William Hogarth: Britain’s Greatest Artist

William Hogarth is one of the most influential artists who ever lived. His prints, which satirise life in Restoration London, changed British art for ever – and the country would be a very different place if it wasn’t for him.

Hogarth is up there with Michelangelo and Rembrandt as one of the greats. His work has inspired everyone from Charles Dickens to modern novelists like Martin Amis and Will Self. And he had an influence on British moral reformers – such as prison campaigner John Howard and children’s writer and charity founder Hannah More – that was every bit as profound as Hogarth’s impact on European painters like Goya and French dramatist Beaumarchais. Even George Orwell had a go, borrowing a quote from Hogarth’s print ‘The Election’ for the title of his anti-Stalinist novel Animal Farm.

Apart from all that, he was a brilliant painter and engraver in his own right – Rembrandt said that if there were no Hogarths to inspire him, he might as well stop painting. In today’s art world – where British artists are worth only a fraction of their foreign counterparts – it is refreshing to find an artist whose appeal endures worldwide.

Hogarth’s life is also exceptional by any standards. Born in 1697 in Eastcheap in the City of London, he was sent off at 15 to work in a silversmith’s shop before taking to the road as a travelling engraver. He got into a fight in Calais and was sentenced to two years in the notorious Dunkirk jail, which inspired ‘The Gate of Calais’, one of his finest works.

Then he returned to London and began his apprenticeship in painting with the leading portrait artist of the day, James Thornhill – who had been Foxy Grandpa in Charles II’s coronation procession when he was just five years old. In 1720 Hogarth started publishing satirical prints that would cause a sensation across England when collected together in book form ten years later as The Harlot’s Progress, Marriage à la Mode and A Rake’s Progress. These darkly humorous pictures are some of Britain’s most important cultural treasures.

Hogarth’s depiction of the daily life of Londoners – from pickpockets, to gamblers and prostitutes – was a revelation to foreigners brought up on tales from The Arabian Nights. But his main concern was to establish British art as an independent force in Europe by promoting a distinctly English tone and style that would enable it to compete with the great painters of France, Italy and Spain. And he did just that.

His first book collection sold out within six months and earned him £500 (£65,000 today). The election scene ‘Election’ is one of Hogarth’s most successful works among many other fine paintings including ‘The Sleeping Congregation’, ‘Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn’ and ‘Beer Street’ and ‘Gin Lane’.

He painted the occasional celebrity – an aged Samuel Johnson is one of his most powerful portraits, while his illustrations to Fielding’s Tom Jones are regularly reprinted – but he preferred to find inspiration in everyday life. His later works like ‘Industry and Idleness’ (1747) and ‘Southwark Fair’ (1733), which shows a country girl tricked into prostitution by city slickers, were warnings against vice that would influence British moral reformers for generations.

Hogarth was also a pioneer in the use of engravings as social commentary: many of his groundbreaking prints were issued as pamphlets so they could be read and digested by the masses. And he wasn’t afraid to court controversy with his prints lampooning the royals. ‘Noon’ shows Queen Caroline, George II’s obese spouse, being lifted into her carriage by two stout footmen. A parody of Rubens’ famous painting The Elevation of the Cross, it is one of several Hogarth prints that were banned by the Crown for decades after their publication.

The king couldn’t stop people buying them though, so he had 6,000 copies seized and burned in front of St James’s Palace – but there was only so much he could do to prevent them circulating in London’s coffee houses. Even today these prints are visceral images that seem fresh despite their age.

When asked why he depicted some images again and again in his prints, Hogarth would answer that it was to improve the form. He once said of his fellow artist and friend William Kent: ‘He draws well; but then I drew better long ago.’

Hogarth didn’t just change British art – he helped invent Britishness. And on this anniversary of his death, what better way to celebrate than by visiting some of the places where he made his name? Take a stroll down Eastcheap in London’s historic City – where, on the corner of Red Lion Street, you’ll find a pedestrian crossing designed as two sets of line-dancing figures. The crossing is called ‘The Lovers’ and it’s instantly recognisable as one of Hog’s most famous images from Marriage à la Mode.

Of course, the ‘line-dancing Lovers’ are not to everyone’s taste – but it is testament to Hogarth’s extraordinary legacy that Londoners can have their transport updated yet still commemorate one of Britain’s greatest artists in the process. He would have loved it.