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‘Hogarth: Place and Progress’ at Sir John Soane Museum Review

It’s one of those cold, crisp, sunny mornings. My favourite weather. Cloud-like mist is fading from the London air, revealing the blue sky behind, as the metropolis awakens. The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral is visible in the background. In the foreground I see scenes of a diverse array of London’s different inhabitants go about their daily lives, interacting and contributing to the bustling life of the busy cityscape.

I’m standing watching all this in a small, but already nearly as crowded, room in the Sir John Soane Museum, just of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I am looking at the first of a quartet of vivid painted vignettes called ‘Four Times of the Day’ from 1736. Here, Hogarth, albeit working alone, tries to present us with a full, clear but non-judgmental picture of things as they are: no more, no less.

Meanwhile for me a week occupied with working on a news story, is drawing to a close. Sunday provides some quiet respite and time for reflection. And this morning, the Sir John Sone Museum, still close to the Strand, is a fine place for that. The exhibition’s visitors slowly process around the edges of the room with a kind of meditative and respectful reverence for the history in front of them. Like the subjects of these social vignettes, they, we, are in our own thoughts. And yet the art acts as a sort of mirror of society, somehow marked by the passage of time.

The first two rooms displayed narrative paintings and sketches chronicling the lives of imaginary characters, ‘Modern Moral Subjects’, stereotypes which captured the reality of the time. What became clear from the outset was that Hogarth, like many great artists, and writers and other creatives and thinkers concerning themselves with humanity and society, was an anthropologist. All in all, it was a coherent collection of pioneering art, both thought-provoking and provocative in its own right.

Some of Hogarth’s original works collected by Soane in the early 19th century still remain installed as they were the ‘The Picture Room’, accessible via a small hallway overwhelmed with classical artefacts. Hogarth’s paintings in the striking series ‘The Humours of an Election’ was completed in 1755. Modern viewers smirk at these quasi-satirical electoral episodes exposing the corruption and drama of yore. Whilst the scenes are novel, these themes are not unfamiliar. Juxtaposition is provided by Canaletto’s stunning lancapes of Venice, painted 20 years before Hogarth’s.

I leave the Sir John Soane Museum and step out into the 21st century. Progress? Perhaps. Place? Lincoln’s Inn Fields, right by the LSE and close to King’s too. I’m glad to have witnessed Hogarth’s insights up close. This is the first exhibition I’ve been to since another one I’d recommend: ‘Writing in Times of Conflict’ is an inspiring and powerful collation at Senate House Library, being displayed till mid-December.

This exhibition runs at the Sir John Sone Museum until 5 January 2020. At the time of writing, there are still about 120 free slots left, but they appear to be being booked up at a reasonably steady pace.

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