The New Republic
Hogarth: A Life and a Worldby Uglow, Jenny Uglow, Jennifer S. Uglow
A landmark account of the great English artist's tumultuous life and times
William Hogarth (1697-1764) was perhaps London's greatest and best-known chronicler. The exuberant expansion and upheavals of city life furnished him with the subjects of the elaborate prints that made him famous, and that remain our finest and most fantastic visual record of/b>… See more details below
A landmark account of the great English artist's tumultuous life and times
William Hogarth (1697-1764) was perhaps London's greatest and best-known chronicler. The exuberant expansion and upheavals of city life furnished him with the subjects of the elaborate prints that made him famous, and that remain our finest and most fantastic visual record of eighteenth-century England.
Evoking Hogarth's fierce nationalism, his philanthropic vision, and his antagonistic dance with London's artists and patrons, Jenny Uglow's acclaimed biography "crackles with vitality and sparkles with insights" (Michael Holroyd). In the company of his friends and peers--Swift, Gay, Pope, and the rest--Hogarth burned to expose hypocrisy and yearned to be recognized as a painter in the grand old tradition. In decoding his work's details and damning references--to craven leaders and corrupt institutions, and the beloved, tragicomic tribulations of rakes, harlots, and common citizens--Uglow breathes life into his accomplishment and his thwarted ambition, showing herself at every turn "in sympathetic rapport with Hogarth the man" (P.N. Furbank, The New York Review of Books).
The New Republic
Uglow, biographer of Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot (1987), joins the long procession of Hogarth chroniclers and critics, from the contemporary anecdotes of Hogarth's fellow artist George Vertue to the authoritative three-volume opus of art historian Ronald Paulson. William Hogarth was 18th-century Britain's defining genius, a native artist who combined realism with caricature in representing his times. Steeped in the artist and the era alike, Uglow approaches her subject with enthusiasm and affection, though she enjoys explicating his works more than his character. Hogarth's pugnacious ambition propelled him from a humble, dull apprenticeship as a silver engraver to the most popular printmaker of his day and a turbulent life as an independent artist. His ambition endeared him to the likes of Fielding and David Garrick, but it also lost him placement as a painter in the Hanoverian court and among his more classical peers. Uglow's familiar portrait of this careerist of genius is freely embellished throughout with digressions into the environment and events that inspired him, including the multitudinous London of his "modern moral subjects," the progresses of his harlot and rake; the Foundling Hospital and his groundbreaking portrait of its founder, Captain Thomas Coram; the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745; and the contentious General Election of 1754, wonderfully skewered in Hogarth's Election series. Although he may have overreached himself in later years with his tendentious treatise, The Analysis of Beauty, and his untaken bid at Old Mastery, Sigismonda, he was always a lively and entertaining figure, always bustling and skirmishing with the artistic establishment.
Hogarth and his century were never dull, nor is Uglow's expansive, diverting book.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.54(w) x 9.52(h) x 2.11(d)
Read an Excerpt
Books and the man I sing, the first who brings
The Smithfield muses to the ear of Kings.
ALEXANDER POPE, The Dunciad, 1728
If you cross the open space of Smithfield, heading north towards the long sheds of the market, and cast a look over your shoulder, suddenly the golden cross on the top of St Paul's Cathedral glints over the roofs of St Bartholomew's Hospital to the south. Cutting down that way, where Bartholomew Close opens into the curving lane of Little Britain, the whole dome swings into sight, blocking the view, swelling above its columns and classical pedestal. On a clear March day, with a touch of snow in the wind, the great curves and angles of the dome stand stark, catching the glinting sun. In a July noon, it hangs and shimmers, sailing above the jostling streets, the cranes on the building sites, the jams at the traffic lights, the black-glass office building where the Fleet prison stood, the granite-like front of the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey. The City grows, is demolished, rises again, brick and glass and concrete. So it grew and was demolished and rebuilt through all the years of Hogarth's childhood. No map will quite do, for no map moves so fast.
