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Last Updated: Friday, 9 February 2007, 12:28 GMT
From Hogarth to Hislop
Hogarth's Gin Lane from 1750 and the latest Private Eye

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

From 18th Century London squalor to primetime television 250 years later, satire has a long and dishonourable British tradition. You might know your Hislops from your Bremners, but the daddy of them all was William Hogarth.

Poking fun at the British establishment always gets a laugh. Have I Got News For You, Private Eye magazine and Rory Bremner are among today's chief tormentors, continuing the work of Spitting Image, Peter Cook and Punch.

Some acerbic cartoonists have such a devoted following they are as treasured as the newspaper columnists with whom they share the page.

He's the great master of that tradition of English satire and we're all trailing in his wake
Ian Hislop
But would all of these modern forms of satire still be enjoyed if it wasn't for a Cockney born more than 300 years ago?

William Hogarth was not just a satirist - a new exhibition at Tate Britain, in London, reveals his talents as popular engraver and serious artist. But his work reminds a modern audience that today's attempts to highlight folly and hypocrisy through comedy owe much to him.

His favourite targets - aristocracy, politicians, the Church - are the same establishment figures lampooned on television and in magazines today.

The Rake's Progress

Hogarth's satire can be quite dense, even ambivalent. In the Rake's Progress [see enlarge image, right], there are timely lessons about the bourgeois Tom Rakewell, who squanders his inheritance on women, drinks and gambling. He is thrown into a debtor's prison and ends his days in Bedlam, a dribbling madman.

On one level this is a simple morality tale of cause and effect, with Hogarth cautioning against vice and affectation. But small details in the eight pictures reveal plenty of other targets - the indiscriminate aspiration of the middle class, the nobility who share Rakewell's vices and grin at his insanity, and the criminals who prey on his naivety.

"Hogarth looks at the consequences when a society is happy to divest a man of his money," says Curator Christine Riding. "Rakewell is weak but there's no other path afforded to him."

Similarly, Industry and Idleness would appear to condemn the indolent apprentice who wanders into a life of crime and is eventually hanged, and was used as a basis for church sermons.


"But I think he's being critical all round," says Ms Riding. "He's underlining that society as a whole isn't supporting people and is abusing them through punishment, making them more likely to drift into the criminal world."

Hogarth's favourite target for satire was probably the aristocracy and their fondness for affectation.

"But what he satirised more than anything else was the unthinking appreciation of cultural modes and patronages," she says, highlighting how the wealthy recklessly disregarded home-grown artists in favour of exotic, European painters.

Hogarth would have seen the intelligence behind the satire of Private Eye and Have I Got News For You, she says.

Born 1697 and baptised in Smithfield
1707: Father Richard send to Fleet prison for debt after coffee house fails
1713: Hogarth apprenticed to silver engraver
1721: First satirical engraving The South Sea Scheme
1734: Completes The Rake's Progress
1741: Becomes founding governor of The Foundling Hospital, which opens two years later
1749: Buys a small country house in Chiswick
Dies in 1764

Ian Hislop, who edits the magazine and is ever-present on the quiz show, has the original Election Series hanging in his office, although it is currently lent to the Tate.

"Hogarth came up with some of the jokes we still use today," he says. "A lot of the jokes lie in the visual details like a magazine, with puns, captions and allusions.

"They're a fantastic source of things to say about those in power.

"Hogarth was a huge influence on cartoonists and caricaturists but he started things for everyone. He's the great master of that tradition of English satire and we're all trailing in his wake."

One of his key skills, says Mr Hislop, is that he was good at identifying the gulf between what people tell you about how to behave and how they actually are themselves, which is a strategy widely exploited by modern satirists.

Ian Hislop and John O'Farrell
Hislop and O'Farrell agree Hogarth was the master

And while topicality is crucial to the sting of the joke, Hogarth's humour still works, he says.

"A lot of his targets are universal and a small amount of boning up brings huge rewards in understanding the perceptions he had about power, human relationships and fashion."

John O'Farrell, a writer for Spitting Image and Have I Got News For You, concedes that satire's bite has diminished over time.

"I don't sit down and read Swift and think 'that's exactly what I was thinking about Walpole', " he says. "But anyone with a vague understanding of history will appreciate it was the cutting edge at the time."

Besides, "there are plenty of cartoons published today which are not funny five minutes later".

The idea that satirists also have to provide all the solutions is unfair
John O'Farrell

A healthy disrespect is important in a democracy and Hogarth had that in spades. That's why he deserves admiration, says O'Farrell.

What about Hogarth's social agenda? His famous depiction of drunken London, Gin Lane, was credited with prompting the 1751 Gin Act which regulated alcohol, and he helped to set up the Foundling Hospital.

But satire need not have a wider aim, says Mr O'Farrell. "It's easy to say 'you're just knocking everyone and having a go' but the satirist's job, as someone said, is to hold up a distorting mirror wherein we see ourselves more clearly, and that's all he is expected to do.

"The idea that satirists also have to provide all the solutions is unfair. Their job is to say 'This is how it goes and what are you going to do about it?'

So who would Hogarth love to lampoon today? Premiership footballers, says Ms Riding. Jade Goody, says Hislop.

Thanks for your comments. The debate is now closed.

