Centuries after William Hogarth created probably the first image of homelessness in British art in 1736’s Four Times of the Day, the image of people sleeping rough is one that is still all too depressingly familiar
In 1736, an impressario called Jonathan Tyers commissioned William Hogarth to paint four scenes to decorate his pleasure park Vauxhall Gardens, where Londoners, some of them posh and some just wearing posh clothes, listened to music, intrigued and seduced each other in the “dark walks” under the trees. Hogarth had the idea to capture the comedy and sadness, crowds and chaos of life in 18th-century London in four paintings that translate an old artistic theme, Four Times of the Day, from pastoral settings to a city that was fast becoming the first modern metropolis. In 1738, he published a set of prints of these paintings to make them accessible to the ordinary urbanites they portray. Even if you were too poor to buy a print by Hogarth, you could still see his work for free in print-shop windows that served as the street art galleries of their time.
Hogarth’s Four Times of the Day portrays the London of nearly 300 years ago as a rollicking carnival of collisions between rich and poor, the respectable and the raunchy, the pious and the outcast. Yet one detail upset me when I noticed it earlier this year.