William Hogarth would most likely have preferred to have been remembered as a talented painter who supported his efforts at fine art by producing popular engravings for the mass market. It is, however, his work with the engraver’s needle rather than the brush and easel for which he is best remembered.
Hogarth’s Early Life
Hogarth was born on November 10th 1697 in London’s Smithfield area, the fifth child of Anne Gibbons and Richard Hogarth, a teacher, unsuccessful businessman and debtor. William was apprenticed at fifteen to an engraver and distant relative, Ellis Gamble. By his early twenties, Hogarth he was working on building his own reputation and business as an engraver.
Producing bookplates and trade cards may have paid the bills but it did not satisfy Hogarth’s desire to be an artist rather than a mere journeyman engraver. Having already taught himself to paint he decided to seek a more formal training and enrolled first at the Vanderbank Academy and later at the private school of James Thornhill in Covent Garden. He not only acquired an education but also a wife, Jane Thornhill with whom he eloped in 1729
William Hogarth Paintings and Engravings
Throughout his life, William Hogarth tried to become successful as a painter of historical themes and while he did manage to secure a few commissions he was never able to realize his ambitions in this particular avenue. However, he enjoyed considerable success as a portrait painter and also produced several small paintings and series which formed the basis for the later engravings. Perhaps, his best work as a painter was “The Shrimp Girl”, an unfinished work which is on prominent display at The National Gallery.
Frustrated by his failure as a historical painter and unsatisfied with working a portrait painter, Hogarth began to concentrate his energies on producing the extremely popular series of morality prints for which is best known. It was here that his energy, eye for the absurd details and wit combined to produce his best work. In contrast to the bland efforts of his contemporaries which were relatively bland and crude, Hogarth created engravings filled with life and subtle references to the topics of his day. Away from the foreground and often completely disassociated from his main theme, he often included caricatures of the rich and famous.
His best engravings include “The Rake’s Progress”, a sequel to the earlier “Harlot’s Progress”, “Marriage à-la-mode” and the “Beer Lane” and “Gin Alley” pair in which the artist compares the prosperity of those enjoying the wholesome goodness of English beer with the misery of their gin drinking counterparts. Gin was considered to be a major cause of crime in the early 18th century leading to the Gin Craze where the consumption of the average Londoner was estimated to be as high as two gallons per year. Hogarth produced the prints in support of the 1751 Gin Act.
William Hogarth died on November 26th 1764 at the age of 66 and is buried alongside his wife Jane at Saint Nicholas Church in Chiswick.