogarth includes all the trappings that tell the story of Woodes Rogers and his Family, and there is a theatricality, a performance, as the son presents the map to the patriarch; his wife is disturbed from her reading, an audience member along with servant and dog (neither of whom look particularly impressed!)

Lighter, it would seem, is:

Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; Portrait of a Family

“Portrait of a Family” [1735; Yale Center for British Art, artuk.org]

Hogarth’s characters are relaxed, all in conversation and interacting with each other – and the kitten in the foreground playing with the yarn basket knocked off the table – far from the static portraits we’ve seen previously. It is like a scene from the theatre, a ‘caught in the moment’ picture of the (wealthy) life of a family at home.

However, this everyday picture, in documenting the furnishings and trappings of the well-to-do, also reveals the extent of imperial trade: not only in terms of the material luxury of the room, the clothes, the situation itself – which we could well contrast with Hogarth’s etching “Gin Lane” (see Tate) – but also because, on the extreme left, half-way down (the painting has been cropped at some time in its history) is a pair of hands carrying a tray. They are the hands of a young African servant (see Yale Center).

Hogarth’s great innovation in painting the drama of everyday life was to create series of pictures with developing stories:

A Harlot’s Progress

A Rake’s Progress

 Marriage A La Mode

and others are all well-known ‘morality tales’, satirical takes on the hypocrisies of 18th century life (see Apollo magazine), including the divide of rich and poor on London’s streets in the Four Times A Day series (there’s a short introductory clip from BBC2 here).

Hogarth’s “Four Times A Day: Night”

For perhaps the first time since the Reformation, Hogarth connected the common viewer to the art of painting – not only through his depictions of recognisable everyday life and darkly humorous critiques of society through story-telling (which often became etchings for sale, or printed and discussed in the popular press) – but by displaying and exhibiting art in the public sphere.

Rambling 8

Portrait of Thomas Coram by Hogarth [1740, Foundling Museum]

Most important in this context is the Foundling Hospital set up by Captain Thomas Coram in Bloomsbury to look after abandoned children to which Hogarth donated his portrait of Coram and other paintings, and encouraged other artists to show their work on its walls, such as:

Hayman, Francis, 1708-1776; The Finding of Infant Moses in the Bullrushes

The Finding of Infant Moses in the Bullrushes by Francis Hayman (1708–1776)
[1746; The Foundling Museum; artuk.org]

Moreover, Hogarth set up an art school, the St Martin’s Lane Academy, which ran from 1735-1771, its members drawn from the informal circle of artists who met at Slaughter’s Coffee House, including the very young Thomas Gainsborough.

Rambling 7

A Life Class at St Martin’s Lane Academy
by Johann Zoffany RA (1733 – 1810) [c.1761; Royal Academy]


One way or another, Hogarth’s paintings are entwined with broader aspects of society than had ever been known in England; he is instrumental in creating a new visual culture. Next time, we’ll look at the circle of artists around Hogarth andtheir new subject ‘popular’ matter, and then we’ll introduce another contemporary artist but one working outside the purlieus of London, Joseph Wright of Derby.


Other notes:

One of the elements Hogarth brings into his London street scenes is the general cacophony of the city and its people and there’s a great discussion from the Foundling Museum’s exhibition Hogarth & The Art of Noise.

Also worth looking up is the contemporary artist Lubaina Himid, who won the Turner Prize in 2017, and whose work draws on Hogarth’s paintings.


Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; A Modern Midnight Conversation

A Modern Midnight Conversation

[New Walk Museum & Art Gallery; artuk.org]


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (18)

If you are enjoying this series and are able – even occasionally – to donate, I am extremely grateful. Many thanks and best wishes!


About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: