A Picture is Worth a Thousand Lies: The Problem with William Hogarth

Monday, 28 June, 2021

The eighteenth century saw the creation of Britain and its subsequent meteoric rise. Through warfare, diplomacy and political intrigue the nation, in its latest incarnation, had become one of the leading world powers by the centuries close. With the efforts of the British East India Company (EIC) there was also a substantial cash flow pouring into the nation’s coffers, and London saw a great economic boom as a result. The rich grew fat, and an emerging middle class were afforded more time in which to pursue the delights of leisure and politics. Yet London at this time really was the personification of a tale of two cities. For there was a very large under class: the lower class. The poor of London, suffice to say, did not experience the great wealth afforded by the Empire, and being predominantly illiterate left no written record of their experiences.

        In the present day many look to the art and writings of this age of satire to try and connect with them. Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope are names that leap to mind, but perhaps the one that is embedded most in the popular conscience is William Hogarth. His prints have left an enduring legacy and from November 3rd 2021 to March 20th 2022, the Tate is holding an exhibition to celebrate his works. However the legacy of Hogarth is problematic. The influence of works such as Gin Lane and The Harlot’s Progress have scorched an almost Dickensian image of the London poor in the eighteenth century. A popular idea has been forged that the streets of London were awash with gin drinking prostitutes, and that children would easily fall into crime and eventual execution, as shown in The Four Stages of Cruelty. But the fact is that this simply just is not the case.

         It is impossible to go into intricate detail on the condition of the London poor within the space of an article (my undergraduate dissertation on this topic could easily have breached the 8,000 word limit). But an attempt will be made to Shine some light upon the lives of the London poor, in conjunction with some of Hogarth’s work, to show that he actively tapped into the establishments attempts to subjugate and demonise the lower classes.  

William Hogarth was born in London November 10th 1697, as the city became the first in Europe to attain a population of one million. His upbringing was educated but his father often struggled with financial problems. Both he and his father spent time in debtors’ prisons and so those such as Susan Elizabeth Benson have claimed it was from this that his “realistic” eye for the destitute was birthed. Those that champion Hogarth consider him a conscientious and moralising force, who exposed the harsh conditions of the London poor in order to seek reform. Indeed, when writing for Culture Trip, Helen Armitage argues that the artist created a body of scathing commentary. To underpin her position she points to The Four Stages of Cruelty in which through “his portrayal of Nero’s moral deterioration, Hogarth suggests his increasingly worse crimes were something of a natural progression, the overall moral lesson behind the series being that cruel behaviour left unchecked by society will result in gradually more violent acts.”

        To Armitage and Benson, the work of Hogarth is of great importance as a lens with which to understand eighteenth century life, with the former declaring that his satirical pieces “illustrate his concerns for his fellow countrymen.” It is a perspective that is prevalent in the contemporary mind. That of the artist seeing through the hypocrisy and corruption of the society in which he lived and, as the art historian Mark Hallett claims, shone a light onto those who “lived and died outside of respectable society.” The moralising force of Hogarth’s work is the crux to the many that champion his work. To quote Benson, for the last time, she points to his association with the Foundling Hospital, opened in 1739, which took in orphaned children. She calls it a “benevolent” institution. What Benson neglects to mention, as indeed does the official website for the Foundling Hospital, is that in its first 20 years of operation 10,000 children met their end within its walls.

        This is the problem with Hogarth. His legacy is so pertinent that the attitudes towards the London poor today are exactly the same as the elite of the eighteenth century. Essentially it comes down to the opinion that the lower classes lacked any agency over their fate and were led astray by the temptations around them. The fact is, it is easier to look at a print than to read books on the subject and so Hogarth’s work has stood the test of time in the popular imagination.

        Before delving into the issue of Hogarth’s, rather complex, legacy the point should be made that the chance to research this issue is not confined to academics. Thanks to the monumental scholarship of Professor’s Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, anyone can glimpse into the lives of the London poor. They have digitised tens of thousands of parochial documents, vestry accounts, Old Bailey court cases, and made them available on the website London Lives. Personally exploring these archives and reading the book based around their research, London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800, (as well as utilising the research undertaken for my undergraduate dissertation) has provided the facts with which to write the criticisms of Hogarth.

Hogarth’s Gin Lane (Figure 1.1) is probably his most famous print. The image of the syphilitic, drunken mother, absent-mindedly committing infanticide takes centre stage. The scene is also beset by all manner of human degradation and misery. A man lies dead from starvation, people brawl in the background, and a man savagely shares a bone with a with a dog.

Figure 1.1 – Gin Lane, William Hogarth. Provided by National Galleries Scotland: Accession number: P6858.

