Samuel Johnson wrote poetry and essays while also attempting drama and fiction; Fielding and Smollett began as dramatists before they ever considered writing novels; Defoe mastered every single form of the eighteenth century, and invented several new ones. This variousness can of course be studied as part of the English appetite for heterogeneity in all its forms, but variety is also an old London dish. Dryden’s dramatised version of Paradise Lost, The State of Innocence, has been described as that of “a London citizen and his wife mixing on familiar terms with angels and archangels,” 1 a dialogue which has less to do with seventeenth-century London than with the inheritance of the medieval mystery plays on the streets of Clerkenwell and Cheapside. It is the same appetite which Dryden himself apostrophised in his dedication of Love Triumphant; he declared that the mixture of tragedy and comedy was “agreeable to the English Genius. We love variety more than any other Nation; and so long as the Audience will not be pleas’d without it, the Poet is oblig’d to humour them.” The condition of London itself encourages a life, or sense of life, in which contraries meet. Without contraries, one Cockney visionary once wrote, there is no progression.
Yet when everything is contiguous, there is danger of so close a contact that distinction ends. This was conveyed by metaphors of the plague, when in one essay Fielding suggested that public assemblies in the city were “as infectious by Example, as the Plague itself by Contact.” The same vision was promulgated by Charles Dickens when he surmised that it is certain “that the air from Gin Lane will be carried, when the wind is Easterly, into May Fair, and that if you once have a vigorous pestilence raging furiously in Saint Giles, no mortal list of Lady Patronesses can keep it out of Almacks.” It was often observed that in London the living must keep close company with the dead. Hogarth depicted this in Gin Lane . The same sense of mortal contagion infects the dramatic and novelistic representations of urban life, where “fever” and “fevered dreams” are constantly invoked.
In a world where all marks of rank and distinction can also be blurred, as if in masquerade, there is the danger of social slippage. That is precisely why the novels and plays and paintings of the period are concerned with the ambiguities of gentility and criminality, as well as by the urgent aspirations of one or another character to move forward in the social hierarchy.
The role of chance meetings and unexpected events, generally against the background of the “mob” or crowd, is as integral to the fiction of Fielding or Smollett as to that of Dickens. Thus in Fielding’s Amelia (1752) a “trifling adventure,” a perambulation in “the green fields in London” by the heroine and her husband, is capable “of producing the most unexpected and dreadful events.” Such is the quality of chance or fortune in London, where a population of socially fluid characters are engaged in incidents over which they have no control; the “events” are “unexpected” because they conform to no observable plan or pattern. This mutability is mimicked by the novels themselves, which shift unexpectedly from allegory to history, from heroism and high sentiment to pantomime and melodrama. Pierce Egan’s Life in Londonis a narrative adventure diverted and diffused by verse, philosophical speculation, topographical enquiry, romance and passages of song. Egan even manages to include an operatic score. This vision of the world is comprehensive and capacious without necessarily being complex or profound. It accommodates arbitrariness, inscrutability and endless change.
Yet Charles Dickens, of all novelists, knew that the city was not necessarily random or inscrutable; rather, that the mystery of London lay in its interconnectedness. His own novels represent by means of image and symbol such an interpenetration of lives and destinies that London itself is packed to blackness with accumulations of suffered or shared experience. “Draw but a little circle,” he wrote in Master Humphrey’s Clock, “above the clustering housetops, and you shall have within its space everything, with its opposite extreme and contradiction close by.” Here “life and death went hand in hand; wealth and poverty stood side by side; repletion and starvation laid themselves down together” and here also were “wealth and beggary, vice and virtue, guilt and innocence . . . all treading on each other and crowding together.” He described “the restlessness of a great city, and the way in which it tumbles and tosses before it can get to sleep,” as if it had somehow to encompass its multitude before it rests; if it ever can rest, that is, with the “streams of people apparently without end . . . jostling each other in the crowd and hurrying forward.” Spectacle and melodrama are intrinsic aspects of the London vision and thus, by extension, of the English imagination itself. Yet it is not a false or ignoble sensibility. It allows pathos and sublimity no less in the canvases of Turner than in the pages of Dickens where “every voice is merged, this moonlight night, into a distant ringing hum, as if the city were a vast glass, vibrating.”
