A Rake's Progress

This article is about the series of paintings by William Hogarth. For the Gavin Gordon-Ninette de Valois ballet, see The Rake's Progress (ballet). For Stravinsky's opera, see The Rake's Progress. For the song by Marillion, see Holidays in Eden.

A Rake's Progress is a series of eight paintings by 18th-century English artist William Hogarth. The canvases were produced in 1732–33, then engraved and published in print form in 1734. The series shows the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, the spendthrift son and heir of a rich merchant, who comes to London, wastes all his money on luxurious living, prostitution and gambling, and as a consequence is imprisoned in the Fleet Prison and ultimately Bethlem Hospital, or Bedlam.[1] The original paintings are in the collection of Sir John Soane's Museum in London, where they are normally on display.

The filmmaker Alan Parker has described the works as an ancestor to the storyboard.[2]


In the first painting, Tom has come into his fortune on the death of his miserly father. While the servants mourn, he is measured for new clothes. Although he has had a common-law marriage with her, he now rejects the hand of his pregnant fiancée, Sarah Young, whom he had promised to marry (she holds his ring and her mother holds his love letters).[3] He will pay her off, but it is clear that she still loves him. Evidence of the father's miserliness abound: his portrait above the fireplace shows him counting money; symbols of hospitality {a jack and spit} have been locked up at upper right; the coat of arms show three clamped vises with the motto "Beware"; a half starved cat reveals the father kept little food in the house, while lack of ashes in the fireplace demonstrates that he rarely spent money for wood to heat his home. The engraving at the right shows the Father went so far as to resole shoes from a leather cover from a bible so as not to pay a shoemaker for repairs.
In the second painting, Tom is at his morning levée in London, attended by musicians and other hangers-on all dressed in expensive costumes. Surrounding Tom from left to right: a music master at a harpsichord, who was supposed to represent George Frideric Handel; a fencing master; a quarterstaff instructor; a dancing master with a violin; a landscape gardener Charles Bridgeman; an ex-soldier offering to be a bodyguard; a bugler of a fox hunt club. At lower right is a jockey with a silver trophy. The quarterstaff instructor looks disapprovingly on both the fencing and dancing masters. Both masters appear to be in the "French" style, which was a subject Hogarth loathed. Upon the walls are paintings of roosters emblems of Cockfighting
The third painting depicts a wild party or orgy underway at a brothel. The whores are stealing the drunken Tom's watch. On the floor at bottom right is a night watchman's staff and lantern-souvenirs of Tom's "Wild Night" on the town. The scene takes place at the Rose Tavern, a famous brothel in Covent Garden. The prostitutes have black spots on their faces to cover syphilitic sores.
In the fourth, he narrowly escapes arrest for debt by Welsh bailiffs (as signified by the leeks, a Welsh emblem, in their hats) as he travels in a sedan chair to a party at St. James's Palace to celebrate Queen Caroline's birthday on Saint David's Day (Saint David is the patron saint of Wales). On this occasion he is saved by the intervention of Sarah Young, the girl he had earlier rejected; she is apparently a dealer in millinery. In comic relief, a man filling a street lantern spills the oil on Tom's head. This is a sly reference to how blessings on a person were accompanied by oil poured on the head; in this case, the "blessing" being the "saving" of Tom by Sarah, although Rakewell, being a rake, will not take the moral lesson to heart. In the engraved version, lightning flashes in the sky and a young pickpocket has just emptied Tom's pocket. The painting, however, shows the young thief stealing Tom's cane and has no lightning.
In the fifth, Tom attempts to salvage his fortune by marrying a rich but aged and ugly old maid at St Marylebone. In the background, Sarah arrives, holding their child while her indignant mother struggles with a guest. It looks as though Tom's eyes are already upon the pretty maid to his new wife's left during the nuptials.
The sixth painting shows Tom pleading for the assistance of the Almighty in a gambling den at Soho's White Club after losing his "new fortune". Neither he nor the other obsessive gamblers seem to have noticed a fire breaking out behind them.
All is lost by the seventh painting, and Tom is incarcerated in the notorious Fleet debtor's prison. He ignores the distress of both his angry new (old) wife and faithful Sarah, who cannot help him this time. Both the beer-boy and the jailer demand money from him. Tom begins to go mad, as indicated by both a telescope for celestial observation poking out of the barred window {an apparent reference to the Longitude rewards offered by the british government} and an alchemy experiment in the background. Beside Tom is a rejected play; another inmate is writing a pamphlet on how to solve the national debt. Above the bed at right is an apparatus for wings, which is more clearly seen in the engraved version at the left.
Finally insane and violent, in the eighth painting he ends his days in Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam), London's infamous mental asylum. Only Sarah Young is there to comfort him, but Rakewell continues to ignore her. While some of the details in these pictures may appear disturbing to modern eyes, they were commonplace in Hogarth's day. For example, the fashionably dressed women in this last painting have come to the asylum as a social occasion, to be entertained by the bizarre antics of the inmates.


Gavin Gordon wrote a 1935 ballet titled The Rake's Progress, based directly on Hogarth's paintings. It was choreographed by Ninette de Valois, designed by Rex Whistler, has been recorded several times, and remains in the repertoires of various ballet companies.

The 1946 RKO film Bedlam, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Mark Robson, was inspired by A Rake's Progress. Hogarth received a writing credit for the film.

Igor Stravinsky's 1951 opera The Rake's Progress, with a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, is loosely based on the story from Hogarth's paintings. In 1961, David Hockney created his own print edition version of The Rake's Progress; he has also created stage designs for the Stravinsky Opera.

The University of New Hampshire's Department of Theatre and Dance created a collaborative stage show titled "The Rake's Progress" in 2003, which, with 17 actors and actresses, provided an intensive study of the etchings.

In 2012, English artist Grayson Perry created a series of tapestries named The Vanity of Small Differences, a modern adaptation of Hogarth's originals.[4]

See also


  1. Bindman, David. Hogarth, Thames and Hudson, 1981. ISBN 0-500-20182-X
  2. Life: The Observer Magazine – A celebration of 500 years of British Art – 19 March 2000
  3. Castro, Anaclara (2016-04-01). "The Rake's (Un)lawfully Wedded Wives in William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress". Eighteenth-Century Life. 40 (2): 66–87. doi:10.1215/00982601-3483888. ISSN 0098-2601.
  4. Council, British. "Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences | Touring | Exhibitions | British Council − Visual Arts". visualarts.britishcouncil.org. Retrieved 2016-10-10.

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