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Hogarth At Bart’s Hospital

November 16, 2015
by the gentle author

In 1733, when William Hogarth heard that the governors of St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield were considering commissioning the Venetian artist, Jocopo Amigoni, to paint a mural in the newly constructed North Wing of the hospital, he offered his own services free. Always insecure about his social status, it was a gesture of largesse that made him look good and provided the opportunity for Hogarth to prove that an English artist could excel in the grand historical style. Yet such was the mistaken nature of Hogarth’s ambition that his “Jesus at the Pool of Bethesda” is a curious hybrid at best. Illustrating Christ healing the sick, each of the figures in the painting illustrate different ailments, a bizarre notion that undermines Hogarth’s aspiration to the sublime classical style and results in a surreal vision of a dystopian arcadia instead. In plain words, it is a mighty piece of kitsch.

Let me take you through this gallery of maladies. Be warned, it is not a pretty picture, definitely not something you would choose to look at if you were unwell. In the detail below, on the extreme left we begin with two poor women. Some art historians believe the first represents Cretinism, or Down’s Syndrome to use the contemporary description. Another opinion suggests that the forearms of the two women, side by side, one fat and one thin, illustrate two forms of Consumption or Tuberculosis – whereby the thin woman has Phthisis which causes the body to waste, while the fat woman has the Scrofulous form that causes weight gain. The man with the stick is undeniably Blind. The fourth figure, with the anxious yellowish face may have Jaundice, or alternatively this could represent Melancholia, or Depression as we would call it. The bearded man with the red complexion has Gout, while the sling may be on account of a Septic Elbow Joint. The distressed woman beside him has an injured breast which may be Mastitis or an Abscess. Meanwhile, the child on the ground below this group has a curved spine and holds a crutch to indicate Rickets.

At the centre of the composition is Christ reaching out to the crippled man at the Pool of Bethesda, as described in the Gospel of St John. The bible tells us this man had been incapacitated by the pool for thirty-eight years, which makes the muscular physique that Hogarth gave him a little far fetched. It owes more to the requirements of the classical style than to veracity, although Hogarth did choose to portray him with a Chronic Leg Ulcer to introduce an element of authenticity to the figure.

In the background, a man is accepting a bribe from the servant of the naked woman with the wanton attitude on the right of the composition, this is to push the mother with the sick baby out of the way so that his mistress can get to the healing water of the pool first. The reason for her unscrupulous haste is that she has a Sexually Transmitted Disease, most likely Gonorrhea, indicated by the rashes upon her knees and elbows. Finally, we complete the sorry catalogue with the pitiful man with the swollen abdomen on the extreme right of the canvas, he has Liver Cancer.

Hogarth painted “Jesus at the Pool of Bethesda” in his studio in St Martin’s Lane in early 1737 and it was put in place at Bart’s in April. Although it is a huge painting, approximately thirty feet across, its position on the stairwell means that you see just a portion of the picture from the foot of the stairs, then you pass close by it as you ascend the staircase and only achieve a vision of the entire work from the head of the stairs. Let me say that this arrangement does the painting no service. When you see it close up, the broad theatrical brushstrokes of the framing scrolls and of the background, which were painted by George Lambert, scenery painter at Covent Garden, become crudely apparent.

Perhaps these ungainly miscalculations in “Jesus at the Pool of Bethesda” were what led Hogarth to paint the companion piece “The Good Samaritan” in situ, from a scaffolding frame. Did he get seduced by the desire for monumentalism while painting the “Jesus at the Pool of Bethesda” in his studio and forget that it would be seen close to, as well as from a distance? Time has done the picture no favours either. With innumerable cleanings and restorations, the canvas has buckled and now daylight prevents you from seeing the painting without reflections, blanking out whole areas of the image. Maybe this was the reason for Hogarth’s instruction that the picture should never be varnished? It was ignored.

I cannot avoid the conclusion that “Jesus at the Pool of Bethesda” was a misdirection for Hogarth. It has more bathos than pathos. He aspired to be an artist in the high classical style, yet we love Hogarth for his satires and his portraits. We love his humanity, recording the teeming society that flourished in the filth of eighteenth century London. These pictures speak more of life than any idealised visions of nymphs and swains frolicking in a bucolic paradise. And, even in this, his attempt at a classical composition, Hogarth’s natural sympathy is with the figures at the margins. Far from proving that an English artist could excel at the grand historical style,”Jesus at the Pool of Bethesda” illustrates why this mode never suited the native temperament. All the qualities that make this painting interesting, the human drama and pitiful ironies, are out of place in the idealised landscape that suited the tastes of our continental cousins.

Hogarth was born in Bartholomew Close and baptised around the corner from the hospital at St Bartholomew’s Church. At the time of “Jesus at the Pool of Bethesda,” Hogarth’s mother still lived nearby and she must have been proud to see her son’s painting installed in the fine new hospital buildings. It was symbol of how far he had come. Yet, for obvious reasons, the painting is mostly ignored in books of Hogarth’s work today, so the next time you are in Smithfield, go in and take a look, and savour its bizarre pleasures for yourself.

This woman has a sexually transmitted disease.

This man has cancer of the liver.

The poor box at the entrance to the North wing.

The new entrance to St Bartholomew’s Hospital built in 1702, with the North wing containing Hogarth’s mural just visible through the gate

St Batholomew’s Church in Smithfield where William Hogarth was baptised.

Photographs of the mural © Patricia Niven

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At Bart’s Pathology Museum

The Redchurch St Rake’s Progress

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Debra Matheney permalink
    November 16, 2015

    Always love a Hogarth story. Anything to keep the 18th century alive. Thanks, Deb

  2. joan permalink
    November 16, 2015

    I suspect that my daughter is not the only teen who has suddenly become aware of Hogarth due to the decision of Dr Martens to produce a range of shoes, boots and satchels in association with the Soane Museum depicting A Rake’s Progress. They are not cheap and have now made an appearance on her Christmas list!

    Best wishes,

    Joan

  3. Pauline Taylor permalink
    November 16, 2015

    It is hard to believe that this is the work of Hogarth and small wonder that it does not appear among his other work. I can’t help but wonder what would have been here now had the other artist got the commission to do the painting.

  4. Valerie permalink
    November 16, 2015

    I do so enjoy your posts and benefit from your curiosity and willingness to share the world you discover with your readers. It educates and informs me, enriches my world, and makes my visits to London more meaningful. Thank you so much.

  5. Stephen Barker permalink
    November 17, 2015

    Another reason for Hogarth’s wish to undertake this commission for free was hope to follow in the footsteps of his father in law Sir James Thornhill. Thornhill had painted the Hall at Greenwich Hospital, St Pauls’ Cathedral, Blenheim and many country houses. He was the first English artist to be given a knighthood and was a painter to the King.

    It does not seem unreasonable to assume that Hogarth saw this commission as a way of displaying his talents with a view to winning further work and advancing his social standing. By the 1730′s the taste for the Baroque style was falling from fashion with the adoption of the Palladian style which was being promoted by Lord Burlington.

    If he had succeeded in winning these large scale commissions we would have been deprived of the works for which he is best known and remembered. So his failure is a mixed blessing.

  6. Neville Turner permalink
    November 17, 2015

    Good on Dr Martens for promotion of Hogarth and St Bartholomews Hospital one of the truly great teaching hospitals of all time, the hospital charity shop has many prints and postcards of Hogarth An excellent post and great photos.Keep up the good work.

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