What you need to know about William Hogarth

Anna Walker 28 September 2021

Here's the lowdown on the 18th century artist who's work will be showing at the Tate Britain from November

Alice Insley, Assistant Curator of Historic British Art and Martin Myrone, former Senior Curator of pre-1800 British Art from the Tate Britain answer all our questions about artist William Hogarth ahead of the upcoming show, Hogarth and Europe.

Marriage A-la-Mode: 2, The Tête à Tête

William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode: 2, The Tête à Tête, 1743-45, © The National Gallery, London

Who was William Hogarth, and why is his contribution to art history so important?

Hogarth was the most original and influential English artist of the eighteenth century—a brilliant social observer and story-teller who created a new role for the visual artist as a kind of social commentator.

Hogarth lived during a time of tremendous social, cultural and economic change, and his art captured a sense of how the world was changing, towards what we might now recognise as the modern world today.

Why has Hogarth’s work had such a lasting impression on the British imagination?

Hogarth created paintings and prints that were not only hugely successful during his lifetime but have proved enduringly popular. There is so much going on in his images and they are open to endless interpretation, but above all they have a kind of immediacy, you get the sense of being given a vivid insight into people, places and situations as they may really have been.

Take Southwark Fair for example, where the London crowds seem only moments away from chaos, with an almost cinematic freeze-frame on the collapsing stage about to disastrously crash down onto a ceramics stall. Such directness has continued to impress.

"Hogarth created paintings and prints that were not only hugely successful during his lifetime but have proved enduringly popular"

This exhibition seeks to offer a fresh perspective on Hogarth’s work, how will it do so?

Hogarth’s art is so vividly a record of eighteenth-century London life that it’s tempting to just think about the metropolitan context of his art. But what we hope to show is that eighteenth-century London was a highly cosmopolitan place—with a hugely diverse population by Hogarth’s time—and importantly, with strong connections to Europe and to the world beyond through commerce, culture, and empire. This offers a fresh way of looking at Hogarth’s pictures, thinking about the parallels with other European artists and cities, and exploring how these connect with the wider world.

The Painter and his Pug

William Hogarth, The Painter and his Pug, 1745 Tate

It’s the first time Hogarth’s work has been shown alongside his continental contemporaries. What is the effect of seeing his work in this context?

The idea that Hogarth knew and admired European art and drew upon European influences is not new. But what hasn’t been done before is putting the relevant works together, on the wall. In truth, we are not sure what the results will be. 

There are works which on paper look very much alike, or even derivative, or might look like they contrast in interesting ways. But seeing Hogarth alongside Longhi, Crespi, Chardin, Troost and others will be an opportunity to test these art-historical theories out and make sense of these relationships anew using our eyes. What happens when we place Marriage A-la-Mode alongside Chardin’s White Tablecloth in the flesh?

"The idea that Hogarth knew and admired European art and drew upon European influences is not new"

What are your personal highlights from this exhibition?

We are lucky enough that the show gives a chance to see paintings in London that are hardly ever seen, including some pictures that haven’t been in the UK for many, many decades. Hogarth’s striking portrait of Mary Edwards from the Frick in New York will be on show for the first time in over a century—and it may be his greatest single portrait. And the chance to see Chardin’s remarkable White Tablecloth with Hogarth’s Marriage A-la Mode will surely be a revelation.

Hogarth and Chardin came to paint still-life in very similar ways by the 1730s, but they didn’t meet and probably didn’t see each other’s works until later on. So, it’ll be exciting to see what we will learn when they are exhibited side-by-side.

Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin Still-life: The Kitchen Table circa 1733–1734 National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased 1908

Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin Still-life: The Kitchen Table circa 1733–1734, National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased 1908

What has Hogarth’s legacy been in terms of inspiring other artists?

Hogarth is such a complex artist, able to combine narratives, observation, social satire and straightforward comedy. He doesn’t have a single heir, but there are many artists who have developed one or other strand of his work or way of approaching art. So there are modern day cartoonists and caricaturists—from Martin Rowson and Steve Bell to Spitting Image—who would openly acknowledge their debt to him. But that’s only one aspect of his art—there’s the really sensitive, thoughtful portraiture as well.

Above all, though, Hogarth positioned himself as a social critic and forged his own commercial independence—in this regard he is a father figure not to any particular genre or way of making art, but to all modern artists.

"Hogarth is such a complex artist, able to combine narratives, observation, social satire and straightforward comedy"

Do you have a favourite little-known fact about Hogarth? 

Look out for the scar on his forehead, which he got as a child. Whenever he paints himself in his various pictures, it’s likely to appear—a contemporary said, he “frequently wore his hat so as to display it”.

Hogarth & Europe is on at the Tate Britain from 3 November – 20 March 2022. For tickets, visit tate.org.uk

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