Wicked Wit of the Past


While in London, I happened upon an exhibit of William Hogarth’s works at the Tate.  In my blissful North American ignorance I’d never heard of Hogarth (apparently, he’s quite big in Britain-they even refer to the early 1700s as “the age of Hogarth”), but I was amazed by his work.

He had a fantastic ability to capture satire via engravings and a lot of his work is startlingly contemporary-despite being almost 300 years old.  Here are a selection of some of his works along with a brief commentary about them.

Hogarth frequently commented on morals and the decline of society.  In the early 1700s apparently every fifth house in poor districts was making homemade gin.  In fact, it became political, as gin was in fact a Dutch drink (from the Dutch word “geneva”).

Hogarth created two prints “Gin Lane” and “Beer Street”.  “Gin Lane” shows the world going to hell as the locals are all drunk:

In contrast, “Beer Street” shows a much more convivial seen and one can see how much better life would be if we would just get smashed on beer instead of gin:

Hogarth also did a four part engraving entitled “The Four Stages of Cruelty” in which our anti-hero goes from being a young boy torturing animals to an eventual murdered-who ends up hanged and has his body given to science:

Hogarth also captured what life was really like in London at this time.  For instance, his “The Covt Garden Morning Frolick” shows early morning Covent Garden as a mix of drunks (rakes), prostitutes, poor folk and market sellers.  This is in stark contrast to many paintings of the time that simply featured the positive aspects of the region:

Finally, Hogarth also did a preposterous engraving of Gulliver (from Gulliver’s Travels) receiving an enema!  Entitled The Punishment of Lemuel Gulliver, this was meant to be allegory to Britain (I’ll let you guess who in the picture) being trampled on by other countries for her noble and altruistic ways (I don’t claim veracity in this; it’s just his perspective):

Friday, March 16, 2007

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