Bartholomew Close, where William Hogarth was born, escaped the Fire of London. Further west, in September 1666, the flames leapt the Fleet Ditch and roared towards the Strand, but here they only licked the alleys south of Smithfield, blackening the north-east side of St Sepulchre's Church as they burned out. The fire had sparked and rolled across the City, from Pudding Lane to Pie Corner. God's curse on gluttony, said some. Here in Giltspur Street, where the Fortune of War pub used to stand, the statue of the fat Golden Boy still perches above the pavement, hugging his round stomach, warning against greed. Some claimed the Fire was started by Papists and that Frenchmen had been seen throwing fireballs into houses; a poor, deranged Huguenot who 'confessed' was hanged at Tyburn. On the other hand, foreigners such as the Dutch saw the conflagration as a judgement on England's arrogance, showing her 'that God is the only master of the elements, by punishing her, as Lucifer was punished, with the torments of fire'. The official Parliamentary Inquiry split the blame as 'due to the hand of God upon us, a great wind and a season so very dry'. Seven-eighths of the City was lost; thirteen thousand buildings, including eighty-four churches. Men, women and children fled along the waterside and crowds huddled on distant slopes to watch London burn.
The Fire, and the Plague that came before it, and the Civil Wars before that, lived on in the memory of Londoners, as it would for those not yet born, as signs of their precarious world. The Monument to the Great Fire, completed in 1677, rises firmly at the side of one of Hogarth's earliest pants, its inscription damning not incendiary papists, but the wolfish speculators of the South Sea Bubble. Fire, pestilence and greed devoured the people. But behind the Monument, in this print, hovers the shadowy outline of St Paul's, a reminder that grandeur can rise from ashes.
Although worshippers used the new cathedral from 1697, weaving their way through the scaffolding, it was not finally completed until 1710, when Hogarth was thirteen. By then new streets had long since risen around it. Even the new lanes were fourteen feet wide, to allow two drays to pass. But when Hogarth was born, on 10 November 1697, 'next doore to Mr Downinge's the printers', he opened his eyes on to an older world. These houses, untouched by fire, were old and shadowy, built of lath and timber and plaster, with projecting gables and odd angles, slanting window frames and peeling plaster. Hogarth learned to crawl and walk and clamber on sloping floors and crooked stairs.
Bartholomew Close is an oddly shaped courtyard south-east of Smithfield's wide market place. The Close is wedged between the hospital and the old priory church of St Bartholomew the Great, with curving lanes stretching round the buildings to the east, and a crooked dog's-leg alley called Middlesex Passage, which angles round the back of the church. City workers and doctors still use this passage as a short cut to Cloth Fair and the Rising Sun pub, and children's voices still echo here, bouncing off high buildings.
Coming out of the lanes, one finds the elongated diamond of Smithfield vast, dizzying. Distances slide as the eye adjusts from narrow to wide, dark to light. The sloping angles and strange perspectives of Hogarth's prints, which often seem those of the playhouse or the prison, also derive from this rough square, a natural stage set, with its isolated figures or swelling crowds. The space, like Hogarth's art, has an in-built contradiction, ruled simultaneously by butchery and healing: by London's greatest meat market and one of London's greatest hospitals. Brick, flesh and blood.
St Bartholomew's Hospital still dominates the square's southern side as it did in Hogarth's time. In 1704, when Hogarth was seven, the hospital could house nearly four hundred patients, and 'cured and discharged' over two thousand people -- burying one hundred and sixty-five. It was a source of civic pride, its benefactors coming from the great City guilds, the Drapers, Brewers, Merchant Taylors, Grocers and Goldsmiths, and also from poorer trades, plasterers and clothworkers. Some gave 500 [pounds sterling], some 5 [pounds sterling], which was still a month's wages from an artisan. Untouched by the Fire (although it lost much income from City properties) it was fronted by narrow four-storey houses, with half-moon windows, gabled roof spaces above and small shops below. Behind lay interlocking courtyards and, in 1691, 'repaired and beautified', it acquired a new ward, standing on 'Piers and Pillars, under which are Shops that front the Common Passage', the Long Walk leading down to Christ's Hospital.
The square itself had a turbulent, violent history. Here in the market place, in 1381, Wat Tyler was stabbed by the Lord Mayor, his body lugged into the hospital and dragged out again by the mob. Here, under Mary Tudor, Protestant martyrs were burned at the stake, chained to face the church. In 1700, apart from the odd stabbing or brawl, the blood that stained the cobbles was that of beasts, not of men. In a typical year, says Strype's Survey, 70,000 oxen and cows were sold, 540,000 sheep, 200,000 calves, 200,000 hogs and 52,000 pigs. Every Monday and Friday, country drovers rose before dawn to bring their herds and their flocks into the city. Children woke to the bellowing of livestock and the shouting of men. Great spirals of dust, sand and sawdust flew up over the roofs, clouding the early sun, as animals pounded and scuffed in their pens. On Friday afternoons came the horses, amid a barrage of bargains and bets and chinking coin and swearing of deals.
