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December 2019

Vol. 161 / No. 1401

Hogarth: Place and Progress. Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Reviewed by Brian Allen

Sir John Soane’s Museum, London 

9th October 2019 – 5th January 2020


Hogarth’s enduring appeal in the twenty-first century is surely based on his timeless ability to present with wit and empathy the immorality and vice he perceived in all classes of society. His ‘modern moral subjects’ are well known to students of eighteenth century art and social history yet it is remarkable that the considerable and growing body of literature on Hogarth continues to offer new and interesting reinterpretations of these celebrated works.(1)

The originality of this exhibition lies in its attempt to chart the idea of spiritual progress through visible representations of London life so that the visitor can map the contrast between the depictions of the narrow alleys of the old City of London and the new orderly spaces in the West End where the aristocracy reestablished itself as London became a great metropolis during Hogarth’s lifetime. Given the modest temporary exhibition space at the Soane Museum it is a remarkable achievement for the organisers to have assembled all the paintings and engravings of Hogarth’s narrative cycles for this exhibition.(2) Only the six canvases that comprised A Harlot’s Progress (1732), destroyed in a fire at Fonthill Splendens, Wiltshire, in 1755 are absent, although they are represented by Hogarth’s engravings after them (cat. nos.1–6).

The presence of two of the celebrated narrative cycles at the Soane Museum for almost two centuries provides the rationale for the exhibition’s venue and it is worth remembering that the museum’s founder, John Soane, had first encountered the series A Rake’s Progress (1734; nos.7–14) at Fonthill Splendens as early as 1787, when he was commissioned by the house’s owner, William Beckford, to adapt a seventy-foot long corridor into a top-lit gallery. Although the gallery was never executed, the commission allowed Soane to examine the Hogarths at close hand before he and his wife, Eliza, eventually acquired them at Christie’s in 1802, when the mercurial Beckford decided to dispose of them. Their intended destination was the architect’s country house, Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, and they appear to have been moved regularly between Ealing and London before the first Picture Room was inaugurated at Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1819. As Bruce Boucher points out in his illuminating essay in the exhibition catalogue, in Soane’s mind the role of Hogarth was firmly aligned, as was Inigo Jones’s in architecture, with the notion of the founding of the British School of Painting.(3)

In 1797, just five years before the Soanes acquired A Rake’s Progress, the banker John Julius Angerstein purchased for 1,000 guineas at Christie’s the six canvases comprising Marriage A-la-Mode (nos.19–24; Fig.19), which with the rest of Angerstein’s collection were to form the nucleus of the National Gallery, London, when it was established in 1824. The trustees of the National Gallery, who have been quite properly cautious about lending these works over the past two centuries, should be congratulated for permitting them to travel the mile across London from Trafalgar Square to Lincoln’s Inn Fields to be united with Hogarth’s other painted series, since the occasion offers a remarkable opportunity to witness Hogarth’s development as a painter over the two decades from the mid-1730s to the mid-1750s.

Soane, who was in the vanguard of the Hogarth revival in the early nineteenth century, bought in addition the four canvases that comprise The Humours of an Election (1754–55) at the sale of David Garrick’s widow’s effects at Christie’s in 1823, for the remarkable sum of £1,732 10s. These works (nos.52–55) have been on display at the Soane Museum ever since it opened in 1833 and they have only rarely been lent to exhibitions. Seeing them displayed in a different part of the museum, away from the movable panels in the second Picture Room, on which they have been mainly shown since the 1830s, is a revelation since it enables the visitor to inspect them close-up, displayed on screens as they were shown for a period in the museum’s South Drawing Room in the later nineteenth century.

What is very apparent to the viewer is Hogarth’s rather uneven development as a painter. Perhaps because he intended to engrave the Rake pictures himself, the original canvases, painted in 1733–34, are not worked up in great detail and are markedly sombre in tone, in keeping with much British painting of the 1730s. Numerous pentimenti are visible to the naked eye and it becomes clear that Hogarth’s compositions from this date are often worked out by trial and error on the canvas and are apparently not based on carefully composed working drawings.

