The audiences flocking to the Hogarth exhibition at Tate Britain are there not just to admire the work of a uniquely gifted satirist, but also to discover what Englishness meansby Paul Barker / April 29, 2007 / Leave a comment
Hogarth at Tate Britain (7th February—29th April, £10)
Elbowing your way into the Hogarth exhibition at Tate Britain is like squeezing into an Arsenal match when they’re playing Tottenham at home. By the time it closes on 29th April, this will be one of Tate Britain’s most successful shows. Since Tate Modern was launched in 2000, its Millbank cousin has often felt like a poor relation. But not this time. Opening hours have been extended, and the crowds make it hard to scrutinise the small print—and there’s a lot of it—on Hogarth’s much-loved paintings.
Apparently, visitors are spending twice as long as in most Tate exhibitions: two hours instead of one. The array of words is one reason for the throng. These are pictures that you literally read, as Jenny Uglow pointed out in her fine 1998 biography Hogarth: A Life and a World. Besides the written labels, his best-known images nearly all have a pepper-pot scattering of visual symbols; some of them rather obscure, 250 years later. To pin down all the meanings, you may need to consult Uglow when you get back home, or Tate Britain’s excellent catalogue, or Linda Colley’s wonderful Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (of which Hogarth is a star).
The insular English love visual puzzles and pictures that tell a story, to the despair of global-minded critics, who claim good art isn’t like that. Hogarth delivers these treats by the bucketful. But there’s more than this to the exhibition’s word-of-mouth success. Those who go seem to be looking into an old and valued mirror. The people gazing at the pictures, and the people in the pictures, look like reflections of one another.
In a catalogue essay called “The English face,” the art historian Mark Hallett discusses Hogarth’s portraiture. The bluff, cheerful portrayal of the philanthropist and ship-owner Captain Thomas Coram, for example, was part of Hogarth’s campaign against Frenchified artifice in English life. But stand with your back to such pictures and look out into the crowd. You see there’s still such a thing as the English face. A tentative, slightly dogged look; a fresh skin; eyes that slide away; a hovering smile; wispy, mid-coloured hair. All this perched on top of a recognisably English shape, to describe which you only need say, fondly, “Marks & Spencer.” (This is, of course, how you can…