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‘Here is London, Giddy London’: Some Drawing Lessons from Hogarth

Toby Litt

The ‘drawing lessons’ of my title are the things that a contemporary novelist –- one not too dissimilar to myself –- might learn from Hogarth. The ‘giddy London’ part comes from a Morrissey song –- anyone able to name it? It’s ‘Hairdresser on Fire’ from Bona Drag. The full line goes, ‘Here is London, giddy London, is it home of the free –- or what?’ ‘Hairdresser on Fire’ not a song that I particularly like, but ‘giddy’ is exactly how London makes me feel – and never more so than when I’m expected to generalize on the subject. The last time I did, I wound up in Pseuds’ Corner –- for only the second time, I might add; which is pitiful given the number of attempts I’ve made to be noticed. But, then, I was writing a think-piece for Libération –- so, if I hadn’t got into Pseuds’ Corner, I really wouldn’t have been doing my job.

I feel a little giddy now, partly because I’ve missed the earlier papers, for which I apologise, (I was trapped in a creative writing class), and partly because I am aware that I am trespassing on your territory. I don’t claim to be an Eighteenth Century scholar, so embarrassing me with questions of date and detail wouldn’t be difficult. I’ve come to the Hogarth show as a non-committed admirer –- and also, just as I go everywhere, as a merciless cannibalizer. Whatever there is to be got from this art, I want to get, so that I can use it in future, or so that I can better understand what I’ve already done. Hogarth, for me, is the supreme artist of ‘giddy London’. That’s what I go to him for –- for confusion, for the sordid, for snapshots of Yeats’s ‘dying generations’, for things I’ve been trying to do in my own writing, recently, with greater or lesser success.

And so I’m going to start by stating the really bleeding obvious: Hogarth’s pictures –- not all of them, but certainly his most characteristic, and usually his best –- (in my opinion, anway) –- Hogarth’s pictures have a lot of different people in them doing a lot of different things, all at once. They are crowded pictures, in that they contain a lot of detail –- particularly human detail; detail of physical appearance, social behaviour –- and they are also crowded in that they very often show crowds. I’d even go as far as to say that crowds are Hogarth’s archetypical subject. His street scenes made his reputation, but his domestic interiors, too, often feel overcrowded. Even his bedrooms feel like public spaces –- which, in historical fact, they probably were; a lot more than ours are, anyway. You only have to look at the 4th plate of Marriage-à-la-Mode to see how crowded a boudoir can be. When was the last time you had ten people in your bedroom?

Even when the couples of Hogarth’s Before and After scenes are alone in the bedchamber, they are still behaving as part of the beau monde. The women recoil as if their fall from virtue was to be witnessed by spectators. And, in fact, the figures in the paintings-within-the-paintings do look on and comment. Hogarth’s lovers are also crowded out by moralizing objects –- which they jostle, and which fall over and smash. Added to this, Hogarth’s Before and After scenes suggest that, once done, the men have somewhere else to be, and soon. There is never any sense of the lovers’ mutual isolation in time and space, as in John Donne’s ‘The goodmorrow’:

For love, all love of other sights controules,
And makes one little room, an every where.

Freud insisted that when two people go to bed, four people are always present. I would go further than this. Because many of Hogarth’s female lovers -– elsewhere, not in the Before and After pictures –- are prostitutes, they bring with them an implicit crowd of ex-lovers. His males are serial seducers, and their pasts, too, are infectiously present.

For Hogarth, even the single isolated subject can imply the crowd –- none more so than ‘The Shrimp Girl’. No other picture I know of places an individual so clearly in the midst of an unseen but sensed crowd. Her gaze is public; her beauty is her publicity –- and it certainly succeeded in attracting Hogarth. We, too, view her as if picked out of the crowd, whose whirl is felt to be around us. ‘The Shrimp Girl’ seems to draw her healthy energy from the crowd around her; in fact, her health is almost feverish. (I’m going to return to the subject of health later on, and more than once.) In portraits of actors, too, a crowd is expectedly implied: they are men who exist most of all before the eyes of the thousand. Hence, David Garrick as ‘Richard III’.

At this point, I should probably define my terms more exactly. I’ve used the word ‘crowd’ slightly more loosely than perhaps I should have. If I were being strict, I would divide the concept of ‘crowd’ into two parts: one would remain as ‘crowd’, meaning a gathered mass of people collectively engaged in being a crowd, the other would be altered to ‘multitude’ –- for want of a better word –- meaning an amorphous mass of people individually engaged in whatever they happen to be doing at the time. A crowd watches a hanging at Tyburn; a multitude populates Southwark Fair -– although most of them are likely to be looking for entertainment of one sort or another.

