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Plate I: The Rake Taking Possession of his Estate

In the first scene of the story Tom Rakewell (the Rake) has come home from Oxford to London. His father, a rich and miserly money-lender, has recently died and the room is being draped for mourning. Tom has himself measured for a mourning suit. Meanwhile, he pays off the mother of Sarah Young, a servant girl whom he has made pregnant. The weeping girl holds the ring which the Rake has given her together with his false promisses. The expression on his face shows that he has no feelings of guilt or remorse whatsoever. In the background, a lawyer who is making an inventory of the possessions of old Rakewell is stealing money behind the Rake's back.

Plate II: The Rake's Lev?

A lev? is a reception held by a monarch or other high-ranking person on arising from bed. Tom is spending his inheritance on suppliers of expensive (and in particular unnecessary) services who try to encourage him to ape the aristocracy. The pictures on the wall, however, show his lack of taste, scenes from classical mythology hang next to pictures of game-cocks. The characters in the picture would readily have been identified by Hogarth's contemporaries as real life London citizens. They include a paid bodyguard who lookes like a criminal, a jockey (kneeling in the front), a dancing-master with a kit-violin (a small three-stringed violin), a huntsman (blowing a horn), a music master, a French fencing master, a quarterstaff (a wooden staff used as a weapon) instructor, a landscape gardener (behind the Rake, with a drawn plan), a poet, and a tailor.

Plate III: The Rake at the Rose-Tavern

The Tavern Scene shows the Rake amusing himself in a notorious brothel, the Rose Tavern in Covent Garden, after an evening of drinking and hooliganism. Next to the Rake on the floor are the lantern and staff he has captured of a watchman earlier in the night (another sign that he has been in a fight is that his sword is unsheathed). The picture is full of sordid details: on the far left the contents of a chamberpot are spilled over a dish of roast chicken, one of the prostitutes at the table spits at another one (who is holding a knife), a stripper in the foreground is undressing herself for an obscene show which she will perform on a silver plate (which her pimp is holding together with a candle that she will extinguish in her vagina after the dance) and a street singer by the door on the left is singing 'The Black Joke', a notoriously obscene song. The prostitutes, who are stealing the Rake's watch, have pockmarks on their face (a sign that they have caught syphilis), while the pills on the floor next to the Rake suggest that he has caught the disease too.

Plate IV: The Rake Arrested, Going to Court

The Rake is on his way to attend a public lev? on Queen Caroline's (wife to George II, who reigned from 1727 to 1760) birthday. He is wearing a splendid court dress (his hopes high on becoming a courtier) but his sedan chair is hired (it is numbered) because there is not much left of his fortune. On his way to St. James' Palace he is arrested for debt by Welshmen (note the leeks in their hats), but is saved from prison by Sarah Young who pays his debt from her small salary earned as a seamstress (as can be concluded from the contents of her box). In the consternation, a young rascal steals the Rake's gold-topped cane, while the lamplighter lets his oil spill over the Rake's wig, as if anointing him.

Plate V: The Rake Marrying an Old Woman

The Rake at this point still has a choice, he can marry the poor but loving Sarah or he can try to regain his old life-style. Of course, he does the latter and marries an old, lame, one-eyed hunchback with money. The dilapidated church in which the ceremony takes place shows signs of immorality (note the crack through the ten commandments) and lack of charity (the cobwebs over the poorbox on the far right). The courtship of the two dogs on the right echoes the degrading nature of that of the old woman and the Rake, who shows his lack of interest in his bride by ogling her maid. Sarah and her mother are thrown out of the church in the back of the picture.

Plate VI: The Rake at a Gaming House

The old woman's fortune is soon lost by the Rake's new habit of gambling. The Rake's posture emphasises his inevitable downfall, his wig lies on the floor and his face shows signs of impending madness (stressed also by the barking black dog, a traditional symbol of depressive melancholy). Meanwhile, the gambling house is on fire (the night-watchman on the left has come in to warn the people inside) but the gamblers are so obsessed with their games that the fire stays unnoticed.

Plate VII: The Rake in Prison

The Rake is now at the Fleet, the debtor's prison. He has written a play to earn some money, but the manuscript (lying next to him on the table) is rejected. His fellow prisoners are equally unlucky in their attempts to get out of prison. The one on the far right holds a 'New Scheme for paying ye Debts of ye Nation' and the alchemist at the back is trying to find a way to make gold. From the top of the four-poster bed hangs the result of a failed attempt to make wings. On his left is Tom's one-eyed wife scolding him and on his right side a jailor demanding 'garnish money' and a boy demanding money for the beer he's bringing him. On the right we see Sarah Young who has fainted upon seeing her one-time lover in his present condition.

