Friday, 24 June 2011


On the night of Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955, Ruth Ellis took a .38 calibre revolver from her handbag and fired six shots at David Blakely outside The Magdala Pub, in Hampstead, London. Blakely was taken to hospital with multiple wounds and was subsequently pronounced dead. Gladys Kensington Yule, a passer-by, also sustained a slight wound when a bullet fired by Ellis ricocheted off the pavement and hit her in the hand. Ellis made no attempt to leave the scene, asking a witness to call the police. She was arrested and charged with Blakely's murder. The jury at the trial took just 14 minutes to convict her, and she received a mandatory death sentence and was the last woman to be executed in the UK.

'I intended to kill him,' she told the court at her trial for shooting her lover. In 1955 that was enough. But, as the High Court heard last week, the last woman in Britain to be hanged was herself a victim of violence. Was it also class that did for her?
By Catherine Pepinster
Sunday, 21 September 2003; from The Independent & The Independent on Sunday

"Ruth Ellis was many women: a mother, a nightclub hostess, a wife, a sister, a killer. But, like Myra Hindley, she is remembered as a caricature: the hard-faced bitch with the peroxide hair. The last woman to be hanged in Britain. But last week she became a person again, with all the complications that involves, as the High Court appeal into her conviction for murder in 1955 began. Her QC, Michael Mansfield, depicted a woman tormented who today would never be convicted.

The story of Ruth Ellis is well-known: that she took a shotgun and pumped four bullets into her lover, the racing driver David Blakely, outside the Magdala pub in Hampstead on Easter Sunday, 1955. The opinions of those of a certain age will always be influenced by Ellis's portrayal by Diana Dors in 1956's Yield to the Night. Others will think of Miranda Richardson's extraordinary performance in 1985's Dance with a Stranger: a complex mixture of survivor and victim, able to be tough to others, with a voice which rose to a thin screech whenever she was tormented by her abusive scoundrel of a lover, played by Rupert Everett. Last week Ellis became someone else: this time, according to Michael Mansfield, she was the subject of battered women's syndrome. He argues that the murder conviction be replaced with one of manslaughter.

But who was she really? Years ago, at the time Dance with a Stranger was first released, I interviewed her sister Muriel Jakubait for a newspaper feature. There in her living room was a family photo in a silver frame. It was of a different Ruth, a gentler, more vulnerable one. A Ruth forgotten. Later she took me to Ruth Ellis's grave. It is in a Buckinghamshire graveyard, not far from that of Blakely. There is no headstone, no memorial; nothing to attract the ghouls. Only a few flowers, often red carnations, left by her sister who has tried, year after year, to keep Ruth Ellis a human being, not a tabloid shorthand for evil. Muriel Jakubait explains her sister through the narrative of her whole life, not just her fatal love affair with Blakely. And that narrative reveals her as this: a very English killer. For her story is a story of class.

Ruth Ellis was born on 9 October 1926, the fourth child of a failed musician, Arthur Neilson, and his Belgian wife Elisaberta. Frustrated in his career, Neilson drank heavily and abused his wife and children. Both Ruth Ellis and her sister Muriel were raped by their father. "You have to understand how Ruth and I were brought up," says Mrs Jakubait. "Our father was a strict and frightening man. We were cowed, kept down. Made to feel insignificant."

Ellis yearned to escape her background, telling her sister and her mother that she was going to make something of herself. But for a teenage girl in the war years, growing up in a dysfunctional family and with little education, there were few prospects.

After a short time in a munitions factory, and with an illegitimate son by a Canadian soldier, Ellis trod a path long familiar to women with no real opportunities. She traded on her youth and looks by becoming a "hostess" at a West End drinking club, entertaining clients in the flat upstairs. It was there that she met the dentist George Ellis, a man she married in an apparent attempt to find middle-class respectability. After giving birth to a daughter, and too many beatings, she left.

