Derby: Hogarth & Hyperbole
Hogarth’s Britons: Succession, Patriotism and the Jacobite Rebellion is an exhibition of ‘over 70 loaned works from national organisations’, housed on the top floor of Derby Museum and Art Gallery from 10th March – 4th June 2023. Vincent Jordan asks whether it makes the most of the opportunity, and what this means for regional galleries:
Hogarth’s Britons is curated by Jacqueline Riding, whose biography of Hogarth, Hogarth: A Life in Progress, was published in 2021. The full title of the exhibition appears to mutate depending on its context: on Twitter, it sprouts the epithet ‘A Nation Divided. A Kingdom at Stake.’; in the guidebook, it stresses the date 1745, and on the National Portrait Gallery website, it boasts an Oxford comma. The core of it, however, remains consistent, and provides the wiggle room that curators desire by allowing for different interpretations. ‘Hogarth’s Britons’ might concern who the British were to Hogarth, the British at the time of Hogarth, the British as created by Hogarth, or, of course, what he captured about the British that resonates with us today.
Hogarth’s Britons, though, has quite a bit more on its plate. One of the fundamental questions it must answer is ‘Why Derby?’. Whilst hardly anyone would object to more artworks being loaned out from major collections to provincial galleries, there are many more places across the country that would love to host some Hogarth. It naturally follows that places such as Derby must make an attractive pitch, and - if successful - to make the most of the opportunity to present these works in a new light so as not to simply reinvent the wheel. Derby’s claim lies as much in its past as its present. During the ‘Jacobite Rebellion’ of 1745-6, Stewart-supporting forces rallied troops in Scotland and North-West England with the aims of overthrowing Hanoverian rule and restoring the Stewart line as legitimated by the Divine right of kings. The Stewart residue got as far as Derby (five days march from London) before retreating. Derby’s connection to the Jacobite rebellion, to which Hogarth responded through a small proportion of his art (most notably The March of the Guards to Finchley, painted 1750), is a significant part of the exhibition’s raison d’etre. It also allows for more exciting connections to be made. A portrait Prince Charles Edward Stewart (a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Charlie) painted in 1745 by Allan Ramsay is on display, and the consensus among historians is that the last time this portrait was in Derby was December 1745, making Hogarth’s Britons its first return to the city since the Rebellion, 278 years ago.
Above: Room 1 of Hogarth's Britons. Seats are placed behind the central structure; Marriage A-la-Mode is on the right. Photo: via Twitter @derbymuseums
Aside from the fundamentals, another thing that Hogarth’s Britons has to deal with is the current culture of hyperbole that pervades exhibition marketing. As Dom put it in his recent post, ‘How dare we be subjected to anything that isn’t ‘monumental’, a ‘world first’, or ‘life changing’!’. Here, I sense that Derby Museum and Art Gallery felt obliged to buy into the overkill, both in order to conform, and get people through the door. This is an awkward position for smaller art galleries to be in. Several have put themselves in direct comparison with much larger, wealthier institutions through their own rhetoric. Though the gallery-going public is probably by now numb to exaggeration, the terms still warrant interrogation. At Derby, we have the token ‘world-class’ exhibition of an artist whose works have ‘never been more relevant’. I shall return to this point later, but Hogarth’s Britons fails to articulate exactly why Hogarth’s art has ‘never been more relevant’; in fact, it struggles to even indicate for whom. In the guidebook, it’s for ‘21st century Britons’, in the introductory text, it’s for ‘Britain in 2023’. And let’s be frank, Hogarth hasn’t really had a good shot at peak relevance for Britain so far in 2023, it being April.
