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March 20, 2007

Lilian Pizzichini does battle with the crowds at Tate Britain's Hogarth exhibition: Hogarth - Tate Britain

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Tate Britain, London
7th February - 29th April 2007
Daily 10am - 5.40pm (last admission 5pm)

I visited Tate Britain's Hogarth exhibition on a weekday morning, assuming that the galleries would be empty. I was wrong. They were packed. Hogarth's famous series, A Harlot's Progress, was almost impossible to reach. Luckily, I have seen them before. At Tate Britain, they have been hung so closely together that the crowd bottlenecks at the first in the series, making progress around the others tortuously slow. One has to form an orderly queue as though at a bus stop. When two paintings become free at once (as so often proverbially happens with longed-for buses) one jumps to take advantage of this rare close-up glimpse. It might have been a better idea to give Hogarth's work more space. Given the trend for exhibitions that have a narrative thrust, one room for a series such as Harlot would have been more generous and the points the curator wanted to make would have had more impact.

This trend for themed exhibitions is exemplified by last year's Da Vinci show at the V&A [which I reviewed], where around 30 cartoons were crammed into one room. The theme was science, the accompanying placards were typed in a small font, and the queue was dismaying. Only retired gentlefolk have the patience to attend these events.

Another recent innovation on the part of all major galleries - that of audio guides - makes for further congestion. I remember seeing the Turner Prize show last year and being struck by the fact that I was in a room full of people attached to headphones, each passively receiving recorded commentaries on what was before their eyes. This was supposed to be the cutting edge of contemporary art. There was supposed to be a "buzz". In fact, there was no social interaction: each viewer was plugged into his or her own world, as on the underground where commuters jealously guard their private space. The new approach to viewing art is, like watching television, entirely passive, and like commuting, warily private. It is about infotainment, where no one really learns anything or experiences anything firsthand, and it expresses a fear of social contact.

Hogarth would have been astonished. His view of London is of a chaotic stew of venality, gore and vigour. Not surprisingly, Jonathan Swift was one of his heroes, and both men saw the city of London through classical as well as contemporary spectacles. London was Hogarth's inspiration as well as his birthplace. He was born in Bartholomew Close, just off Smithfield meat market in the City of London. As a child he would have been witness to the notorious Bartholomew Fair held annually around the corner from his house. He was a true Londoner.

Tate Britain's exhibition of his work incorporates the full range - portraits, "conversation pieces", history paintings, crowd scenes and etchings - in an attempt to convey his theory of the "line of beauty". Hogarth's use of the "S" line, was, according to him, essential to all successful works of art. His definition of beauty was "infinite variety". It is his portraiture of London and its citizens that really drives home this variety and his greatness as an artist.

Perhaps because it is less well known, The Four Times of Day, another of his seminal series was easier to view, in that I could get near it. One of Hogarth's inspirations here was Swift's poem, "Description of the Morning", where "Betty" flies from her master's bed to "discompose her own", "Moll" whirls her mop, "watchful bailiffs take their silent stand", and "schoolboys lag with satchels in their hand". In these few lines, and possibly on just one street, we have illicit sex, guile, innocence, industry, and a hint of crime and punishment. London was a fertile source for beauty, if beauty really is variety.

His other inspiration was the tired old cliché of Aurora rising. The classical "Times of Day" tradition of Greece and Rome, celebrating the gods while acknowledging the transience of human life, was a favourite theme for French engravers working on the othe side of the Channel at the same time as Hogarth. Their allegorical fetes galantes showed voluptuous or heroic figures (depending on their gender) lounging in classical poses on clouds or against pillars as the case may be. In Hogarth's Morning, the goddess of dawn is a prim, lavishly dressed, middle-aged lady churchgoer attended by a skinny, miserable footboy instead of a smiling, chubby putto. He is shivering because this is Covent Garden on a wintry morning. According to the church clock it is nearly 7am. Above the clock a statue of Time bearing his scythe and hourglass picks up on the motto inscribed on it, which reads, "Sic Transit Gloria Mundi" - (Thus passes the Glory of the World).

The devout lady gazes straight ahead of her in order to avoid looking at the beggar to her right and the lovers embracing in front of Tom King's Coffee House. So here is hypocrisy. (Some accounts relate that he modelled the old lady in Morning on his aunt. When she viewed the engraving she dismissed him from her will.) Behind her, Covent Garden gets busy. A quack peddles his Dr Rock's cure-all, and a woman carts her vegetables to market on her head: commerce and conning. Hogarth could not resist depicting the injustice, the corruption, the raunchiness and the cruelty of life.

The classical allusions are continued in Noon, Evening and Night, subverting tradition and pointing out the harsh realities of urban life, as well as the infinite variety of its pleasures and sadness. It is this variety that he found so invigorating. By the time of his death, London was the largest city in Europe. The City of London, his birthplace, was still a powerful mercantile and financial centre but was also rife with poverty and crime. The West End, where he had his studio, was fashionable and steeped in culture with pockets of deprivation and squalor, such as the slums of St Giles which he depicted in his famous, brutal Gin Lane.

Life was good to him because he was talented, but he knew how hard life could be. His father, an impoverished schoolteacher, had once opened a Latin-speaking coffee house at St John's Gate. It was always going to be an unlikely venture. Hogarth senior was imprisoned for debt in Fleet Prison for five years, while Hogarth was still a boy. He never spoke about his father's misfortune. He completed The Four Times of the Day in 1736, but Hogarth was a working artist, and never seemed able to hang on to money.

A point the exhibition could have made more strongly is Hogarth's innovation in the business of print-making. He first published The Four Times of the Day in 1738. Three plates from the set were both designed and engraved by him. The remaining plate, Evening, was designed by Hogarth but engraved by Bernard Baron, a French engraver who resided in London. He could then sell the plates many times over. You can only sell a painting once. The man was canny. To appreciate him properly, he needs more space.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

To read Christie Davies' take on the Hogarth exhibition, see: Christie Davies enjoys the erotic romps daringly portrayed by the artists of eighteenth century France and Hogarth's denunciations of them as unspeakable French filth.

To read David Wootton's take on the Hogarth exhibition, see: We find Hogarth a much more disturbing artist than his contemporaries did - David Wootton explains why.

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