Hogarth and The Art of Noise review – London's whistles and wails, drums and dogs

Foundling Museum, London
This invigorating exhibition shows how the artist’s appetite for life bursts off the canvas and makes you see, hear and smell his time – don’t miss the soldier pissing against a wall or the one pinching an aromatic pie

When was the last time Britain was as broken in two as it is by now? William Hogarth has the answer. His masterpiece The March of the Guards to Finchley depicts the last war fought on mainland British soil – the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. The fact that it’s a hilarious, obscenely optimistic human chaos of a painting might give us cause for hope. Even with civil war on his doorstep, Hogarth finds joy in the down and dirty details of life.

He might not have found it so funny had he been Scottish. In August 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland to try and restore the exiled Catholic Stuart dynasty to the British throne. His army quickly reached Derby, only 100-odd miles from London. But that was their high point. They were chased back into Scotland, and on 16 April 1746, the last hardcore Highlanders were catastrophically defeated by the Duke of Cumberland’s army at Culloden.

Cumberland, “butcher of Culloden” though he still is in Scottish nationalist eyes, is celebrated in a ballad sheet that spills out of a pregnant song-seller’s basket in Hogarth’s raunchy history painting. It shows urgent preparations for the defence of London, which in the end would never be needed – not that anyone in the painting knows that. With the rebels in the Midlands, the elite Grenadier regiment in their tall pointy caps are marching to Finchley – in 1745, still a village north of London – to prepare for pitched battle. As they set out, tearful women wave their hankies from the windows of a tall building at the top of Tottenham Court Road (the site of University College Hospital today). It’s a brothel, and these are 18th-century London’s patriotic sex workers. One soldier raises up a love letter to his mistress on a bayonet end. At the lowest right window is the big red-ribboned figure of “Mother” Douglas, one of Georgian London’s most notorious madams.

Gin Lane, 1751, William Hogarth.
Gin Lane, 1751, William Hogarth. Photograph: © Wellcome Collection

The Foundling Hospital’s small but invigorating exhibition about this great British painting draws your eye to such details that open up Hogarth’s exuberant world. Yet it doesn’t completely deliver what it promises. Hogarth and the Art of Noise begins with the fascinating proposition that you hear as well as see Hogarth, but leaves this argument hanging.

This satirical painter and printmaker – who was the first British artist to be internationally admired – is truly an artist of sound as well as vision. Long before the invention of “the art of noises” by the early 20th-century futurist movement, Hogarth was depicting the sounds of the city so vividly you seem to hear them. In his print The Enraged Musician, a classical violinist in his posh wig can’t rehearse because of the racket the poor are making outside his window. All the sources of noise pollution in this London street reverberate: a girl shakes her rattle, a boy does a tinkle, a baby wails while its mother hollers her sales pitch for ballads, a milkmaid sings her rival street cry, a kid bangs a drum, a knife-grinder scrapes steel on stone, a dog barks and, on a roof, two cats screech.

What the museum doesn’t point out, perhaps for reasons of tact to former governors, is that Hogarth is also taking the piss out of his contemporary, the baroque composer George Frideric Handel. This lovely museum preserves the history of the Foundling Hospital, a charitable foundation for the abandoned children of London set up in 1739 with the close involvement of Hogarth and Handel. But the most successful artist and composer of the day were on opposite sides of a culture war. Opera was hugely popular in 18th-century London, but did the true heart of national creativity lie in adopting such high European art forms, or was it with the rag-and-bone men in the street?

The Enraged Musician, 1741, by William Hogarth.
The Enraged Musician, 1741, by William Hogarth. Photograph: © Gerald Coke/Handel Foundation

The Enraged Musician is just one picture in which Hogarth contrasts classical music with the rough music of the underdog. A painting in his series Marriage A-la-Mode depicts a black slave laughing at a plump opera singer. His first successful painting was a scene from The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, which replaces the lofty themes of Grand Opera with a story of highwaymen and gangsters belting out punk ballads.

Musician Martyn Ware, of The Human League and Heaven 17, has created a soundscape that teases out the hidden noises of The March of the Guards to Finchley, part of whose profits Hogarth gave to the Foundling Hospital, and which is now one the museum’s art treasures. As you look at a syphilitic Scotsman (I’m just describing what Hogarth painted) being courted by a French spy, you can hear their whispered seditious conversation. Beside them, an army drummer marches away from his family followed by a soldier boy playing the fife. You hear The March of the British Grenadiers on fife and drum.

It works because Hogarth is an artist whose appetite for life bursts off the canvas and makes you see, hear and smell his time (don’t miss the soldier pissing against a wall or the one pinching an aromatic pie). For Hogarth, the mess and disorder of The March of the Guards to Finchley is not a revelation of weakness but strength. What chance have the Jacobites got against soldiers so lusty they can barely bring themselves to say goodbye to their tearful lovers? But it’s crowds, not kings, who are Hogarth’s heroes. He paints the wild music of the streets in a Britain as ungovernable then as it is now.

• At the Foundling Museum, London, 24 May-1 September. Jonathan Jones speaks about Hogarth at the Hay festival, Hay-on-Wye, on 30 May.

Contributor

Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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