Hogarth’s Night, executed in 1738, is very much a stage-set or a nocturnal tableau in which the tall buildings of brick are its “wings”; crowded upon the stage of stone and cobbles are vagrant children, drunks and an overturned coach. Gin is being poured into a keg, while urine is discharged from a chamber-pot out of a first-floor window. Fire is spreading in the foreground, and in the background are signs of a larger conflagration. “We will therefore compare subjects for painting,” Hogarth wrote, “with those of the stage.” In his graphic works action and contrast thrive in dramatic chiaroscuro; exits and entrances are manifold. Healthy “Beer Street” and noxious “Gin Lane” exist side by side; the purse-proud milliner passes a wretched whore, and the plump child of esteemed parents struts beside a vagrant girl eating broken crusts out of a gutter. Here dwell incongruity and difference but, curiously, in the light and atmosphere of London they are for a moment united. It may be wrong, then, to conclude that London artists are not capable of profundity.
In every respect Hogarth conceived of himself as a distinctly and defiantly English artist. He was born at Smithfield in 1698, and his art became identified with the raucous streets of the city. He began in a hard trade, that of a goldsmith’s engraver, but quickly realised the commercial possibilities of political satire. He was a wonderful artist, who excelled in the realm of portraiture, but he managed to combine genius with business in an exemplary manner. He secured the passage of legislation, known as “Hogarth’s Act,” to protect the copyright of engravers. Like Blake and Turner, he was short, stocky and pugnacious. In a letter to the St. James’s Post in June 1737, he con-demned those dealers in art who “depreciate every English work, as hurtful to their trade, of continually importing shiploads of dead Christs, holy families, Madonnas . . . and fix on us poor Englishmen the character of universal dupes.” He declared that he would rather depict an “English cook-maid” than a Venus, and in one print displayed crowds attending an Italian opera while the works of Dryden, Congreve and Shakespeare are cried out as “waste paper for shops.” So Hogarth aligned himself with an English dramatic tradition at the same time as he promulgated a wholly native art. That is perhaps the reason for the marked resemblance between some of his caricatures or grotesques and the “babooneries” in the margins of medieval psalters; the same spirit of gross and popular art is abroad. It is of course in the nature of English genius that it steals from foreign compositions even as it disparages them, and Hogarth borrows from European artists as disparate as Raphael and Watteau; there is always this sense, in even the most defiantly “nationalist” art, that the English imagination has been quickened and revivified by contact with European sources. Yet ultimately the scene is that of contemporary London, and the tradition Hogarth invokes is that of Shakespeare and Pope, Swift and Defoe.
Kemble as Hamlet, painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence. The image of the introverted romantic hero, “dark cloaked against murky skies.”
“No reasonable offer refused.” Widow Twankey, like Juliet’s Nurse and Cinderella’s Ugly Sisters, was a descendent of the nagging Mrs. Noah, played for broad comedy by a man in skirts. Equally, Dan Leno’s comic asides to the audience found their roots in the medieval mystery plays.
Hesitancy and awkward formality: “Mr. and Mrs. Andrews” by Thomas Gainsborough. Are they embarrassed to be the owners of such a landscape?
Theatre in painting: “Mr. B. finds Pamela writing.” From Joseph Highmore’s illustrations for Richardson’s novel Pamela.
Pegwell Bay, Kent, “A Recollection of October 5th 1858” by William Dyce: the landscape of the English shore-line “touched by mystery and enchantment.”
“Margate from the Sea” by J. M. W. Turner, “the Cockney boy who felt the romance of the ocean, becoming once more the seafarer of the Anglo-Saxon lament.”
The romantic imagination: “The artist is then one surrounded by invisible powers.” “The Great Day of His Wrath,” from John Martin’s Judgement series.
The celebrated painting by Henry Wallis of the doomed young poet, Chatterton, the most successful faker of the eighteenth century.
“Stroud: An Upland Landscape” by Philip Wilson Steer. It was in the Malvern Hills that Langland dreamed his marvellous dream and Elgar was inspired to express yearning and nostalgia in The Dream of Gerontius .
“Reliance upon practical detail and purposeful experiment seems to breathe an English spirit.” “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” by Joseph Wright of Derby.
The open elaboration of the Lloyds Building reflects an English love of surface decoration.
