Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 4:06 AM
In Hogarth's time, London was a dangerous and devouring city. Men lived in conditions of squalour and misery, while fashionable society conveniently turned a blind eye.
Hogarth lived, worked and died in London and much of his best work, fashionable painting as well as popular engraving, had London as its background. Only in Industry and Idleness, however, did he present a picture of London as it appeared to those outside the metropolis. By tracing the progress of two contrasting Londoners; Francis Goodchild the industrious apprentice and Torn Idle the ne'er-do-well, he illustrated the dual fascination this glittering and yet frightening place exercised over the minds of people throughout the country. London was the city of opportunity where a mere apprentice might aspire to riches and honour far beyond the dreams of any village lad, but it was also a dark and menacing place which swallowed up men and women and sucked them into degradation and despair. Going to London was like embarking on some terrible game of snakes and ladders, a game in which the constraining certainties of country life, 'the short and simple annals of the poor', were replaced by giddy ascents and plummeting falls.
In part the dangers were physical. Everyone developed a chronic cough when they first came to London, a foreign visitor reported, because the air was polluted with coal smoke. Country cottages might be unhealthy their floors were usually of damp mud, causing arthritis and rheumatism but London tenements were much worse, encouraging the spread of contagious disease and endangering life and limb by their rickety condition. In London, Dr Johnson remarked, 'falling houses thunder on your head'. Work might be better paid than in the country, but it was often debilitating or disabling: London carpenters, Adam Smith observed, seldom lasted more than eight years 'in their utmost vigour' because of the effect their occupation had on their lungs.
London's overcrowding meant that lack of sanitation was more serious than in the country. Although Peter Kahn, a visitor from Sweden, noted that Londoners kept their night soil and sold it for manure, there were undoubtedly many whose attitude to such matters was less commercial, more casual. Hogarth's picture of a London night scene, in which a chamber pot is emptied over the head of a passer-by, was not a mere fiction, It was a stinking city, the agricultural writer Arthur Young concluded, in which men either died in destitution or lived in dirt.
AN IRRESPONSIBLE CITY
Young, like the farmers for whom he wrote, saw London as something unnatural, unwholesome, an excrescence on the country's otherwise healthy body politic. Its physical dangers and hazards, great though they were, were as nothing compared with the moral ones. 'The debauched life of its inhabitants,' he wrote, 'occasions them to be idler than in the country. The very maxims and principles upon which life is founded in great cities are the most powerful of all enemies to common industry.' Above all, London was an irresponsible city, a place where the rich had abandoned their obligations to keep the poor under control. In the country every labouring man had a master who was responsible for him and a parish organization which regulated his life from the cradle to the grave. In London, however, there were thousands upon thousands of men, women and children who were masterless and could not effectively be tied down to any particular parish. They formed what men of substance spoke of apprehensively as 'the mob'.
There were in fact comparatively few episodes of mob rule in London during Hogarth's lifetime, though after his death conditions grew worse, culminating in the terrifying Gordon riots of June 1780. But it was certainly true that London crowds showed scant respect for rank or authority. They mocked ostentation and pretension mercilessly dandies and others dressed in the height of fashion often found it necessary to wrap themselves in large black bags to avoid being jeered at and they also mocked disabilities of all kinds.
The underlying trouble the real thing that gave London life its edge of insecurity and unease was neither physical nor moral, but organizational. Law and order in the country was the responsibility of parish constables and for the most part it was within their powers. London, on the other hand, consisted of two cities London itself to the east, Westminster to the west each run on quite different lines. It was no accident that Hogarth's scenes of solid and secure town life were set in the City of London itself, while his harlots and rakes and idle apprentices tended to gravitate towards Drury Lane and the streets around it.
There, according to a tract published in 1749, anyone taking 'a gentle walk' would meet with men and women possessed by the Devil himself: 'Theft, Whoredom, Homicide and Blasphemy peep out of the very windows of their souls; Lying Perjury, Fraud, Impudence and Misery the only graces of their countenance. By and by a Brandy Shop is going to be demolished because the master refuses to bail some whore that's just arrested. . . A riot breaks out in another place, a bawd's goods are seized on for rent. . . A cry of murder is heard about 20 yards further, a Mother or Father being under the bastinadoing of a dutiful son or daughter. Pimps and pensioners to the hundred you see skulking from bawdy-house to bawdy-house incessantly.' Other and more elegant publications, such as Henry's List of Covent Garden Ladies and The Man of Pleasure's Kalendar, put the emphasis on the satisfaction of whoring rather than on the attendant disorders, but basically they told the same story. And when Boswell took 'a monstrous big whore' into a tavern in 1763 and then refused to agree to her terms, he quite expected that the result would be a riot. However, he concluded somewhat smugly, 'I was on my guard, and got off pretty well'.
With no police force and with inadequate parish resources the only way to catch and convict criminals was by means of paid informers. The most notorious of these was Jonathan Wild, the real life original of Peachum in The Beggar's Opera. He first blackmailed other criminals, threatening to inform on them, and then when they would no longer pay, he betrayed them to the authorities and took the reward. He also bought stolen goods from thieves at cut prices and returned them to their owners for a suitable consideration. It needed changes in the law to get him caught and hanged in 1725; and for many years after that there were still gangs that picked up victims, gulled them into stealing marked goods from shopkeepers and collected the reward. Most of them got away with it, but when one gang was unmasked in 1755, the leaders were stoned to death by the crowd.
Other informers, even perfectly innocent ones, were liable to suffer a similar fate. Daniel Clark, in 1765, saw other weavers cut silk from looms and was forced to testify to it in court when they were charged, with the result that he was hounded for more than a year by the friends of the accused before being finally thrown into a pond and stoned until his brains were beaten out. The pillory, where the crowd crucified its victims, was the most enduring symbol of the eagerness with which London's rulers handed over their responsibilities to the savagery of the streets.
Towards the middle of the century the Duke of Bedford's tenants in Bloomsbury asked him to have an alley blocked up because it was used by local thugs and they were therefore 'continually disturbed by the dismal cry of murder and other disagreeable noises'. It did not occur to them to ask him to bring the thugs to book. For the most part gentlemen and noblemen in London pursued their pleasures without thinking that they were in any way responsible for the underworld of violence and anarchy which those pleasures had called into being. This, perhaps even more than Hogarth's attacks on connoisseurs and foppish absurdities, was the true indictment of what passed for fashionable society in 18th-century London.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish