Hogarth and Europe at Tate Britain review: A stunning show of rarely seen works by London’s iconic artist

Marriage a la Mode: the Tete a tete  (The National Gallery, London)
Marriage a la Mode: the Tete a tete (The National Gallery, London)

Few painters get turned into an adjective, but “Hogarthian” really does conjure up vivid social realism, a satirical take on contemporary morals, bawdy detail and an unflinching willingness to show the ugly underbelly of society. Think Gin Lane; think A Rake’s Progress.

Above all, you think of Hogarth as an English artist, a Londoner: his best known works embody sturdy English Protestantism. So the Tate’s exhibition on Hogarth and Europe seems to promise something intriguing – Hogarth in the context of European art, the Continental painters who influenced him and those influenced by him, those he knew, his trips abroad. It’s not quite what you get.

What you do get is a stunning show of Hogarth’s work; 60 pieces, some of which haven’t been seen in London for decades, some from private collections and US galleries. There are wonderful works here such as Southwark Fair, which is everything we think of as Hogarthian and hasn’t been seen here for fifty years, and a striking portrait from the Frick of the extraordinary woman who owned it, Miss Mary Edwards, which hasn’t been in London for a century.

There are interesting revelations about the way Hogarth repainted elements of A Rake’s Progress. There are some arresting little known pieces: a print of the Rev. Benjamin Hoadly, say, painted “from the life by his wife”, showing him with donkey ears and devil’s or cuckold’s horns, or the shocking Before and After of what looks like a rape.

Miss Mary Edwards, 1742 (The Frick Collection)
Miss Mary Edwards, 1742 (The Frick Collection)

There are also quite wonderful pieces by Hogarth’s contemporaries in the Netherlands, Italy and France (based around huge maps of the great cities). The finest are by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, whose The White Tablecloth (from Chicago), showing, yes, a table with white linen, bread on a board and a glass of wine, is worth the entry price alone. They show that there were social realist painters elsewhere in Europe – the French artist Étienne Jeureat’s Paris street scenes are strikingly vivid – but what they demonstrate is the extent to which Hogarth was in a class of his own for unflinching moralising. Remember David Garrick (there’s a terrific portrait of him here with his Austrian wife) and his epitaph for Hogarth “whose pictured morals changed the mind/ and through the eye correct the heart”.

But what we don’t get at the outset is a straightforward account of where Hogarth travelled in Europe, which painters he knew and which knew him. It’s only with the caption to At the Gates of Calais – a satire on the superstitious, under-fed, fish-eating French – that we learn that he travelled to France to find printers and was nearly arrested as a spy; and later we find he met Chardin in 1743. He was intimate with French Huguenot refugees.

Chardin’s The Kitchen Table (National Galleries of Scotland)
Chardin’s The Kitchen Table (National Galleries of Scotland)

What we get instead is a series of bizarrely earnest panels beside the pictures, on the slave trade, eighteenth century attitudes to race, the problematic origins of its consumer goods and sex. In fact what’s striking is that black people are so often depicted in Hogarth: in his London at Noon, there’s a black servant groping a maid to the satisfaction of both parties. Yes, Hogarth took a moralising approach to “sex work” but he was a patron of the Coram Hospital for foundlings; he knew where it led.

The most shocking picture here is actually the hair-raising depiction of Sir Francis Dashwood as St Francis with Christ on the Cross - with his own object of veneration, a naked woman.

Go to this exhibition for the wonderful work by Hogarth and his contemporaries. But give the asinine wokery a miss.

Tate Britain, November 3 to March 20, tate.org.uk

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