Last week, I finally got the time to check the Hogarth show at the Tate. A very egalitarian and attractive retrospective of his career and oeuvre with equal attention paid to the bourgeois and the burlesque, the benevolent and the biting. Almost all of his most important work is assembled there, and it is a unique treat. One of the things I most enjoyed was observing and enjoying the richness of his visual ideas : the enormous amounts of ‘chicken fat,’ to use that maddest of Mad-artists Will Elder’s apt term, lining his pictures.

A born storyteller, most of Hogarth’s work suggest a before and an after, even when it is not serial in conception. His conversation pieces, portraying groups of well-off citizens and urbanites at tea or at play, always suggest relations between their actors. In this way, Hogarth is the opposite of that other great master of social portraiture the time, Watteau, who supremely depicts the failure of communication and the end of interaction (incidentally, a great selection of his work can be seen across town, at the Wallace Collection). This, I believe, is what prompted William Hazlitt to write “Other pictures we see, Hogarth’s we read.”

It is therefore unsurprising that Hogarth is best when he tells stories, and his famous narrative series are clearly the centrepieces of the show, and indeed his oeuvre. Perhaps the most remarkable is Marriage à la Mode (six paintings created for an engraved set issued in 1745 : 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). It tells the story of the moribund marriage between a philandering aristocratic fop and a plain, selfish bourgeoise, arranged to the convenience of their fathers, a huffy, gout-plagued Earl short of funds and a snobbish and near-sighted, but rich Alderman greedy for upwards mobility.

The husband, the Viscount Squanderfield’s tourism along London’s underbelly is paralleled by his wife, the Countess’ indulgence of aristocratic ennui until the inevitable clash when the wife’s lover, the slick Counsellor Silvertongue, kills the Viscount after the latter walks in on their tryst in a Covent Garden roost. He is subsequently hanged for his crime off-screen, which leads the Countess to take her own life using laudanum. She leaves a bowlegged, syphilitic orphan and a squandered fortune. With the Earl having passed on along the way, only the avaricious alderman, who : as we can deduce from the chain he wears : has been promoted to Lord Mayor of the city in the interim, comes out on top. He dispassionately pockets his dying daughter’s wedding ring before rigor mortis sets in.

The starkness of Hogarth’s satire is harrowing, but evades holier-than-thou dogmatic preaching by indicting everyone, while at the same time investing them with just enough humanity that we feel their plight, catching ourselves wishing they would stop and think just once, and : just perhaps : halt what we sense is their crushingly predetermined march to dissolution.

Key to this is the subtle balance he strikes between realism and caricature, once again observed with keen sensitivity by Hazlitt, who writes that Hogarth’s characters “…go to the very verge of caricature, and yet never… go beyond it: they take the very widest latitude and yet we always see the links which bind them to nature.” The ridiculous coterie of castrati, coy swains and chocolate-sipping fairies kept by the settled Countess, in the fourth image of the series, is a good example of how Hogarth fuses archetype with the observed. Recognizably human, their character is crystallized through an exaggeration that manages to stay within the bounds of believable context.

Even more important, however, are the genuinely human moments Hogarth allows his characters here and there. The present series includes what is perhaps his crowning achievement in this respect: the depiction of the Countess’ fatigued, post-coital elation in the second image of the series. Despite the sudden presence of her disenchanted husband, whose return from a night on the town with his underage moll has chased away her lover, and despite the unpaid bills carried away by the steward, she for a fleeting moment feels that these are not just the familiar objects of her egotistical neglect, but genuinely of no consequence to her.

The series also sports what is perhaps the largest quantity of Elderian ‘chicken fat’ of any work by Hogarth. The images are so rich in visual detail that one wonders why the overall impression is not more cacophonous. Part of the reason may be that, in contrast to Elder’s visual shenanigans, almost every detail Hogarth packs in can somehow be related to the narrative : it reflects the characters and events, it provides counterpoint and commentary.

