W illiam Hogarth (1697–1764) is celebrated for his paintings and engravings depicting ‘modern moral subjects’. Their narratives, renowned for satirical caricatures and bawdy humour, poke fun at the excesses of Georgian society and warn of the consequences of moral abandonment.
Taste in High Life – the first significant painting by Hogarth to appear on the open market for half a century – is a highlight of The Summer Season at Sotheby's London. Its offering within the Old Master & 19th Century Paintings Evening Auction on 5 July, coincides with an exhibition by artist Bouke de Vries at Sir John Soane's Museum in London.
De Vries' work, A Rake’s Progress, is formed of a set of eight porcelain vases inspired by Hogarth's series of paintings by the same name in the museum's collection. The work draws on de Vries' talent for storytelling and symbolism, with the celadon vases' increasing states of disrepair reflecting the Rake's decline. Displayed together in the museum, they attest to Soane's ambition for his collection – to galvanise new creation.
What drew you to Hogarth and led you to respond to A Rake’s Progress in particular?
My first encounter with Hogarth when I visited the Sir John Soane’s Museum as a student from Holland in the 1980s. The cupboards being opened to reveal the eight paintings was like magic and then the story of the ‘Rake’ – so darkly humourless but also a universal story that has played itself out through the ages. When the Soane asked me to respond to something in the house, the ‘Rake’s Progress’ was an easy choice.
“Hogarth would have just as much fun with the Met Gala and its extremes… which is why I think his paintings still speak to us so clearly.”
Sir John Soane regarded Hogarth as a modern artist and created his museum to inspire new work. How did you approach responding to the collection, curatorially and spatially?
The paintings are very figurative with lots of story-telling details, and I wanted to approach the narrative from a different angle, making the different techniques of restoration and the techniques I have developed myself act as metaphors for each of the paintings in an almost abstract way.
Spatially I was restricted to the gallery space available – which was the space Sir John used for showing prints and the paintings of his friends. Within the space I made a horseshoe shape to display the vases. Each of the eight vases in the seqence is backed by a gilded panel, giving each vase its own moment; the oval curve echoes the curves in the ceiling.
Taste in High Life and A Rake’s Progress are linked by their critique of their subjects’ unwholesome pursuits. Can you speak to the power of humour as an artistic device, in these works and in your own?
Humour is such a good way to prick through the bubbles of human vanity. The humour in Taste in High Life is much lighter than in A Rake’s Progress, which is very dark and very biting. The ridiculousness of the clothing (and fancy French ways) is so sharp. Hogarth would have just as much fun with the Met Gala and its extremes… which is why I think his paintings still speak to us so clearly.
I also love playing with humour in my works and in earlier pieces, which often referenced Hogarth, humour is not easy even if it seems so.
“I try to find beauty and redemption in the damage; my interventions give a new future, a new narrative.”
In its form and materials, your new work offers a truer version of beauty – inherent versus affected. Why did you use the baluster vase shape and celadon glaze?
I chose the baluster as it’s one of the most universal shapes and a shape that Hogarth would have known; he probably had balusters himself, which places them in the time of the paintings. The celadon colour had several functions. By changing the proportions of minerals in the glaze the colour can be made darker, following the narrative of Tom Rakewell’s story. The celadon hues can also be found in the paintings themselves, from the light colours of the Rake in painting 2 to the dark murky colours in painting 8.
The seventh vase in your series integrates staples. Could you explain their source and why you use them?
Metal staples were an old restoration technique from the 18th and 19th centuries. Over the decades in my work as a restorer, I have removed many of them to do a modern, ‘museum-quality’ restoration. I have always kept these staples and thought they’d make a good metaphor for when the rake is imprisoned. You could see them as prison bars or handcuffs.
In their vanity, Hogarth’s subjects seem unable to escape their downfall. Your practice meanwhile offers redemption. Does your salvaging of fragments carry a message of its own?
There are no happy endings in Hogarth and the broken objects I work with have already had unhappy endings. But this is where I divert from Hogarth: I try to find beauty and redemption in the damage; my interventions give a new future, a new narrative.
Bouke de Vries Reinterprets the Satire of Hogarth
Visions in Porcelain: A Rake’s Progress closed at Sir John Soane's Museum on 10 September 2023.