By the late seventeenth century, the tangled streets east of the market -- Cloth Fair, Barley Mow Passage, Cloth Court, Rising Sun Court, Half-moon Court, King Street -- the site of an old textile trade, were occupied by small merchants, artisans and shopkeepers. Hogarth's father Richard, a school-teacher and writer, had moved to Bartholomew Close about seven years before, taking lodgings with John and Anne Gibbons near the narrow passage through to Middlesex Court. This was convenient for the booksellers and printer in Duck Lane and Little Britain, and in the roads running down to Paternoster Square and St Paul's, but he may also have been drawn here because he was a Nonconformist, and the Close was home to many dissenters. The other inhabitants -- 'a joiner, a tobacconist, a baker, an upholsterer, a tailor, a plasterer, a stonecutter, and a painter' -- are all listed on a Nonconformist Register. In Middlesex House, butting on to the church, with a window in its gallery peering directly into the nave, was a small Presbyterian meeting house. The persecution under James II, when worshippers kept look-outs and scurried through secret doors at threats of trouble, had supposedly ended with the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688, when William and Mary took the throne, and the Toleration Act of 1689 allowed dissenters to establish meeting houses unmolested.
William III was himself a Dutch Calvinist, and his name was shared by this latest Hogarth son, born in the week of celebrations between the King's birthday and his triumphant return from the Continent, after the Peace of Ryswick. But toleration was far from secure. Meeting houses were tempting targets in a riot and it was as well to keep in with Anglicans. William's birth was entered in the Nonconformist Register, but he was baptized in St Bartholomew's the Great, on 28 November 1697. The family crossed the Close into Little Britain, their baby swaddled against the autumn chill, hurried under the Tudor gateway, across the rough space where the cloisters once stood, and in through the west door, where the old stone font stood. The wooden cover, carved with tonsured monks, was heaved up on a rope. As the cold water was sprinkled on the baby's brow, the pale November light would have played on the squat, rounded arches of the apse and the tomb of St Rahere, who founded this Priory in 1123 in the swamps outside the city. Since the Reformation, like a rocky outcrop in the urban sprawl, the walls of the church had become encrusted with buildings. The few remaining cloisters became stables. The south transept was a blacksmith's forge, with the anvil so close to the walls that the hammering sounded through the services and smoke blew into the choir. The Lady Chapel was first a house, and then a printer's shop, where Benjamin Franklin would work as an apprentice in the 1720s. All this was part of the eroded patchwork of history that Hogarth inherited.
Hogarth's father, Richard, was an outsider in London. When he came south from Westmoreland in the late 1680s, he was an energetic young man in his mid-twenties, determined to make a living as a writer and teacher. Ten years later he was still in Smithfield, and in November 1690 he had married his landlord's eldest daughter, Anne Gibbons, aged twenty-nine, two or three years his senior. The Gibbons had nine children and, although older siblings moved away, Anne stayed at home, helping with the family business and caring for the younger children. This stage had now passed: the two youngest, still at home, were Mary, aged sixteen, and John, fourteen and on the verge of his apprenticeship. The Hogarths stayed in Anne's parental home, and after her father died in 1692, they lived on there with Widow Gibbons and her boarders. For the next few years Richard ran his school here, supplementing his income by working for the booksellers.
Life had proved hard. Three children were born to the Hogarths in their first four years of marriage, all dying within a few months: John, Elizabeth and Anne. Richard, born in 1695, was healthier. William looked stronger still. The family crowded into the old house, three generations living side by side. Life for such families, who were not destitute but far from rich, was simple and plain: the children might sleep separately from their parents but siblings shared a bed, closed off by heavy curtains to keep out the drafts; rough rugs and straw matting covered the floors. They washed (rarely) in basins or at a pump in the yard. Most cooking was done on an open range, or taken to the bakers' ovens, and the common diet was starchy and substantial -- bread, beef, beer and cheese, and broths of peas and beans. Despite the many London markets, fresh vegetables were scorned and scurvy and rickets were common. Infants such as William were fed gruel and broth, bread and rice with milk. Illness spread easily, and the rats and mice behind the wainscoting helped to carry disease.
