By 1720, one British painter had been transforming the art of the nation with his often vast narrative works, James Thornhill (1675–1734). Despite his knighthood, service as a Member of Parliament, and appointment to the royal court as its official ‘history painter’, he was increasingly shut out during his later career, but came to teach the prime mover of the next generation, William Hogarth (1697–1764).
Hogarth was both an innovative painter of stories and a fascinating character, whose moral tales were popular when turned into prints. Events he portrayed in them, such as apprentices, and life in a debtors’ prison, were drawn from life: he was an indentured apprentice in the engraving trade, and his father spent several years in London’s Fleet prison for debtors.
A largely self-taught painter, Hogarth entered the world of art as a copperplate engraver in 1720. He aspired to greater things, and became a pupil at an academy run by Thornhill in London, even marrying Thornhill’s daughter in 1729. His works in oil were usually strongly narrative, showing moments of climax and sometimes peripeteia in theatrical productions or everyday life in London. Many included social commentary, wit, and some overtly caricatured society. One of his reasons for painting was to provide a supply of original images for engraving, and all his series paintings were seen, from a commercial view at least, as a means to producing lucrative series of prints.
This article shows his first two series, A Harlot’s Progress from 1731, and its compliment, A Rake’s Progress painted and printed between 1732-5. The next article will consider his famous Marriage A-la-Mode (c 1743), and the more unusual Four Times of the Day (1736).
A Harlot’s Progress (c 1731)
The six paintings forming this series were completed in 1731, and first appeared in engravings the following year. Tragically all the paintings were destroyed by fire in 1755, so we only have prints surviving.
The general outline of the story is of an innocent country girl, Moll Hackabout, who comes to London, and immediately falls into the hands of a notorious brothel-keeper and madame. Moll becomes the kept mistress of a wealthy merchant, but later slides into common prostitution. She’s arrested, and ends up in London’s Bridewell Prison. Having earlier contracted syphilis, that disease progresses, steadily killing her. She finally dies at the age of 23, mourned only by her fellow prostitutes.
Moll Hackabout is first shown arriving at the Bell Inn, Cheapside, dressed in the fine bonnet and white dress of an innocent country girl. She’s seen being inspected by Elizabeth Needham, a notorious brothel-keeper and madame. Hogarth gives the latter black skin lesions as a mark of longstanding syphilis, and her face is aged.
In the doorway at the right is an equally notorious rake, Colonel Francis Charteris, and his pimp John Gourlay, who are also taking an interest in the arrival of a fresh young innocent. In Moll’s luggage is a symbolic dead goose, suggesting her death from gullibility. The address on a label attached to the dead goose reads “My lofing cosen in Tems Stret in London”, implying that Moll’s move to London has been arranged through intermediaries, who will have profited from her being trafficked into the hands of Elizabeth Needham.
Behind Moll, an itinerant preacher is engrossed in spreading the message to his small ad hoc congregation in the back of a covered wagon. In front of that a pile of pots is just about to collapse, as is Moll’s life.
Hogarth next shows Moll at the top of the slippery slope to perdition, as the kept woman or mistress of a wealthy Jewish merchant; sadly anti-semitism was endemic at the time. The cues he gives are abundant, in Old Testament paintings on the wall, which also seem to prophesy Moll’s fate at his hands.
Enjoying relative luxury at this stage, she has a black serving boy and a monkey. On a dressing table at the far left is a mask, for masquerade balls, and Moll has deliberately knocked the table over to distract her merchant’s attention, while in the background another lover is able to tiptoe out.
Moll’s descent continues as she is here nothing but a common prostitute, her bed being the only substantial piece of furniture in the room. Her maid is floridly syphilitic, with black pox marks on her face and a sunken bridge to her nose. She keeps a cat, who poses in the manner of her mistress at work.
She’s surrounded by symbols of her evil, such as the black witches hat and broomstick, and above the bed is a wig-box belonging to a highwayman who was hanged on 11 May 1730. At the right, in the background, Sir John Gonson, a famous magistrate, is entering with three armed bailiffs to make her arrest. Meanwhile she is showing off a new and expensive pocket watch.
Moll ends up in Bridewell Prison, beating hemp to make nooses for hanging. Her jailer, at the extreme left, beats her to make her work harder, while his wife is stealing the clothes off her back. To the right of Moll is a card-sharp who is accompanied by his dog, and possibly the rest of his family. In the background is a black woman who appears pregnant, who could therefore neither be executed nor transported. In the foreground, at the right, is Moll’s maid, showing off a pair of Moll’s shoes. Moll herself has growing black spots on her face, indicating the progress of her own syphilis.