However, I’ve deliberately kept my terms fuzzy, because a multitude needs only a galvanizing event –- a shout, a punch –- to turn into a crowd, and a crowd, as soon as it is bored or disengaged, becomes a multitude. (The fifty thousand crowd gathered to watch a football match become a multitude at half time.) I think it’s often questionable as to whether what we see in Hogarth’s pictures is a focussed crowd or an interplexing multitude. I prefer to speak of crowds because the people in Hogarth’s pictures seem, to me at least, to be conscious of being in a crowded world –- and most of them revel in it. The multitude is more likely to be made up of people who can’t stand the crush. The citizens of Gin Lane don’t seem to want to hide themselves away.

Of course, there are exceptions to the crowdedness of Hogarth’s pictures. He did, on commission, paint small groups and portraits. But, as a general rule, for most of his most interesting work, it holds true. And I’d even suggest that Hogarth seems to have felt in some way compelled to add face after face after face to his drawings and paintings. In Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants, he disregards their bodies entirely, floating their heads one beside the other in a Brown Windsor soup of a background.

In The Laughing Audience, perspective is adhered to, but a large number of physiognomies are included, stacked up like a pile of rotting fruit. Hogarth likes to create walls of faces, allowing himself to collapse, flatten and violate pictorial space in order to do so. Only rarely does he show a quarter or a half of a face, however; his crowds tend to arrange themselves for the benefit of his eye, disporting themselves so as to be satisfactorily viewable. The orangeseller with her basket, reaching up to tug the gentleman’s sleeve in the upper gallery of The Laughing Audience shows only her forehead and plump cheek. But she is clearly less a character and more a mere pictorial device, linking the two halves of the painting.

Characters & Caricturas of 1743 is one of the purest expressions of Hogarth’s head-shrinking/head-counting compulsion. Here, the myriad faces exist only in pictorial space –- covering one another up, but only so as to leave room for more revealing profiles to be crammed in. There is a clear hierarchy of preference for facial features. Hogarth was fascinated by noses, mouths, eyes; ears, he seems to have been largely indifferent to. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t show them because they were so often, in his time, covered over by wigs. The important thing, though, was to put as many people onto the page as he could. And this is one of the points where my attempts to construct statements is likely to crumble into a pile of questions. Because, what is the status of the face in a Hogarthian crowd? Are these carefully observed individuals, taken from reality? Or are they carefully observed individuals, chosen to as to represent a recognisable social type? Or are they closely observed social types, tricked out so as to appear individual? Or are they closely observed types, depicted so as to be instantly recognisable (to the contemporary viewer) as types?

The answer, I think, hedging, is a confusion of all these things. Because, at the time Hogarth was painting, the idea of typical character was perhaps at its strongest. Dickens’ characters draw much of their pungency from seeming to derive from Eighteenth Century patterns –- their modernity does not give them recogniseability; it is because their types have been around for a while that we know them. Despite the overt intention of ‘Character & Caricaturas’, I still think the nature of Hogarth’s faces is indeterminate. Even if they are straight characters, taken from life, on what principle were these individuals chosen? Not because they were uninteresting and anonymous, but because they fully represented themselves –- and in doing so, showed a crowd individuating and transcending itself. Which brings me, for the first time, up against the main thing I’d like to talk about. How does Hogarth relate to writing practise now?

The contemporary novel is not great on character. One reason for this is psychoanalysis. Another, the advance in dental techniques. Improved personal hygeine also has something to do with it. And less idiosyncratic educations (basic national norms leading up to the National Curriculum and away from the village schoolmaster being able to bullshit away for years without fear of correction). All of these things have led to people being less strongly individuated. But I think I need to say a little more about psychoanalysis. Subjectively viewed characters act out of conscious or unconscious motives; objectively viewed ones behave, or misbehave. In other words, we see people more clearly when we don’t attempt to understand them from inside. The less sophisticated a theory of personality we have, the stronger the characters we will –- as a culture –- create.

Characters used to emerge into popular culture from novels. Dickens’ characters frequently became bywords. But, in recent years, the main two characters to transcend the page are Bridget Jones and Harry Potter – although, strictly speaking, Bridget Jones began as a newspaper column, not a book, and was a character outside a novel before she became a character inside one. Harry Potter, as a character, lacks character –- necessarily so; he is a cipher that every child can fill. Film and, even more so, television is the domain, now, of the instantly recognisable character. Borat, to take one recent example. Or the grotesques of Little Britain –- Vicky Pollard, Daffyd, Lou and Andy . Or The Fast Show’s Swiss Tony. Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney. These are our typical characters.