Morrie Conley, later exposed in the Sunday tabloids of the time as the head of a Mayfair vice ring, had seen that Ruth Ellis was a sociable woman who attracted punters and made her manageress of The Little Club in Knightsbridge. In Fifties London, the club afforded middle-class businessmen, RAF officers, and alcoholics with private incomes an opportunity for drinking, adultery and shedding their outer veneer of respectability.
It was at the club that she met the wealthy businessman Desmond Cussen, and later David Blakely, with whom she fell in love. Blakely was louche, good-looking, a man spoilt by his divorcee mother and with a penchant for racing cars. The relationship with Ellis was tempestuous: for all her apparent easy-going sociability, she had as foul a temper as Blakely. They were both uneasily jealous of one another, both suspicious of the various alternative lovers with whom they consorted. She became pregnant by Blakely twice; the first time, she had an abortion, and on the second occasion, Blakely, who followed in her father and husband's footsteps with his violence, punched her in the stomach, causing her to miscarry.

Ellis shot him just a few days after the miscarriage, and following several days of arguments, tears and remonstrations. The last bullet was fired into him from just three inches away.

A defendant is always likely to have a better chance if there is any empathy with defence counsel. Ellis and Melford Stevenson appeared to have none. In the dock she appeared cold and uninvolved, apart from shedding tears when shown a photo of Blakely. Her behaviour, according to Helena Kennedy QC, is something we understand better today: "So many witnesses, particularly women who have gone through an emotional battering, disengage from events and give their evidence in a cool, remote way."

This became evident when Ellis was asked what she had intended to do when she shot David Blakely: "I intended to kill him."
Faced with her impassivity, it was difficult for Stevenson to convince the court that she should be acquitted of murder because her emotional disturbance had been affected by jealousy. The judge dismissed the argument, directing the jury to consider the charge of murder. They took 14 minutes to find her guilty. There was no mention of Desmond Cussen's role in providing her with the gun, or the emotional impact of the miscarriage.

Since her death Ellis has been many different women. To the tabloids and pulp crime writers, a villain. To law reformers, a cause célèbre. To Michael Mansfield, the example of a syndrome. Domestic violence experts, however, disagree. One said last week that the existence of the syndrome itself is disputed. "Labels like this aren't helpful. Her problem was she found a man who was a controlling bastard."

Nearly 50 years after her death, Ruth Ellis still haunts us. Her husband committed suicide; so did her son. Her daughter, Georgie, died last year of cancer, after campaigning to have the case reviewed. Her sister refuses to let her be forgotten: "She was a lovely girl, who did not receive the justice she was entitled to."

Ruth Ellis, though, seemed to think justice was done. Before Albert Pierrepoint hanged her at Holloway, before she stepped to the gallows, she gave him a small smile. Ruth Ellis wrote to Blakely's mother, accepting her culpability: "I shall die loving your son. And you should feel content that his death has been repaid."

Friday, 17 June 2011


My sister is the artist Jacqueline Read and I am thrilled to be able to share with you just a few of her paintings. Knowing Jacqueline, as I do, I relate to some of these on a deeply personal, profound level, they have a resonance -- others, I am mystified and intrigued. Her work is poignant, lyrical and spiritual; she is sensitive, intuitive and inspiring. She seems to be to be dedicated to exploring the nature of beauty, in all of its forms.


The painting is exhilarating; the sky diver hovers in the air, capturing a moment in time. Paradoxically, the moment steps outside the confines of time; time, after all, is a construct that humans have created, in order to cope with the complexities of life. Jacqueline’s use of colour; the divine cerulean blue, catches the breath; the tiny figure has dared to take a leap into the unknown. It is a moment on the edge of a dream; maybe the image that our memory has retained, as the dream fades and we return to waking. Perhaps the image will return to us in the hours and days that follow. We struggle to recapture our dream; we know that it was beautiful, but it slips away from us and all we are left with is this spiritual and spirited image.


