Nearly 100 engraving prints of London life can be viewed free of charge in the ninth floor special collections of San Diego Central Library on Park Blvd. Interested patrons should make an appointment with Katherine Reeve in Special Collections by emailing Kreeve@sandiego.gov
By Brett Warnke
“What’s your proposal? To build the just city? I will.” –W.H. Auden
What does it mean to construct the just city today? San Diego is admittedly no Flint. As I write this, there are unpunished poisoners like Rick Snyder still giving speeches, doing fundraisers, outside of a prison cell, with the craven media establishment recording every utterance. And even further east, goldbricker frauds on Wall Street giggle their way through new swindles—ones we won’t discover until we once again stand at the lip of another recession when “tough choices” will again “have to be made” in order to “save Main Street.”
But San Diego is a city not immune to corruption. Our streets, too, are peopled with the chalked bodies of unarmed black and brown men. In July 2015 we even played host to the American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC), that great instrument of business elites to capture the regulatory powers of the state for its own tax loopholes and favors. And just this year our local democracy was used by the Chamber of Commerce to thwart wage increases for thousands of workers.
What does it mean to construct a just city in such a corroded republic? … One method of coping is to laugh. Ours is a golden age of satire.
What does it mean to construct a just city in such a corroded republic? “America’s finest city” is a city 41% more expensive than the rest of America, where people of every shade are scrabbling at the lower slopes of the wage scale and where 38% of residents, regardless of their neighborhood, are unable to earn enough to make a living. One method of coping is to laugh. Ours is a golden age of satire.
As anyone who lives in southern California in these tricky modern times understands: it is not merely the beauty of our shores, but the feel of our sprawling urban life that deserves a second look. Our artists and muralists—the painters and photographers—the greatest unacknowledged legislators of the world, to use Shelley’s phrase, are as mercurial and innovative as the market that rumbles around them. Truth and beauty are goals in art, and so is laughter. In the two and a half centuries since William Hogarth sketched corrupt London, his work reveals the uses of laughter and satire on the path to truth.
Hogarth’s most famous pieces are social criticisms, but they are also theatrical …
And fortunately for you, viewing Hogarth’s genius is free in San Diego.
Hogarth was a jolly English engraver and satirical artist who lived in George III’s England. Today, nearly 100 of his vast prints of London life can be viewed on the ninth floor special collections of San Diego’s treasure house, the $186 million Central Library. Any San Diegan with a library card, an appointment, and wearing provided gloves, can view these extraordinary donated prints.
Hogarth, like Rowlandson, Goya, and Gillray after him, beautifully captured the manifold contradictions of city life. London at the opening of English capitalism was filling with those workers scraped from the countryside by Parliament; the vast empire’s indebted poor were flushed to distant Australia, its imperial coffers and cups filled by plantations peopled with kidnapped African slaves sweating under the whip, and its American colonies expanded as commerce reigned.
[Hogarth’s] engravings reveal a London as decadent as anything out of our weekend abominations.
Hogarth was the artist of his moment. But he remains the preeminent caricaturist of urban life, whether in long-ago London or looking critically at our own San Diego where sprouting condos rise up about tent colonies only blocks from our library. Hogarth’s most famous pieces are social criticisms, but they are also theatrical—playing out sequentially like a bawdy play. A prolific master of series, he illustrated busy morality tales of country girls condemned to harlotry and death. Similarly, in “The Rake’s Progress,” a prodigal young man journeys through cathouses toward self-destruction. But Hogarth was no moral scold. He was an ironist, humorist, social critic, painter, printmaker, and cartoonist; he was an illustrator of novels, a portraitist of the elite, a giggling engraver and producer of a thousand passionate faces who saw himself as one of the Enlightenment’s inventors, signing his work “Invented Painted Engrav’d & Publish’d by Wm. Hogarth.”
Born the son of failed scholar who wound up in debtor’s prison for the crime of being poor, William Hogarth came of age in the new realism of John Locke—a philosophy where truth came from the bustling world through man’s senses, not revelation and myth.
Perhaps, before you journey past downtown’s cranes, its lines of uninsured, homeless, and poor on your way to and through the library, pick up Engravings By Hogarth, edited by Sean Shesgreen, available in the stacks as a delightful companion volume to describe what you see. Londoners, like most Americans today, were saddled with debt. By the time he came of age in Bartholomew Close, his London was Europe’s largest city with 750,000 inhabitants, many crammed into the squalid districts of the East End. The West End, however, basked in aristocratic decadence. Hogarth illustrated the cynical joy of his milieu, the rising middle classes—the Toms, Molls, Tims, and Richards of his engravings—rollicking with their steins and goblets as the old order’s values melted into air.
