Welcome to a London blighted by binge drinking and street crime, where young girls are seduced into prostitution and elections are fixed.
Today’s city? Well, not quite. This is the London of the painter and cartoonist William Hogarth (1697-1764), whose earthy satires of 18th century London form the meat of a major new exhibition at Tate Britain.
Hogarth’s London is not yet the world’s greatest city – but it is well on its way to being so. England is poised on the eve of an industrial revolution that would sweep its ruling class to global dominance. Yet this is also a country beset by dangers – it is virtually permanently at war with France, the world’s leading Catholic power.
The Jacobite rebellion had risen up in the Scottish Highlands and reached as far south as Derby by 1745. Hogarth’s painting of the guards marching out of London to meet this danger suggests the capital’s defences were not so secure.
Hogarth was part of a new, rising class. The portraits in the final hall of the exhibition portray honest citizens, proud of their ordered world where they gather to converse, do discreet business and sup tea or an occasional glass of wine.
Half a century earlier the compromise of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 had secured liberty for these new social forces, whose position in society relied on working for their wealth rather than inheritance.
The merchants, bankers and gentlemen farmers that Hogarth mixed with still resented the power retained by the aristocracy and clung to the puritan attitudes held by their grandfathers, who had fought a civil war against feudal power. They supported the Whigs, who defended the new order, and hated the Tories, who represented the old nobility.
Anti-Catholic and anti-French attitudes dominate Hogarth’s work. In 1747, when Britain and France were briefly at peace, Hogarth ventured to Calais where he was briefly arrested after sketching the town’s walls.
The painting “The Gate of Calais” was his scathing riposte. A huge, succulent side of English beef is being carried under guard to a tavern. A friar salivates over it. Everyone else looks half starved.
Down in the right hand corner skulks another of Hogarth’s pet hates – a sad, exiled Highlander, seeking refuge in France following the defeat of the last Jacobite uprising.
Hogarth wanted to create a specifically English art – and he detested those aristocrats who toured Italy buying up baroque and classical art. It’s little surprise, therefore, that at the heart of this exhibition lies an attack on the dissolute and drunken nobility.
“Marriage à la Mode” is made up of six paintings created between 1743 and 1745. They satirise a marriage between the son of a bankrupt aristocrat, Earl Squanderfield, and the daughter of a wealthy city merchant.
This marriage of convenience soon slides into mutual debauchery. In one scene the earl’s steward gives up on trying to talk to the couple about their debts. She wants to sleep following a night with her lover – he is drunk, and on his neck carries a black spot, evidence of the syphilis he has contracted.
Things go downhill from here. The errant husband is killed by his wife’s lover when he interrupts their lovemaking and she commits suicide when her beau is hanged at Tyburn.
Hogarth expressed the attitudes of a rising new class struggling for power. But at the same time, this class was already integrating with the aristocracy as power and wealth fused to create a new British elite.
The son of a debtor, Hogarth was intensely ambitious and would climb to become the king’s “serjeant painter” (having married the daughter of a previous office holder). His successors in this role – Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds and Henry Raeburn – would paint this class celebrating its wealth and new found position.
But while Hogarth takes a hard swipe at the aristocracy, he also hits out at the city’s poor, depicting them as drunken and prone to crime. His famous “Gin Lane” shows a woman so inebriated she has let slip her infant, who falls to probable death. His portraits of London at various times of the day teem with lowlife contrasted to upstanding people leaving church.
Yet for all this, Hogarth’s London is gloriously alive. The Italian painter Canaletto arrived in London in 1746 to paint a series of commercially successful paintings of a city in classical guise – but devoid of people. I prefer Hogarth’s vision of a city and its people – warts and all.
Hogarth runs at the Tate Britain in London until 29 April. Admission is £10 or £8 for concessions. Go to www.tate.org.uk