Sir John Soane’s Museum, London
From corrupted country girls and rough sleepers to sleazy judges and drunken toffs, no one has captured London’s dark underbelly better than Hogarth
The rough sleepers in William Hogarth’s painting The Four Times of Day: Night huddle under a wooden stall on St Martin’s Lane while a drunk staggers by without seeing them and a man gets a midnight shave in a candlelit barber’s shop. It’s a shock to see all Hogarth’s visual narratives of London in one place and realise how insistently he portrays inequality. There is barely a picture here that doesn’t include paupers, beggars or street children. A shoeless boy watches as a spendthrift gentleman is arrested for debt in Scene Four of The Rake’s Progress: a troubling detail that reminds us the Rake was born lucky, in a London teeming with people who never had his chances to waste. In the next scene, a ragged child clings to the silk skirt of an old widow who the Rake is marrying for her fortune. Most horribly of all, in Scene Three of Marriage A-la-Mode, a paedophile aristocrat takes a child who has been trafficked for sex to the pox doctor.
Sir John Soane’s Museum has brought together all of Hogarth’s visual narratives in one place, among them The Harlot’s Progress, The Rake’s Progress and The Four Stages of Cruelty. These raw stories of London life join together here, as never before, to make one great epic of laughter and squalor. Call it London: the Graphic Novel. It will break your heart.
The opening scene of Hogarth’s first picture story strips away all illusions about what his contemporary Daniel Defoe called “the Monster City”. A young woman has just got off a wagon full of country girls like her, and come to the metropolis to seek her fortune. Right there she’s being greeted by a brothel madam while a sleazy gent watches from a doorway. A goose with its neck wrung foretells her fate.
This is Plate One of The Harlot’s Progress, which survives today only as a set of engravings: the painted version was lost long ago. It’s shown here in parallel with the paintings of The Rake’s Progress, his second series, created two years later in 1734 and preserved for the past couple of centuries in the surreal personal museum created by their owner Soane.
The fates of these two 1730s Londoners play out in uneasy parallel. While the Rake boozes in a brothel waiting for a stripper to start her show, his sex worker contemporary is arrested in a seedy boudoir where a judge has left his wig – a whip on the wall suggests such clients’ tastes. She dies young but the rich-born Rake fares no better, ending up insane in Bedlam. In the final scene of Marriage A-la-Mode, a city merchant removes the valuable wedding ring from his dying daughter’s finger.
There is a sweeter outcome to the little-known series hung next to this high-life decadence, but significantly it isn’t set in London and isn’t much good. Hogarth’s forgotten cycle The Happy Marriage has been pieced together by padding out the three surviving paintings with another artist’s dull prints of lost scenes. Set in a genteel country world, it depicts a romance where everything turns out fine. Yet apart from lovely flowing brushwork in the canvas The Country Dance, there’s little to grab you. Hogarth clearly needed the adrenaline rush of London as much as he was horrified by its casual destruction of lives.
The most beautiful paintings here don’t tell an individual story but chart 24 hours in the life of London itself. Beginning with his eerily gorgeous portrayal of St Martin’s Lane by night, The Four Times of Day takes us round the metropolis and its communities with an eye more generous than judging. At noon a group of French Huguenot immigrants, dressed up like dolls, come out of their church in Soho while across the filthy street a pie waitress enjoys being caressed by her lover. He is black, like many of Hogarth’s Londoners. In fact, his depiction of the multiracial lovers on the street is much more sympathetic than his sneer at the London French.
Early on a winter morning, rakes and their harlots who’ve been partying all night in the clubs of Covent Garden look challengingly at a rich woman on her way to church in The Times of Day: Morning. Black or white, Hogarth is on the side of the rebellious, the rowdy, the riotous. London may be unjust and cruel but the laughter of the streets makes it his punch bowl of liberty. In a scene from Industry and Idleness, the Idle ’Prentice gambles on a tombstone with yet another group of ragged youths. Under them lie skulls and other human bones that have resurfaced from old graves. Life is brutal but it’s life.
This exhibition proves Hogarth created a human epic about the life of a great city with few equals in world culture. Though some of his tales centre on individuals, he never depicts them merely as quirky but sees them as everywoman and everyman. His cast is almost infinite. Women drink beer and enjoy sex in these pictures while black slaves mock their “betters”.
Charles Dickens is Hogarth’s only rival as a chronicler of London. But, while you might struggle to find a contemporary Mr Pickwick after reeling out of this delirious, harrowing magic lantern show of the monster city, you won’t have to look long to see Hogarth’s street sleepers.