A Harlot's Progress
'A Harlot's Progress' (1731).

William Hogarth is widely considered to be one of the "Big Three" of 18th century cartooning, together with James Gillray and George Cruikshank. David Low even considered him "the grandfather of the political cartoon". Yet Hogarth was actually closer to being a painter than a cartoonist. While he made some caricatures during his career he mostly brushed full-blown realistic paintings, both in technique as well as content. His work is almost a mirror of 18th century society in its extensiveness: politics, the judiciary, the theatre, fashions... even the more seamy side of life wasn't avoided: prostitution, alcohol abuse, mental asylums and debtor's prisons. Hogarth both satirized as well as moralized his life and times. The thing that makes Hogarth the missing link between painting and cartooning is his use of sequences. Some of his images are part of a conceptual theme and actually tell a story when placed in chronological order. Together with Francis Barlow, who made a similar sequential narrative almost half a century before, Hogarth can be seen as the first prototypical British comics artist.

Early life
Hogarth was born at Bartholomew Close, London in 1697, as the son of a teacher. While still a child his father was sent to a debtor's prison. This harsh experience opened his eyes to the ills of society and inspired his gritty outlook on life. Hogarth enjoyed sketching people he saw in the streets. He took inspiration from many classic painters such as Albrecht Dürer, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphaël, Michelangelo, Nicolas Poussin, Jacques Callot, Peter Paul Rubens and his idol, James Thornhill, whose daughter he would marry in 1729. He started making engravings in the 1720s, working as an apprentice for Ellis Gamble, who worked at the Golden Angel in Cranbourne Street, London. The shopcard that Hogarth designed is still extant today. His earliest works already have a satirical edge. 'Emblematical Print on the South Sea Scheme' (1721) depicts the corruption and credulity which had caused the financial collapse of the South Sea Company. The detailed engraving was full with archetypes of all layers of 18th century city life, including noblemen, economists, buyers of stock, priests, gamblers, criminals and whores. Another print, 'The Bad Taste of the Town' (1723-1724), tackles fashion, while 'A Just View of the British Stage' (1724) mocks British theatre and is notable for its use of speech balloons. Other works by Hogarth that make use of speech balloons are 'Masquerades and Operas' (1724) and 'The Cunicilarii' (1726).

A Just View Of The British Stage
'A Just View of the British Stage' (1724).

Prototypical comics
In 1727 a client ordered Hogarth to make a painting, 'Element of Earth'. When Hogarth presented the finished work the man refused to pay, since he assumed that the artist was a professional painter, not "just" an engraver. Hogarth sued and won the case on 8 May 1728. The case increased his notability and soon the demand for his art rose. In the 1730s Hogarth started making the works he is most famous for today: 'A Harlot's Progress' (1731), 'A Rake's Progress' (1735), 'Four Times Of The Day' (1736), 'Marriage à-la Mode' (1745), 'Industry and Idleness' (1747), 'Beer Street and Gin Lane' (1751) and 'Four Stages of Cruelty' (1751). All of them feature people leading a life of debauchery or crime who pay the penalty for their immoral behaviour afterwards. Highly moralistic, the works are of great interest to historians today because they offer a glimpse in both the highest as well as the lowest echelons of 18th century Britain. To get his message across, Hogarth didn't have enough with just one painting. He made a minimum of four, maximum six to seven consecutive images per series. Each one allows the viewer to gradually follow the downfall of one individual through several chronological and significant moments in time.

A Rake's Progress
'A Rake's Progress' (1735).

