The artwork of William Hogarth is influenced greatly by social factors and the culture of eighteenth century England. In many of his works, Hogarth satirizes English society, rich and poor alike. His paintings and engravings depict the society of which he lived, with the costumes and ways of life of the times all shown in his work. Much of the time he is being satirical, exaggerating some of the faults of the people, other times he is being bitingly realistic in his views.
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It seems no-one is safe from his caricatures, from the lords and ladies, to slaves, servants, prostitutes, criminals and the poor. Overall, his work shows the culture of a broad cross section of the people of England during this time, depicted often in a very funny way. An important note is that the engravings were produced from the opposite side as the paintings, so the engravings are seen with left and right sides in reverse from how they appear in the paintings.
I will discuss how his works show many aspects of the life of England at the time. I will focus particularly on several of the series of works which Hogarth produced, because by telling a story with his work and not merely painting a single picture, he shows much more aspects of the society in which he lived than just the physical appearance.
Some individual paintings of Hogarth show many details of English eighteenth century society. Hogarth engraved Beer street to show a happy city drinking the 'good' beverage of English beer, versus Gin Lane that showed what would happen if people started drinking gin which as a harder liquor would cause more problems for society.
People are shown as healthy, happy and hard working in Beer Street, while in Gin lane, they are scrawny, lazy and acting carelessly, such as the drunk woman at the front who reaches for a snuff box and in doing so, drops her baby. As Hogarth himself wrote, "Beer Street and Gin Lane were done when the dredfull [sic] consequences of gin drinking was at its height." (Webster 1978) The prints were published partly to support the 1751 Gin Act.
In an earlier work, Strolling Actresses in a Barn, Hogarth also referred to another Act, the 1737 Act against strolling players. The Act is depicted on the left side of the engraving showing that the performance will be the women's last. Social references include the fact that there were many people of African descent in England at the time, as is shown by the servant and the black actress in this print.
The man peeping in at the top right which he possibly could have paid to do because "Men at this time could pay to peek at the actresses changing...a seedy, disordered side to a play filled with magic and goddesses." (peopleplayuk.org.uk) Some of the actresses look silly here, similar to the foolish side of people Hogarth illustrated in his earlier picture about the bursting of the South Sea bubble.