If Hogarth was to look at Jade Goody as a subject, it would not be to do what most have done and just attack her - that's too easy. He would attack the way she has been built up from nothing for general amusement, then dashed to pieces, by the same people, for amusement. I expect there were similar examples in his time, different due to technology, but similar in the way people can be used.
Michael, London

Is not Banksy the 20th Century's true heir to Hogarth?
Richard Chambers, Bristol

Dan from Cornwall, you took the words right out of my mouth. No one more deserved in modern times of such a comparison than Mr Morris himself.
Joe H, Bristol, UK

To Dan in Cornwall: I disagree. Hogarth would have been enthralled by Jade Goody. Have a look at The Harlot's Progress for an example of the joy he took in satirising gross frivolousness. Rowlandson enjoyed it even more. They weren't all that high-minded in the 18th century, you know.
Elwood, London, UK

It's a pity there aren't more shows a la Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Have I got news, Dead Ringers. I really enjoy them, not because I have grown old and disillusioned with society, um, oh, alright, exactly because I have grown old and disillusioned with society! Hypocrisy is all around us, but people still vote! Sometimes I feel I'm taking part in someone else's sick joke.
Chris Dare, Crawley

One author whose satirical edge is often either missed or underrated is Terry Pratchett whose "Discworld" novels - particularly the ones covering the "City Watch" sub-plot - present a very dark view of race and politics in modern Britain.
Hywel Morgan, Hebden Bridge

America has just lost one of our best-loved political satirists, Molly Ivins. Although she loved to poke fun at our president (whom she called "Shrub") and other national figures and institutions, her favourite target was always the Texas state legislature, which she called the best free entertainment anywhere. Elections won't be the same without her!
Annette Campbell, Dallas, Texas, USA

Satire is not just about being shocking, true that is often part. Part of what defines satire and qualifies people as great satirists is how well they use the formats and tools of what is being satirised against the target subjects. This would indicate that the couple behind south park as not being true satirists (that identification seems to have been blurred and lost with the 'shocking' definition). Chris Morris is held in such high esteem for a number of reasons, not least because his programs were so well made, meticulous and textualised. His targets were big and he was the master of mediums to bring them down. So subtle a lot of people didn't even get it.
Christopher Mooney, Chester

The greatest satire of my generation is Matt Stone and Trey Parker's South Park. Many to struggle to get past the shock and disgust that some episodes provoke, but wasn't that always a feature of satire?!
Jamie, Rochdale, UK

To my mind Lenny Bruce was the greatest of them all - he was able to take the absurdities and contradictions around him and make a point in a very positive way. He took on generally unpopular subjects (for the time) like racism, homophobia and drugs. However, satire changes as the times change - there are less taboos now - and perhaps Hogarth would satirize Jade Goody - her behaviour on Big Brother had international impact, hyped or not...I hope he would have had the guts to go for less easy targets...
Jon, London

Whilst Hogarth is largely seen as the "Godfather" of 18th Century satire do not forget the genius that was James Gilray (my personal favourite). I suspect that they would both have a hell of a lot to poke fun at today and would no doubt do it so much more subtly than the likes of Hislop whom, whilst possessing large amounts of wit and humour, seems to often miss a finer and all-round more amusing point.
Dan, Leeds, Great Britain

Is it not the problem that the condition of public life in Britain today is beyond satire?
David, Bickley, Kent, UK

As I get older I begin to be doubtful of the value of satire and of humour in general. So often poking fun at individuals who more often than not are doing their best is all too easy, and becomes a substitute for rational argument and debate. Moreover when the cause is clear, as when a politician is a liar, has provoked the contempt of the world and ought to be arraigned and put on trial, it is surely better to say so clearly, rather than try to be funny. In this sense I am sure Dan is right. I suppose it says something about my own sense of humour that I have no idea who Chris Morris is.
Stephen Butterworth, Marden, Kent

Dan of Cornwall, I disagree. Hogarth would have used exactly those examples (football and Goody)to show the emptiness of the current creed of celebrity which warps our society today.
Alison Smith, Conwy

Ian Hislop and comedians in general are heroes of out time but it s not quite good enough to say satirists can just hold up a mirror to society. "Doing" rather than "chattering" is a greater achievement.
Rob, London

Yes, provided ALL members of the establishment are given a drubbing, including those self-appointed guardians of our constitution ('holding ministers to account') such as John Humphreys, Jeremy Paxman and Armando Iannucci.
Ian Shearman, Solihull

Comparing Hislop and co. to Hogarth and Swift is somewhat of a dishonour to the earlier satirists. I don't think Hogarth would have been particularly interested in footballers or Jade Goody as these are minor, trivial things that have no real meaning beyond their own hype. This is where mainstream British satire has gone so awry today: rather than criticizing the real problems in society it has chosen to focus on the minor cogs in the greater system, satirising individual politicians, parties and celebrities instead of the entire system of what passes for everyday living. This may provide easy amusement, but ultimately lacks any real punch. The true successor of the satirical greats of the 18th Century would be someone like Chris Morris who isn't afraid to take on truly fundamental beliefs. Shocking and controversial he may be, but would he be a true satirist if he wasn't?
Dan, Cornwall

Perhaps today Hogarth would satirise the Christian church, whose manifesto includes care for the poor (Luke 4) and the earth itself (Genesis 1) - as if we'd noticed. Others have taken up the agenda, while the church is busy making itself "relevant to" (i.e. indistinguishable from) self-centred society at large.
Joe , Birmingham, UK

Perhaps a modern day Hogarth would satirise our league tables for everything and anything in our lives from birth to death. They have become an end in themselves creating a new industry of inspectors with a massive bureaucracy creating stress in the need to meet targets and pass exams leading to cramming, manipulation of statistics, nervous break downs, drain on NHS.
Jim Foley, Staffordshire

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