ARTS & AMUSEMENTS
Next to Shakespeare . . . ?
By NEVILE WALLIS
CHARLES LAMB, who lived surrounded by Hogarth's engravings, declared roundly that this eighteenth-century pioneer was 'perhaps next to Shakespeare, the most inventive genius which this island has produced.' To Roger Fry, on the other hand, musing more recently on that grand period when nearly all our architecture and applied art showed supreme distinction, it seemed regrettable that 'we have nothing in painting better than Hogarth.' Both the homage and the disenchantment may be reconciled, how- ever. All Hogarth's shortcomings as a crudely emphatic illustrator stand revealed, especially in his engraved 'moralities,' in the British Museum's exhibition (until May 2) of Hogarth's line and lineage, marking the bicentenary of his death in 1764. But his ancestral position is unassailable. The forthright vision of his Captain Coram- the turning-point in the expressive character of British portraiture—gave the lead to the next great generation, and alone establishes 'W. Hogarth Anglus' as our first truly native genius in paint.
To my mind, that genius resides almost wholly in the fluency of his peculiar vaporous brush- work which can, at such moments, seem to evoke the very fug, the babble, the rustle of stuffs and satins with a pungency which not even a Dutch- man like Jan Steen, with his superior powers of design, can quite attain. Both artists, of course, were concerned with the psychological aspect of life and its comedy. j3ut more surely than any painter I know, Hogarth distils the essence of his period's manners, conceits, characteristic gestures, through his natural empathy and astonishing visual memory. Thus his painting, as it were, embodies the speech of Rich's lines with a natural eloquence which no stage revival of The Beggar's Opera can ever approach. Listen to Matt of the Mint:, 'A covetous fellow, like a jackdaw, steals what he was never made to enjoy, for the sake of hiding it. These are the robbers of mankind, for money was made for the free-hearted and generous; and where is the in- jury of taking from another, what he hath not the heart to make use of?' We can see how Rich's adroit, epigrammatic turn has its pictorial counterpart, say, in the flourishes of The Rake's Levee in this period when a certain native stylish- ness was so consistent.
The didactic strain in Hogarth's art was Prompted as much by economic necessity as by disposition. His insular, combative and self- assertive character is bluntly portrayed in Roubiliac's bust of the painter u:sdet his old cloth headgear. Here is the outspoken fellow who so continually railed against the rich dilettanti and the connoisseurs for their cult of the Old Masters. Privately he longed for such apprecia- tion for himself, while also subconsciously memorising whatever of use came his way from the past. This is the rebel who made satirical engravings showing Time smoking a picture, and a dressed-up monkey neglecting the living plant to water the dead plants of the past. The pictorial gibe tends to be an ineffectual vehicle for any private grievance, and never was more labor- iously wasteful than in venting the spleen of a Hogarth or Whistler.
Yet it is unhappily true that the meagre return
for his portrait painting forced Hogarth to turn to engravings of moral fables—beginning in 1732 with A Harlot's Progress—which promptly took the town while the original paintings for them remained unsold. All his life he produced and published his engravings to make money. Secretly he despised their vulgar success, with more reason than Sullivan deprecated his com- mittal to light opera. Nor, in the attitude of a reformer, did Hogarth accomplish anything. The early Georgian mob went on stupefying itself in Gin Lane, outraging the. inmates of Bedlam, and indulging in every exploitation which it was so diverting to see pilloried in elaborate prints piling extravagant detail upon incident in familiar London scenes. Such horror-comics- were riots which caused none. • In the Museum we • may notice that the broken, tremulous quality of the artist's pen line reinforced with wash, as for the Industrious 'Prentice, is at least more subtle than the mech- anised serpentine line and cross-hatch of the engraved plates. As a print-maker Hogarth is far outclassed by Goya or Callot. Even with a pen he cannot approach the cursive delicacy of Rowlandson, the riper, more abundant successor with a sketch-book. But wait: in the Museum's graphic exhibition are intimations of that warmth of spirit which informs Hogarth's painted portraiture elsewhere, and is remembered in his humanitarian work for St. Bartholomew's Hospital. Not the parade of his Fielding element, but the tenderness of the Goldsmith in Hogarth detains us in the soft chalk touch of his face of a sleeping child. And his tiny, crisply painted bust of a young woman, which at some period floated into Bloomsbury's inilluminable caverns, sends one straightaway to the fluid spontaneity of the National Gallery's Shrimp Girl, and to The Wedding Dance at the South London Gallery in Camberwell. That glimpse of jigging ,
dancers, so humorously alive for all its evanescent quality, is the blithest instance of the volatile mobility he would compass with such delicacy of tone in his muted greens and snuff, pale yellow and faded rose.
For Hogarth was a full man. He drank and wenched, argued in any tavern and digested all he observed. He harboured foundlings in his Chiswick home, and was so replete with all the more generous passions he depicted that, set beside his battered experience, even Reynolds's humanity shrivels. From this background Hogarth adds another quality, the heroic. Given that Reynolds and Gainsborough had also fought their ways in the century's tougher half. one can scarcely conceive of either breaking through with the individuality portrayed in the naval captain Coram, comfortably settled before his globe—the Foundling Hospital's painting combining Hogarth's innate qualities of heart and eye unaffectedly with the monumental dignity of the European tradition. In this grand, un- buttoned kind is his Lord Lovat, originally drawn at St. Albans where Lovat was in captivity on his journey to the gallows for his part in the 1745 rebellion.
It was, of course, Hogarth's love for the popular theatre which prompted his making his picture his stage, and exhibiting his dumb shows.
One has to remember the leading part he played— with Francis Hayman and the more stilted Marcellus Laroon—in the pictorial interpretation of English dramatic and poetic literature which was to set an example for their heirs in the century. More important, Hogarth raised carica- ture to the serious status of expressive character- isation, the only external source available to Goya, and providing a free passport for Daumier. At the same time, our artist's modern 'moralities' undoubtedly lie behind the growth in France of the tableaux vivant., as practised by Greuze. Hogarth really regarded his moralising cycles as history paintings, and perhaps the pity is that his ambition did not stop there. For there are also, to his cost, those large-scale excursions into Biblical themes in the baroque tradition, with the notion of confounding aristocratic patrons of the preferred Italian and French models. One can hardly contemplate The Good Samaritan without feeling that, in this grandiose manner, Hogarth's poetic licence was expired.
Yet what a splendid yield it all is; and, in unpredictable ways, fertile still. Did not David Hockney lately parody, in' his witty anecdotal sequences of etchings, the rake's progress in transatlantic guise? Prestige and pecuniary suc- cess are Mr. Hockney's already. Standing by Hogarth's tomb in Chiswick churchyard, 200 years after, I reflected on the thread which swung then between the artist's barest livelihood and the fate of Chatterton in his garret. I re- membered also something Sickert wrote about Spencer Gore—'He held the not unreasonable conviction that nature was a thicker lexicon than what was bound between the covers of any one human being, and he drilled himself to be the passive and enchanted conduit for whatever of liveliness his eye might rest en.' Replace `passive' with 'active' and you have there, in a nutshell, Garrick's 'great Painter of Mankind.'