This Coward Cruelty: the Activist Art of William Hogarth

As promised in the previous post, here are some comments on William Hogarth’s series of engravings published in 1751 and titled The Four Stages of Cruelty. These pictures have some topicality anyway, because the exhibition Hogarth and Europe is in its last few days of presenting Tate Britain’s “new ways of looking” at the great man’s work.

You might expect those “new ways” to involve relating this most English of artists to his European fellow-practitioners, and something of that sort is indeed attempted, but it’s not the main theme of the show as signposted in the running commentaries. These are much more interested in the contemporary “inequalities around class, race and gender” which can be found illustrated by the pictures, sometimes with evident purpose on Hogarth’s part, more usually without. The continual nagging on these subjects has keenly irritated the exhibition’s reviewers, who have spoken variously of “pious captions”, “sanctimonious wall-texts”, “self-righteous sociological lectures” and “wokeish nonsense”.

Of course there is good reason for reading morals in or even into Hogarth’s art, if rather less for reading politics there. Many of the pictures – and those the best known and most original to Hogarth – are indeed presented as moral tales, told in sequences of images, with their consequentialist morality announced or at least hinted at in their titles: The Rake’s Progress, The Harlot’s Progress, Industry and Idleness. But ruthless as the moral justice is that punishes vice in these paintings, there is much more fecklessness than vice to be seen in them, and more largely a generous and boisterous acceptance of what a near-contemporary critic and biographer of Hogarth, Allan Cunningham, called “the follies and frivolities of the passing scene”. While the central characters are contriving their own personal ruins, there goes on around them a vulgar confusion of human life which Hogarth does not seem particularly indignant about: drinking, petty thieving, snogging, urinating, larking of all kinds.

Only in one of these moral series that Hogarth created, namely The Four Stages of Cruelty, is there something like the strict and concentrated censoriousness that the Tate’s wall-texts are looking for, and ironically enough it’s on a theme in which the Tate commentators seem to have no interest at all. Indeed the series itself is not shown in the exhibition or, as far as I could find, even mentioned. And yet Hogarth himself spoke with unusual earnestness of it, saying that he created the engravings “in the hope of, in some degree, correcting that barbarous treatment of animals, the very sight of which renders the streets of our metropolis so distressing to every feeling mind”.

Accordingly,his approach to them had a single-mindedness of purpose nearly unique in his work (Gin Lane has it too). Most of the other series began as paintings, from which engravings were made for more popular sales; the Four Stages were engravings from the start, and were made and sold as cheaply as possible, so as not to be “too expensive for the persons to whom they were intended to be useful”. Stylistically Hogarth wanted “a strong bold stroke” rather than “delicate engraving”: not just as cheaper to make, but as more immediately eloquent of the ugly scenes (“expressing them as I felt them”), and also because, since these images “were addressed to hard hearts”, he “preferred leaving them hard”. It’s exactly what the artist Sue Coe means by her phrase “activist art”, and in fact she based her own illustrated narrative of animal cruelty, Pit’s Letter (published in 2000), on these engravings.

Probably it’s an essential feature of such art that it’s distressing to view. Sue Coe says that when people weep in front of her prints of animal suffering, “That, to me, is great – it’s like,You’ve got it!’ ” No doubt that’s why Allan Cunningham, who saw in the Cruelty series “great skill in the grouping, and profound knowledge of character”,none the less wrote “I wish it never had been painted [i.e. engraved].” Better, of course, to say, as Hogarth himself would surely have done, ‘I wish the subject had never been there to paint.’

Hogarth plate 1

Here is the narrative sequence. In Plate 1, as shown, we see boys in a street variously tormenting cats, dogs, and birds. In the centre, the series protagonist Tom Nero (his name being chalked on a wall by a neighbour, with a scrawled gallows above it) hideously maltreats a dog. In Plate 2 we find Nero at work as a hackney coachman. His horse has collapsed with a broken leg, and Nero, now habituated to cruelty, tries to beat the horse back to work. Elsewhere in the street, a donkey is being similarly worked toward death, a sheep beaten, an escaped bull being chased. In Plate 3, Nero’s savagery, thus rehearsed upon animals, has been directed against his pregnant lover. In a lurid moonlit scene, she lies dead with her throat cut, while Nero himself is taken into custody. A discarded letter shows her pathetic loyalty to the man. And lastly, we see in Plate 4 the end foretold by the boy with the chalk: Nero has been hanged, and, in line with the Murder Act of that same year (1751), his body has been made available for dissection. The discarded heart of the corpse (for what’s going on seems to be half-science, half-butchery) is being eaten by a dog.

So the argument of the Four Stages is – partly, at least – that cruelty to animals naturally passes into cruelty to fellow-humans, and thence into crime, disgrace and degradation. That is the human story to it, one that continues to be told in police files and reports today. Thus far, the ethics might be as the contemporary philosopher Emmanuel Kant had them: one should be kind to animals because it’s good practice for treating humans well.

But that detail of the dog in Plate 4 puts the matter rather differently. Hogarth is giving the animal a kind of come-back (it happens also in Plate 2, where the escaped bull tosses a human into the air, and a nearby dog seems to be entering into the fun). For although the stage-by-stage ‘progress’ in cruelty may be a purely human matter (the downfall of a man habituated to violence), the wrong to animals is of the same character and the same weight as the wrong to humans. Nero’s crime against the woman is shown by that love-note as a cruel betrayal; just so, the dog in Plate 1 licks the hand of the bully tying a bone to his tail. The real difference pictured in the Four Stages is not in the importance of the wrongs, but in the instituted sanctions. The humane man in that hackney coach notes down Nero’s name and number, and perhaps Nero will lose his licence (though I can find no mention in the licensing regulations of the time that horses had to be well treated). But in 1751 the criminal law gave no protection to animals; it is only for violence against the person that Nero is finally punished. The implication of the Four Stages is clear: sanctions ought to begin where cruelty itself does. It took another seventy years for that to start to happen.

Under each of the four pictures there’s a set of verses commenting on the action (written by a poet friend of the artist). One such verse addresses Tom Nero thus:

Inhuman Wretch! say whence proceeds
This coward Cruelty?
What Int’rest springs from barb’rous deeds?
What Joy from Misery?

These questions actually appear under Plate 2, but by that stage there’s a reasonable answer to them: these men have a use for the animals, and mean to effect it. Violence has become a routine of work to them. The stanza really belongs under Plate 1, where the cruelty of the boys is quite gratuitous, practised as something enjoyable in itself, as their gleeful expressions show. One might despairingly answer that the “barb’rous deeds”, far from being ‘inhuman’, derive from a trait or flaw peculiar to the species: the restless ego and its search for acknowledgement. But a more particular explanation seems also to be offered.

In the top left corner, at a high window, two boys have tied bladders to a cat and launch the poor animal into the air. It’s a type of experiment: will the cat float or fall? Something of the same depraved curiosity is present in the other acts of cruelty. In all of them, humans are trying things out on animals to see what will happen. One or two of these cruelties distinctly call to mind more formalized animal researches: the two cats induced to fight (see Roger Ulrich’s experiments in the 1960s, featured in this blog), a bird blinded (see any of the countless experiments that have involved depriving animals of sight, hearing, etc.?). And therefore perhaps there’s a cautionary tale in Plate 4 that goes beyond Tom Nero’s case.

32.35(121)

That scene of dissection is apparently set in the premises of the Company of Surgeons, just then being established as a separate and learned profession (separate, that is, from the traditional barber-surgeons): hence the royal arms set up above the president’s chair, and other signs of professional dignity. It may be that what Hogarth’s first biographer John Ireland calls “disgusting and nauseous objects” are unsurprising, if still deplorable, in such a context. More concerning is that these medical men, as Hogarth depicts them, “seem to have just as much feeling as the subject [i.e. Tom Nero] now under their inspection” – that is, none at all.  Ireland concludes that “frequent contemplation of sanguinary scenes hardens the heart, deadens sensibility, and destroys every tender sensation.” Worse still, Hogarth leaves us unsure whether Nero himself, fixed to a pulley and eviscerated, really is without feeling. He seems to be crying out, as if suffering vivisection rather than dissection at the hands of these unfeeling men.

It may be the end of Nero’s career, then, but this shocking final act of the series doesn’t wrap up the story. It looks into the future, and warns that what Hogarth calls “hard hearts” may need correcting in professional places as well as in the streets – may in fact be more intractable there, for these are not powerless urchins satisfying idle curiosity, but members of a proud and established collective, whose curiosity had the honourable name of ‘natural philosophy’ or, as it would come to be called, science.

William_Hogarth_006

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William Hogarth especially liked dogs. They appear in odd corners of many of his pictures, pursuing their own interests. He put one of his own admired pugs into a self-portrait, as if to take pride in their similar personalities. But in his garden at Chiswick, the pets’ cemetery seems to have accommodated other deceased animal friends too. Everything about his Four Stages engravings was aimed at making them not profitable or liked but “useful” in the service of animals, and he said of them, “If they have had this effect, and checked the progress of cruelty, I am more proud of having been the author, than I should be of having painted Raphael’s Cartoons.”

Notes and references:

The exhibition Hogarth and Europe continues at Tate Britain until 20 March. Quotations are from the pages of the gallery’s web-site devoted to it. The reviews appeared in various papers and journals, and seem to have been unanimous in admiring the pictures but ridiculing or at least deprecating the Tate’s commentary on them.

Contemporary quotations from Allan Cunningham, John Ireland, and Hogarth himself are taken from the compilation Anecdotes of William Hogarth, edited and published by John Nichols in 1833, pp. 64-5 and 233-7.

Sue Coe is quoted from two interviews, one in 2012, now online here, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/drawing-attention-sue-coe/ , and one in 2017 for the online journal Animal Liberation Currents here: https://animalliberationcurrents.com/rendering-cruelty-art-politics/

Her own activist art for animals is reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/the-vegan-animals-manifesto-by-sue-coe/

The post in this blog about Roger Ulrich’s research into the origins of violence is here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/11/fighting-for-peace/

Other information and ideas about Hogarth come from Hogarth: Life in Progress by Jacqueline Riding, Profile Books 2021, and this article in The Eighteenth Century, vol.42, Spring 2001: ‘Monstrous Appearances: Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty and the Paradox of Inhumanity’, by James A. Steintrager.

The illustrations show Plates 1 and 4 of the Four Stages of Cruelty (1751) and Self-Portrait with Pug, painted in 1745.

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