The viewer can feel the adoration of this majestic animal in Jacqueline’s careful brushstrokes. The pony here is a creature of mythology; a stallion that perhaps only an Apollo, or an Alexander, can tame and ride. Something has caught his attention and he is watchful, but without fear. His ears are pricked; when he decides to move he will be swift and assertive. Jacqueline has captured the tension of that moment before action. The pony swishes his tail, flicking at the summer flies that tickle his haunches. He is in his prime. He is indifferent to us, in that way that animals are. His graceful pose is for himself alone. The viewer is a voyeur but only because the white pony, permits us to look.


There is a feeling of cinematography about this painting. Perhaps a romantic comedy out of Hollywood. It is light hearted, and captures a moment of pure joy and playfulness, reflected in the patterned horse’s gait and the clever balancing act performed by the girl. She is frivolous in her bridal white and her dainty little shoes. It is a moment of pure intimacy and the viewer is privileged to be present. It also has a narrative, which the viewer is able to embellish. Who are these people? Are they the bride and groom, or are we witnessing a secret liaison; are they runaways? Each time I look at this painting, I find a new, different story. But each time I look at I can sense a mood of celebration.


A child at the seaside, caught like a snapshot in a moment of play. A mood of nostalgia seeps from the painting, engulfing the viewer with his, or her own memories. The viewer senses that this is an important image for the painter. It doesn’t matter whether the child is a boy or a girl; it is the moment in time that is important. The work has an Impressionistic quality, there are suggestions of a busy beach, but the child stands alone. The sun is hot; yet the child is kept cool by the sort of breeze that you only get on an English holiday. The artist has captured the light too; that ethereal light that is intrinsically pure to the English seaside.

Here is what Jacqueline says about her work;

“I become absorbed in my work totally when I have the time to start it, but I am easily distracted by other things. I will wash the floor rather than draw, to postpone the moment, but once I start to draw or paint , it is wonderful to let go of all the usual tasks which occupy one's life. Being an artist makes sense of my personality; I struggle with complexity but am also a very simple person…”

You can view more of Jacqueline Read’s paintings at Image Kind.

Friday, 10 June 2011


“Misery”, is a 1990 American thriller film, based on Stephen King's 1987 novel of the same name. Directed by Rob Reiner, the film received critical acclaim for Kathy Bates' performance as the psychopathic Annie Wilkes. The film was ranked 12 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Kathy Bates won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Annie Wilkes.

It is a gruesome book and an equally gruesome film. I hadn’t forgotten how much it made me shudder, and I was shuddering all over again when I watched the film “Misery” last week. It is a claustrophobic, film and book, the main action taking place in the bedroom in a remote farmhouse where the novelist, Paul Sheldon, is held captive by Annie Wilkes. She constantly tells him; “I’m your number one fan.”

Paul is the author of a series of popular historical novels about a character called Misery Chastain. Annie has read every word of his books.

Paul is a prisoner, held captive by the relentless snow storm, during which he has crashed his car. He is a prisoner because of the injuries he has sustained in the road accident, and he is also a prisoner, because Annie has manipulated events to her advantage. She used to be a nurse and decides that she will nurse him back to health, telling Paul that the telephone lines are down, and she can’t call for help. She intends to keep him there.

Both of Paul's legs are broken and he has a dislocated shoulder, so he is bedridden and incapacitated. Again, Annie claims that she is his 'number one fan' and talks a lot about him and his novels. She is happy when Paul lets her read his new novel, but later admits she disliked the excessive swearing. While feeding him, she is angered and spills soup on him but regains control and apologizes. She buys a copy of Paul's latest book, “Misery's Child”, but after learning that he has "killed off" Misery, Annie flies into a rage, almost smashing a table on Paul's head. She reveals that nobody knows where he is, contradicting what she had earlier told him.

“And don't even think about anybody coming for you. Not the doctors, not your agent, not your family. 'Cause I never called them. Nobody knows you're here. And you better hope nothing happens to me. Because if I die... you die”. 

Annie leaves and Paul hears her driving away in her car. He tries to escape his room, but she has locked the door.

