William Hogarth: How religion and faith shaped his satirical art

For a truly unvarnished take on early 18th-century England – its hypocrisies, vices, and vast inequalities – look no further than William Hogarth’s graphic satires: of the temptation, decline and fall of the son of a rich merchant in The progress of a rake (1735), until the human degradation of Gin Lane (1751).

Hogarth is known as an anti-conformist and an iconoclast – traits (you might think) that would naturally put him at odds with organized religion. To be sure, his attitude towards the Church of England was ambivalent – a relationship summed up by the occasion he allegedly urinated on 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 old Church of St Bartholomew the Great. Here the infant William was baptized – the same font, dating from 1405, is still in place. Yet his arrival would be recorded in the Maverick Register, indicating that Hogarth’s father, Richard, was from a dissenting Protestant tradition.

Listen: Jacqueline Riding talks about her new biography of William Hogarth, which chronicles the life and work of the famous artist and satirist, in this episode of the HistoryExtra Podcast:

Scholar, teacher and author, Richard’s profound influence on his son is revealed through his publications, which are teeming with ethical statements and strident attitudes that fit in perfectly with William’s “modern moral subjects” such as the artist. he himself defined them. In his Introduction to English, Latin and Greek (1689), Richard advised “young people”, to whom the book is addressed, “not to use women or wine”.

Unfortunately, Tom Rakewell ignores this advice with dire consequences in the eight prints that make up The progress of a rake. And further, Richard observes: “The custom is so widespread that if you go resolutely towards what is good or what is bad, you will not easily give up one or the other”, the basis of the voyages. dramatically divergent. of the two apprentices at his son’s Industry and idleness (1747).

Throughout his life, Hogarth displayed a charitable and moral bent in accordance with the teachings of the Bible.

The exhortation to “love thy neighbor” may not easily adapt to the social decadence of Gin Lane. But throughout his life, Hogarth displayed a charitable and moral bent that aligned with the teachings of the Bible. This is illustrated by its close association with St Bartholomew and Foundling Hospitals. Both examples combined pragmatism – the desire to give practical help to those in need – with an appreciation for the teachings and example of Jesus as set out in the New Testament.

Even Hogarth’s most robust moral narratives have a conscious parabolic quality, and his close friendships with members of the clergy suggest he was far from hostile to the Anglican Church. Reverend John Hoadly, for example, provided the accompanying verses for The progress of a rake.

Hogarth’s use of the term “progress” immediately evokes the anti-conformist epic of John Bunyan, The pilgrim’s progression. And the Puritan John Milton, by his lost paradise, joins Jonathan Swift and William Shakespeare as the literary and spiritual foundations upon which Hogarth literally rests in his famous Self-portrait with Carlin from 1745.

So far from being an enemy of the church and organized religion, Hogarth’s point of view was rather 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 organized religion has undoubtedly been overstated. But it is undeniable that he was prepared to attack the Church of England on occasion. The Sleeping Congregation (reissued in 1762) satirizes the sheer boredom of a service rendered in an old rural church where a preacher preaches, whether his flock is listening or not.

His sermon put the whole congregation into sleep, lending an ironic meaning to Christ’s words of hope for body and soul, visible on the right page of the cleric’s book: “Come to me, all of you who are tired and loaded and I will give you rest.

Below the preacher, a grumpy priest glances sideways at a pretty young woman. With her prayer book open in the “On Marriage” section, it would seem her dreams are romantic rather than spiritual love.

The Sleeping Congregation, 1762 (Photo by Heritage Art / Heritage Images via Getty Images)


Bethesda Pool, 1736

Born and raised near St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Hogarth was determined to win the commission to paint the magnificent staircase of James Gibbs’ new administrative wing: so determined, in fact, that he offered to donate and volunteering his time for free, becoming a governor (or trustee) in the process.

The two monumental scenes, covering the north and east walls, represent The Good Samaritan, Christ’s parable of fellowship, kindness, and practical help, and Bethesda Pool, the scene of a miracle where the lame man gets up and walks.

The central figures of this vast painting are surrounded by individuals with recognizable medical conditions. Immediately to the right of Christ’s outstretched hand, a mother with her sick baby (who suffers from rickets) is blocked by a guard. This detail may offer an indication of where Hogarth’s charitable instincts will focus next …


Foundlings, c1739

In 1739, Hogarth became founding governor of a shelter for infants at risk of abandonment or murder, known as Foundling Hospital. Hogarth produced Foundlings for the head of the subscription list, a fundraising document for the new institution. In the center is the hospital’s founder, Captain Thomas Coram, who is staring at a kneeling woman with a dagger lying on the ground in front of her, implying that she has been foiled to attempt to murder her child. The child is looked after by the verger, the security officer.

The design presents two realities: on the one hand, despair, with scenes of peril and abandonment. On the other, hope, characterized by the rescued children in their neat uniforms (by tradition, designed by Hogarth) holding objects representing their training and their future professions.

The remote parish church, on which the poor are traditionally supposed to rely on charity, is offset by (and perhaps found insufficient when compared to) the larger hospital building in the foreground. The bars of the hospital windows form a cross, a sign of true Christian charity.


Two scenes from Industry and idleness, 1747

Apprentice from London named Francis attends church service and shares hymn books with a young girl, from William Hogarth's

Industrialist ‘Prentice Fulfilling a Christian’s Duty, Industry and Idleness, 1747 (Photo by Heritage Art / Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Churches play a prominent role in a number of Hogarth’s most famous works of art. There is St Giles-in-the-Fields in Gin Lane and St Martin-in-the-Fields in 1751 Beer street (neighboring parishes yet, in all other respects, worlds apart). And there is the unidentified Church of the City of London which forms the backdrop for two scenes of Industry and idleness, a series of 12 engravings that Hogarth produced in 1747.

A London apprentice named Tom plays with his life and soul in industry and idleness by William Hogarth, 1747

The Idle ‘Prentice at Play in the Church Yard, from Industry and Idleness, 1747 (Photo by Heritage Art / Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The series centers on the contrasting fortunes of two London apprentices, Francis Goodchild and Tom Idle. The first engraving shows Francis and Tom together in front of their looms. But through the following paired scenes (see above), Hogarth establishes that the two are already on very different trajectories. Through these examples of industry and virtue as opposed to idleness and vice, Hogarth is, as he put it: “Showing the advantages that accompany the first and the miserable effects of the second.”

In one scene, Francis joins a divine service, sharing his hymnbook with his master’s daughter (and his own future wife). Meanwhile, outside, Tom plays with his life and soul which, as the omens of skulls and bones littering the ground show, will lead him to the gallows.

Such a fate does not await Francis who continues his steady progress towards London City Hall – his reward for being a conscientious Christian.

Dr Jacqueline Riding is an art historian, historical consultant and author. His new book is Hogarth: life in progress (Profile books, 2021)

This article was first published in the BBC History Magazine July 2021 issue

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