Monday, 10 October 2011

Portraits 3/6: Hogarth and Francis Matthew Schutz

Hogarth shows Francis Matthew Schutz as he himself might not, perhaps, like to be seen by the world – spewing his guts into a sickbowl.

Portraits exist for all sorts of reasons – yet surely most commissioned likenesses seek to express the vigour and virility of a sitter, attributes which will, on canvas, outlast their physical lifetime. Is this really the way Schutz wanted to live in posterity? How many of us would choose to be remembered blowing chunks after a night on the Stella?

Hogarth is, of course, known for his moralizing pictures – among them Marriage a la Mode and Gin Lane. In these images he became the father of the modern comic strip, the first British artist to really straddle the realms of commercial mass produced art and gallery art – plus, arguably the first Brit to acknowledge that real art could also be funny. Satire was just taking off, and mass production of engravings was allowing independent publishers to sell affordable editions of prints which had a political and social as well as an artistic point to make.

The fact that multi-panel storytelling pictures enter British art at this moment can be no coincidence, either – for Hogarth’s work can be seen in a wider context where moralizing narrative became important in British literature – it was the age when the novel was born. From the pioneering efforts of Fielding and Richardson would be born a multi-million pound industry which continues to the present day.

Like Richardson’s early novel ‘Clarissa’, this was not mere entertainment, either. In ‘Gin Lane’ Hogarth depicts a woman dropping her baby onto the street in recognition of a famous contemporary case, in which a mother, Judith Dufour, reportedly murdered her infant and sold it’s clothes to feed her gin addiction.

Meanwhile, in ‘A Rake’s Progress’, Hogarth depicts Tom, the eponymous anti-hero, being sent to the horrendous Fleet debtor’s prison, where the artist’s own father was imprisoned for five years. The pictures were intended to amuse but never lose sight of a clear warning of moral danger.

The portrait of Schutz can be seen in this context - for it, too, gives a warning message, albeit on a gentler more domestic scale. The sitter was a powerful and wealthy man, closely related to King George. Amusingly, the panel was a pictorial form of finger-wagging, commissioned by his wife Susan. She hung it in his bedchamber to remind him of the inevitable results of his nightly partying. An ambiguous Latin wall inscription from Horace (Vixi puellis nuper idoneus ‘Until recently the girls loved me’) might suggest he’s been suffering with a bit of brewer’s droop into the bargain, and that this is her unsubtle way of reminding him not to ignore his spousal obligations. This backstory of marital strife adds a delightful (if slightly sad) soap opera element to the story, making the portrait completely idiosyncratic and unique in the history of all those boring overly flattering portraits which line the walls of stately homes up and down England. It’s also a classic example of Hogarth blurring the boundaries between the worlds of satire (where scatalogical humour was acceptable, even encouraged) and the world of fine art canvas painting, where such expressions might garner at best a double take, at worst a gasp of shock.

The story continues to be rather amusing, too, as we follow the provenance of the picture as an heirloom down the the Schutz family generations. At a certain point the social embarrassment of prim upper class descendants gains the upper hand and the stream of vomit disappears, to be replaced by a newspaper! Vandalizing a family portrait to avoid blushes might seem a crazy and outrageous thing to do – but doubly so when you imagine some dull Victorian hack being paid to mess about with an original Hogarth portrait. Happily for us, though, the portrait has recently been restored to its puky glory.

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