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Books: Master Phiz-Monger

5 minute read

HOGARTH’S PROGRESS (319 pp.]—Pefer Quennell—Viking ($6.50).

Time is the safest of chaperones. Peter Quennell, an Englishman of letters with a well-dressed mind and an impeccable literary accent, who presumably never hobnobs with the spivs, tarts and cosh artists of contemporary London, is nevertheless a knowing and fascinating guide among the harlots and bullies, the stews and sponging houses of 18th century London.

The first notable biography of William Hogarth in some 50 years provides the itinerary of Author Quennell’s historical slumming tour. But his real subject is Hogarth’s model, the alternately claret-flushed and gin-haggard face of 18th century England.

Age in the Mirror. London in Hogarth’s age was a smallish city, as statistics go now. It was a place where the procession to the pillory of a popular prostitute (like Moll Hervey, who was set up at the Blackamoor’s Head and Sadler’s Arms in Hedge Lane) or an unpopular madam (like Mother Needham of Park Place, St. James’s) might bring out a bigger crowd than a coronation. Londoners were a people who had yet to regard understatement as a virtue or overdrinking as a vice.

The age had its oddities—the religious cranks or impostors like Mary Tofts, the “Godalming rabbit breeder,” who claimed that during her paroxysms she frequently gave birth to rabbits. (For a while nobody in England ate rabbit for fear of encountering a parthenogenetic bunny in the rabbit pie.) It was an undemocratic world, in welfare-state terms, but the duke would bet with the chimney sweep at a cockfight. It was a world that had not yet been promised freedom from fear; yet aggressive personal courage seems to have been the common virtue.

It had no theories of equality between the sexes; yet men apparently loved their own (and each other’s) wives in those unenlightened times more than Dr. Kinsey concedes to the present. It was not a mealymouthed age; “nasty stinking breath” was the King’s English of the second George for “halitosis.” Above all, it was always tough-minded and could look at itself in the mirror. Hogarth made the mirror.

Cue for Genius. One of those inevitable accidents which mark the life of a genius turned Hogarth into the delineator of his age, or in his own phrase, its “master phiz-monger.” He was just another London apprentice (his job was incising coats of arms on the gentry’s silver plate), wandering about town like so many young men, knowing himself to be a genius, but not knowing what to be a genius about. A tavern brawl gave him his cue. A Sunday drinker clobbered another over the scalp with a quartern tankard. In 18th century terms it was a “laughable subject,” what with the man all bloody and grimacing with pain. Hogarth made a sketch that delighted his fellow apprentices, and thus he found his life work. He could do this stuff on copper, and copperplate prints of current events were the picture magazines of the day.

He married, well and sensibly, the daughter of the man who had painted the dome frescoes of Christopher Wren’s brand-new St. Paul’s. She never seemed to mind the odd company her husband kept. He visited jails, courts, hangings and Bedlam; wherever he went, his notebook went with him. Historian Quennell has identified no fewer than 160 personages who figured in Hogarth’s prints. Even the madam in A Harlot’s Progress —showing the education of a young trollop named Moll Hackabout—was an actual bawd. Quennell has also gone to the trouble of looking up the proud descendant of the most industrious rake of the period, a Colonel Chartres, whose lickerish grin Hogarth recorded in etching acid.

Celebration of Life. Hogarth was short, disputatious, and never put on airs: even in prosperity he wore a plain scarlet coat (the grey flannel suit of the day). Prints were his living, but painting was what he best liked to do. His style was underestimated then as now. When he died, at 66, the extraordinary pictures now known as Hogarth’s Servants and The Shrimp Girl were found. The canvases reveal that the man who was a journalist on a copperplate was also a brilliant innovator in oil, a forerunner of Delacroix and the impressionists. They also tell of a good, simple man who in a world of gin, debt and the smallpox, was able to see life as it glowed in the living flesh, as a thing to be celebrated.

Quennell’s tour of London with Hogarth is worth the price, especially as the writer avoids the impasto of art criticese. A master with a complex literary man like Byron or Gibbon or Ruskin, Biographer Quennell is perhaps too fastidious an escort to the knocking-shops of old Drury (he calls a tavern a boite), and at times barely escapes writing like Henry James covering an all-in female wrestling bout. Hogarth, however, is indestructible, and an age said to be best represented by Picasso’s Guernica is in no position to sneer either at artist or model.

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