I’d like, now, to return to the bleeding obvious statement I made at the beginning; that Hogarth’s pictures have a lot of different people in them doing a lot of different things, all at once. And that is what cities are like. They have a lot of different people in them doing a lot of different things, all at once. That’s what’s so great and terrible about them. To put this another way, more academically, Hogarth’s pictures are concerned with both multiplicity and simultaneity. And these, I believe, are the greatest difficulties facing any contemporary writer attempting to write about London –- or, more directly, to write London.

‘How do you write the crowd?’ This was a question I dealt with directly in the novel of mine which is just about to come out, called Hospital. It is, you’ll be glad to hear, not available for sale in the foyer. The question, however, is a little more subtle that I’ve just presented it: ‘How do you write the crowd not as the crowd?’ More accurately still: ‘How do you write the crowd so as both to represent its simultaneity and to take account of its multiplicity.’

Here, I could insert my usual digression about Finnegans Wake and about how James Joyce managed to solve the problems of simultaneity and multiplicity, and also to write the crowd. But I find that the words Finnegans Wake have the magical effect of making almost everyone in an audience feel profoundly anxious –- either because they haven’t read it and feel they should, or they have read it and feel they should be re-reading it that very moment. Instead, I’d like to stick with Hogarth. First of all by way of exemplum and then by way of contrast. Because Hogarth’s pictures, like Finnegans Wake, brilliantly solve both the problems of simultaneity and multiplicity. But he is presented, in his turn, with opposite problems -– nonsimultaneity (or temporal expansion) and non-multiplicity (or individuality). These are the inevitable problems of his given form, the pictorial image. It cannot avoid simultaneity in the sense that each picture exists before us totally and in one moment. And, as I said earlier, it courts multiplicity, although it does so in a way that constantly engages with individuality. As his rootedness in the values of the Eighteenth Century would lead you to expect, Hogarth’s –- in the end –- is a would-be neo-classical art of attempted balance. He wants to extend as far as he can in both directions, towards simultaneity and towards temporal expansion, towards multiplicity and towards individuality.

I’d like to look now at simultaneity versus temporal expansion. Hogarth frequently creates images whose main if not sole purpose is to go beyond the limits of the merely pictorial –- to escape the seemingly inevitable bounds of the form. For example, his pictures are of course totally silent; unless it falls off the wall, not one of them will ever make a noise; yet The Enraged Music Master does everything it possibly can to create a visual cacophany. In this, it is a crowded precursor to Munch’s The Scream –- although the cry of Munch’s figure is just as much psychological and inward-directed as it is an attempt to make the canvas appear to sound out. Or, to take a more subtle example of Hogarth’s attempts to defy formal limitations, each pictorial image, whilst representative of a moment, and able –- through detail –- to show what has happened in the past, cannot travel forwards into the future. But Hogarth does all he can to overcome this. The child falling head first onto stone steps in Gin Lane is not yet dead, but we do not doubt that it will die. More subtly, Hogarth’s pictures frequently contain emblems of futurity – emblems which, whilst they cannot tell us what will definitely happen, can give us a pretty clear idea what is almost certain to happen. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that there are no reversals of fortune in Hogarth; all his downwardly mobile characters –- Rakes, Harlots and Apprentices alike –- continue unstoppably in that direction. Hogarth’s waistrels go to waste, not to Alcoholics Anonymous.)

Among the most frequently appearing of these emblems of futurity (so frequent as to be, otherwise, slightly puzzling –- unless they are just taken to be a record of historical fact) –- in fact, Hogarth’s most characteristic emblem is the black patch covering a syphilitic spot. This, especially when appearing on infectious children, is a particularly clearly written doom: ‘For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.’ (Deuteronomy, Chapter 5, Verse 9.) The disabled child being held up to kiss its mother in the 6th Scene of Marriage-à-la-Mode is the most extreme example of this. Hogarth was clearly more interested in syphilis as illustrated fate than as medical diagnosis. The progress of the disease was inevitable, though the pace might be unpredictable. Tom Rakewell is destined for lunacy and an early grave; his black spot is as fatal as any handed out by the pirates of Treasure Island. For Hogarth, syphilis is less a disease than a means of overcoming the limitations of pictorial form. It extends moments simultaneously both forwards and backwards in time. And Hogarth, I’d say, is more concerned with this time-travel than with showing the wages of sin.