I say that Paul tries to escape, but this is a task of Herculean effort and entails Paul dragging himself across the floor only to find the door locked. In both the book and the film, the reader/viewer is completely engaged in Paul’s struggle. We feel his despair.

So Paul sees that Annie is unpredictable and dangerous, and that he is at her mercy.

The next morning, Annie makes Paul burn his latest manuscript. When he is well enough to get out of bed, she insists he write a new novel entitled Misery's Return in which he brings the character back to life.

Paul reluctantly obeys, believing that Annie might kill him otherwise.

Paul has become Scheherazade, the narrator of the tales in “Arabian Nights”; like Scheherazade, he is telling stories to stay alive.

Annie pesters Paul to finish writing the novel, Paul prevaricates, knowing that Annie is going to kill him and then herself.

Linking himself to Scheherazade, Paul plays for time. He tells her;

“It’s almost finished. By dawn…we’ll be able to give Misery back to the world.”

I can’t remember if Paul says those words in the book, it’s been a long time since I read it and I don’t have a copy here to check. But this is a subtle play on Scheherazade’s situation. In “The Arabian Nights”, Scheherazade, breaks off her tale each morning, saying that;

“the dawn is breaking.”

Scheherazade knows that she will be kept alive by her husband, because he wants to hear how the story ends.

But surely “Misery” is an exaggeration. People don’t kidnap people and hold them prisoner. Do they?

Well, apparently they do; just type in “obsessives kidnap” into Google and scroll down to view the numerous cases.

Annie Wilkes is an obsessive, and almost daily we hear of obsessives’ behaviour spiralling out of control. The concept of stalking is well documented and we hear stories of men and women having to suffer the obsession of a stalker. It is a contemporary theme. I think that “Misery” is an exposition of obsession. About individuals feeling that they “know” a writer/film star/ singer/ footballer. That they are destined to be together. They seek “signs” in their work, that are meant for them only. Madonna and Jodie Foster have both been on the receiving end of obsessive fans. And it’s not only the celebrities, the wealthy and famous, that fall victim to the obsessive’s possessive eye.

“When most of us think "stalking," it's the well-publicized incidents 
involving celebrities that come to mind, but you don't need to be 
famous to be a stalker's fixation. 

Stalking is a crime of obsession, and is often associated with 
different types of psychopathology, including psychosis and severe 
personality disorders. Depending on the stalker, behaviour may range 
from overtly aggressive threats and actions, to repeated phone calls, 
letters or approaches. Stalking harassment may go on for years, 
causing the victim to exist in a constant state of stress and fear. 
The violent aspects of stalking behaviour often escalate over time, and 
in extreme cases, can end in murder.”

suite 101.

Thanks to Jan Vander Laenen for helping me to identify Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto number 1, used as a soundtrack in "Misery".

Friday, 3 June 2011


“Hogarth was born in London, the son of an unsuccessful schoolmaster and writer from Westmoreland. After apprenticeship to a goldsmith, he began to produce his own engraved designs in about 1710. He later took up oil painting, starting with small portrait groups called conversation pieces. He went on to create a series of paintings satirising contemporary customs, but based on earlier Italian prints, of which the first was 'The Harlot's Progress' (1731), and perhaps the most famous 'The Rake's Progress'. His engravings were so plagiarised that he lobbied for the Copyright Act of 1735 as protection for writers and artists.

Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon.

A common feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm—"in satire, irony is militant"—but parody, burlesque, exaggeration, juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre are all frequently used in satirical speech and writing. This "militant" irony or sarcasm often professes to approve (or at least accept as normalise) the very things the satirist wishes to attack.

Satire is nowadays found in many artistic forms of expression, including literature, art, plays, commentary, and media such as lyrics.

Perhaps Banksy’s cutting graffiti art is the most up to date form of an Artist working through satire.