What is ‘world-class’ apart from vacuous hyperbole? I remain unsure, and that’s after having visited hundreds of exhibitions, which claim to be just that. I am also a firm believer in the difference between great art and the exhibiting of great art, the two of which are routinely conflated, even by major galleries. Therefore, even if I accept Hogarth’s art as ‘world class’ (though I don’t enjoy Hogarth’s art for its aesthetics as much as its historical value), I still cannot grasp why Hogarth’s Britons constitutes a ’world class’ exhibition of that art. I feel sorry for regional galleries, which feel they have to join the exaggerative party in order to thrive, and in turn set ludicrous expectations. I fear - the more I visit exhibitions - that museums and galleries in general are hurtling to a culture of unadulterated absurdity in which the display of literally any object is a ‘life-changing opportunity’. What’s wrong with putting on a fantastic exhibition? Why must it also transform my life? It is on account of this hyperbolic trend that visitors so frequently claim that exhibitions don't live up to their expectations.
The first reason why Hogarth’s Britons doesn’t meet that high bar is its practicalities. It would be unreasonable to comment on anything that would have cost the museum more money, especially seeing as they had to go above and beyond to secure funds. Therefore, the issues I mention here are restricted to those which I am convinced would not have incurred large costs to rectify. Chief amongst these is the tiny font used on object labels used across the exhibition’s two rooms, the difficulty of seeing which is exacerbated by the use of a mute grey colour scheme, and consistently low light levels (on account of the paper works). Display decisions such as these are obstacles to enjoying the exhibition, and though some large print guides are available, this issue is especially noticeable for those of us who have good eyesight, but still struggled to focus on the label texts. Moreover, though the presence of barriers is necessary for unglazed works, I felt at times that these contributed to the sense of clutter in the second room, particularly after emerging from the first where there are none. The placement of furniture (such as benches) also contributes to this, in direct contrast to the first room where chairs are situated in a peculiar alcove where I doubt people would be comfortable sitting. The division of the exhibition into two separate spaces is clearly a curatorial choice in order to maintain some semblance of coherent visitor flow, but gives rise to several issues. One is that Hogarth’s works in the first room feel disconnected from Derby, and the story of the Jacobite Rebellion in general. Also, having to completely exit the first room, go back onto the landing, and then enter the second is quite awkward as the rooms are internally connected anyway— for this exhibition a temporary rope barrier at waist height was erected. A taller temporary screen would be a big improvement, and alleviate some of the voyeuristic unease the visitor feels in peering into a separate section of the exhibition but not being allowed to enter.
Above: A talk being delivered in Room 1. This photo illustrates the light levels and colour scheme; the internal doorway, blocked by a rope barrier, can be seen in the far corner. Photo: via Twitter @derbymuseums
Second is the question of Derby. I think the Derby connection is the most interesting and engaging part of the show; it is the key to linking these works with where they are physically, what the visitor will see and experience when they leave the building, and the aspect of this 18th century story with which a significant proportion of visitors will have a personal/cultural connection. A failure to exploit this fully is a fast track to repeating exactly what is written about the works in their usual London settings. Unfortunately, the Derby link falls to the wayside— sometimes emphasised, at others absent. This is because Hogarth’s Britons suffers from something of an identity crisis: is this an exhibition about the British as portrayed by Hogarth, or Derby’s role in British history? Of course, the answer can be both, but one necessarily has to be prioritised. Hogarth’s Britons tries to have its curatorial cake and eat it at the expense of coherence. Whilst trawling through the exhibition collateral, I came across a YouTube interview with Riding, in which she plays up the Derby connection when answering the question ‘What’s the greatest challenge so far?’ She answers: ‘at the moment…, I have to admit we’re still raising money’ and then waxes lyrical on the Derby connection. Evidently it is raised in this context because of the gallery’s appeal for donations in light of insufficient funds. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the primary reason for making the Derby link was to attract local donors, but it would be myopic to not point out how pertinent it is to her answer, in contrast to its more modest role in the exhibition narrative.
