Hogarth’s Copycats: 300 Years of Artistic Piracy
11 × 8.5 in. closed
Hogarth’s Copycats: 300 Years of Artistic Piracy is one of three books about William Hogarth by the independent scholar (and musician) Jeremy Bell. The three books, along with their online paratext, form a fluid ecosystem of interconnected and self-referential scholarship. Taken together, the reading experience reflects research in the age of hyperlinks and Wikipedia rabbit holes. As a guide through this material, Bell is impish yet erudite. Along with Bell’s writing style, the design of Hogarth’s Copycats captures this spirit in printed form.
From the outside, Hogarth’s Copycats could be mistaken for a children’s book. It is a slim, horizontal-format paperback with a glossy, full-color cover. The inside overflows with color illustrations on every page, illustrations which quickly reveal that the book is probably not for children. Nor does it fit comfortably in the genre of children’s books for adults, since its form also draws on and subverts other genres: art historical monographs, museum publications, online research, and even Hogarth’s own satirical art.
Bell’s compendium of artworks that reference, rip off, and appropriate Hogarth is organized by project (Marriage A-la-Mode, A Rake’s Progress, and so on). Headlines announce the project or theme, but there is no table of contents or index for the reader to navigate. Hogarth’s Copycats is an immersive tour led by Bell in first and third person. Bell jumps in without an introduction: “Let’s begin with some humorous face-swaps of Hogarth and his dog named ‘Trump.’” This tour guide tone continues throughout the book. On page forty-five Bell writes, “I hope you are enjoying this collation of artwork that has been inspired by William Hogarth.” Stops on the tour reflect the wide-ranging influence of Hogarth on centuries of art, illustration, and satire. Bell covers piracy by Hogarth’s contemporaries (which led to the Engraving Copyright Act of 1734), twentieth-century film adaptations, public service announcements, contemporary art, and more.
Even as Bell samples the breadth of Hogarth-inspired works, his own research interests emerge. Building on his first book, William Hogarth: A Freemason’s Harlot, Bell examines the role of Masonic imagery in Hogarth’s work. Likewise, Bell revels in Hogarth’s low-brow body humor, continuing lines of inquiry from his second book, The Fine Art of Dick Pics and Selfies. Since the references to Hogarth’s originals are explicit in the works Bell discusses, Hogarth’s Copycats is less speculative than A Freemason’s Harlot. It does, however, rely on the same methods — visual analysis and iconography.
Bell’s iconographic approach is almost paranoid, revealing secret Masonic symbols and faces hidden in shrubbery. While some assertions are more convincing than others, Hogarth’s work lends itself to such sleuthing. The artist certainly used symbolism and veiled references in his satire, and Masonic themes have been documented in his work. Hogarth’s visual puns and references to other works likely explain much of the appeal for other artists to riff on his work. Bell is hardly an objective observer himself. He celebrates Hogarth’s ability to hide things, from symbols to entire narratives, in plain sight.
Having abandoned neutrality for something more like fandom, Bell presents himself with a humorous, fitting mix of self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation. Bell credits himself with new discoveries hidden in Hogarth’s work, but also thanks his research assistants, “Miss Google” and “young Master Wiki.” He also thanks “The Trustees of the British Museum and other sites that allowed downloads of their artwork.” For Bell, original research requires only access to art and attention to detail. Whether this is read as satire of a certain type of connoisseurship, or a defense of close looking in an age of big data, “distant reading,” and digital distractions, art historians should take note.
A similar self-deprecating ambiguity results from the book’s mix of scholarship and crass commercialism. Throughout Hogarth’s Copycats, references to Bell’s other books are delivered like sales pitches as much as scholarly citations — an irreverence that matches that of the copycats he studies. The Chapman Brothers, for example, show a deep understanding of art history, but were criticized for painting directly on works by Goya for their series, Insult to Injury. Hogarth himself blended nuanced political commentary with misogynistic and homophobic tropes and produced grand history paintings alongside bawdy illustrations. He also pilfered from the likes of Albrecht Dürer. Ultimately, Bell’s enthusiasm for many of the contemporary copycats like Cold War Steve and Henry Hudson shows the same reverence for art that led Hogarth to write books about beauty even as he produced grotesque works like The Four Stages of Cruelty.
Bell seems to celebrate the creativity of the uncreative. He also demonstrates that Hogarth’s formulas are endlessly generative, even as politics and aesthetics change over centuries. Bell’s analysis is almost structuralist in its focus on the roles and relationships in Hogarth’s work. The phenomenon of copycats shows that corrupt politicians, sycophants, and hypocrites are a feature of every time and place. Bell highlights this meme-ready modularity but also shows what is lost when copycats (and art historians) miss the details that make Hogarth’s work anything but generic.
In showing that Hogarth still matters today, Bell also shows that the basic tools of art history remain effective. Hogarth’s Copycats has an internet aesthetic in many ways, but at its core it is simply an illustrated art history book full of side-by-side comparisons, details, and diagrams. Bell is well-versed in the life and times of Hogarth, but his own scholarship is primarily a matter of close looking. This method is especially fruitful given Hogarth’s penchant for hidden details and double entendres, but by no means limited to him.
Bell makes art history accessible and entertaining. He even provides intriguing avenues for future research. At the same time, he deploys structural, visual, textual, and paratextual devices to undermine his own methods and message. The book’s self-referentiality and the unreliability of its narration places Hogarth’s Copycats in dialogue with artists’ books as well as the art it discusses. The self-reflexivity of artists’ books often excludes general audiences, but Bell’s humorous handling of the medium will welcome new readers to artists’ books and art history alike.