Plate VIII: The Rake in Bedlam

A confirmed madman now, there is no other destination for the Rake than Bedlam (a famous lunatic asylum, originally called Bethlehem but later shortened to Bedlam). Hogarth has modelled the Rake's lying position on the statues of Melancholy and Raving Madness that used to be above the gates of Bedlam (and are now in the Museum of London). The picture is very dark , so it is difficult to see the figures around the Rake clearly, but several types of lunatics are represented here. Each of these reflect the sins of the Rake in their own way and ultimately the follies of the world: the mad tailor's vanity, abuse of religion by a religious maniac, his strive for power by a naked madman with a crown on his head, who is carrying a stick as a sceptre and is urinating, his greed by a man dressed as the Pope, etc. Bedlam was open to visitors, and the two women in the middle of the picture are a well-to-do lady and her maid who are pointing and laughing at the lunatics.


William Hogarth (1697 - 1764)

A Rake's Progress

Etching and engraving, June 1735. Eight plates. Approx: 12 1/2 ins x 16 ins. Ref: Paulson: 132 - 9.

On May 3rd, 1735, subscribers to The Rake's Progress were informed that "Mr Hogarth was...oblig'd to defer the... Delivery of ... the prints till the 25th of June next, in order to secure his Property, pursuant to an Act lately passed by both House of Parliament....to secure all new invented Prints....from being copied without Consent .. thereby preventing a scandalous and unjust Custom....of making and vending base Copies of original Prints, to the manifest Injury of the Author, and the great Discouragement of the Arts of Painting and Engraving." Appropriately, the Act is always known as the Hogarth Act; he was the moving spirit that pushed it through Parliament and he was the chief beneficiary, being the the only artist who designed, engraved and published his own prints on any scale. Having solved the problem of "copying" in his professional life, he was free to tackle the even more insidious problem of "copying" in society at large.

After his phenomenal success with the harlot, Hogarth turned to her male counterpart, the rake. Stretching out over eight large plates that were more dramatic than those he had engraved for the Harlot, he presented his newly minted public with the lurid tale of a young man destroyed by a windfall. Although not quite as popular as the Harlot, the Rake turned out to have longer legs; in the 20th century, in particular, artists of many stripes have turned to it for inspiration.

Tom Rakewell is not a hedonist or a cold-blooded sybarite; he is, rather, a noodle, a young man out of his depth - not a Rake, but a wannabe or faux Rake. He is a walking, talking, living example of what Hogarth regarded as the great folly of the age - affectation. No person, no class, no institution, he was convinced, was immune; all were possessed by a crazed hankering to be other than they were. In more traditional language, they were whoring after false gods. (Needless to say, this is exactly what would expect in a traditional class society being challenged by commercial interests and considerations.)

In the second plate, Tom, nattily kitted out with slippers and a nightcap, is well on his way to becoming a man of fashion. The French fencing master, the dancing master, the jockey toting a racing trophy, the millener, the landscape gardener, even the professional enforcer presenting a letter of introduction and the poet desperately trying to separate himself from the menials, indicate his new and expensive foreign tastes. The third plate - spectacular debauchery at the Rose Tavern - leaves us in no doubt that Tom has learned his lessons well and is ready to enter into his new life. Affectation, of course, leads to dressing-up. "We now have rakes in the habit of Roman senators, and grave politicians in the dress of Rakes."The Spectator. Hogarth agreed and uses the conceit to frame his progress. The Rake opens with a tailor carefully measuring Tom for a suit and closes with a lunatic dressed as a tailor advancing on Tom to measure him for a shroud.

Hogarth's other great theme - choice - is very much in play. Sarah Young, Tom's jilted young love, has puzzled commentators, but her function is to stand as an alternative to Tom's wilful treck down the path to self-destruction. Although, her presence enables Hogarth to make his critical points, her "virtue: verges on the sanctimonious. What, for example, is one to make of Hogarth's decision to present her as Mary in a Pieta in the last Plate?

In the despair of his last year, Hogarth returned to the last plate and added a great seal to the wall of Bedlam. A parody of the half-penny, it shows a demented Britannia with wild, flying hair - his country, he is obliged to tell us, has ended up in the madhouse.

The Young Heir Taking Possession

Surrounded by Artists and Professors

The Tavern Scene

Arrested for Debt

Marries an Old Maid

Scene in a Gaming House

Prison Scene

Scene in Bedlam


Plate I

Plate II

Plate III

Plate IV

Plate V

Plate VI

Plate VII

Plate VIII


4.11 Isn't The Rakes Progress a painting?

There was an article in one of the Sunday papers last week about the artist William Hogarth, who - many freaks point out - was the man behind The Rakes Progress. The Rakes P is actually a series of 9 paintings (ok, I thought it was a book). A rake is a 'debauchee or immoral man', as my dictionary would have it, and the paintings tell the story of the young man who is heir to his father's estate, but who squanders all the money and gambles to repay his creditors, whilst getting even further in debt. Eventually he ends up in a debtors prison with a fainting mistress and her illegitimate child, with more people demanding their money from him. (Paul Walmsley)

Bell | Blake | Bosch | Gericault | Van Gogh | Hogarth | Kubin

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