In Review

Hogarth and Europe at Tate Britain: far from anyone’s idea of a ‘little Englander’

Painter conjured up the ‘drunken lads’, beer and roast beef of Old England – but he was no insular jingoist

William Hogarth (1697- 1764) is considered a “founding father” of a particularly British type of art, said Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian. The purveyor of broad, boisterous satires such as A Rake’s Progress (1732-34) and Marriage A-la-Mode (c.1743), Hogarth conjured up the “drunken lads”, beer and roast beef of Old England. Yet as this new exhibition at Tate Britain makes clear, he was no insular jingoist.

The show argues that his satirical scenes in fact owed a great debt to artists working on the continent, where he travelled widely, soaking up the artistic traditions of France, Italy and the Netherlands. Bringing together a host of Hogarth’s paintings, prints and drawings as well as carefully chosen works by his European contemporaries, it presents the artist as a cultural magpie possessed of some remarkably modern sensibilities – and “far from anyone’s idea of a ‘little Englander’”.

This argument is supported with much “fascinating evidence”, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. One section pairs major works by Hogarth with paintings by his European contemporaries, demonstrating their likely influence: his famous self-portrait with a pug is displayed alongside a “compositionally similar” work by the Dutch artist Cornelis Troost, while even the “infamously xenophobic” painting O the Roast Beef of Old England (1748) is shown to display “striking parallels” to a “beautiful” still life by Hogarth’s French contemporary Jean-Siméon Chardin.

Yet halfway through, the exhibition changes tack to mount a “sustained attack” on the artist it ostensibly celebrates. Pious captions berate Hogarth for his perceived racism and the ambivalent portrayal of the slave trade in his work; even the raucous scenes of inebriation he captured so riotously in paintings like The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750) are taken to task for legitimising “laddish” behaviour. Watching the Tate’s curators “in paroxysms of embarrassment” about the art they have chosen to show is distinctly “off-putting”.

True, the captions are “censorious and often barely relevant”, said Jackie Wullschläger in the FT. Nevertheless, get past them and there’s much brilliant work. Every picture brims with detail and “satirical and emotional weight”: The Orgy, a scene from A Rake’s Progress, is a whirl of “syphilitic flesh” and conspicuous consumption; The Beggar’s Opera (c.1728) gloriously pictures the prime minister Robert Walpole as a highwayman. In many respects, this is a very enjoyable show; but the self-righteous sociological lectures obscure “the true Hogarth: the innovator expanding the vision of what art could be”.

Tate Britain, London SW1 (020-7887 8888, tate.org.uk). Until 20 March

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