His most famous satires are often seen as part Shakespeare comedy, part Carry On film. But Tate Britain’s Hogarth and Europe exhibition shows the artist was no Little Englander

In one of his most celebrated paintings, O the Roast Beef of Old England, William Hogarth appears as himself, sketching the fortifications at Calais at the very moment of being mistakenly arrested as a spy in 1748. It is not what you would call a subtle scene. The raggedy French soldiers are on their last legs, barely sustained by watery soup, while a gaggle of fishwives resemble the flounder they are selling from their tatty basket. There’s a fat, greedy friar trying to get his hands on a sumptuous joint of beef which has just been unloaded and is on its way to one of the many English restaurants that thrive in Calais (only 200 years earlier the town had belonged to Britain). Spying, by implication, is not something that Britons resort to, although the figure of Hogarth busily sketching to one side is a warning not to dismiss John Bull as dense. The “Old England” Hogarth conjures up here is affluent, abundant and free. The French, meanwhile, are reduced to a series of humiliating stereotypes: silly, salacious and in thrall to the absolutist Roman Catholic church (you can just make out some gorgeously attired priests and abasing peasants in the background).

It is easy to see why Hogarth is so often positioned as the founding father of a particular strand of art which is essentially British: figurative, storytelling and not afraid to poke fun at itself. His most famous social satires including A Rake’s Progress and Marriage A-la-Mode are often read as a cross between a Shakespearean comedy and a Carry On film, with more disguises, reversals of fortune, libidinous ladies and drunken lads than you can shake a bottle of gin at.

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