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  • image P42

William Hogarth (1697 - 1764)

A Rake's Progress III: The Orgy

1734

Oil on canvas

Height: 62.5cm
Width: 75.2cm

Museum number: P42

Curatorial note


An introduction to A Rake’s Progress
A Rake’s Progress comprises eight paintings and is the second of Hogarth’s painted series, the sequel to A Harlot’s Progress. It is possible, according to David Bindman, that the two were conceived in parallel. In his Autobiographical Notes, Hogarth claimed credit for inventing the genre of pictorial sequences that told a story: ‘[I] turn[ed] my thoughts to still a more new way of proceeding, viz painting and Engraving moder[n] moral Subject[s] a Field unbroke up in any Country or any age.’ They were innovative because the pictorial narratives showed aspects of contemporary eighteenth-century life in series. The locations and characters depicted, often taken from real life, would have been instantly recognisable to Hogarth’s contemporaries.

The paintings were originally produced by Hogarth in 1734 as preparatory works for engravings published in 1735. Prospective purchasers visited Hogarth’s home and studio in Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square) to view the paintings before electing to subscribe to a set of engravings. The antiquary and engraver George Vertue (1684–1756) noted that ‘daily Subscriptions came in, in fifty or a hundred pounds in a Week – there being no day but persons of fashion and Artists came to see these pictures.’ A set of the eight prints cost one-and-a-half guineas to subscribers or two guineas after publication. A Harlot’s Progress was subject to a high degree of piracy by copyists. In an attempt to negate this Hogarth instigated the Copyright Act, also known as ‘Hogarth’s Act’ and delayed publication of the engravings of A Rake’s Progress until after the act was passed on 25 June 1735.

Sir John Soane purchased the Rake’s Progress paintings in 1802 from William Thomas Beckford (1759-1844) of Fonthill Splendens, the only legitimate son of William Beckford (1709-70), a politician and landowner who was born in Jamaica where he owned extensive plantations. The elder Beckford relocated to London and purchased the estate at Fonthill in 1744. He later variously served as an MP, Alderman, Sherriff of London, and from 1762 to 1763 and 1769 to 1770 as Lord Mayor of London. Despite his many successes Beckford was criticised as nouveau riche and a vulgar colonial. His rivals enjoyed highlighting the contradiction between his fight for liberty in Parliament, and his great wealth founded on the backs of enslaved people working in Caribbean sugar plantations. In 1786 his son William Thomas Beckford commissioned Soane to convert a corridor on the second floor of Fonthill Splendens into a picture gallery. Although Soane’s design was not executed1 it is likely that Soane saw A Rake’s Progress for the first time at Fonthill during his visits in 1786-87.

After purchasing the paintings Soane hung them in pride of place in the small drawing room, or ‘retiring parlour’, the first room a visitor would enter, at his country house Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing. After Soane’s sale of Pitzhanger in 1810 the pictures presumably moved to Lincoln’s Inn Fields where they were certainly on display in Soane’s first Picture Room behind No. 12 by 1819. In 1824 Soane constructed a new Picture Room at the back of No. 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields and hung the series behind the wooden planes on the north wall, where they remain today.2

A Rake’s Progress describes the moral and physical journey of its protagonist, Tom Rakewell, the son of a miserly City merchant. Hogarth presents the consequences of Tom’s moral choices; desertion, social climbing, extravagance and the sins of the flesh, as being shame, debt, degradation and ultimately madness followed by death. Rakewell is beloved by his long-suffering lover Sarah Young, who was seduced by his promises of marriage, but he foolishly ignores the redemptive potential offered by a genuine commitment to her and their bastard child.

The Orgy
A room in the infamous Rose Tavern, a brothel in Covent Garden’s Drury Lane, is the setting for ‘The Orgy’ and this vibrant scene of chaos and squalor offers a rich impression of the low-life of eighteenth-century London. The area around Covent Garden was packed with taverns, brothels and theatres and was frequented by aristocrats and men of means seeking alternatives to the tamer, more genteel pleasures of polite society to be found in the area around St James’s. The setting is squalid; the mirror on the wall is broken and food, broken glass and the contents of a chamber pot are strewn on the floor in the foreground. Appropriately the paintings of Roman Caesars on the wall around the room have all been mutilated except that of the Emperor Nero, who watched Rome burn after a night of debauchery. In the background a prostitute holds a candle to a painting of the world titled Totus Mundus [agit histrionem] (all the world’s a stage), a motto which decorated ‘the top of the stage’3 in Drury Lane and is commonly interpreted as meaning the ‘players’ in this scene are destroying their own world by their immoral behaviour.4

