Other side of Hogarth




As I look forward to the William Hogarth (1697-1764) temporary exhibition at Tate Britain this spring, I also reflect on the side of Hogarth that has been little applauded.
Hogarth, best known for his prolific output on London life, sexuality and even patriotism, had a more serious side to his nature which unfolded in some of his artistic creations. In fact Hogarth aspired to being a serious history painter. That is nothing out of the ordinary of course, since all artists followed an established pattern of training and execution on the well-established hierarchy of painting genres with history painting at the very pinnacle. Hogarth would want, especially in the early years of production, to eventually reach this summit. It is considered by many to be a summit that he never conquered, but nevertheless his output of history paintings is a body of works that is worthy of discussion.
Probably the most famous of these are the works that Hogarth donated to his friend Thomas Coram for The Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, originally in a building in Lamb's Conduit Street, Bloomsbury. 'Moses brought before Pharaoh's Daughter', and other history subjects painted for the Foundling Hospital (1747) now adorns the walls of The Foundling Museum adjacent to the old hospital near Brunswick Square.
There are two other sets of Hogarth paintings though, that tend to get only a cursory glance
in discussions of Hogarth's work. One set of works can be found at St. Bartholomew Hospital in West Smithfield, London. Generally locked away from public gaze can be found on the original hospital entrance stairway, two stunning murals by Hogarth. 'Pool of Bethesda' and 'The Good Samaritan' (1736-37). In fact Hogarth provided these murals free of charge on the basis that it was British art, thus preventing the hospital from commissioning an Italian artist to fulfil their wishes.
The murals can be seen by arrangement on Friday afternoons only I believe, and I recommend a visit to see these elaborate murals.
Much lesser known that even these is the triptych (not a true triptych since the central painting was positioned high over the alter) that Hogarth completed for St Marys Redcliffe, Bristol in 1756. In fact if you ask an art historian about these paintings ('Ascension' flanked by 'The Sealing of the Sepulchre' and the 'Three Marys at the Tomb') you will generally get some head scratching and looks of disbelief! Try it out on your favourite historian and tell me I am wrong here.
It is nigh impossible to even find an image on the world wide web on any of these paintings! The closest one gets to it is a 'missing image' announcement on the St Nicholas Church Museum referenced site at artfund.org. Bristol Museums and Galleries have the paintings in their charge and also hold the copyright to photographs. I am indebted to Michael Liversidge, Bristol University History of Art Department, for sending me a copy of his 1980 paper (reference supplied on application) which provides some information about the history of the altarpiece.
What strikes me greatest after seeing the images is a certain resonance with the 'Italian Baroque' painters Claude and especially Poussin. Both were masters at painting in pairs (Pendant). Since the main altarpiece is positioned high above the other two, I surmise that Hogarth was treating the other two as a Pendant.
Whatever the case, it is well worth the visit to Bristol to see these paintings. Not great masterpieces as such but nevertheless a valuable asset to the history of art in Britain. Hogarth enthusiasts should make the effort during the exhibition in London.

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