'A Harlot's Progress' (1731), for instance, depicts in six plates the rise and fall of a young prostitute. We see her selling her body for money, getting arrested for it, succombing to poverty and eventually dying of syphilis at the age of only 23. Her disgrace doesn't end there, though. In the final panel her coffin is used as a tavern bar, ironically enough in the presence of other whores and whoremongers, bringing the story full circle. A male version of this morality tale can be found in 'A Rake's Progress' (1735), where a man gradually loses all his money on wine, women and gambling. In the course of eight successive paintings we see him get locked up in a debtor's prison and finally a mental asylum. 'Marriage à-la-mode' (1745) is a similar riches-to-rags story - told in six pictures - where a marriage for money eventually leads to a life of unhappiness. 'The Four Stages of Cruelty' (1751) is the artist's most gruesome morality tale. In four pictures we see how a young boy tortures animals, becomes a criminal as an adult and is eventually hung at the gallows. His corpse is then used for dissection by surgeons.

Marriage a la Mode by William Hogarth
'Marriage à-la Mode' (1745).

In other works Hogarth uses two parallel stories to contrast the "good" path with the "bad" one. 'Industry and Idleness' (1747) shows in twelve engravings how hard work is rewarded, while idle life leads to misery. Both paths are personified in characters: the good Francis and the lazy good-for-nothing Tom Idle. As the story progresses we see how Francis is rewarded for his noble, devout life, while Tom's spendthrift life leads to ruin. In 'Four Times of the Day' (1736) the wholesome life of rich Londeners is compared to the miserable existence of the poor. Both lifestyles are shown in two pictures each. A similar work is 'Beer Street and Gin Lane' (1751) where the carefree life of beer drinkers is shown on the left. On the right side gin addicts are portrayed as citizens in a city of decay. Amidst all the drunk, mad and poor people we see an intoxicated prostitute with syphilitic sores on her legs. She is so far gone that she doesn't even notice her baby slipping from her arms and plummiting to its doom.

Beer Street and Gin Lane
'Beer Street and Gin Lane' (1751).

Hogarth's unusual practice of telling stories through the use of consecutive paintings can be rooted to his background as a book illustrator. He collaborated with satirical novelist Henry Fielding (best known for 'Tom Jones') and illustrated the frontispiece of his play 'The Tragedy of Tragedies' (1731). In return Fielding wrote an inquiry for Hogarth's prints 'Beer Street and Gin Lane' and 'The Four Stages of Cruelty'. Hogarth's picture-stories were very innovative for the time, though not entirely new. Some medieval woodcuts about the lives of Roman Catholic saints were also told in several successive images. But the artists who made them have mostly remained anonymous.Many illustrators in the centuries before and during Hogarth often told their story sequences within one and the same image, rather than two clearly separately framed pictures. This often has a confusing effect on the modern-day viewer. Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, Frans Hogenberg, Antonio Tempesta, Otto van Veen, Jacques CallotFrancis Barlow and Romeyn de Hooghe are the first whose rare sequential narratives we can identify by a signature. Even Francis Barlow, whom can be considered the first undeniable prototypical comic strip artist, only made one work, 'The Horrid Hellish Popish Plot' (1682), that supports his honorific title.

Hogarth, on the other hand, made several sequential narratives! And not just split in two images, but spread over four to sometimes seven or eight pictures. His works are much closer to actual stories than the paintings and engravings of the pioneers before him. There is a clear "start" as well as an often bleak "ending". In each image we see the same character(s) reoccur. Since Hogarth doesn't cram all the events in one image it's much easier to "read" and understand the narrative. Also important to notice is that his narratives are entirely based on self-created fictious characters, rather than real-life politicians, biblical characters or Greco-Roman mythological beings. In short, no other prototypical comics artist comes closer to our notion of a "modern" comics creator than Hogarth. And while we don't have any personal account by Bosch, Bruegel, Hogenberg, Callot, Barlow or De Hooghe to get insight in their train of thought behind their sequential narratives Hogarth did leave us these revealing written explanation: "I wished to compose pictures on canvas, similar to representations on the stage. I have endeavoured to treat my subject as a dramatic writer; my picture is my stage, and men and women my players, who by means of certain actions and gestures are to exhibit a dumb show."

The Enraged Musician by William Hogarth
'The Enraged Musician' (1740).