The third and final reason concerns its ‘relevance’, and the exhibition interpretation. Returning to the point I made above, Hogarth’s Britons claims to be very relevant to our times, but at no point in the exhibition states why. At most, the exhibition interpretation hints at some of the political issues of today: sub-themes such as ‘A Nation Divided’ and ‘United Kingdom?’ in the context of 18th century hostilities imply a relevance to contemporary debates about Scottish independence. If one were to accept this connection, which is at no point made explicit, why one would require such a significant proportion of Hogarth’s work to make the point is a mystery. Only one of his works featured in the exhibition directly concerns the 1745 rebellion, that being The March of the Guards to Finchley. About four or five others indirectly concern it, for example the portrait William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington (painted 1741) who was in frequent contact with Henry Pelham, the Prime Minister, about the events of 1745. Predictably, then, the exhibition is fleshed out with works by other artists. What’s more, the whole exhibition is separated into two rooms, and the visitor has to go back out of the first, through the entrance door, to access the second. Most of Hogarth’s works either directly or indirectly concerning the Jacobite rebellion are contained within the second room, therefore leaving the first (which contains some of his best-known art, such as Marriage A-la-Mode, painted about 1743) in a bit of an existential crisis. In the search for an answer to the question of relevance, I returned to the YouTube interview with Riding, in which she is asked ‘How does this exhibition relate to what’s happening today?’ She replies:
‘This was a moment, 1745-46, when the divisions within society were starting to be visible, really visible… [Hogarth] is trying to present to the public an idea of what Britishness might mean, so he’s trying to present a sort of positive idea not only of the country itself and the future of the country, but also the people within it: Hogarth’s Britons.’
The relevance, then, remains hermetic. An answer to this question might have attempted to identify some particular aspect conveyed by Hogarth that resonates with Britain today. My choice would have been humour. So much of Hogarth’s work is funny; The March of the Guards to Finchley, for example, depicts the momentous rallying of the King’s Guards who were tasked with the defence of Hanoverian rule and Great Britain itself. Yet with healthy inspiration from Henry Fielding’s comic novel Tom Jones, Hogarth characteristically mingles the existential subject with hilarious disarray. Many of the soldiers are plastered on gin, and two pubs flank the scene, one of which (the ‘King’s Head’) features at least six prostitutes hanging out of its windows, and the face of Bonnie Prince Charlie adorning the sign outside. There is a serious message here about the state of the nation— the other pub, appearing a little more modest, is called the ‘Adam and Eve Tavern’, referencing the paradise that will be lost if the Jacobites get their way. None of these things detract from the humour. The ability to laugh at ourselves, especially during national crises, is one of the most enduring qualities of the British. In a composite country with disparate experiences and identities, humour is often the thing we share.
Above: The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750) by William Hogarth, on loan to Hogarth's Britons from the Foundling Museum, London. Photo: Foundling Museum
As more people around the country engage with national collections outside of London, in part due to so-called ‘levelling up’ initiatives (Hogarth’s Britons is produced in partnership with the National Gallery’s ‘Inspiring People’ project), it is imperative that those exhibitions amount to something more than a diluted version of their London incarnations. This is done most effectively by either emphasising a strong connection to the locality, or by doing something interesting and new with interpretation and display. A superb example of the latter was the Carlo Crivelli exhibition at IKON Birmingham last year, which challenged traditional perceptions of Crivelli through novel display methods. I feel strongly that by doing these things, curators and galleries make the most of their loan opportunities, and provide local people with the chance to engage with something that is truly exceptional (similar to the quality of event they might have access to in the capital). Even doing something at a low cost, such as making an interpretive argument that focuses on something fresh, or diverts from traditional narratives, makes a significant difference to what sort of an event visitors feel they are a part. Hogarth’s Britons might have done this by either having a stronger focus on Derby and its role in European history, i.e., making Derby the title and focus of the show, then bringing some of Hogarth’s works in to support that, or by offering an alternative reading of Hogarth’s works to that which is available in London. Unfortunately, I left the exhibition feeling that neither of these were realised, and that I had just experienced a watered-down version of the same old story.
Vincent Jordan is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space
If you've enjoyed reading this post, please consider helping us to keep this site running -thank you!
Hogarth: Life in Progress by Jacqueline Riding (2021, Profile Books)
Hogarth's Britons by Jacqueline Riding (2023, Paul Holberton Publishing)