Bartholomew Close was no slum, but the circumstances must still have felt bitter to Richard Hogarth, who had come to the city with high hopes. At the end of his life, Hogarth remembered his father with bitter sadness. He had been born around 1663, three hundred miles to the north, the third son of a farming family in the Vale of Bampton, a fertile valley between the Ullswater fells and the northern ridges of the Pennines. (Local shepherds still meet here each autumn to reclaim the sheep separated from their flocks during summer on the heights.) Although Bampton is a small village, Westmoreland was renowned for its grammar schools and the one here was famous, as was the school founded by Archbishop Grindal at St Bees, on the windy Cumberland coast. Richard might have gone to either, he had a good classical education and ran a small school before leaving the sheep-nibbled turf to make his way in London.
Roads had much improved and regular coaches to the North doubled in number after the Restoration; it now took less than a week to reach the capital, but Richard still faced about a hundred hours of travelling. In summer the carts lumbered through dust clouds; in winter they jolted across flooded pot-holes and frozen ruts; overturned wagons and broken wheels were common, robberies scarcely less so. Approaching the capital, the route became increasingly crowded with carriers and market wagons, migrant workers and young apprentices, until, at last, breasting the hill at Finchley, London stretched below, wreathed in a fog of sea-coal smoke, the river curving to the south with the matchstick masts of ships riding the tide. Then the vista disappeared as the road straggled down through villages, market gardens and stable yards through the desert of rubbish dumps, encampments and brick kilns that ringed the city. Those kilns, hastily thrown up for rebuilding after the Fire, would smoke on for a century as the streets and squares rushed ever outwards, eating the lost fields.
Although London was choked and noisy, the late 1680s seemed a good time to come; Protestantism and the populace had triumphed and the times appeared full of opportunity. But this was a limited perception. True, unlike in countries on the Continent, after 1688 Parliament did share power with the monarchy, but Parliament itself was almost completely composed of the landed elite. Its members intended to keep it that way, whichever party held power, whether Whig under William and Mary, or, after 1701, Tory under Anne. Entrenchment and stability were the keywords. The structures of royal authority were replaced by the convenient arragements that the great magnates made among themselves: slowly the webs of patronage wove like iron into the dealings of government, local as well as national.
Money, however, counted now as much as land: merchants and bankers played an essential role in funding William's wars, supporting his determination to prevent French dominance in Europe. The constitutional revolution was followed by a financial one, with the founding of the Bank of England and the National Debt and the birth of the Stock Market in the 1690s. The City became ever more powerful: England was not only a nation under arms (in the Nine Years War, 1689-97, and the War of Spanish Succession, 1702-13) but a nation living on credit. Public opinion, too, gained increasing sway after the ending of the Licensing Act in 1695 brought and explosion of satires, pamphlets, newspapers and tracts, and a whirlwind of arguments over religion, the role of the state, the rights of the individual.
During the reign of William and Mary many British institutions came into being, from regular sessions of Parliament to a free press. There was a greater spirit of tolerance, a more sophisticated sense of the visual, affected by William's Dutch culture, an emphasis on 'civility' and polite 'wit', rather than Jacobean rough humour or Restoration scurrility. And unpopular though they were, William's wars brought a fervour of patriotism unsurpassed since Elizabethan days. Gradually the uneasy, shifting accord between aristocratic, City and professional interests was welded within a new social stratum, 'polite society' or 'the Town'.
This era has been splendidly described as a gateway to domestic modernity:
'a time when we learned to live peaceably in brick houses, to grow flower bulbs in pots, to dine off blue-and-white china dishes, to drink tea, chocolate and coffee, to take toast and marmalade at breakfast and to read the newspapers'.
