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Hogarth At St Bartholomew’s Hospital

March 16, 2022
by the gentle author

An ambitious restoration programme has begun at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield including the Hogarth staircase

In 1733, when William Hogarth heard that the governors of St Bartholomew’s Hospital 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.

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 confess 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. 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 qualities 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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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    March 16, 2022

    This piece, it’s description, and artwork, made me breathless.
    I liked the emotions and atmospheric tremendous feeling of being present there.
    Thank you Gentle Author.

  2. Sally Bernard permalink
    March 16, 2022

    I had heard that young Doctors training at the hospital were required to diagnose the ailments in the painting during their training.

  3. Philip Binns permalink
    March 16, 2022

    Friends of Barts Heritage runs an excellent website with links to YouTube coverage of a series of regular talks and events. Well worth taking a look.

  4. March 16, 2022

    I have never seen this painting in person, but this past fall I saw Hogarth’s classically inspired paintings at the Foundling Museum. They are such a departure from what we think of as his customary cynical observations on humanity. Compared to his ‘Gin Lane’ they are completely bucolic…! It makes me wonder how Hogarth would have like to have been remembered.

  5. Paul Loften permalink
    March 16, 2022

    Thank you for this reminder of Bart’s Hospital. Hogarth evokes the special place that this hospital has in the history of Londoners, His theme is humanity and that certainly was at the heart of this hospital. Back in the 70’s our local GP referred my mother to Bart’s for a enlarged thyroid . There was a certain Professor Besser who was a world renowned expert on its removal and he performed this operation which was at the time an incredibly delicate and dangerous operation . He was one of only a few surgeons in the world that could perform
    this operation and he left a small part of her thyroid in place so that she never needed any medication. What is more she was left with an imperceptible tiny scar around the base of her throat so fine that you couldn’t notice it . My mother had this opportunity from the NHS and Bart’s could offer it because they had such highly qualified surgeons. My Aunt Lily was treated for cancer there . I had several occasions where I attended its accident and emergency. Now it’s a shadow of what it once was .

  6. Esther Wilkinson Rank permalink
    March 16, 2022

    I cannot agree with the earlier comment that Bart’s is a shadow of what it once was. Sadly there is no A&E here any more but it is still a hospital of great acclaim. Having had my life saved there some years back after a breast cancer diagnosis, I will forever be grateful to Bart’s and the NHS for all they did for me. And the small chapel called St Bart’s the Less situated within the Hospital grounds was always a wonderful, peaceful spot during some trying times.

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