Some of Hogarth's work is directly comparable to humorous cartoons, such as 'The Enraged Musician' (1740), in which a practicing violinist is disturbed by noisy people outside, including a squawking parrot, a barking dog, a mother with her bawling baby, street vendors, a boy playing a drum, a girl with a rattle, a man moaning with tooth ache, a paviour and a knife-grinder. 'The Distrest Poet' (1741) is a tragicomic oil painting which depicts a poor poet suffering from writer's block, while his wife darns clothes, his child cries, his dog steals his last food away and the milkmaid is at the door complaining about an unpaid bill. 'The Bench' (1758) is a humorous caricature of four pompous judges in court, while 'Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism' (1762) lampoons a Methodist preacher who is seen holding marionets of a witch and a devil in his hands.

Hogarth also delighted in parody. 'A Harlot's Progress' spoofs certain poses found in paintings by Dürer and Da Vinci and 'Five Orders of Periwigs' (1761) satirizes the wig fashions of his day through a parody of the Greco-Roman canon of beauty. 'Humours of an Election' (1755) is comparable to a political comic strip. In four narrative paintings the viewer is treated to a satirical depiction of political candidates preparing for election, polling and eventually getting their votes. The work is an interesting document of 18th century politics, but at the same time it's also timeless in its depiction of naïve voters and dishonest corrupt government officials. In the first image, 'An Election Entertainment', we see a candidate being forced to kiss an ugly, but potential female voter. Another politician is bored to death by listening to a drunk, while another collapses from eating to much oysters. The most amusing detail is an election agent knocked from his chair by a brick thrown through the window. In the next two images, 'Canvassing for Votes' and 'The Polling' politicians are bribing and even bringing in mentally disabled and dying people in a desperate effort to get more votes. In the final image, 'Chairing the Member', a victorious candidate is carried around on a chair, but about to fall down because one of the carriers accidentally hit his head. The ceremony is further disgraced by a group of pigs running amok and two chimney sweeps urinating on a bear.

Humours of an Election by William Hogarth
'Humours of an Election' (1755).

Hogarth's paintings and engravings were popular among the people. Prints were commercially distributed all over Europe. 'A Harlot's Progress' in particular inspired a pantomime play, a ballad opera, pamphlets and poems, making it probably the first "comic strip" with adaptations in other media. It even inspired merchandising. Images from the work were painted on fan-mounts and duplicated on tea cups and saucers. The surest sign of the work's popularity was the fact that it was pirated and plagiarized. In 1735 Hogarth added another "first" in comics history to his name when he procured an Act of Parliament to prohibit illegal copies of his work. Soon the Engravers' Copyright Act was established, being the first time in history that the copyrights of an individual artist were legally protected.  In 1757 he was even appointed official painter of the British monarchy, an honour no other cartoonist has ever received since. Posthumously Hogarth was also the first comics artist to have his work actually serialized in a magazine. William Heath and John Watson's The Comick Magazine, which first saw light on 1 April 1796, featured reprints of William Hogarth's picture stories, but only published one illustration a month. Between 13 January and 17 February 1828 a pirate version of 'A Harlot's Progress' was printed with one plate per week in Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle. A Gallery of Comicalities reduced every image to just 2 by 3 inches (50 mm x 75mm) with lenghty typset captions under each one.

Characters and Caricatures
'Characters and Caricatures' (1743).

Controversy and criticism
Like any other cartoonist Hogarth received his share of criticism too. Some felt he was more of a cartoonist than a genuine artist. He replied by making 'Characters and Caricatures' (1743): a drawing of numerous faces - some caricatures, some realistic portrayals - which not only showed his detractors the difference between the two art styles, but also proved that he was able to do both. Once again, this is a clear example of sequential art, with the "naturalistic" portrait appearing right next to the caricature. In 1748 Hogarth visited France, where he sketched the gate of Calais until he was arrested by local authorities under the suspicion of being a spy. He was brought before the governor, but told them he was just an artist. After being forced to draw some very specific sketches he was allowed to return home. Back in England Hogarth immediately ventilated his anger by making a painting called 'The Gate of Calais'. It depicts people carrying a sirloin of beef to an English inn in Calais. The local French villagers are so starved that they all stare at the meat. Some, including some Catholic priests, are even worshipping the food. In the left corner Hogarth depicted himself sketching, while the hand of the soldier about to arrest him can be seen on his shoulder.