The engravings reveal a London as decadent as anything out of our weekend abominations. Hogarth’s was a city where urbanites drank on the putrid, alcoholic corners of St. Giles’s “Gin Lane” and rejoice in the corrupt Hanoverian order, happily paid-off by politicians who proudly offered little else but jobbery and pelf.
In one 1738 series that deftly reveals the order’s hypocrisies, “The Four Times of Day,” the first piece “Morning” is set outside a church where the poor warm themselves near street fires. The concentrated misery of the crowded city is ignored by the central figure, a lady, who walks beside her trembling servant ward, shivering from cold and carrying her Bible. The lady, the church, and the street’s grand homes turn their windows and gazes condescendingly away. The penury and lewdness of the poor are too much to behold.
There are also perfectly captured moments. In “The Laughing Audience,” from 1733, Hogarth illustrates a class-tiered theatrical performance: the orchestra focuses on its music as the distracted commoners laugh near the pit. Above them, the empire’s noblemen grope maidens, blithely ignoring the show. Nestled in the busy scene, a music critic’s face is stamped with displeasure. “The Bench” is an unfinished engraving offering neglectful jurists. In it, self-satisfied guardians of privilege sit puffed-up with authority they don’t deserve—some pretending to hear cases while others, robed and adorned in their great powdered wigs, sleep and only wake to offer their judgments.
But in Hogarth’s work, as in life, not everything is class struggle or a will to power over the weak. London was rapidly changing during the 18th century and Hogarth looked at every interstice every corner of English society where clueless suburbanites walked, country rubes were suckered, drunken soldiers groped, and fishwives howled their smelly wares. All are human, however swollen, fallen or absurd.
The high-tide of Enlightenment pride, too, is fit for mockery. In “Scholars at Lecture” from 1736/7, the caricatured students do everything but pay attention to their teacher’s prolixity. Hogarth satirizes children and the elderly, the undeserving poor, the climbing middle classes, drunken parsons, and the orgies of the bloated rich. He indicts urban society for its ills and mocks the rapacity of markets and the pretense of institutions slowly shaping the lives of the city dwellers.
But by the 1740s, one can see Hogarth trying something new, concentrating his art on, as he put it, the “intermediate species of subject…between the sublime and the grotesque.” Hoping to be thought of as more than just the ironic caricaturist producing the rubber-faced multitude of his minor characters, some of Hogarth’s earnest portraits and novel illustrations seem drawn by another man.
Hogarth produced a grand portrait of his friend, the mathematician Martin Folkes Esq. It is a quiet and respectful portrait; an Enlightenment thinker with warm, insightful eyes. Hogarth was a varied and skillful artist. One who could expose social rot and moral collapse on a mass scale but also illustrate individual goodness and evil. His engravings portray the abuse of animals by children in “The Four Stages of Cruelty” and created an indelible caricature of the treacherous Simon Lord Lovat, his shark eyes glaring as he weaves plots against the king.
Oh, and the wigs! So many powdered wigs! One adorns a droning preacher in “The Sleepy Congregation,” whose sinful flock snores through a dull sermon. Other wigs rest atop the skulls of “The Company of Undertakers,” a parliament of owlish quacks and grifters fed by England’s funeral racket, an image 20th century radical Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death, would have appreciated.
Hogarth’s influence can be seen even in our contemporary headlines. A new series of paintings by Henry Hudson called “The Rise and Fall of Young Sen,” reviewed by The New York Times and inspired by Hogarth’s work recently sold in England for $95, 000 a piece. In one wild canvas, “The After Party,” a booze-fueled Chinese artist self-destructs on a mad journey that leads him from decadent England to death by execution in Communist China.
It was the actor David Garrick who penned Hogarth’s perfect epitaph, writing that the engraver, “reach’d the noblest point of Art/Whose pictur’d Morals charm the Mind,/And through the Eye correct the Heart.” To respect Hogarth’s work is to do more than see, it is to allow for the correction of a cynical ease at the troubles of the city. To understand Hogarth’s art is to correct one’s shoulder-shrugging indifference to the cruelties of modern life—the pain and despair we see on the streets of San Diego. Moderns, whether we like it or not, bear responsibility for the tumultuous and warming world on which we live. It is through our own voices, our own connected labors, organization, and truth-telling that we may see the world more clearly, while also being the levers to change it. To be moved by Hogarth is to work each day to create the just city he never saw.