Tate Britain, London
This presentation of the works of William Hogarth and his European contemporaries contains many gems but is too diffuse and socially anxious for its own good
At the Tate’s Hogarth and Europe, I stood on tiptoe for rather longer than was comfortable, and dedicated myself to searching for landmarks on A Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster, and Borough of Southwark; with the Contiguous Buildings (1746) by Jean Rocque and John Pine. In this rendering, the capital was, I thought, things gradually coming into focus, strikingly familiar: here was High Holborn, Old Street and Goswell Road; if Mile End was edged by fields, Whitechapel looked satisfyingly inky. But I thrilled, too, at its unexpected sprawl, the map in question, assembled from multiple sheets, being as wide as Gin Lane itself. Stare at this mammoth engraving for long enough and in your head, a din will soon strike up: harried hooves on cobbles; a sallow-faced girl hawking oysters; a drunken guardsman shouting the odds.
By 1760, London was home to 740,000 people and the most populous city in Europe. We picture it as dangerous and dirty, but as the Tate’s show reminds us, it was also cosmopolitan and cultured: think of Canaletto’s The Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens (c 1751), in which smartly dressed types promenade, talking (perhaps) of literature or music (in 1749, about 12,000 people attended a performance of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks in Vauxhall); or of Zoffany’s David Garrick (1762-3), a portrait of the actor in which, by being wig-less, he appears all the more the aesthete. (Canaletto came to London from Venice in 1746 and Zoffany from Rome in 1760.)
For artists in particular, there was a new freedom; liberated, just a little, from the need for rich, aristocratic patrons by the development of print, men such as William Hogarth could address the public more directly and be entrepreneurial about it to boot (Hogarth produced his own prints after his paintings, cutting out the publishers who normally profited from engravers’ work). Portraits were no longer the painter’s mainstay. Now, artists told moral stories. They sent people up. They were more interested in honesty than in blandishments and tended towards cruelty as much as kindness.
Alice Insley and Martin Myrone, the curators of Hogarth and Europe, have set themselves a huge task, the aim of which, unfortunately, is not apparent in its title. Ultimately, their exhibition isn’t only about the way one celebrated British artist related to Europe at a time when society was rapidly changing and xenophobia occasionally ran riot. Rather, this is a group show of work both by Hogarth and by those of his contemporaries who made their living in other great European cities: Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin in Paris, Pietro Longhi in Venice, Cornelis Troost in Amsterdam and several others. It reveals the way such men influenced each other and the preoccupations they shared – except, alas, for when it doesn’t, and a piece appears for no discernible reason (the appearance of, in essence, two versions of Giuseppe Maria Crespi’s luscious A Woman Looking for Fleas is, for instance, never explained). Though 60 of Hogarth’s works are included, among them the very famous Marriage A-la-Mode (1743), The Gate of Calais (1748) (often known as O the Roast Beef of Old England) and, yes, Gin Lane (1751), be warned: sometimes he disappears from view altogether, pushed out by the likes of – sacré bleu! – Philippe Mercier and Jean-Antoine Watteau.
Such abundance then – and there are wonderful things gathered here, among them loans from private collections you may be seeing for the first (and last) time. In Sir Francis Dashwood at his Devotions (c 1733-9), Hogarth plays on the libertine reputation of his subject, dressing him blasphemously as a woman-worshipping monk, to strange effect. In Francis Matthew Schultz in His Bed (c 1755-60), said to have been commissioned by its subject’s wife in an effort to curb his drinking, he depicts a man vomiting blood into a chamber pot, a brutally candid image that is disturbingly at odds with his grand bedroom, all velvet and brocade. I enjoyed looking at work by Nicolas Lancret and (especially) Troost: such paintings reward close examination.
But by involving so many artists from so many places, something is lost. Hogarth and Europe is exhaustingly diffuse. Nor was I keen on its curators’ painfully extreme anxiety towards social attitudes in this period; to the connections of some of its subjects to colonialism and slavery; to sexism and antisemitism. They treat the work like bombs that are about to detonate. Desperate to defuse them before anyone is upset, they have appointed no fewer than 18 “commentators” (mostly academics), whose often clod-hopping analyses appear next to the work: a committee that has been designed to spot offence before it’s taken and even, on occasion, to invite the visitor to see insults that may not actually exist.
This results, I think, in some quite drastic misreadings. The curators are determined that Hogarth’s Before and After (1730-31) depict a rape and its aftermath (in the first picture, a woman shies away from the man who would seduce her; in the second, she clings to him as he buttons his breeches), an interpretation that wilfully ignores both their tone, which is warm and slightly comical, and the fact that in the second painting, the dog is no longer protectively barking (it appears to be asleep). Equally, I’m unconvinced that in The Lady’s Last Stake (1759), Hogarth gives his female subject “agency” – what would such a word even have meant in his time? – by suggesting that she is contemplating an affair with an officer who holds a jewellery-filled tricorn hat. Surely the painting is about gaming debts, or even blackmail, not her “sexual appetites”.
When I first arrived at Hogarth and Europe, I was dazzled and delighted. I stood in front Southwark Fair (1733), a vision of urban chaos over which a union jack flutters desperately in the breeze, and considered first the artist’s satiric genius with a crowd (in Hogarth’s hands, the multitudes stroll blindly towards the metaphorical precipice, and you can almost smell their armpits as they do so) and then, of course, its parallels with our own time (so long as the flag is flying, no one need think too hard about the consequences of malice and misrule).
But the longer I stayed, the more the feeling grew in me that I was not really allowed to enjoy what I was seeing, and that if I did, I was a bad or insensitive person. Reaching the gorgeously tender Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants (c 1750-5), the curators were at last more positive, noting these faces’ individualism, the expansion of what they call “the range of subjectivities” to encompass the working class. But by then, it was too late. In something of a massive own goal for the gallery, I’d been made anxious and weary. I no longer fully trusted myself to smile at these muslin collars and rosy cheeks, these crisp bonnets and soft jowls.
Hogarth and Europe is at Tate Britain, London, until 20 March 2022
Tate Britain, London