For a truly unvarnished view of early 18th‐century England – its hypocrisies, vices and vast inequalities – look no further than the graphic satires of William Hogarth: from the temptation, decline and fall of a wealthy merchant’s son in A Rake’s Progress (1735), through to the human degradation of Gin Lane (1751).
Hogarth is famed as a contrarian and iconoclast – traits (you might think) that would naturally put him at odds with organised religion. Certainly his attitude to the Church of England was ambivalent – a relationship summed up by the occasion when he is said to have urinated in a church porch. Yet, when it comes to Hogarth and religion, all is not what it seems.
Hogarth was born in 1697 in Bartholomew Close, West Smithfield, a short distance from the ancient church of St Bartholomew the Great. Here the infant William was baptised – the very font, dating from 1405, is still in situ. Yet his arrival would be recorded in the nonconformist register, indicating that Hogarth’s father, Richard, came from a Protestant dissenting tradition.
Listen: Jacqueline Riding discusses her new biography of William Hogarth, which charts the life and work of the famed artist and satirist, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
A scholar, teacher and author, Richard’s profound influence on his son is revealed through his publications, which teem with ethical statements and strident attitudes that chime perfectly with William’s “modern moral subjects”, as the artist himself defined them. In his Introduction to English, Latin and Greek (1689), Richard counselled “young people”, at whom the book is aimed, to “use not your self to women or wine”.
Unfortunately, Tom Rakewell ignores this advice with disastrous consequences in the eight engravings that make up A Rake’s Progress. And further on Richard observes: “So prevalent is custom, That if you set your self resolutely to that which is good, or that which is evil, you shall not easily relinquish the one or the other”, the basis of the dramatically diverging journeys of the two apprentices in his son’s Industry and Idleness (1747).
The exhortation to “Love Thy Neighbour” may not sit easily with the social decay of Gin Lane. But throughout his life Hogarth demonstrated a charitable and moral bent that aligns with the teachings of the Bible. This is epitomised by his close association with St Bartholomew’s and Foundling Hospitals. Both examples combined pragmatism – the desire to give practical aid to those in need – with an appreciation for Jesus’s teachings and example as set out in the New Testament.
Even Hogarth’s more robust moral narratives have a self‐conscious parabolic quality, and his close friendships with clergymen suggest he was far from hostile to the Anglican church. The Reverend John Hoadly, for example, supplied the accompanying verses for A Rake’s Progress.
Hogarth’s use of the term “progress” immediately conjures up John Bunyan’s nonconformist epic, The Pilgrim’s Progress. And the Puritan John Milton, through his Paradise Lost, joins Jonathan Swift and William Shakespeare as the literary and spiritual foundations on which Hogarth quite literally rests in his celebrated Self-Portrait with Pug of 1745.
So, far from being an enemy of the church and organised religion, Hogarth’s view was instead more nuanced. As these works of art reveal, at the heart of Hogarth’s morality lies a religious core that we cannot ignore…
The Sleeping Congregation, 1736
Hogarth’s antagonism for organised religion has undoubtedly been overplayed. But there’s no denying that he was prepared to take the occasional swipe at the Church of England. The Sleeping Congregation (republished in 1762) satirises the sheer tedium of a service delivered in an ancient rural church where a preacher preaches on, regardless of whether his flock are listening.
His sermon has sent the entire congregation into slumber, lending ironic meaning to Christ’s words of hope for the body and soul, visible on the right-hand page of the cleric’s book: “Come unto me all ye who labour and are heavy laden & I will give you rest.”
Below the preacher, a grumpy curate glances sideways at a pretty young woman. With her prayer book open at the section “Of matrimony”, it would appear that her dreams are of romantic rather than spiritual love.
The Pool of Bethesda, 1736
Born and raised near St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Hogarth was determined to win the commission to paint the magnificent staircase in James Gibbs’s new administration wing: so determined, in fact, that he offered to make them a donation and provide his time free of charge, becoming a governor (or trustee) in the process.
The two monumental scenes, covering the north and east walls, depict The Good Samaritan, Christ’s parable of fellow-feeling, kindness and practical help, and The Pool of Bethesda, the scene of a miracle where the lame man rises to his feet and walks.
The central figures in this vast painting are surrounded by individuals with recognisable medical conditions. To the immediate right of Christ’s extended hand, a mother with her sick baby (who is suffering from rickets) is being blocked by a guard. This detail may offer an indication of where Hogarth’s charitable instincts will next be focussed…
The Foundlings, c1739
In 1739, Hogarth became a founding governor of a refuge for newborns at risk of abandonment or murder, known as the Foundling Hospital. Hogarth produced The Foundlings for the headpiece of the subscription roll, a fundraising document for the new institution. At the centre is the hospital’s founder, Captain Thomas Coram, who looks towards a kneeling woman, a dagger lying on the ground in front of her, implying that she has been foiled in an attempt to murder her child. The infant is held by the beadle, the officer in charge of security.
The design presents two realities: on one side is despair, featuring scenes of peril and abandonment. On the other is hope, characterised by the rescued children in their neat uniforms (by tradition, designed by Hogarth) holding items representing their training and future professions.
The distant parish church, on whose charity the poor are traditionally expected to rely, is balanced by (and perhaps found wanting in comparison to) the more prominent hospital building in the foreground. The hospital’s window bars form a cross – a sign of where true Christian charity can be found.
Two scenes from Industry and Idleness, 1747
Churches play a prominent role in a number of Hogarth’s most famous artworks. There’s St Giles-in-the- Fields in Gin Lane and St Martin-in- the-Fields in 1751’s Beer Street (neighbouring parishes yet, in all other respects, worlds apart). And there’s the unidentified City of London church that forms the backdrop to two scenes in Industry and Idleness, a series of 12 engravings that Hogarth produced in 1747.
The series is centred around the contrasting fortunes of two London apprentices, Francis Goodchild and Tom Idle. The first engraving shows Francis and Tom together at their weaving looms. But by the next paired scenes (seen above), Hogarth establishes that the two are already on very different trajectories. Through these examples of industry and virtue in opposition to idleness and vice, Hogarth is, as he put it: “Shewing the advantages attending the former, and the miserable effects of the latter.”
In one scene, Francis joins a divine service, sharing his hymn book with his master’s daughter (and his own future wife). Meanwhile, outside, Tom gambles with his life and soul which, as the skull-and-bone omens littering the ground make clear, will take him all the way to the gallows.
No such fate awaits Francis who continues his steady progress towards the lord mayoralty of London – his reward for being a dutiful Christian.
Dr Jacqueline Riding is an art historian, historical consultant and author. Her new book is Hogarth: Life in Progress (Profile Books, 2021)
This article was first published in the July 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine