My history hero: William Hogarth (1697–1764)

Simon Jenkins, writer, editor, and chairman of the National Trust, hails the artist who turned a critical eye on Georgian London

A portrait of William Hogarth, whom Simon Jones admires for possessing an extraordinary eye for pictorial detail and social nuance. (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine

This article was first published in the December 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine

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I’ve always lived in London and taken an interest in London’s history. Anybody who has that interest trips over William Hogarth at every turn. And you don’t just trip over him – you become quite mesmerised by him, because he is angry and funny and tortured and exhilarating and also a superb artist.

Hogarth’s reputation as an artist has, I think, always suffered by his having also been a great cartoonist and caricaturist. Perhaps it’s that people assume that he can’t be fundamentally serious. But he has this extraordinarily perceptive, almost morbid, view of human nature, which comes across in his great series [of 1735], A Rake’s Progress. But what particularly appeals to me about him is that he was a controversialist. I know I would have been on his side.

There are so many layers to Hogarth: the son of a poor teacher, he was the complete Londoner. He was deeply involved in charitable work for the Foundling Hospital; he painted society portraits to make money; he painted delightful genre scenes; and then he could set about savaging people with his extraordinary, dense, rich cartoon series, which the public loved – they sold like mad. In each of them were hidden jokes, poking fun at the politicians and artists of the day, and every one of his pictures almost needs an essay to explain what’s going on.

He’s not a [painter like] Constable or Gainsborough, who are conducting romantic conversations with nature. He’s down there in the street. And I think what I’ve always enjoyed about Hogarth is he gives me a sense of street life. I feel very strongly that cities are about streets, and street life, not gated communities. Hogarth was, in a sense, outside the gate, looking at the carters and the paupers and sellers and beggars.

Hogarth has this extraordinarily perceptive, almost morbid, view of human nature

Being a social critic means seeing what’s going on around you. Hogarth saw what the consequences of the gin laws were, for example – appalling degradation and poverty. His celebrated print of Gin Lane [1751] comments on a time when London’s population was going down, because of the increase in alcoholism. He had this extraordinary eye for pictorial detail and social nuance, which – given that he seems to have been in a state of almost perpetual anger – makes him one of the more remarkable people in British history.

I studied politics, philosophy and economics at St John’s College, Oxford, and why I’m interested in history is, I think, that I’ve always liked stories. I regard the narrative as the most comprehensible way of understanding the world, rather than through the medium of ideas or abstractions. I’ve found political history the most interesting part of politics, and I’ve found economic history by far the most interesting part of economics, to the extent that I became quite fanatical about it. If you want to understand the 19th century, for example, chart it though the price of bread or the rate of interest and you’ll learn more than studying the history of kings or battles.

I’ve always enjoyed history in that sense, but I think that writing about London brought history to life for me because if you’re going to write about the development of a city you’ve got to have a narrative framework. And it’s certainly been my interest ever since.

For any community to be confident in itself, to be able to understand what makes it a community, what binds it together, what differentiates it from other communities – other countries – is a sense of identity. And there is no such thing as a sense of identity unrelated to history. You cannot envisage your future as a group of people if you cannot envisage your past. I’ve always found it absolutely extraordinary that the two subjects least rated in the curriculum – geography and history – are to my mind absolutely fundamental to the psychology of human communities. A knowledge of history has to underpin our sense of who we are.

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Simon Jenkins was talking to Greg Neale.Jenkins, the author and former editor of The Times and the London Evening Standard, is the new chairman of the National Trust