London-based William Hogarth was possibly the first great artist of note to create an individual style that was uniquely English, without a large measure of reference to earlier Continental schools. In an age when other artists followed rules, codes and styles created in antiquity he was bold enough to go in his own direction.
In addition to his own artistic achievements, Hogarth was largely responsible for starting a series of events that began to elevate British art to a level where it would later be taken as seriously as that of Continental countries such as Italy, France and Holland. A champion of local artists to the point of bigotry, it was largely through his efforts that we can see a British school of art forming during the 18th century. He was also unique in combining the humour found in 18th century satirical prints with that of fine art. Hogarth was able to work in several genres, notably humorous satire, historical, and portraiture, but it was the creation of the ‘modern moral subject’ for which he would be best remembered.
William Hogarth was born in 1697. His earliest years were spent living in Bartholomew Close, Smithfield but when he was still young his family moved to the nearby Clerkenwell. Hogarth’s father, Richard, had been a teacher who came to London in the hope of teaching Latin and Greek. Unable to make enough income from teaching he tried his hand at running a coffee shop at St. John’s Gate at which only classical languages could be spoken. It was not a success and when it failed he was held for debt in Fleet Prison in 1707.
William, brought up by well-educated and non-conformist parents, therefore spent his childhood alternating between reasonable comfort and hardship in the less salubrious parts of the metropolis. That period of his life was to remain a constant influence, leaving him embittered towards those he felt had exploited and made promises to his father – particularly booksellers – yet failed to help in time of need.
In 1714 William was apprenticed to the gold and silver engraver Ellis Gamble, based at Leicester Fields. The area had only recently been developed as a residential suburb, on what had previously been fields, but was already being populated by artisans who typically lived above their workshop. The art of silver engraving had rapidly evolved in London after the arrival of skilled Huguenots from France at the end of the 17th century, and where they found a ready market amongst Britain’s aristocracy and wealthy merchants.
Outside of his employment, Hogarth was admiring the painting of leading artists. It would be too ambitious for an untrained young man to attempt anything so grand. Instead Hogarth began thinking about a skill somewhat closer to those he had learnt: engraving pictures on to copper, which would allow him to express himself artistically. In 1720 he set up his own business.
At that same time Hogarth was observing and sketching what he saw around him. He invented for himself a system involving straight lines and letters to record particular events of interest that he could reproduce later. This ability to memorise and later reproduce a scene he had observed was a talent that was to set him apart from other artists. He produced caricatures of people he saw, in the style of Dutch comic paintings. No doubt he was aware of his artistic limitations. Wishing to rise above that of a mere engraver, in the year he started his business venture Hogarth invested two guineas to enroll at the newly-opened art academy at St. Martin’s Lane. There he was able to learn and practice techniques and also meet with members of London’s small artistic community.
The opening of Hogarth’s print shop coincided with the major national disaster of the South Sea Bubble and the following year he produced his first satirical print, attacking those responsible for the greed that led to the financial collapse, which had taken place in August 1720.
In 1724 Hogarth produced his first independently published work, Masquerades and Operas or The Taste of the Town, a satirical attack on the Italian opera, which had for some years been popular with those people who preferred imported art. As with The South Sea Scheme, it featured several actual London locations, transplanted into one scene. Normally such prints would be sold by a book or print-seller who would pay the artist a one-off fee. Hogarth instead chose to bypass the normal publishers and set up his own distribution, selling prints through several outlets for one shilling, a price he probably judged would be attractive to the print-buying middle classes. Counterfeit copies quickly began to appear around town at half the price, with his original prints returned unsold. Refusing to give up, he took out advertisements in the Daily Courant listing the outlets where legitimate prints could be purchased. The episode brought Hogarth’s name to the public for the first time and he continued producing a series of new satirical prints.