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William Godwin, an all-round man of letters in the best tradition, has been underrated as a biographer. His Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft (1798) no longer needs championing, of course, but his Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (1803) does. It stands behind a rich tradition. Introducing what he claimed as 'a work of a new species', Godwin therein stated his belief that:
The full and complete life of a poet would include an extensive survey of the manners, the opinions, the arts and the literature, of the age in which the poet lived. This is the only way in which we can become truly acquainted with the history of his mind, and the causes which made him what he was. We must observe what Chaucer felt and saw, how he was educated, what species of learning he pursued, and what were the objects, the events, and the persons, successively presented to his view, before we can strictly and philosophically understand his biography. To delineate the state of England, such as Chaucer saw it, in every point of view in which it can be delineated, is the subject of this book.
Read 'artist' for 'poet' and 'Hogarth' for 'Chaucer' and this eloquently serves as a description of Jenny Uglow's Hogarth: A Life and a World , a vivid and enthralling biography in the Godwinian line. A metaphor Godwin used to describe the structure of his Life can, with particular appropriateness, be adapted to describe this one: 'The person of [Hogarth] may ... be considered as the central figure in a miscellaneous painting, giving unity and individual application to the otherwise disjointed particulars with which the canvas is diversified.' Spot on.
While surprisingly little is known directly about Hogarth - Uglow mentions the 'few personal documents: a couple of letters, a sheaf of rough notes' (p. xvi) - the public nature of his art makes the Godwinian method essential. There is little, perhaps nothing, in Hogarth: A Life and a World that is strictly speaking new , but Uglow has integrated what was already known about Hogarth into a vibrant portrait of the age in which he lived, well aware that this is the way to know him better. The whole is considerably enriched by her suggestive and insightful descriptions of his engravings and paintings - art 'appreciation' rather than 'criticism' for the most part, but none the less valuable for that. The book is illustrated, but not as generously as it might have been, and the quality of the reproductions is sometimes distinctly mediocre. Given the scope of the study, and the fact that it aims at a broad public, more illustrations of art works by Hogarth's contemporaries would have been desirable. Probably the book suffers in these respects from a desire to keep it affordable: it is certainly very good value as bulky hardbacks go.
Uglow has drawn on impressively wide reading in and about the eighteenth century, packing her book with quotations, which serve as the fruits in this rich cake. Her own writing is beautiful - a nicely varied prose that one will always return to with pleasure. At times, though, one does feel that the study could have been tighter - this is a long book - and more thoughtful. To take one example: in discussing the familiar painting/print 'The Gate of Calais, or O the Roast Beef of Old England' (1749; often referred to simply as 'The Roast Beef of Old England' but called by Uglow 'The Gate of Calais'), she quotes a contemporary comment by George Vertue (an acquaintance of Hogarth's and engraver to the Society of Antiquaries) to the effect that the print's subtitle - i.e. 'O the Roast Beef of Old England' - was 'a prodigious Blunder ... for he [Hogarth] has represented a Man carrying a peice of (Raw beef) instead of Roasted'. She gives this simply with an aside on Vertue's 'grumpiness' (p. 466), in this odd critical silence following Ronald Paulson, whose standard biography of Hogarth is, quite properly, one of her principal sources. In fact Robert Etheridge Moore pointed out as long ago as 1948 that 'O the Roast Beef of Old England' was a quotation from, and allusion to, a song originally written by Henry Fielding (and later expanded by the actor and singer/song-writer Richard Leveridge), and, frustratingly, Uglow knows this. In a lively discussion of the Beefsteak Club (pp. 271-4), of which Hogarth was a member for several years, she quotes two stanzas of the song (mistakenly claiming them as Fielding's original 1731 version), and one would think that she might have realised that Vertue was misunderstanding. Hogarth was not claiming to have depicted roast beef; he was, rather, allowing a verbal allusion to fertilise his image. If Uglow is going to quote the song at length it seems merely economical to relate it to the work of Hogarth's that itself make the connection. Even Vertue's ignorance of that connection is important here, strongly suggesting that the song was not, in 1749, anywhere near universally known (membership of the Beefsteak Club was limited to twenty-four persons). It was a few years later. The conclusion? Hogarth's print did a great deal to establish 'The Roast Beef of Old England' as a classic of the age. Thinking in the opposite direction, Uglow's simplistic reading of the print (pp. 466-7) as an expression of Francophobia would be interestingly complicated had she considered Hogarth's reasons for making the allusion. Fielding was Hogarth's friend, and his literary (and emotional) investment in meat-eating manliness (a theme ultimately from Homer) had ideological implications that resonate much further. Hogarth was surely receptive to them.
This is, of course, a fairly specific critique, but it does point to one of the principal limitations of the book. Uglow tends to amass detail on quotable detail, when sometimes one would like a little more taut synthesis, more interrogation of those details. A great deal has gone in - like the Vertue quotation - simply for anecdotal or colour value. Secondary source material, too, has on occasion been swallowed, but not digested. The same uncritical spirit negatively affects the art discussions at times. Hogarth's pictures are, almost without exception, wonderful in Uglow's eyes. Her's is an infectious enthusiasm, something akin to Charles Lamb's, say, but sometimes one must protest at the resulting critical valuations. If Hogarth the painter has been undervalued in the past (a point, I suppose, almost beyond dispute), there is some danger now of the balance being redressed too much in his favour. The National Gallery sketch, 'The Shrimp Girl' (discussed pp. 408-9), is certainly outstanding, but Uglow's defence of the wooden quality of some of the early conversation pieces as a deliberate attempt on Hogarth's part to 'ruffle the polished surface of ease and good breeding to suggest an underlying un- ease in those he painted' (p. 159) is desperate. Hogarth was never a bad painter, judged by the (not very high) standards of his British contemporaries, but he was not always a good one.
At the end of the day, however, it is easy to forgive faults that stem from the author's passionate, encyclopaedic enthusiasm for her subject. This enthusiasm effectively communicates itself to the reader, and combined with so much information fully vindicates the project. Hogarth: A Life and a World is a book hard to lay down, one that informs and entertains on every page.