The Marriage à la Mode was the first of Hogarth's satirical moralising series of engravings that took the upper echelons of society as its subject. The paintings were models from which the engravings would be made. The engravings reverse the compositions.” WIKI

Hogarth is demonstrating that society is rotten, through to the core and the upper classes are no exception. Up until now, Hogarth has settled for spotlighting the foolishness of the lower classes, but here, he turns his eye on the nobles, as well.

Hogarth’s work is sequential. His paintings, viewed one by one tell a story; they have a narrative. Hogarth anticipates the comic strip, a form with which we are all familiar.


The story starts in the mansion of the Earl Squander who is arranging to marry his son to the daughter of a wealthy but mean city merchant. It ends with the murder of the son and the suicide of the daughter.

In the first scene the aged Earl (far right) is shown with his family tree and the crutches he needs because of his gout. The new house which he is having built is visible through the window.

The merchant, who is plainly dressed, holds the marriage contract, while his daughter behind him listens to a young lawyer, Silvertongue. The Earl's son, the Viscount, admires his face in a mirror. Two dogs, chained together in the bottom left corner, perhaps symbolise the marriage.

Hogarth's details, especially the paintings on the walls, comment on the action. A grand portrait in the French manner on the rear wall confronts a Medusa head, denoting horror, on the side wall.

The Tête à Tête

In this second painting we see the marriage is already in shambles as both the husband and the wife are exhausted from their separate partying ways – she is just back from a card party, he likely has just returned from visiting the brothel. Their servant throws his arms up in disgust at them.

The marriage of the Viscount and the merchant's daughter is quickly proving a disaster. The tired wife, who appears to have given a card party the previous evening, is at breakfast in the couple's expensive house which is now in disorder. The Viscount returns exhausted from a night spent away from home, probably at a brothel: the dog sniffs a lady's cap in his pocket. Their steward, carrying bills and a receipt, leaves the room to the left, his hand raised in despair at the disorder.

The decoration of the room again comments on the action. The picture over the mantle piece shows Cupid among ruins. In front of it is a bust with a broken nose, symbolising impotence.


The third scene takes place in the room of a French doctor (M. de La Pillule). The Viscount is seated with his child mistress beside him, apparently having contracted venereal disease, as indicated by the black spot on his neck, Hogarth's symbol for those taking the mercurial pills which were the only known treatment for this ailment.

He holds towards the doctor a box of pills; other boxes on the chair and in his mistress's hand suggest he is seeking an alternative remedy. An older woman holds a clasp knife; she appears to be the young girl's mother.

The machines to the right, identified in the inscription on the open book, are for setting a broken shoulder, and drawing corks. A skeleton embraces a model in the cupboard behind the Viscount.


After the death of the old Earl the wife is now the Countess, with a coronet above her bed and over the dressing table, where she sits. She has also become a mother, and a child's teething coral hangs from her chair.

The lawyer Silvertongue invites her to a masquerade like the one to which he points, depicted on the screen. A group of visitors on the left listen to an opera singer, possibly a castrato, accompanied by a flautist.

An African page on the right unpacks a collection of curiosities bought at auction, including a figure of Actaeon. The paintings on the right wall show 'Lot and his Daughters' and 'Jupiter and Io' (after Correggio). On the left wall is a portrait of the lawyer and 'Rape of Ganymede' (after Michelangelo).


This episode takes place in a bagnio, originally a word used to describe coffee houses which offered Turkish baths, but by 1740 it signified a place where rooms could be provided for the night with no questions asked. A picture of a woman with a squirrel on her hand hanging behind the countess contains lewd undertones.

The Countess and the lawyer, her lover, have retired there after the masquerade. The young Earl has followed them and is dying from a wound inflicted by Silvertongue, who escapes through the window, while the Countess pleads forgiveness.

The noise of the fight has awakened the master of the house who appears through the door to the right with the Watch. On the rear wall is a tapestry of the 'Judgement of Solomon', and a painting of a courtesan is over the door.


Finally the Countess poisons herself in her grief and poverty-stricken widowhood, after her lover is hanged at Tyburn for murdering her husband. An old woman carrying her baby allows the child to give her a kiss, but the mark on her cheek and the calliper on her leg suggest that disease has been passed onto the next generation.