By the time Hogarth painted The Four Times of Day (nos.15–18; Fig.18) in 1736–37 there are signs of greater confidence and maturity with the brush in both the heightened tonality and the flashes of brilliant colour that suggest an increasing awareness of contemporary French painting. By the mid-1740s, when the Marriage A-la-Mode canvases were executed, Hogarth’s hard-earned technical brilliance as a painter, unmatched by any of his British contemporaries, is gloriously apparent and the close proximity with which the viewer can examine these works, compared to the way they are seen in their usual location in the National Gallery, is revelatory. The Four Times of Day is the only series to have been split – sold as two pairs in Hogarth’s studio sale in January 1744–45, one pair is now at Upton House, Warwickshire, and the other is at Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire – so seeing the four canvases reunited at the Soane Museum is a refreshing reminder of Hogarth’s brilliant ability to rise to the challenge of capturing contrasting atmospheric conditions at different times of day. 

Hogarth’s most enigmatic series is undoubtedly the unfinished Happy Marriage, about which we know comparatively little. It is generally thought that after the publication of the prints after Marriage A-la-Mode in 1745 Hogarth planned to paint and engrave the contrasting story of a happy marriage, set in the country and based on old-fashioned British virtues involving the transfer of a well-managed estate from one generation to the next. The most plausible explanation for the abandonment of the project is that the publication of the engravings after Joseph Highmore’s paintings of scenes from Samuel Richardson’s celebrated epistolary novel Pamela (1740) in July 1745, just a few months after Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode prints had appeared, resulted in the market for this type of subject matter being saturated. Whatever the truth, only three unfinished canvases by Hogarth survive, two in Tate and one in the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro (all of which have remarkably been lent to this exhibition; nos.27, 28 and 31), plus two fragments relating to a fourth picture (not shown here), but their correct narrative order remains to be convincingly established. Hogarth’s biographer Samuel Ireland tells us that Hogarth intended a series of six canvases (of which Ireland claimed to own five, purchased from Hogarth’s widow) but ultimately seven very poor quality engravings comprising the series, executed by Thomas Ryder, were issued by Ireland in 1799, more than three decades after Hogarth’s death.(4) Three of these engraved compositions have always seemed to the present reviewer to be completely uncharacteristic of Hogarth of the mid-1740s and are more redolent of attempts to pastiche an earlier period in the artist’s oeuvre. Could it be that Ireland or some unidentified artist designed them? A few years before the engravings appeared, Ireland and his son, William Henry, had been involved in a hoax involving forged Shakespeare manuscripts so it is not entirely impossible that the engravings The meeting of the couple (no.25), The courtship (no.26; Fig.20) and Relieving the indigent (no.30), which do not relate to any surviving canvas, are in fact part of a deception wrought by Ireland. We may never know the truth but the opportunity to see a set of these poor posthumous engravings in the company of the more celebrated narrative cycles at least poses the question about their status and authorship.

Finally, the other series of modern moral subjects, Industry and Idleness (1747; nos.32–43) and The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751; nos.46–51), neither of which originated from paintings, are represented in the exhibition by excellent impressions of the prints from the most distinguished modern collection of Hogarth engravings, formed by Andrew Edmunds, whose generosity as a lender should be warmly acknowledged.

For further reading: 

Hogarth's tercentenary. London and Elsewhere by Duncan Bull 

1. The most complete Hogarth bibliography is in E. Einberg: William Hogarth: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, New Haven and London 2016, pp.401–11.

2. Catalogue: Hogarth Place and Progress. By David Bindman and Bruce Boucher with additional essays by Frédéric Ogée and Jacqueline Riding. 144 pp. incl. 43 col. + b. & w. ills. (Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, 2019), £24.95. ISBN 978–1–9996932–1–3.

3. B. Boucher: ‘Soane and Hogarth’, in ibid. pp.17–23, at p.23.

4. Einberg, op.cit. (note 2), pp.276–82.