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Things That Have Interested Me

The Author's Progress

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
10 March 2007

The excellent Hogarth exhibition at Tate Britain, and its accompanying catalogue, remind us that Hogarth, in addition to his talents as a painter and engraver, was a wonderful writer. Almost any page of The Analysis of Beauty, opened at random, yields some striking expression: "Huge shapeless rocks have a pleasing kind of horror in them" or "The ear is as much offended with one even continued note, as the eye is with being fix'd to a point, or to the view of a dead wall." The first example is an illustration of pleasure in quantity, the second in variety.

Hogarth loved finding the same principles at work in the different senses, and in contrasting experiences (the Analysis is very like a modern treatise on the psychology of perception). So he sets out, in consecutive paragraphs, the pleasures to be gained from tall trees, from Windsor castle, from the façade of the old Louvre, from imagining the ruins of ancient Egypt, and from large animals.

"Elephants and whales," he says, "please us with their unwieldy greatness. Even large personages, merely for being so, command respect: nay, quantity is an addition to the person which often supplies a deficiency in his figure." This was certainly true of the late Lord Goodman, an enormously powerful lawyer who was also an enormous man, and who would have cut much less of a figure around town had he been less vast.

We get an interesting glimpse a little further on of a stage production that might otherwise be completely forgotten, Harlequin Doctor Faustus as played at the Lincoln's Inn Theatre. Hogarth observes: "What can it be but this inelegance of the figure, join'd with impropriety, that makes a whole audience burst into laughter, when they see the miller's sack, in Dr Faustus, jump across the stage? was a well-shap'd vase to do the same it would equally surprise, but not make everybody laugh, because the elegance of the form would prevent it."

He tells us that "dancing-masters, representing deities, in their grand ballets on stage" are ridiculous - and we can easily imagine this (there is a tiny illustration of what they looked like in the first plate of The Analysis of Beauty, numbered 20) - but he immediately adds that "Nevertheless custom and fashion will, in length of time, reconcile almost every absurdity whatever, to the eye, or make it over-look'd."

He points out the pleasing effect created by an amalgamation of two beautiful objects, as for instance a lion and an eagle making a griffin, signifying strength and swiftness. The most extraordinary of all such combinations, he says, is "an infant's head of about two years old, with a pair of duck's wings placed under its chin, supposed always to be flying about, and singing psalms."

He goes on: "A painter's representation of heaven would be nothing without swarms of these little inconsistent objects, flying about, or perching on the clouds; and yet there is something so agreeable in their form, that the eye is reconciled and overlooks the absurdity, and we find them in the carving and painting of almost every church. St Paul's is full of them."

The chapter on intricacy reminds us that favourite diversions such as hunting, shooting or fishing depend, for their joys, on the "frequent difficulties, and disappointments, that are daily met with in their pursuit". The sportsman wants the hare to receive fair play - he is delighted if a cunning animal baffles and outruns the dogs. "This love of pursuit, merely as pursuit," Hogarth says, "is implanted in our natures, and designed, no doubt, for necessary, and useful purposes. Animals have it evidently by instinct. The hound dislikes the game he so eagerly pursues; and even cats will risk losing their prey to chase it over again."

This principle of intricacy, leading to curiosity and love of problem-solving, as the great Hogarth expert Ronald Paulson points out, is behind the whole riddling aesthetic of Tristram Shandy. Laurence Sterne ended the first volume of the novel with the boast that his reader has never yet been able to guess at anything that he has been up to. He would blush, as an author, if it were otherwise: "And in this, Sir, I am of so nice and singular a humour, that if I thought you was able to form the least judgment or probably conjecture to yourself of what was to come in the next page - I would tear it out of my book."

The Analysis of Beauty was published in 1753. The first part of Tristram Shandy appeared six years later, and when it was well received Sterne applied to Hogarth, through a friend, for an illustration for the second edition. He drafted and redrafted this letter carefully. He says in the first draft, "I would give both my Ears (If I was not to lose my Credit by it), for no more than ten Strokes of Howgarth's witty Chissel, to clap at the front of my next Edition of Shandy."

The episode he wanted illustrated was Corporal Trim reading the sermon in volume two. Trim, you may remember, leaned, in order to do so, at an angle of precisely 85 degrees and a half, which sound orators are supposed by Sterne to know to be "the true persuasive angle of incidence". More than a page is devoted to the precise evocation of the angle at which Trim read the sermon, and the spirit in which this is written is pure Hogarth, as is the earlier description of Doctor Slop.

"Imagine to yourself a little squat, uncourtly figure of a Doctor Slop, of about four feet and a half perpendicular height, with a breadth of back, and a sesquipedality of belly, which might have done honour to a serjeant in the horse-guards. Such were the outlines of Dr Slop's figure, which, -- if you have read Hogarth's analysis of beauty, and if you have not, I wish you would; -- you must know may as certainly be caricatured, and conveyed to the mind by three strokes as three hundred." Sterne, an amateur artist, loved Hogarth and learned a great deal from him. The series of squiggly lines by which he pretends to represent the narrative of Tristram Shandy could have come straight out of The Analysis of Beauty.

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