Commentary on the paintings from The National Gallery, London.

These pictures were at first poorly received by the public, to the great disappointment of the artist. He sold them to a Mr. Lane of Hillington for one hundred and twenty guineas. The frames alone had cost Hogarth four guineas each, so his initial remuneration for painting this valuable series was only sixteen shillings over a hundred pounds. From Mr. Lane's estate, they became the property of his nephew, Colonel Cawthorn. In the year 1797 they were sold by auction at Christie's, Pall Mall, for the sum of one thousand guineas; the liberal purchaser was John Julius Angerstein. They are now owned by the British government and part of the collection of the National Gallery.

It had been Hogarth's intention to follow the Marriage à-la-mode series with a companion series called The Happy Marriage, however, this series was never completed and only exists as a series of unfinished sketches. Hogarth's loss of interest was probably because a conventional and happy marriage gave little opportunity for barbed and ironic treatment of events.

Although this series of paintings are works of art in their own right, their original purpose was to provide the subjects for the series of engraved copper plate prints. By the nature of the process, when engraving copper plates, the image engraved on the plate by the engraver is reversed, that is to say, a mirror image of the final print. Normally, when undertaking paintings that are to be engraved, the painting is produced the "right way round" — not reversed — and then the engraver views it in a mirror as he undertakes the engraving. Hogarth was an engraver himself and disliked this course of action using mirrors, so unusually, he produced the paintings for Marriage à-la-mode already reversed so the engraver could directly copy them.

It would normally be expected to view the series of prints moving from left to right and Hogarth would have taken this into account when composing the original paintings.

Satire is the kind of artistic expression, that deals with a fragmented society; with a society or family or life that is no longer whole.  Satire is what happens when there isn't any decent family or society available for the main character to reconcile himself to, or when the desires he has aren't worth desiring, or when the actions he takes aren't worth taking. Satire is the shape of artistic expression that describes what our world is like when all anyone can see of it are disintegrated pieces.

Satire as a mode of human experience seems to have come out of primitive magic, ritual and curse. One of the earliest records of it as satire--that is satire identified as such--is in Aeschylus' time (circa 475 BC).  In between his short plays, men dressed as satyrs made fun of the actors--hence our modern word satiric.  But this practice was probably an outgrowth of Dionysian rituals that go back at least to 1200 BC.  Aristotle (384 -322 BC) guessed as much, that satire grew out of magic curses improvised and hurled at individuals by leaders of the Phallic songs. These magic phrases were designed to drive away evil influences so that the positive fertility magic of the phallus might begin working. It took place in a ritual that, eventually, developed into Greek Old Comedy.

But satire isn't just Greek in origin. Classical scholars will explain that while "satiric" comes from Greek "satyr," the noun "satire" comes from the Roman noun "satura," and so the term have both Greek and Roman origin.  But every tribe we know of made satires, because satire, as it's defined here, is a way humans think. And satires work. Ancient Irish  poets could compose an "aer" or satire that would blight crops, dry up milk, raise blotches on victims and ruin someone's character for ever. The earliest known Greek satirist, Archelochus (7th century BC) did the same thing: he wrote such a strong satire that not only his victim, a man named Lycambes, but also Lycambes' daughters hung themselves.

In ancient Arabia poets could kill, it is said, with satires, and satirical poets led troops into battle hurling satirical curses  the way the warriors hurled spears. There are records of occasional duels among Eskimos in the 20th century where their weapons were satirical phrases invented and hurled against each other.  The loser, could be exiled or even killed. People fear the power of satire. In Elizabethan England satire was prohibited by law and satiric verses were burned like witches. During the Vietnam War the counterculture waged satiric assaults against the country's war policy. Hundreds of people encircled the Pentagon and threatened to levitate by chanting (they tried).   And The Yippies tried to run a pig for President, Pigasus.  They were pursued by the F.B.I


Satirical works often contain "straight" humour, usually to give relief from what might otherwise be relentless preaching. Although this has always been so, it is probably more marked in modern satire. Yet some satire is not "funny", nor is meant to be. Obviously, not all humour - even on such topics as politics, religion or art, or using the great satirical tools of irony, parody, and burlesque - is necessarily "satirical"; the most light-hearted satire always has a serious "after-taste".

