I, Hogarth

Written by Michael Dean
Review by Tess Heckel

Renowned artist William Hogarth, whose paintings and engravings illustrated the unfortunate and decadent lives of 18th-century London residents, is born in the London of 1697 amidst a loud and destructive storm, a portent of his early childhood.  His devoted but quixotic father, Richard, is thrown into debtor’s prison, having been chiseled by unscrupulous book and printing thieves. Life is brutal for an innocent, cheated man, but William and his mother keep the family going by selling a patent nostrum financed through a kind moneylender who sees talent in the Hogarth children. The sisters become milliners, and William, who loves drawing, is apprenticed to Ellis Gamble, a silverplate engraver.

Working hard at his craft — when he isn’t aching for beautiful women — William befriends a fellow apprentice, John, son of renowned artist Sir James Thornhill, who becomes a mentor. Hogarth’s nature is one of optimism despite circumstances, but he also has a sharp wit which he uses against political menaces of his day. Painting the rich and famous keeps him solvent, but he gravitates toward portraits of everyday life among London’s poor and decadent, as shown in some of his most famous etchings: Rake’s Progress and Gin Lane. His fight for the rights of artists includes the Engraving Copyright Act, fueled by the rampant piracy of art and books. His lively, outgoing, nature and artistic innovations win him admiration in every level of society.

Reading this novel is a trip through time, except here it’s Hogarth who has traveled to tell us his story. Author Michael Dean becomes Hogarth, with a gift for turning mere facts into a flowing historical narrative, blending characters and the squalor of a time which also produced beauty and social reform.