But on the fringes, life was less placid and profitable. Without access to influence the ranks were closed. Compare the position of Richard Hogarth to that of two Westmoreland friends who travelled south around the same time, Thomas Noble, four years his junior, from Butterwick, near Bampton, and another local youth, Edmund Gibson. Both were from well-off families; both were on their way to Oxford; both joined the Church and both flourished. Richard, by contrast, would spend his life in Smithfield, crossing and recrossing the square mile like a rat in a maze, from Bartholomew Close to St John's Street, from St John's Gate to the Fleet, from the Old Bailey to Long Lane. The London road could carry one down, as well as up, the social scale. In Hogarth's Harlot's Progress, in 1732, a country girl gets off the York coach, her doom foretold as an old bawd greets her. Behind her, facing the other way, a nervous, shortsighted clergyman is reading a letter of recommendation: it is addressed to Edmund Gibson, now the powerful Bishop of London.
Richard's hopes, like Gibson's and Noble's, had rested on his scholarship, but he had no university to provide networks and contracts, no private income, no aristocratic patrons. He was independent, outspoken, with a streak of dogmatism, lightened by brusque humour. All these traits show in the book he published in May 1689, an introduction to Latin, Greek and English, Thesaurum Trilingue Publicum. It was aimed at children or, as his friend Thomas Noble said in an introductory letter, to correct 'the infinite mistakes that occur thro bad spelling, which is so common, even in these days, especially amongst women, and those that are more ignorant'. Richard was inventive and lively. He split words into syllables to aid spelling and used games and puns as well as rules. In short commonplaces he drove home lessons of determination, integrity and prudence: 'Wholesome precepts containing several Vertues necessary to be instilled into young people'. Wise men, he says, should find their principles and stick to them: only fools swerve between thrift and extravagance, gravity and conceit:
'A prudent Man carries all his Treasure within him; what Fortune gives she can take, therefore he so providently orders the Matter as to leave nothing to her Mercy: He stands firm, and keeps his Ground against Misfortunes without so much as changing Countenance: he will not Murmur at any thing that comes to pass by God's Appointment.'
Beneath the platitudes a feeling lingers, that men must brace themselves for setbacks.
Six months later Richard published Gazophylacium Anglicanum, an abridgement of an English dictionary of 1671. In the preface he made it clear he was a good classicist but was deliberately avoiding Latinate words because they made such books high-flown (and high-priced). But, as if embarrassed, he explained that he undertook this task 'to save my Time from being worse employed', apologized for the book's unevenness, due to it being squeezed between 'my other more necessary Business', and claimed it was printed from a 'foul copy'. A touchy pride, very like his son's, sounded in his plea that the 'discreet reader' would overlook faults without carping: 'and as for the Ignorant and Envious, I value not their Censures'.
Richard was right to be on his guard, for such dictionaries and abridgements were part of the standard mix of pedantry and popularism later sneered at as typical of 'Grub Street'. Not all publishers and booksellers were exploitative opportunists, but many hired writers at pitiful rates to feed the new public greedy for education and political debate, and also for scandal and sensation. Thirty years later Hogarth's friend Henry Fielding wryly conjured up the scene, by now a standard joke. In The Author's Farce, at the house of Mr Bookweight, we find 'Dash, Blotpage, Quibble, writing at several tables' Dash does ghosts and murders; Blotpage does poetry and criticism; Quibble does the politics. 'I love to keep a controversy warm,' says Bookweight. 'I have had authors who have writ a pamphlet in the morning, answered it in the afternoon, and compromised the matter at night.' Others arrive, like Mr Scarecrow, with a libel against the ministry in one hand and a translation of the Aeneid (cribbed from Dryden) in the other, and the plight of the classicist is shown in Mr Index, who comes to present his bill:
BOOKWEIGHT: What's here? -- 'For adapting the motto of Risum teneatis amici to a dozen pamphlets at sixpence per each, six shillings. For Omnia vincit amor et nos cedamus amori, sixpence. For Difficile est satyrum non scribere, sixpence'. Hum, hum, hum. Ah. 'A sum total, for thirty-six Latin mottos, eighteen shillings; ditto English, seven, one shilling and ninepence; ditto Greek, four, one shilling.' -- Why, friend, are your Latin mottos dearer than your Greek?
INDEX: Yes marry they are, sir. For as nobody now understands Greek, so I may use any sentence in that language to whatsoever purpose I please.
Richard never quite reached these depths: the booksellers valued his scholarship, but they made use of it, and he was sliding towards becoming a hack. ('Hackney author' was another new slang term, aligning writers with 'hackney drivers' of public coaches and with prostitutes or 'hackney drabs'.) Nor did Richard gain much status as a teacher. Many cheap schools sprang up in the late seventeenth century as Londoners became keen to give learning to their offspring. Conservatives were dismayed and condemned them loudly: 'too many little Parish Nurserys of the Latin Tongue,' wrote the respected teacher Lewis Maidwell, lamenting falling standards in 1705. Yet the school and his writing were all Richard Hogarth had. In the year of William's birth, he was correcting Latin for a publisher, chasing more successful friends to promote his own textbooks and wooing patrons -- but none was forthcoming.
Private sorrows were added to these professional struggles. Of all the Hogarths' children, only William and his sisters Mary and a second Anne (born in 1699 and 1701) would grow up to be adults. This catalogue of deaths was the shared history of many families. Even the great did not escape, but infant mortality was particularly high in areas like Smithfield. The wards that ringed the City of London were crime- and disease-ridden, looping like a poisoned necklace up from the Thames by Rag Fair east of the Tower, to Moorfields and Cripplegate in the north, then down through Clerkenwell, Smithfield and Newgate to meet the river again at Blackfriars. Dotted down the western side of this arc lay the major gaols: from the 'new Prison and New-Bridewell' of Clerkenwell to Newgate, the Fleet and Ludgate, almost touching each other, and then down to the old Bridewell in Blackfriars.
Newgate, just south of Smithfield, behind the hospital, formed part of the theatre of Hogarth's early years. It had been 'magnificently' rebuilt after the Fire: with terrible irony, the east front was decorated with figures of Justice, Fortitude and Prudence, the west front with those of Liberty, Peace, Security and Plenty. From its gate, about every six weeks, began the long procession to Tyburn, turning west into Snow Hill past St Sepulchre's. The condemned were woken in their cells at midnight, by twenty slow rings of his handbell, to hear a long exhortation on sin and repentance. In the morning, as the carts passed the church to the clang of the steeple bell, the public was beseeched: 'All good people pray heartily to God for these poor Sinners, who are now going to the Death, for whom this great Bell doth toll'. Then they rolled on, across Holborn Bridge, towards the crowds and the gibbet.
Holborn Bridge spanned the Fleet Ditch. Despite the much vaunted building works that widened it into a canal in the 1670s, bringing barges up to Holborn, the Ditch was scummy, solid and stinking, fed not only by nearby brooks, but by all the narrow gutters, or kennels, that ran down the middle of the alleys. Down it rolled a Flotsam of sewage, carcases (occasionally human as well as animal) and offal chucked in by the 'tripe dressers, sausage makers and catgut spinner's of Field lane. Pushed and pulled by the rhythm of the river tides, wrinkling the scum and sucking refuse from the crumbling walls, the slime oozed to Blackfriars. A shower, as Swift famously described, could turn its sluggish stream into a torrent:
Smithfield was not all dung, guts and blood. For two weeks every August, the market exploded with festivity. 'Shews of all sort gave me uncommon pleasure when an Infant and mimickry common to all children was remarkable in me,' wrote Hogarth. The streets of London were full of fortune-telling booths, performing animals, jugglers and puppet plays; every passer-by was drawn into the audience. But the greatest of all the shows of London was Smithfield's Bartholomew Fair.
In the dog-days of summer the market place flowed with people, rich and poor. The melting, sweating, human tide was swept this way and that wreathed in the smell of roast pigs and burnt crackling, old clothes and foul breath, tobacco, coffee and ale, its ears assaulted 'with the rumbling of Drums, mix'd with the Intolerable Squeakings of Cat-calls, and Penny Trumpets, made still more terrible with the shrill belches of Lottery-Pick-Pockets, thro' Instruments of the same Metal with their Faces'. The cries of nut-sellers and fruit-vendors fought with those of showmen whipping up an audience for waxworks, rope-dancing and music booths, conjuring tricks, acrobats and drolls. Once inside the booths, the impatient fairgoers, sitting on rickety benches or at trestle tables, crunched walnuts and damsons, handed round baskets of plums, pears and peaches, flirted and joked and heckled with cries of Show, Show, Show, Show!' until the players arrived.