        It is a print designed to shock with its portrayal of humanity reduced to its basest form through gin. The piece was released just two weeks after parliament passed the 1751 Gin Act, which had been enacted after the government was besieged with pamphlets and petitions arguing that excessive drinking, by the lower classes, was responsible for a spate of social problems. These comfortable reformers thus attempted to, in the words of Patrick Dillon,” tie gin-drinking in with the crime wave” in London that followed the Seven Years War. Gin was an affordable, and readily available, form of alcoholic drink for the London poor. As such, it became synonymous with the lack of morals those in power associated with the lower orders. Hogarth’s Gin Lane was released simultaneously with another print entitled Beer Street (Figure 1.2) that painted a, totally deliberately, contrasting image to the consumption of alcohol.

Figure 1.2 – Beer Street, William Hogarth. Provided by National Galleries Scotland: Accession number: P6856.

        Here Hogarth presents a laid back, and sometimes comical, scene. Two men recline in the foreground with a flagon of ale, their bellies round and their faces contented, a man is sober enough to stand on a ladder and paint, and there is an altogether harmonious aura to the picture. The message is clear. The beverage of the middle class is one that can be enjoyed in moderation, while the beverage popular amongst the lower orders leads to ruin, destitution and abhorrent acts of cruelty. This argument has been undertaken by Hitchcock and Shoemaker. They point to the fact that, despite Hogarth’s professed ambition to use his prints to reform the poor directly, the real point of these prints was to bring the problem to the attention of parliament. In essence he tapped into the moral panic of the middle and upper classes, who had petitioned parliament so relentlessly, that the poor were out of control and in need of restriction. They underline this by pointing to the creation on January 17th 1751, the same year of the Gin Act, of the “Felonies Committee.” A body which claimed that “the increase of thefts and robberies of late,” and the increase in the expense of poor relief, resulted directly from the “habit of idleness, in which the lower people have been bred often from youth.” The ears of readers should be ringing at this because it is, essentially, the same argument that both Armitage and Hallett made in the twenty first century. That ruin awaited those outside of “respectable” society, and that those who could not write down their experiences were given a voice from Hogarth.

        While we commonly associate the work of Hogarth in this period with satire, what starts to become apparent is his appropriation of moral panic to justify the actions of the establishment. Ronald Paulson, in his book Hogarth: The ‘Modern Moral Subject’ 1697-1732, admits the influence and talent of Hogarth but comes to the similar conclusion that his “desire to have his cake and eat it, to expose the evil of the ruling class without alienating it, cannot altogether be elided.” From here we can address another of the artist’s famous works, The Four Stages of Cruelty, and in particular its final frame (figure 1.3).

Figure 1.3 – Plate Four, The Four Stages of Cruelty. Copyright: Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

        This nightmarish depiction of anatomy must be seen within the context of the period in which it was set. In 1752 parliament passed into law the Murder Act. The act meant that anyone convicted of murder would be immediately hanged and dissected. For a populace that was Christian, the idea of not being able to give their relatives a proper burial would have been traumatic. As Hitchcock and Shoemaker state, “Reform and the anxieties that drove it (the Murder Act) were shaped by expectations of the poor and the criminal. Anticipated fears of a crime wave by demobilised soldiers and sailors meant that violent thefts received disproportionate attention in the press.” Hogarth in this series is thus justifying the authorities right to do so. The sequence of four prints begins with the “protagonist” Nero engaging in acts of cruelty as a child. The series goes on to show his inevitable descent into petty crime, murder and eventual execution and dissection. The face of the cadaver is, unrealistically, contorted in fear as the surgeons look on as bored as those who queue in line at the bank.

        There is a moral to the story, but that moral is jaded. Nero is evidently from the lower orders and so Hogarth’s inherent message is that those bred from lesser stock are more susceptible to criminality. It is therefore the duty of the authorities to step in and “moralise” them. Again, it is as if to say that the poor have no agency over their actions. Of course there were murderers, thieves and other felons amongst the poor, but what Hogarth is suggesting here, in choosing the background of the central character, is that the Murder Act is justified in order to prevent the poor, that Hallett deemed outside of respectable society, from succumbing to their basic instincts for cruelty. There is so much more to examine on this subject, such as Hogarth’s contempt for the workhouses that provided a vital sanctuary for the London poor, and his association with the that Foundling Hospital contributed to the deaths of 10,000 children. But this is not an essay, it is an article for an online magazine and I must curtail my passions for scholarship and history. I will thus finish by imploring any reader to visit the Tate’s Hogarth exhibition, I myself will be in attendance at some point. But when looking at the artists prints perhaps, after reading the arguments of this article, you will do so with more of an objective eye. William Hogarth was not a conscientious and moralising force that gave a voice to the downtrodden, but a member of the elite that condemned them, and sought to justify the government’s actions in vilifying them. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but that does not mean they are the correct ones.

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