Hogarth, the noisy painter
A new exhibition at the Foundling Museum takes a single painting of 18th century life as its subject
This picture is one of the noisiest ever painted, with the sounds of the street as the Grenadier Guards gather at the northern edge of London, drums and fifes heralding the muster, piemen selling their wares, prostitutes offering theirs from the brothel windows, children crying, rabble-rousers inciting and, sotto voce, spies conspiring.
But the message is a quiet statement of the importance of society looking after its orphans, for these are the doughty yeomen of England's future.
The picture, William Hogarth’s The March of the Guards to Finchley, is the centrepiece of the new exhibition, Hogarth & The Art of Noise, opening on May 24 at the Foundling Museum in London’s Bloomsbury and running until September 1.
Making the Foundling Hospital, the city’s first children’s home, also London’s first public art gallery was an act of extraordinary generosity by the celebrity artists of the day, led by Hogarth but including the young Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, Francis Hayman and Alan Ramsay; Handel not only gave an annual concert of The Messiah in aid of the orphans but he left an original manuscript in his will so that the concerts could continue after his death.
They had been brought together by the founder of the hospital in Bloomsbury, a wealthy retired sea captain called Thomas Coram, and the artists’ philanthropy was the inspiration for the creation of the Royal Academy Schools a quarter of a century later.
“It became a fashionable venue” says Kathleen Palmer, the Foundling Museum’s curator. “At a time when European art, particularly Italian, was the vogue, this became the showcase for British talent.”
It began with this painting, Hogarth’s large narrative painted in 1750 and looking back to the Jacobite crisis a few years earlier, which he put up as a lottery prize in aid of the hospital. Engravings of the picture were sold as lottery tickets, and the winner would get the original – and by an extraordinary trick of fortune, it was won by Hogarth himself who donated his prize to the hospital, where it still has pride of place. For as well as being one of the pre-eminent painters of his age, Hogarth was the social commentator whose barbs and satires of his complex and infinitely detailed art made him popular among the ordinary people and disliked in society.
The picture is a snapshot of 1740s London, but the exhibition is introduced by another Hogarth, however: The Enraged Musician of 1741, an etching. It depicts an Italian violinist, believed to be Pietro Castrucci (a composer and the leader of Handel’s opera orchestra), who cannot work because of the overpowering rows of the street – the buskers, street sellers, broadside singers which other composers might take as inspiration.
“It encapsulates how Hogarth in particular managed to introduce this sense of vivid real life into his paintings - much of that is to do with way he indicates all five senses into his imagery, and sound has a very strong presence in lots of his work” says Palmer. On the wall next to the musician’s window is a bill poster for the first great English language opera, John Gay’s A Beggar’s Opera, written in 1728 and a challenge to the popularity of Italian opera.
But The March to Finchley is more than a satire on musical taste. The scene is at the mustering point at the northern edge of London the, the top of what is now Tottenham Court Road, and in the distance you can see the spa village of Hampstead. The Guards are gathering to be defend the capital from the Jacobite army which has left Derby on its march south.
And there are two halves, explains Palmer, who with her team as newly interpreted the picture. On the left is “good” side, the Protestant faction supporting the Hanoverian monarchy: the main figure, the smartly accoutred guardsman being persuaded towards the royal side by his girlfriend, with the words of the newly popular God Save The King and a portrait of the commander-in-chief the Duke of Cumberland in her basket, and pregnant with perhaps a future guardsman; we see a nuclear family around the drummer, and the fife boy who might well have been a Founding Hospital lad, a healthy and happy baby, the children being the much-needed new generation of apprentices, craftsmen and servicemen as the country faced yet more war.
By contrast, our Grenadier is having his arm tugged unavailingly by, perhaps, a former flame who has Jacobite publications in her pocket; the soldiers on this side of the picture are less well-dressed, and drunk with one reaching for the gin bottle being sold by his wife, whose baby is also stretching for the bottle. There’s a chimney boy – the Foundling Hospital might have saved from the often fatal work; a milk seller is being molested while her wares are being filched; the pie-seller is having his good stolen, and at the bottom of the picture a group of ducklings have been left orphaned, their mother stuffed in a scruffy soldier’s pocket.
By the King’s Head sign, a reference to Charles II, whores hang out of every window – the madam, in the bottom right window, is known to be Mother Douglas, a brothel-keeper who had a pub of the same name and was known as “The Empress of the Bawds”. The building next is dark and lifeless, the tree next to it is leafless and barren – Charles II had no legitimate offspring.
By contrast, on the left of the picture is a flourishing tree, a reference to George II’s large family. Beside theatre is another pub, the Adam and Eve, recalling Paradise Lost by Milton, a Protestant opponent of the Stuarts.
In the exhibition The March of the Guards has its own space, amid a soundscape created by the musician and composer Martyn Ware which incorporates all the street sounds of the image. There are also contemporary paintings by Nicola Bealing capturing the mood of the Hogarth masterpiece with a large one, entitled Joyful News to Batchelors (sic) and Maids, based on a ballad written about the Foundling Hospital when it was opened in 1739.
“One of the reasons people responded in such a way to Hogarth’s work is it feels incredibly real” says Kathleen Palmer. “There are very human sensations here, you can still taste and feel and smell what's going on in his paintings. It’s also perhaps why it's taken a long time for Hogarth to be considered high art, and in his lifetime was still considered to be an illustrator or comic engraver rather than A high artists, because of this visceral, sensual element of his work.”