Of course, the main way in which Hogarth tried to go beyond the limited simultaneity of the single image was to create series. He is perhaps England’s greatest narrative artist –- and certainly the most novelistic of them all. In The Rake’s Progress and The Harlot’s Progress, in Marriage-à-la-Mode, but even more so in Industry and Idleness, Hogarth manages to extend the pictorial image in time –- to stop it being instantaneous and to smear it over the years. By presenting parallel lives, Industry and Idleness gives us, almost as a visual pun, a return to simultaneity; whilst the industrious apprentice piously attends church, the idle other –- at one and the same moment –- frolicks sinfully in the graveyard. And there is yet another way in which Hogarth’s images overcome their simultaneity. He can show us, in an instant, fifty different figures and physiognomies. But it will take us a lot longer than that instant to apprehend each of them in their glorious or disreputable or gloriously disreputable individuality. Each picture is a perfect capitalistic salesdevice, an advertisement for itself. We need time, at home, to take in all the details presented to us in the shop window. If you were to be stuck in a dentist’s waiting room for an hour, you would better have a Hogarth print than, say, an Andy Warhol, or even a scaled-down reproduction Rothko. From either of these, you could go off into reveries about cultural production or the reification of vision, but the Hogarth would entertain you –- would keep your mind a little more off the approaching drill. It would repay your attention; the closer you got to it and the more time you spent exploring it, the more you would see is there to be seen. Hogarth’s prints are among the most perfect products imaginable. They go some way to explaining what people did before TV was invented: they looked at complicated things in detail.

How do we look at a Hogarth? When you stand in front of one, you have to move from side to side –- as if you were in a crowd, looking at something that had drawn a crowd, a fist-fight, say, or a very good street performer. You, so to speak, rubberneck them. You peer round your own head to get at them. One of the things my art teacher taught me was that, on visiting any gallery, assessing any art, it’s worth seeing what it looks like when squinted at. Hogarth’s crowds, seen this way, dissipate. We see sky above, a muddy muddle in the middle, and dark objects to either side, probably buildings. The image, however, doesn’t really exist. Look at a Cezanne squintingly, and the image becomes almost radically clarified –- to the point of becoming nearly photorealistic. (I’m serious. Try it.) But Hogarth’s are meant to be seen clearly, close up, in a good light. A magnifying glass wouldn’t go amiss, and wouldn’t be an affectation. To really appreciate them, we need to own them. And, because they were mass-produced, we can. And this, finally, is another way in which Hogarth overcomes the simultaneity of the pictorial image. If we look at it over a period of years, returning to it in different moods and with failing eyesight, it becomes a radically extended thing. Ownership changes its appearance, and Hogarth’s pictures are meant to be owned. (In another aside, I would say this argument doesn’t hold as well for his paintings. But I find his paintings hugely inferior to his etchings: the sense of space in them is fudged. Usually, I don’t wish to return to them repeatedly but to get away from them as fast as possible.)

That will do for simultaneity. As for individuality, there seems far less to say. At least, less to say that hasn’t already been said on the subject of character. Hogarth’s portraits are, like all portraits, attempts to enscapsulate the individuality of their sitters. In this, they are not as interesting or as distinctive as his crowd-scenes. The further he moves towards concentrating upon the individual Christian soul, the more boring he becomes. In his portraits, he is just doing what every other portraitist does; in his crowd-scenes, he is unique.

So, what can the contemporary novelist learn from Hogarth? What are the drawing lessons to be drawn from him? I think it must be something more than just ‘Artistic forms are flexible, and there to be extended’. A novelist can easily enough write ‘The crowd of around two hundred advanced down the Strand …’ But that is to reduce and betray the multiplicity of those comprising the crowd. It depicts them as mere simultaneity; bodies present, here, now. To be more accurate in terms of number is simply to be ridiculous. ‘A crowd of exactly two hundred and twelve advanced down the Strand ….’ And to deal with each crowd-member individually is also to be ridiculous. ‘A crowd comprising, in alphabetical order, Naseem Aziz, Frankie Bergonzi, Christopher Columbus… etc advanced down the Strand ….’ But it was this last ridiculous option that I went for in trying to write the crowded simultaneity and multiplicity of Hospital. Almost everyone who appears gets a name and some kind of description. It being a large and busy building -– twenty-six floors above ground and six beneath –- there are a lot of characters; about one hundred and twenty-five in all. Once you get into the book, you should, at any time, I hope, be aware of what is happening on four different floors to ten or more different characters. There are also lots of crowds of various sorts –- crowds milling, crowds maurauding.

