My history hero: William Hogarth (1697–1764)

Actor Caroline Quentin explains her admiration for the artist and social critic

William Hogarth

This article was first published in the February 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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William Hogarth (1697–1764) was a painter, printmaker, social critic and cartoonist, best known for his sardonic observations on 18th-century life. Born in humble circumstances in London, he began life as an engraver. He took a keen interest in the capital’s street life, and soon began producing a series of moralising cartoons – famed for their grotesque ‘Hogarthian’ characters – such as A Rake’s Progress, Marriage à la Mode and Gin Lane. His satirical work has influenced many modern-day newspaper cartoonists.

When did you first hear about Hogarth?

I’d been aware of Hogarth since my teens. But it was only while researching a role in a play I was appearing in at the National Theatre in the 1990s, The London Cuckolds, that I really got to learn more about him. It was then that my interest was stoked in those paintings – like A Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress – that often looked at the more scurrilous side of 18th‑century life. I found his work the most incredible research tool.

What kind of person was he?

He started out life as a painter and engraver but later on in his career he became more of a social satirist. And his work shows him to be someone who was really interested in the people he saw around him. Several of his works also look at cruelty – both to people and animals – which reflects his lifelong interest in justice. From what I’ve read, he was also a kind man and had a strong egalitarian streak. One of his most famous pictures is a loving, warm painting of his own servant. That says a lot about Hogarth as a man.

What made him a hero?

First and foremost, his amazing body of work. But I like the fact that nothing seemed to shock him. I’m also drawn towards his caring attitude towards others. For instance, he draws the rake and the harlot with the same interest and precision as the other people in his art.

Admittedly, Hogarth’s ‘moral’ drawings aren’t always kind – but they’re respectful in their own way. I also like the way that he viewed society at that time in an almost comic-strip fashion. Lastly, I just think he’s the most marvellous introduction to 18th‑century English history.

What was Hogarth’s finest hour?

He’s most famous for works like A Rake’s Progress and Gin Lane, which I really like – and both in a way are social documents in their own right because the work is so detailed. If you want to find out what sort of corsets people wore at the time, or the kind of food they ate, you only have to look at such pictures.

Yes, his work can be bleak. But I think his finest pictures also very often reflect his keen sense of humour. Having said that, my favourite Hogarth painting is probably The Shrimp Girl, an almost impressionistic picture of a fish-seller he painted later in his career, which now hangs in the National Gallery. The girl in question is rosy-cheeked and looks so happy, and I just love it.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

I’ve never come across anything that would make me change my view of him.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

Not really, other than the fact that I also paint and draw, and have always done so. When I was younger, for example, I would sketch people on the Clapham Junction train. Hogarth also shared my love for the theatre – he did a lot of engravings of backstage. Oh, and I once owned a little crossbreed dog which I called Hogarth in his honour!

If you could meet Hogarth, what would you ask him?

I’m pretty sure we’d have got on. And I’d really just like to have spent time with him, observing him at work in the theatre or elsewhere. I think we’d have had a right laugh!

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Caroline Quentin was talking to York Membery. Caroline Quentin is an actor best known for her roles in Men Behaving Badly and Jonathan Creek. From 5 February she will be starring in The Life and Times of Fanny Hill at the Bristol Old Vic