'The March of the Guards to Finchly' (1760) satirized the army and was originally intended as a gift for George III of England. But the monarch was insulted by the ridiculing of his troops and refused the work. Hogarth then donated it to Frederick II of Prussia, who appreciated it more. The anti-war satire 'The Times' (1762) caused outrage from politician John Wilkes, who attacked Hogarth's work in his newspaper The North Briton. Hogarth made a cartoon in response, showing the MP wearing a symbolic cap of liberty in such a way that it appears to be a halo along with a wig which looks like demonic horns.

Criticism about his work feels somewhat odd to a modern audience, seeing that many of his contemporaries drew far more amateurishly and vulgar, while Hogarth's distortions of human faces have a certain elegance and understanding of human anatomy. And his paintings definitely show he could draw both very fine as well as realistic. His images are full of significant and symbolic details, which make his work a marvel to look at, time and time again. It's not surprising that the artist wrote a book , 'The Analysis of Beauty' (1753), about the six principles of artistic beauty, namely fitness, variety, regularity, simplicity, intricacy and quantity. At the time this book was the subject of ridicule. Famous painter Joshua Reynolds described it as "vulgar and limited", while his colleague Paul Sandby caricatured Hogarth as an obese con-artist. This negative public reception deeply hurt Hogarth's feelings and he was never quite the same afterwards. In 1763 he suffered a seizure, which paralyzed him. He died a year later.

Satire on False Perspective
'Satire on False Perspective' (1754).

Legacy and influence
William Hogarth passed away in 1764, after suffering a seizure a year earlier which paralyzed him. In many ways the artist was ahead of his time. Not only because of his prototypical comics, but also for works like 'The Shrimp Girl' (1745), which is painted in a loose style which preceeds impressionism by a century. Even more mind boggling is 'Satire on False Perspective' (1754), a work full of optical illusions that predates the engravings of M.C. Escher by two centuries. His vivid style inspired quite some cultural works. 'The Rake's Progress' was made into a ballet (1935) by Gavin Gordon, an opera (1951) by Igor Stravinsky with a libretto by W.H. Auden and a painting (1961) by David Hockney. 'A Harlot's Progress' was also adapted into an opera (2013) by Iain Bell. In 1971 the BBC made a TV biopic drama series, 'Will the Real Mr. Hogarth....?', based on a script by Gerald Scarfe. Hogarth's name also inspired the eponym "Hogarthian", which is both used to describe depictions of 18th century England as well as satirical artworks that capture the spirit of a certain historical period.

Celebrity fans of his work are Horace Walpole, Henry Fielding, Charles Lamb, William Makepeace Thackeray and Ken Loach. He was an influence on artists like John Collier, Cornelis Troost, Carl Michael Bellman, Heinrich Zille, George Cruikshank, Thomas Rowlandson, Josef Danhauser, Thomas Nast, John Collet, John Raphael Smith, George Morland, James Northcote and most notably Rodolphe Töpffer, who is seen as the first "real" comics artist in history. As a child Töpffer saw Hogarth's 'Industry and Idleness', which had a deep impact upon him. More contemporary artists that have been influenced by Hogarth are David Low, Ronald Searle, Robert Crumb, Garry Trudeau, Martin Rowson, Steve Bell, Gerald ScarfeOscar de Wit and Adam Dant. His house is nowadays a museum, located in Chiswick, West London.

Painter and his pug by William Hogarth
'Painter and his Pug' (Self portrait, 1745).

Series and books by William Hogarth in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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