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Introduction: Seduced by the City: from Hogarth’s London to Today

Steven Barfield

‘Seduced by the City: from Hogarth’s London to Today’ (Friday 9th March 2007) was the title of a symposium organised by Alan Morrison of the English and Linguistics Department of the University of Westminster in conjunction with Tate Britain, intended to examine the allure of the city from William Hogarth’s day to the present. The symposium was part of the activities supporting the major exhibition on Hogarth organised by Tate Britain which was a retrospective that represented more of the artist’s work than had been seen in London for almost twenty years and combined this with an intent to suggest that ‘Hogarth was Britain’s first truly modern artist’, one whose work is still relevant to making art now. See:

The articles in this section of Literary London are all critical responses to the work of Hogarth originally given at the symposium alongside other papers and panels. They seek through a strategy of contextualisation to argue something new about how Hogarth’s work should be best understood as a depiction of the culture of early eighteenth century London or about his affinities with his contemporaries or concern his significance and relevance to the present day. Hogarth’s work itself is a species of pictorial representation usually allied to text that invites us to be both seduced by the swarming streets of the burgeoning eighteenth-century city and to be aware of the dangers implicit in such seductions; as such Hogarth’s work is deeply allied to the literary writing of the urban experience of the eighteenth century when London became the first modern, world city. Hogarth’s vigorous, often didactic and certainly numerous prints and paintings are so powerful and familiar to us as examples of metropolitan visual culture, as well as being so much a self-conscious part of the formulation of Britain and England’s national identity at a crucial historical juncture that consequently they have almost become a synecdoche for London in the period. Hogarth also strikes a chord with our early twenty-first century metropolitan audience, perhaps because London is going through another period of accelerated population growth and physical and cultural change where its inhabitants view the city as an object sometimes sublime, sometimes abject; regarding ambivalently a new wave of migrants and foreigners becoming Londoners and London culture itself undergoing an upheaval. The artist’s popularity is indicated by the critical and popular success of Tate Britain’s exhibition.

Vic Gatrell in his article ‘London and the Pleasure Principle’ aims for one such contextualisation of Hogarth’s work by recalling the later satirical artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century and arguing that they have less in common with Hogarth’s than is usually thought to be the case; Gatrell’s aim is to decentre Hogarth’s position in the history of British satirical prints. Hogarth’s overpowering success in his own period has largely turned those who worked after him into his spiritual progeny and inheritors. But is this true?

Such a strategy serves a secondary purpose for Gatrell, however, insofar as to his mind there is an unpleasant side to Hogarth’s invocation of the muse of laughter and one which has largely been elided by the current critical celebration of his work epitomised in many academic publications, the recent magisterial biography by Jenny Uglow, Hogarth: A Life and a World ( Faber and Faber, 1997) and of course, in Tate’s exhibition. Unlike his contemporaries and those who depicted London in graphic terms after him, Hogarth’s comedy is as Gatrell argues a ’responsible laughter’ aimed at the other, one that is ‘intellectual, moral, and judicial’ in its focus on exclusion, but one that is seldom ‘generous spirited’ or inclusive in its tenor. In a similar fashion for Gatrell, Hogarth’s London is always not just represented, but ‘relentlessly allegorised’ and theatricalised for moral and didactic needs.Those intrigued by Gatrell’s article, may also be interested in Gatrell’s book City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth Century London, a history of the period as shown through its satirical prints and which is also reviewed in this issue of the journal by John Baker.

In contrast to Gatrell, Clare Brant chooses to set Hogarth and other satiric visualisers of London against the writer John Gay, whose poem Trivia (1816) is about the process or practice of walking the streets of the metropolis, as much as it is an actual written account of the city: a guide-book for the prototype flâneur as much indeed as an urban poem. Brant’s argument in ‘Seduced by the City: Gay’s Trivia and Hogarth’ is to remind us that Hogarth’s work is part of a larger canvas of different forms of depicting the metropolis, in which the contemporary poets were just as central to the scene for their eighteenth-century audience, as were the better known print-makers or novelists. For Brant, the relationship between Gay’s poem and Hogarth’s prints and illustrations is one of ‘affinity’ or ‘confluence’ resulting from broadly similar and interdependent aesthetic practices, a hallmark of the period, as writers and artists struggled with similar problems thrown up by the need to represent what was distinctly new and modern about the contradictory urban experience they confronted and which in turn confronted them. Such a reading does much to restore the specificity of early eighteenth-century cultural production about the subject of London as well as to remind us that Hogarth was not an isolated figure in London culture. Brant’s new and annotated edition of Gay’s Trivia with accompanying critical essays on the poem is reviewed in this issue of the journal by Emma McEvoy.

British novelist and prose-writer Toby Litt stages a different type of contextualisation in ‘ “Here is London, Giddy London”: Some Drawing Lessons from Hogarth’, by exploring what Hogarth’s representations of the city might mean for a contemporary novelist such as himself, with specific reference to his own novel Hospital. Despite Litt’s protestations as to his lack of scholarly knowledge of the eighteenth century, his article displays a keen eye for Hogarth’s work, while being just as much a fascinating account of the problems of contemporary writing practice about London. For Litt, Hogarth’s central topic is the crowd (Litt distinguishes usefully between ‘crowd’ and ‘multitude’), a topic that is also discussed in Brant’s essay in this issue. How the crowded streets of London can be depicted in all their sublime and confused variety of people is therefore Hogarth’s central problem as an artist, and this is paralleled by what Litt sees as a defining question for contemporary writers who wish to depict London (or indeed any other large city, I would add): ‘How do you write the crowd?’. His own novel Hospital he argues, is just one such examples of an answer to that central question, though of course by no means the only one.

To Cite This Article:

Steven Barfield, ‘Introduction: Seduced by the City: from Hogarth’s London to Today’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 1 (March 2008). Online at Accessed on [date of access]