Rake’s Progress Plate 1: The opening scene of A Rake’s Progress takes place in the dreary family home of young Tom Rakewell. His father has just died and he is being measured for mourning apparel. To prepare for the funeral, a workman hammers black cloth to the wall in the background. Everything within this cold and dark room reinforces the fact that the father was an obsessive miser: His portrait above the fireplace portrays him counting money, while hidden coins are dislodged from a crack in the wall by the workman’s hammering. Worse still, to the lower left, we see evidence of one of the father’s last miserly acts — he has cut a sole for his shoe from the leather cover of a Bible!

In Tom Rakewell, however, we already see evidence that his character veers to the opposite extreme. Without sympathy for his deceased father he has quickly opened every closet and box to determine his new found wealth. Bonds, mortgages, indentures and other documents lie carelessly at his feet. To the extreme right we are introduced to the tear ridden and pregnant Sarah Young. She holds a wedding ring in her hand and is accompanied by her fierce mother who carries love letters in which Tom has promised his intent to marry. Showing no remorse for his callous seduction, Tom attempts to buy the mother off with coin.

A Rake’s Progress was first published by William Hogarth in 1735. Created several years after A Harlot’s Progress, it chronicles many of the same vices and follies. But whereas Moll, the heroine of the earlier set, is a victim of society, the young, aristocratic ‘hero’, of A Rake’s Progress, Tom Rakewell, is a victim of himself. In this series, Hogarth brilliantly satirizes the often useless and destructive character of Britain’s ruling classes.

This original engraving was both designed and engraved by William Hogarth and published by William Heath in 1822. Source: WILLIAM HOGARTH: A RAKE’S PROGRESS

William Hogarth (1697-1764) used his prints to reflect the society that he found himself in. He dealt with many issues through his art; everything from urban decay to political decay. In his works we follow the journey of decline that Hogarth saw around him, and he reflected in familiar settings in his prints. In many instances we are able to follow the journey of some wayward soul on their travels into debauchery and onward past salvation. Such journeys are seen in The Harlot’s Progress, The Rake’s Progress, Industry and Idleness, and many more.

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