The walls of the Hogarth Stair are decorated with two huge canvases by William Hogarth –widely known at the time for his popular engravings, and a little less so as a portrait artist.
Hogarth decorated the stair free of charge, allowing him to indulge his ambition, and giving the hospital a grand entrance to the Great Hall at no cost.
Images: Sam Whittaker, Matthew Andrews
The Good Samaritan
The Good Samaritan depicts the biblical story with the Samaritan pouring oil and wine into the wound of the injured man, a first century practice that continued until the 16th century. In the foreground, Hogarth has added a dog licking a wound on its leg, presumably sustained during the traveller’s attack. In the background, we can see the priest who, having ignored the victim at the side of the road, has continued on and now has a man lying prostrate at his feet.
Rahere also appears, asleep and dreaming alongside a tableau of the laying of the hospital’s foundation stone and the depiction of a sick man being carried on a stretcher into the old cloister of the hospital, where he is met by the brethren of St Bartholomew. The depiction of the old cloister is probably accurate as, having been born and raised in Smithfield, Hogarth would have seen it for himself when he was younger, before it was replaced.
The decorations surrounding the canvases were added by Hogarth’s students and include the medallions of Galen and Hippocrates and baskets of flowers. These embellishments frame the canvases in a more typically Georgian style.
The Good Samaritan was painted on site, with scaffolding erected so that the artist could reach the full height of the canvas. It was completed in 1737.
Images: Sam Whittaker
The Pool of Bethesda
The painting shows a scene from The Gospel According to St John, in which a man that has been unable to walk for many years is healed by Jesus. Much like St Bartholomew’s temple on The Tiber in Rome, Jerusalem’s Pool of Bethesda was thought to have healing properties. On occasion, the water would become disturbed and this was believed to be by an angel, who can be seen at the top of the painting, departing having made a pass over the water. Whomever entered the pool after the waters had settled again would be exposed to its healing properties.
The Pool of Bethesda was started in a studio in St Martin’s Lane before being hung on the staircase in 1736. The arches and landscape that surround the pool, where the sick have gathered to be cured by Jesus, are strongly reminiscent of Italian art of the period but the individuals depicted are strikingly original and the portrayal of Christ is often considered to be one of great dignity. Although we know the figures were painted by Hogarth, George Lambert – who made his name from painting scenery at Covent Garden – is thought to have painted the landscape (and possibly the background in the Good Samaritan).
The Hogarth paintings have always needed care. Twelve years after their completion, it is noted in the Governors’ minutes that they were already in need of cleaning, and that Hogarth was to be consulted as to how this would best be done. The artist had them cleaned at his own expense two years later in 1751. Hogarth had specifically requested that the completed canvases never be varnished, but when they were cleaned in the 1930s, seven coats of varnish were removed. As an indication of how much dirt the paintings accumulate, when they were again cleaned in the 1960s it was only then that the inscription in the foundation stone in the second tableau was discovered.
The paintings are still used as an educational tool as the characters portrayed are thought to be patients from the hospital, many of whose conditions are recognisable to the trained eye. None of the illnesses are exaggerated, perhaps unusually for an artist known for caricatures, and reflect a handful of illnesses that would have been seen regularly at the hospital at the time.