His first paintings were of scenes from Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera , in which “high” and “low” are confounded, but his gift for moral portraiture can be seen most clearly in relation to Langland or Chaucer. Only in the city can true drama and allegory be discovered. “In these compositions,” he wrote, “those subjects which will both entertain and improve the mind, bid fair to be of the greatest utility, and must therefore be entitled to rank in the highest class.” That emphasis upon “utility” might of itself be enough to characterise his English genius, but his demotic and egalitarian temper is also pertinent. He dwelled keenly upon the details of “low life,” and crowded his engravings with the weak and helpless. In part it represents a Hogarthian defiance of “high” art, and a kind of embarrassment at the striking of heroic or historical attitudes; in practice, too, it relies upon the representation of homely or familiar details rather than the grandly or generally expressive painterly gesture. The deflation of magnificence has always been part of the English imagination.
Hogarth also depicts pantomimes and masquerades on the streets of London, as if in implicit homage to the theatrical reality by which they are surrounded. In an engraving completed in the early months of 1724, Masqueradesand Operas, the London crowd is seen to patronise a pantomime entitled The Necromancer; in the same street, Haymarket, is displayed the notice for a midnight masquerade. Hogarth also drew Punch, whom in The Analysisof Beauty he called “droll by being the reverse of all elegance, both as to movement and figure.” The same may be concluded of the Londoners in his engravings, who are often rendered as caricatures or as types.
Hogarth is of London, too, in his disregard for the conventional pieties of Christianity. Turner died murmuring that the sun was god, and this pagan spirit is very much part of the city’s instinctive and energetic life. In the fifth plate of Marriage-à-la-Mode, Hogarth parodies the Descent from the Cross in the dying posture of a nobleman; he also parodied the effects of sermonising in The Sleeping Congregation and burlesqued William Kent’s altar-piece at St. Clement Danes Church. One curious detail may be mentioned in this context. In The Sleeping Congregation Hogarth has included an hour-glass, but this is only one of the many time-pieces which he incorporates within the scenes of London. In the work entitled Morning the clock of St. Paul’s Church is clearly visible, with an image of Father Time above it and the legend “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi” below. Smoke rises from a chimney pot towards these emblems of time, as if to represent the elements of transitoriness and forgetfulness in the passages of London life. In such paintings as The Graham Children and The Lady’s Last Stake, clocks appear as emblematic features of a rushing or decaying world. In his last completed work, Tailpiece, or The Bathos, he again depicts Father Time with his scythe at a ruinous tavern in Chelsea known as “The World’s End”; here on the edge of London is the broken portal of eternity. So Hogarth was vouchsafed an intuition of London existence in the context of time and evanescence. It has been remarked that, the more local and specific a sensibility, the more it may aspire to universality. It is appropriate, therefore, that, in the words of one historian of art, Hogarth “was the first British artist ever to achieve international fame.”2 We may go further, and suggest that he was one of those Cockney artists who saw real visions in the streets of London.
His influence was profound, but also particular. Rowlandson, Gillray and Cruikshank were the three principal English caricaturists who considered themselves to be in the Hogarthian tradition of London portraiture, combining a fluency of line with a gift for grotesque or comic observation. The cartoons of Gillray and Rowlandson are vigorous and energetic, filled with the life and variety of the city, savagely denunciatory or gargantuan and tumultuous. They were true London artists because they were entranced by the scenic and the spectacular; in a city built upon greed and upon commerce, Gillray in particular was preoccupied with the shadows of money and power. His great works are striated with light and darkness, as if he were an heroic artist of the streets. He was neither sentimental nor introspective; his power came out of caricature and theatrical display, even though a note of rancid poetry emerges in some of his more demonstrative compositions. Each one strikes a different attitude, some grave, some gay, with a readiness of wit and rapidity of association which are also associated with urban life. As one historian of the national character has observed, the dweller in a great town “is always receiving fresh impressions; and he may readily fall into a longing for a constant renewal of his sensations.” 3
The book illustrations of Cruikshank were perfectly equivalent to the early urban vision of Charles Dickens, too, with their fierce air of constriction and incarceration. There is a famous illustration of Fagin in the condemned cell at Newgate, of which Chesterton wrote that “it does not merely look like a picture of Fagin; it looks like a picture by Fagin.” There is something feverish about Cruikshank’s genius, peculiarly apt in a city itself often described as fevered. In later life Cruikshank often declared that he had been the principal begetter of Oliver Twist and his sad history, and it is possible that he did in fact conceive of an Hogarthian “progress” of the orphan from poverty and misery to wealth and happiness.