Thus the wedding ring that the Alderman palms at the end points back to the engagement ring that the bride-to-be was sullenly toying with in the opening scene, just as the Lord Mayor’s chain he is wearing marks the step up he has made since then, when his wearing it indicated that he was currently holding the one-year position of Sheriff. Similarly, the Viscount’s lifeline is bookended by the mirror of his narcissism; in the opening scene it reflects his killer-to-be, Silvertongue (in the painted version it actually appears to reflect a death’s head), while in the fifth it frames his last breath after the latter has done his dirty work. And of course there is the chilling detail of the Viscount’s “beauty spot,” covering the venereal sore on his neck throughout, having been transferred to his child at the end.

There is a lot more, of course: the Earl’s pompous building project, seen through the window in the first image, which gets the orders wrong (Ionic above Corinthian), the cut-and-rolled carpet in the second that underscores the disorderliness of the couple’s household, the acerbic vanitas motif of a skeleton making advances at an anatomical model in the quack’s cupboard in the third, the child’s rattle hanging off the back of the selfish mother’s chair in the fourth, the diagonal framing of the fifth : the first death scene : by cruciform shapes, and the broadsheet on the floor proclaiming the execution of Silvertongue in the sixth. And so on.

However, Hogarth’s wealth of visual detail is only bona fide ‘chicken fat’ because it works on its own terms. Elder’s brand of the stuff is incidental and “noisy.” It is not only unrelated to, but often supplants the narrative as the main attraction of his stories (just as does the proliferating gags in Tati’s cinema, incidentally). As mentioned, this is not really the case with Hogarth, whose narratives almost invariably remain undisturbed by his piling on of the good stuff. But it is nevertheless clear that his visual inventions are also meant to be enjoyed in their own right, independently of the narrative.

Such bits as the foot emerging from behind a censorious curtain in the second scene are the hallmarks of a witty visual imagination at play. As are the absurd fat man-clock on the wall, the dildo-like figurines on the mantle, or the way the steward’s facial features are mirrored in the classic bust with its busted nose in front of the mirror. And what about all the delightful brick-a-brack in the quack’s office? There’s the obvious device of the Viscount’s half-arsed threatening gesture with his cane being reflected in the erect narwhale horn (a common aphrodisiac at the time) above him, but there’s also the shoulder-straightening, cork-screwing machine in the foreground (that is what the patent note on it says it is, anyway…), and the utterly bizarre glass tubes seen through the door. Stuff and nonsense. Chicken fat.

When Hazlitt writes that Hogarth’s pictures as ones that we ‘read,’ he is referring to their narrativity, but he is in no way discounting their richness of observation and visual wit: “…the merit of the pictures does not depend on the nature of the subject, but on the knowledge displayed of it, on the number of ideas they excite, on the fund of thought and observation contained in them.” There are the starkly painted archetypes, but there is also the joy of an early-morning stretch. There is stiflingly determinist visual narrative, but ample time to play around along the way.

Hazlitt further writes that Hogarth’s pictures “… breathe a certain close, greasy tavern air. The fare he serves up consists of high-seasoned dishes, ragouts and olla podridas… which it requires a strong stomach to digest.” Indeed. But he also emphasizes that Hogarth is “… a painter not of low but of real life.” And it is true that the artist, for all his fine arts aspirations, invariably situates even the most elevated subject in profane surroundings : his history paintings look like ordinary people in silly costumes. Above the door in the Covent Garden bagnio, he has inserted a picture of Saint Luke, the evangelist and patron saint of artists, overlooking the low drama unfolding in the squalid room below him. For Hogarth, this is where art begins and ends, which is probably also why exalted scenes of gloom and doom by Italian masters such as Titian, Caravaggio and others frame one end of the narrative, and are met, in the other end, by a Netherlandish naïf pissing against a wall.

The Hogarth show at Tate Britain only runs until April 29th, so hurry if you haven’t already seen it. Once the exhibition is over, the painted Marriage à la Mode will again be on display at the National Gallery, London. For a rich, almost obsessively detailed iconographic examination of Hogarth’s printed work, check out Ronald Paulson’s great catalogue raisonné, Hogarth’s Graphic Works (3rd ed., London, the Print Room, 1989). The Hazlitt quotes were culled from his lecture “On the Works of Hogarth: On the Grand and Familiar Style of Painting”, in this case printed in Lectures on the English Comic Writers, published in the Oxford World’s Classics series.