According to Dario Fo, the history of comic theatre shows a key difference and conflict between satire and good-humoured teasing, or sfottò, which is an ancient form of buffoonery. While satire has a subversive character, is against oppression by any power, and carries always a moral dimension, a serious analysis that gets to the roots of the issues; on the other hand, simple poking fun, benign parodying and mockery, is a form of comedy that isreactionary. Historically, power has tried to censor and violently repress real satire, but has loved good-humoured buffoonery. From this, Fo draws a criteria to tell real satire from sfottò, saying that one can tell real satire from the vehement reaction that arises in the powerful, which proves its effectiveness. Sfottò on a powerful individual, by focusing on superficial weaknesses, like ugliness, draws sympathy towards its target; Hermann Göring propagated jests and jokes against himself, with the aim of humanizing his image.

The great twentieth-century cartoonist David Low described William Hogarth as the grandfather of the political cartoon. What he meant was, that while Hogarth didn't quite set the template for political cartoons as we now recognise them (Gillray did that a generation later), the medium wouldn't be the same without him. There's a great deal of truth in this, but not necessarily for the obvious reasons. Hogarth refined a pre-existing tradition of visual satire, taking it to previously unscaled heights of sophistication and skill. And, through the popularity of his output, he placed visual satire shoulder to shoulder with the textual satire of the times (the elderly Swift wrote a poem to the young Hogarth, praising him and proposing that they collaborate). But he also established a journalistic tradition that's still flourishing today.

Hogarth was in many ways a contradictory figure: a satirist who wanted to be part of the Establishment; a popular engraver who wished to be recognised as a serious artist. He succeeded in being all these things (although, in the first instance, at great personal cost). But first and foremost he was a polemicist. That may seem to be a pretty obvious thing to say when you look at A Rake's Progress (1735), or A Harlot's Progress (1732), or The Idle and Industrious Apprentice (1747), or Stages of Cruelty (1751). But what's truly interesting is the way he did it, because it was essentially contradictory.


Take his most famous print, Gin Lane (1751). At face value it is identical, in intention and effect, to a modern tabloid headline. It was inspired by a news story Hogarth heard about a woman who murdered her infant daughter so she could sell her clothes to buy gin - the equivalent of a banner headline today about teenagers killing a pensioner to steal £5 to buy crack. It's meant to shock; moreover, it's meant to shock the viewer into better behaviour. Thus its companion piece, Beer Street (also 1751), showing the advantages of honest English ale over evil foreign gin. To this end it was sold cheaply in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. In other words, it was a kind of proto-popular journalism, the first glimmer of the developing mass media.


And yet Gin Lane works on far more levels than that, quite apart from being a much better and more powerful image than Beer Street. For a start, it's an image of eighteenth- century London that many people probably now take at face value, almost as if it were a photograph. But despite the horror portrayed - infanticide, drunken oblivion, disinterment of corpses, starvation, beggary, poverty, impalement, suicide, debt, debauchery and the collapsing buildings standing as metaphor for the collapse of society in general - it's also intrinsically funny. True, it's a very, very dark kind of humour, but there's a morbid vivacity to it which is entirely absent from the prosperous contentment of Beer Street.

That's how satire works. You laugh almost despite yourself. The exaggeration is one of the triggers to make you laugh. Although we can pinpoint where Gin Lane probably was, it's doubtful that such scenes all happened together at the same time - hammering home the absurdity of the horror. And then that contradiction, the disjunction between horror and laughter, makes you laugh again. And then, with luck, you start thinking. That's exactly how today's political cartoons operate.

From Tate Etc