With Moll in the final throes of her syphilis, she’s attended by Dr. Richard Rock (dark hair) and Dr. Jean Misaubin (white hair), who are arguing over the best treatment. Another woman, possibly her landlady, is rifling Moll’s possessions, while Moll’s young son sits close to the fire. A Passover cake is hung by the door as a flytrap, suggesting that her former lover (the Jewish merchant) may be supporting her in her dying days.
Moll finally dies at the age of 23, on 2 September 1731, and her wake is attended mainly by fellow prostitutes. A parson sits, drunkenly fondling the woman next to him, and spilling his brandy (a sexually explicit symbol). Most of the women bear the hallmarks of syphilis, and Moll’s orphaned son sits innocently playing under her coffin.
A Rake’s Progress (1732-5)
No sooner were the prints being made of A Harlot’s Progress than Hogarth was at work with its successor, eight paintings showing the similar downfall of a man.
His outline is again quite simple and strongly moral: Tom Rakewell inherits a fortune on the death of his miserly father. Tom then squanders his money making himself appear grander, engaging in expensive pursuits, and in orgiastic nights in brothels. Pursued by bailiffs, he narrowly escapes arrest when on his way in a sedan chair to a party at St James’s Palace. He then has to marry a rich but ugly old woman for her money to settle his debts. But his descent continues with large gambling losses, and he’s put into the Fleet debtor’s prison (where Hogarth’s father was confined for periods). There he becomes insane, and ends his days in Bethlehem Hospital (commonly named ‘Bedlam’).
These are shown in Hogarth’s original oil paintings, now on display in Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, and in the prints derived from them.
Tom Rakewell has inherited a fortune from his father. The latter is portrayed as being extremely miserly with a house full of symbols of meanness, such as a half-starved cat, shoes resoled using the cover of a bible, etc. While he is being measured for new clothes by his tailor, Tom rejects his pregnant fiancée Sarah Young, who is crying at the left edge of the painting, her mother comforting her and remonstrating with Tom.
Tom sets out to make a new man of himself with the aid of many tutors and hangers-on. The composer Handel plays the harpsichord, then there is a fencing master, a quarterstaff instructor, a dancing master with violin, Charles Bridgeman, a famous landscape gardener, Tom himself, an ex-soldier acting as bodyguard, a bugler from a foxhunt, and a jockey. In the background are others who are busy spending Tom’s inheritance on worthy causes no doubt.
At night, Tom spends more of his money in the Rose Tavern, then a well-known brothel in Covent Garden, London. The prostitutes, and there are seven pictured and paid-for, bear the usual black pox marks to indicate their ill-health and occupation.
With his inheritance vanishing, Tom’s debts mount. Seen being carried in a sedan chair to St James’s Palace, Welsh bailiffs, with leeks on their hats, try to arrest him for debt. As it’s St David’s Day (1 March), he can only be going to the palace to celebrate Queen Caroline’s birthday. Thankfully, his former fiancée Sarah Young, now a milliner, intervenes and saves his day. In a symbolic twist, a worker who is filling an oil street lantern behind and above Tom anoints him accidentally with oil, marking the ‘blessing’ by Sarah. A young thief is just making off with Tom’s silver-handled cane, though.
Tom’s only recourse is to marry money, in the shape of an ugly old spinster, which he does in St Marylebone. As Tom undergoes the wedding vows, he’s already looking towards his new wife’s maid, who is younger and prettier. In the background, Sarah Young has arrived, holding her young child. Her mother is seen in a disagreement with one of the wedding guests. The two dogs and other details at the right provide further cues and clues to additional narrative.
Despite this influx of money from his new wife, Tom’s descent continues unabated. Here he is in a gambling den, surrounded by London’s low-life, on bended knee, pleading to the Almighty for one last chance to recover his money.
Tom’s debts finally catch up with him, and he too is thrown into Fleet debtors prison. He’s surrounded by those demanding money from him, but is unable to do anything. Beside him is a rejected attempt to raise money by writing a play. In the background are signs of developing madness: an alchemy experiment, trying to turn base metal into gold, and equipment for studying the stars, in the hope that they may signal a change in his fortune.
Tom’s crisis resolves into madness and violence, so he too is taken to spend the rest of his days in Bedlam. Tom is almost naked, tensed and stressed on the floor, with only Sarah Young to comfort him. Again he ignores her. Other inmates show the disturbing signs of their conditions, and two well-dressed ladies have come to watch the antics of those in Bedlam, as a social event.
Hogarth’s first two narrative series of paintings would have been remarkable achievements for the nineteenth century. They appear largely original, and tell complex stories almost without words, relying on the intricate details the artist has woven into each image. While Hogarth may have learned his painting technique and the principles of visual narrative from Thornhill, these series broke new ground in British if not European art.
Hallett M (2000) Hogarth, Art & Ideas, Phaidon Press. ISBN 978 0 7148 3818 2.