The mulberry vision of Hogarth’s home
In a remarkable partnership between a local authority and community enthusiasts, the home of William Hogarth has opened out into a garden of delights. Simon Tait reports
In a new vision of how a museum can open out its essential subject, Hogarth’s House in West London has reopened, changed from a biographical museum to a multi-faceted study centre of the artist’s work, techniques and influence, thanks to a productive partnership between funders, local enthusiasts and a willing council.
Visitors will even be able to make the pigments from plants in the cottage’s garden, as Hogarth himself did.
The cottage in then rural Chiswick was where the painter and print-maker William Hogarth lived for the last 15 years of his life. It used to be a very charming gallery of small rooms showing his prints, run by the London Borough of Hounslow with help and advice from a group of community volunteers, and that association has allowed new thinking to make this fascinating cottage so much more.
Now, with a study centre financed by the Garfield Weston Foundation and the garden it opens onto used as it never was before, new insights are being offered into Hogarth and the house, developed and researched during its closure. “We’re offering new ways to learn about Hogarth” says the house’s manager John Collins. “Everything we do is about Hogarth, but now we’re using him as a point to look out from rather than focusing just on him”.
The garden - now the Mulberry Garden at the centre of which a magnificently gnarled mulberry tree, the last remnant of a 17th century orchard that was here before the house was built, still thrives - used to be nothing more than the entrance to the house. Now it is an open-air gallery that adds a new dimension to the Hogarth story.
The house has been closed to the public for two years, partly due to Covid and partly to the development work to build the new Weston Studio. The £2m costs have been found by the council, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Weston and fundraising by the trust members who contributed £200,000 - and crowdfunding has raised £2,000 to recreate the graves the Hogarth’s made for their pets, Dick the drake and Mrs Hogarth’s lapdog Pompey.
The Queen Anne house was built in 1715 and bought and extended in 1749 by a newly prosperous Hogarth to be his “little country box by the Thames”, the last house in the village of Chiswick before the rolling fields and copses of Middlesex. The lane, now part of one of the busiest thoroughfares in the country where the Great West Road becomes the Hogarth Roundabout, was probably not even named. The house was known simply as North End and Hogarth and his wife Jane - Billy and Jenny to each other - were to spend much of the next 15 years here until his death in 1765 aged 66. He is buried nearby in St Nicholas churchyard, the headstone legend written by his friend David Garrick.
They were childless but after Hogarth’s death Jane continued living here with her cousin, Mary Lewis, until her own death, and the family connection ended when Mary died in 1808. It was bought by Henry Carey, the Romantic poet, and in the 1860s it was the home of a celebrated melodramatic actor, Newton Treen “Brayvo” Hicks. But it was falling into disrepair.
The next-door neighbour bought the house and restored it, but towards the end of the 19th century it was scheduled for redevelopment. A campaign by the artists and writers who had drifted to Chiswick in Hogarth’s wake mounted a campaign to save it, but it failed. The house was put up for auction.
It was acquired by a local magnate who restored it, collected the prints to display on the walls, and had furniture made which was copied from the engravings by the Chiswick Artworkers’ Guild, and opened the house to the public in 1904. He gave it to the local authority in 1909, and it was kept by custodians who lived there rent-free provided they admitted the public when required. It was badly damaged in the 1940 Blitz but was repaired and reopened in 1951.
It remains the property of the local authority under a trust of which the council is the sole trustee, separate from the William Hogarth Trust which is an active voluntary group of historians, writers, artists and horticulturalists that was set up in 2004, chaired by the historian and museum consultant Val Bott.
With the council Bott’s trust set about recasting the house with new research and conserved Hogarth engravings - the council owns more than 220 of them - but in 2009 a fire set the project back a year and it reopened in 2011. “But we were already thinking” says Bott “that this wasn’t the end - we needed to bring the garden into it, and we needed a place where we could tell the story in puprose-made setting.
“Local people who came to events here told us they wanted more than serried ranks of framed prints on the wall, fascinating as they are” she said. “They yearned to understand the place as a home, so we’ve presented the house so as to make sense of its building phases, and we’ve added some domestic details”. They wanted to be able to tell the stories of the other people who lived there before and after the Hogarths, and of the building and its neglected garden.
So the Mulberry Garden Project was born, to create an education centre next to the house, bring the garden into the narrative and connect the three elements. The lottery fund approved and gave £1.35m, Hounslow matched it and the Garfield Weston Foundation stepped forward with £150,000. The Trust itself has submitted 34 grant applications that raised £200,000.
Contracting issues and the pandemic caused significant delays, but they also allowed time for more research into the garden. The lawn, which contains plants and shrubs as well as grass, was scythed rather than mown, and there will be biannual demonstrations. Fruit trees - apple, pear, peach and apricot - have been planted against the garden wall; a greenhouse has been installed where one would have stood before, and a gardener has now been appointed. The plants are growing ordered by colour to make it easier to select for pigments. And the nutpath where the couple liked to stroll has been recreated, with hazelnut trees enclosing the specially commissioned frame.
Hogarth was also known to be enthusiastic about nine-pin bowling, and a bowling alley has been created in the garden along with a set if skittles and the arcane rules that go with the traditional game.
There are other activities in the Mulberry Garden, with a specially commissioned performance of a play by Pulp Rocket Theatre based on Hogarth’s engraving The Enraged Musician (above).
The Weston Studio will host school visits, already booking up for the autumn and winter, and adult workshops and demonstrations. Staff, which used to number just one, is being increased with a new front of house team, a roster of freelance specialists, and Beth Bryan, a learning/events specialist. The centre has acquired a printing press, smaller than Hogarth’s but essentially the same components, for visitors to experiment with the artist’s techniques. There will be hirings, and there have even been inquiries from a local cemetery about wakes. New props to hold up the limbs of the venerable mulberry have been commissioned from wood-carvers.
There is also a subtle Hogarthian theme with the centre connected to the house by a serpentine glass sheet shaped like the Line of Beauty, first coined by Hogarth as the essence of aestheticism to be found in nature and a line that is repeated elsewhere in the nutpath frame, a garden bench and the low garden wall.
“What visitors sometimes don’t realise” Collins says “is that the prints we show were all made by Hogarth himself, and he could go back to the plates and change them to make them more topical which can't do with an oil. So in that respect they are as much works of art as the paintings.”
Another innovation is a programme of temporary exhibitions of work by contemporary artists inspired by Hogarth, and the first is b y Paula Rego who has taken her lead from the familiar Gin Lane and Beer Street engravings.
“Hounslow have been absolutely amazing” Bott said. “When the costs came in they were at least £400,000 beyond the budget, but the council stuck with it and made sure the project could go ahead as we had planned.
“We wanted to provide ways of engaging people with Hogarth that was not just academic, but also showed how interesting the house is and all the people that lived in it, not just the Hogarths.”