One critic wrote, in 1844, that anyone who wished to “estimate the genius of Mr. Dickens” should “read the essays by Charles Lamb and by Hazlitt, on the genius of Hogarth.” There is indeed a true and powerful affinity. Dickens was often described as “Hogarthian”; the novelist and the artist were believed to possess the same strident urban sensibility. The resemblance is not fortuitous. Dickens was a keen admirer of Hogarth’s work, and his imagination was partly trained by his absorption of Hogarth’s engravings. Hogarth’s depiction of Gin Lane helped to create Rowlandson’s The Dram Shop and Cruikshank’s Gin Shop, for example, but it was also the inspiration for an early essay by Dickens entitled “Gin-Shops”; the young novelist describes in vivid terms precisely the same spot which Hogarth had depicted eighty-seven years before. Just as Hogarth dwelled in loving detail upon the critical mass of crowds in March to Finchley and Southwark Fair, so Dickens exclaimed that “we revel in a crowd of any kind—a street ‘row’ is our delight.” Hogarth and Dickens were both preoccupied with gaols and asylums, as if they represented a true image of London; the third plate of A Rake’s Progress is best and most fully interpreted in the account of Mr. Pickwick’s incarceration in the Fleet Prison. But they were both entranced by fairs and street carnivals so that Hogarth’s Southwark Fair is amplified by Dickens’s essay on “Greenwich Fair.” In their works the city becomes both prison and theatre, fairground and madhouse. Oliver Twist has as its subtitle “A Parish Boy’s Progress” in direct homage to Hogarth, while the more pathetic scenes of Nicholas Nick leby were described by Forster as “like a piece by Hogarth, both ludicrous and terrible.” They both dwelled upon minute particulars. In Hogarth’s third plate of Marriage-à-la-mode, for example, a quack’s surgery is seen to contain a fish’s skeleton, a tripod, an odd shoe, a sword, a model of a human head, a top hat, pill boxes, and so on. Dickens describes the interior of the old curiosity shop as containing “suits of mail standing like ghosts in armour . . . fantastic carvings brought from monkish cloisters, rusty weapons of various kinds; distorted figures in china, and wood, and iron, and ivory; tapestry and strange furniture.” Both artists packed their work with strong detail, as if attempting to convey all the fragmentation and adventitious chaos of the urban world. It could even be argued that some of Dickens’s success and popularity sprang directly from the fact that he rendered Hogarth’s engravings legible and readable; he gave the artist’s vision a literary life.
The example of Charles Dickens will in any case confirm that the influence of Hogarth’s vision was not confined to artists. Just as Hogarth borrowed some of his satire from Pope—particularly from that visionary poem of London The Dunciad—so in turn Hogarth influenced Samuel Johnson. One of Johnson’s essays for The Idler is a direct commentary upon Hogarth’s print of Evening in the city. Yet the artist’s most formidable bequest was to those eighteenth-century novelists who shared his sense of the urban world. Hogarth and Samuel Richardson were on terms of familiar acquaintance, for example, and Richardson’s Pamela borrows directly from A Harlot’s Progress and A Rake’s Progress. Richardson’s Apprentice’s Vade Mecum wishes that “the ingenious Mr. Hogarth would finish the portrait.” Henry Fielding called Hogarth one of the most “useful Satyrists that any Age hath produced” and, in his preface to Joseph Andrews, praised “the ingenious Hogarth” for his ability “to express the affections of men on canvas . . . it is a much greater and nobler applause, that they appear to think.” In Tom Jones, also, Fielding interrupts his narration to exclaim, “O Hogarth! had I thy pencil!” Hogarth himself was not averse to borrowing from Fielding; his Industry and Idleness, which recorded the careers of industrious and idle apprentices, was clearly indebted to the novelist’s account of criminality in Jonathan Wild published four years earlier. There is here a consonance of attitude and taste which surely belongs to the broader history of the English imagination.
It has been observed that Laurence Sterne is heavily indebted to Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty—Corporal Trim’s flourish with his stick copies the artist’s “serpentine line of beauty”—and Sterne’s sermon upon “Felix’s Behaviour Towards Paul” serves as a commentary upon Hogarth’sPaul Before Felix. Tobias Smollett invokes Hogarth in his principal novels. “It would take the pencil of Hogarth,” he wrote in Roderick Random, “to express the astonishment and concern of Strap”; an expression in Humphry Clinker “would be no bad subject for a pencil like that of the incomparable Hogarth, if any such ever appear again, in these times of dullness and degeneracy.” In the context of this admiration, then, it may be appropriate to consider the novel as a specifically London form.