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Roast beef and ‘woke warriors’: Hogarth exhibition re-examines Britain’s past

London Letter: The artist’s outlook was connected with Europe but firmly rooted in his Englishness

When Britain's foreign secretary Liz Truss hosted European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic on Thursday evening at Chevening House, her grace and favour mansion in Kent, she welcomed him with a slap-up meal. Their dinner of Scottish smoked salmon, Welsh lamb and Kent apple pie was the most British menu possible short of serving up the Roast Beef of Old England.

Henry Fielding's patriotic ballad was the inspiration for William Hogarth's 1748 painting which hangs in Tate Britain and is at the heart of an exhibition there called Hogarth and Europe (until March 20th). The picture, also called the Gate of Calais, shows a fat friar inspecting a huge side of beef, surrounded by superstitious peasant women and scrawny French soldiers.

Hogarth was arrested in Calais the same year on suspicion of spying and his response was this satire peopled by stereotypes and in tune with the spirit of Fielding’s ballad.

"When mighty Roast Beef was the Englishman's food, It ennobled our veins and enriched our blood. Our soldiers were brave and our courtiers were good Oh! the Roast Beef of old England, And old English Roast Beef! But since we have learnt from all-vapouring France To eat their ragouts as well as to dance, We're fed up with nothing but vain complaisance Oh! the Roast Beef of Old England, And old English Roast Beef!"


The Gate of Calais, which is both anti-Catholic and Francophobic, is among the most obviously xenophobic of Hogarth’s works which have helped to give the artist the reputation of a Little Englander. This apparent English nationalism and yearning for splendid isolation from the continent drove one art critic to write after the 2016 Brexit referendum that “in art historical terms, we have chosen the way of Hogarth over Turner”.

London life

Hogarth and Europe attempts a radical reappraisal by placing Hogarth in a European context and highlighting how his contemporaries on the continent influenced or paralleled his work. Hogarth is best known for his paintings and engravings of London life and they hang in Tate Britain alongside those of Venetians Pietro Longhi and Antonio Guardi, Holland's Cornelis Troost and Étienne Jeaurat from Paris.

Some of the captions highlight the dark side of Britain's colonial past, to the apparent unhappiness of London's critics

"We reflected on the parallels and connections between European artists at the mid-eighteenth century working in what was broadly conceived as a 'Hogarthian' mode – producing, that is, paintings and prints of modern life with a comical or social-critical dimension," curators Alice Insley and Martin Myrone write in the exhibition's catalogue.

Between the time the exhibition was conceived and its opening Brexit changed Britain’s relationship with Europe and Black Lives Matter put a fresh spotlight on anti-black racism. Although the exhibition and its title appear to be a response to Brexit, the curators have allowed the art on the walls to lead the spectator to a more nuanced view of Hogarth’s thought and outlook, which was connected with Europe but firmly rooted in his Englishness.

The exhibition also takes a fresh look at black figures in Hogarth’s pictures and highlights the role of slavery in the economy he portrays. Some of the captions next to the exhibits are written not by art historians but by artists or people from other disciplines and many of them highlight the dark side of Britain’s colonial past, to the apparent unhappiness of London’s critics.

"The longer I stayed, the more the feeling grew in me that I was not really allowed to enjoy what I was seeing, and that if I did I was a bad or insensitive something of a massive own goal for the gallery I'd been made anxious and weary," wrote Rachel Cooke in the Observer.

Fresh light

Harry Howard, history correspondent for MailOnline – the digital wing of the Daily Mail – wrote that Hogarth had become the latest target of "woke warriors", complaining that 60 of his works are "deliberately displayed alongside those of European painters" in an attempt to show him in a fresh light.

In an interview with The Art Newspaper, Tate Britain's director Alex Farquharson defended the exhibition's approach to Hogarth and the decision to include multiple voices in the interpretive texts.

“Great artists can be unpacked and interpreted anew by each generation – that’s part of what makes them so important. In this instance I think Hogarth emerges from this process as an even more sophisticated and influential artist than we already knew,” he said.