Bartholomew Fair was a byword for immorality and in 1697 the Lord Mayor had published an ordinance against 'obscene, lascivious and scandalous plays, comedies and farces, unlawful games and interludes, drunkeness etc'. But the shows were soon back. Actors from the Haymarket and Drury Lane joined the strolling players, closing down the smart theatres for the weeks of the Fair. The choice of play, like the crush, was overwhelming, as the French tourist Sorbiere noted in 1698. When he came out of the rope-dancing (which he found admirable), he says, 'I met a man that would have took off my Hat, but I secur'd it and was going to draw my Sword, crying out "Begar! Damn'd Rogue! Morbleu!" &c., When on a sudden I had a hundred people around me, crying "Here, Monsieur, see Jepthah's Rash Vow"; "Here, Monsieur, see The Tall Dutchwoman", "See The Tiger", says another, "See The Horse and No Horse whose Tail stands where his head should do"; "See The German Artist, Monsieur"; "See The Siege of Namur, Monsieur": so that betwixt Rudeness and Civility, I was forc'd to get into a Fiacre, and with an air of haste and a full trot, got home to my lodgings.
Other fairgoers lingered, not always at the plays. In the cloisters of the hospital gamblers bent over the tables in upstairs rooms, while below, in the colonnades, prostitutes and punters haggled, whispered and joked. According to Ned Ward, the tavern-keeper and hack writer who drew this sweating bustle so memorably in The London Spy, the women gave as good as they got. A man famed as a wonderful 'Similizer', says Ward,
'steps up to a very pert lady. who, as I suppoze was not for his Turn, and claps his bare Hand in her neck: Dear Madam, says he, You are as Cold as a Cricket in an Ice-House: She turning short about look'd upon him, and reply'd, "If you please to clap your Fiery-face to m' Back-side, 'twill be the ready way to warm me": At which smart return, all that heard it fell a Laughing.'
Laughter and humiliation, illusion and reality merged in the flesh. Bearded women, Siamese twins, giants and dwarfs, 'monsters' and freaks mingled with the costumed devils and heroes of the plays, the attenuated moral emblems of medieval religious drama. The old play of The Creation of the World came complete with Noah's Ark, flying Angels, Dives rising out of Hell, and -- in 1702 -- 'with the addition of the Glorious Battle obtained over the French and Spaniards by the Duke of Marlborough'. The Fair was present and past, dream, desire and trickery, its pickpockets cunning as its conjurors, its audiences dupes to both. It could itself become the stuff of a morality play: in Hogarth's Taste of the Town, the name of Conjuror Fawkes -- a famous Bartholomew Fair figure -- hangs over the door as the people troop into the masquerade. The sign, claiming 'Faux -- Dexterity of hand', glances at the 'dexterity' of Robert Walpole and the chicanery of politics and politeness. The Fair, as much as the schoolroom, gave Hogarth his emblems and his themes.
Many of the shows -- however amateur and chaotic -- depended on thc visual for their effect. Painting, scenery, pictures and costume combined, at least in the hope of the showmen, to make audiences surrender to the drama. One of the most famous hits of Hogarth's childhood was Elkanah Settle's ambitious droll The Siege of Troy, acted at the Fair in 1707, when he was ten. It was repeated in later seasons, pirated by the puppet shows, and staged again at Southwark Fair in 1715 and 1716. In the centre of Southwark Fair (1734) -- in which everything, not only Troy is on the brink of 'failing' -- Hogarth shows the sign of the Wooden Horse, its belly open, its ladders at the ready.
Hogarth's prints often have the same exuberant mingling of the popular and the mythic, the gross and the visionary that characterized these Bartholomew spectaculars. 'Enter Mob drunk,' runs one of Settle's notes, followed by a scene where the cobbler's wife soothes her drunken husband, who staggers home bawling out a catch. This takes place not in a London street, but before the walls of Troy, and those walls were a miracle of the scene-painter's art, 'consisting of ten Pieces of uniform Painting', which will shortly collapse in flames -- as London had. This is the stage direction:
'. . . the Soldiers run up and down the Streets, seemingly setting the Town on Fire, whilst near forty Windows or Portholes in the several Paintings all appear on Fire, the Flames catching from House to House, and all perform'd by Illuminations and Transparent Paintings seen scattered through the Scenes.'
Meet the Author
Jenny Uglow is an editor in London and lives in Canterbury, England. The Lunar Men is her most recent book. Her previous books include Elizabeth Gaskel: A Habit of Stories and George Eliot.
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