Here’s one short section. [pages 60-62]:

‘At ten o’clock exactly, Hospital, most of Hospital, was either asleep already or settling itself down to sleep. Many offices, busy during the day, were now empty or occupied by solitary figures trying to finish paperwork. Consulting rooms and the corridors outside them, waiting rooms with their rows of uneasy chairs –- their televisions were off, their drinks machines and water-coolers unbothered. On the administrative floors, computers in gray and faun stood reflecting one another dimly in undusty screens. Here and there, a cleaner followed a questing vacuum-cleaner or a porter pushed a sodden mop. By now, Geriatrics patients were expected to have turned their bed-lights out, despite insomnia, night-terrors and pain of infinite variety. The newborn babies in Neo-Natal, lying in the suspended plastic trays of their trolleys, swaddled in soft blankets, were remarkably placid –- a few only needed to be rocked by their mothers. On the Children’s Wards, Sisters had mostly established a calm of pre-slumber –- broken sometimes by sobs or giggles. It was quiet, too, down in Pathology, where the day’s corpses –- zipped in bags –- lay within their long metal compartments. But elsewhere the twenty-four hour sounds continued: ululations from birthing pools, snickings and slurpings and Classical music in operating theatres. Noisiest of all, just gearing up for its busiest time, was A&E on the ground floor. This was what some Emergency Medic, years and years ago, had nicknamed ‘the Flood’. Chucking out time from the pubs always brought with it an influx of cases, trivial and fatal. But the hour before closing was already an alcohollubricated rush of viciousness, clumsiness, stupidity and tragedy. Here came scuffed knees, twisted ankles, dog bites, sprained wrists, broken fingers, flattened noses, reddened mouths, glassed faces, dislodged retinas, broken arms, knifewounds, ruptured spleens, gaping throats, broken necks, gunshot wounds. Here came, one after the other, chancers thrown out by bouncers and looking for an opportunity to sue for a couple of scratches, Munchausens, contrite fathers, apologetic taxi drivers, naughty nurses and cheeky devils from the hen-night-gone-wrong, dinner jacketed palefaces from the stag-party-turned-nightmare, street preachers with their average visions of the apocalypse, the lost and upset wanting directions from someone in uniform or to use a phone to say they’ve had their phone nicked and they’ll be home late or that they’re not fucking coming home ever fucking again, sobbing wannabe blood-donors, homeless looking for somewhere to get warm and have their kissy sores rebandaged. Here came the weeping girlfriends, weeping ex-girlfriends, weeping ex-girlfriend’s best friends, and weeping exgirlfriend’s ex-best friend’s exes. Here, too, motorbike accidents by the score, failed and soon-to-be-successful suicide attempts, overdoses of both sorts, schizophrenics in need of more medication or silence or light or another head, old people with chest pains and breathing difficulties, policemen and women with facial abrasions (and abrasions on their knuckles, as well –- scuffed toecaps, too), carpark footballers with groin strains, diabetic dwarves, men whose foldable bikes had folded while they were riding them, women who had walked into doors or fallen downstairs or been beaten semi-unconscious by someone they preferred not to name, kids -– girls and boys -– gone into toxic shock after inserting their first tampon, candidates for the rape kit. Here came fallen-off-gardenwall burglars, fish-fryers with worse than usual fat burns, chubby young women going into labour who don’t even know they are pregnant, bloody-faced Asian boys surrounded by dozens of mates accusing the staff of racism for not seeing their friend fast enough, gone-wrong and got-stuck rectal insertions of all sorts (carrots, kiwi-fruit, lightbulbs, staplers, mobile phones set to vibrate in plastic bags, even the occasional dildo). Here came all human life and death –- the quiet night in gone amusingly or horrifyingly wrong, the no-babysitter children who managed to get into the garden shed, to get into the drinks cabinet, to get into the knife-drawer. Here came the dying and the almost-dead and the dead.’

This was my attempt at writing London, although I did not specify London. My Hospital is a scaled-down city, a place which witnesses that old chestnut ‘all human life and death’. A place where there are a lot of different people doing a lot of different things, all at once.

In Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s solution to the problem of the fictional crowd is simply to make everybody everybody else -– everybody else, that is, of the same sex and family position. In describing Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, he describes Goliath, Napoleon, James Joyce, Charles Stuart Parnell, you, and all possible men. Anna Livia Plurabelle is all women. Shaun and Shem are all sons. Issy is all daughters. This, you might say, is cheating. But it’s the best anyone has done, in prose. Hogarth, using a different form, probably does it better. Everybody, in his pictures, is somebody –- of the crowd but individuated. Constantly, however, Hogarth is pushing towards a more novelistic vision. Perhaps all artists envy the strengths of the artforms which are not their own. And this envy brings close scrutiny, from which lessons are to be drawn.

To Cite This Article:

Toby Litt, ‘‘Here is London, Giddy London’: Some Drawing Lessons from Hogarth’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 1 (March 2008). Online at Accessed on [date of access]