Tom has settled in for a night of pleasure after an evening of carousing. He has already ‘boxed the watch’ which would have involved trapping a night-watchman in his hut5 by turning its door to the wall or pushing the hut over6 and stealing the watchman’s equipment as evidenced by the staff and lantern casually abandoned at Tom’s feet. Tom, in the foreground on the right, sits in a louche position in a state of undress; his stockings wrinkled, breeches unbuttoned, pink-lined and frogged blue-silk coat open, shirt untucked, tricorne hat askew. His demeanour is shockingly uncouth in an era which valued meticulous elegance in dress. His moral decline is further indicated by the box of mercury pills - a treatment for syphilis - that has fallen to the floor from his pocket. Fuddled with wine Tom gladly submits to the caress of a prostitute, also syphilitic as indicated by the black spots that cover the sores on her face. She is merely distracting him in order to steal his watch which shows three o’clock in the morning, passing it behind his back to her accomplice, another prostitute.

Tom’s wide open legs are an invitation to the half-undressed woman in the left foreground, a ‘posture dancer’ or stripper who is to perform for the company. Behind her the legendary porter of the Rose Tavern, known as Leather Coat or Leathersides7 is entering the room holding a candle, reflected in the large polished silver salver he carries, which will be placed on the table. The dancer will perform various exotic postures to titillate the audience before extinguishing the candle in a provocative manner standing on the salver, its shiny surface offering occasional tantalising glimpses of her genitals.8 The Rose Tavern was notorious for providing such displays and the salver, engraved ‘John Bonvin at the Rose Tavern Drury Lane’9 was presumably in frequent use.

Apart from Tom there is only one other man present and, perhaps as a result, the prostitutes around the table have resorted to drinking and arguing amongst themselves. One guzzles punch straight from a bowl so enthusiastically that it spills over the edge. Her companion apes a more refined manner, drinking from a glass in her left hand, little finger raised, yet grasping a bottle with her right. Across the table a Chinese tradesman and prostitute embrace, flanked by two prostitutes arguing, one brandishing a knife, the other spitting a mouthful of wine in her face. The group is being entertained by a shabby street singer who is accompanied by the strange combination of harpist and trumpeter. A black woman, finger placed provocatively to her mouth, appears less disreputable than her degenerate colleagues and is the only person in the room conspicuously enjoying herself. She casts a sideways glance across at the singer, laughing at the vulgar antics of her fellow prostitutes.10 Her laughter is a pun on Hogarth’s part, evoking the term ‘black joke’, a slang term for female genitalia11 and also the title of the bawdy ballad about the sexual act popular in the early eighteenth century that the singer is performing.12

This painting was particularly popular and later copies in oil exist, probably taken from the engraving which was first published by Hogarth on 25 June 1735.13

Joanna Tinworth, April 2021

Footnotes
1 Christopher Woodward, 'William Beckford and Fonthill Splendens: early works by Soane and Goodridge', Apollo, 432, 1998, p.31.
2 Soane writes that ‘It is well in a twofold sense that, from the application of folding shutters, after having duly considered [the paintings of A Rake’s Progress] some of the subjects may be removed from view’ because ‘the horrible display of [the Rake’s] miseries … would render the spectators utterly incapable of relishing the beauties around him.’ John Soane, Description of the house and museum on the north side of Lincoln's Inn Fields, the residence of Sir John Soane, 1835, p.23.
3 Einberg, Elizabeth, William Hogarth, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, 2016, p.136, f.n. 5
cites Richard Steele, The Spectator, 1712, vol. 5, p.240.
4 Einberg, Elizabeth, William Hogarth, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, 2016, p.136.
5 The watchman’s hut, similar in appearance to a sentry box, would have been a familiar sight on urban streets.
6 Tom getting the best of a Charley by George Cruikshank, 1820 depicts this practice which was clearly still fashionable almost a century after Hogarth painted A Rake’s Progress.
7 The porter was known for the strength of his ribs and would lie in the street and allow carriage wheels to run over him in exchange for a pot of beer. He was immortalised as Leathersides in a poem inspired by Hogarth, The Rake’s Progress or the Humours of Drury Lane: A Poem, London, 1735.
8 Rouquet, Jean Andre, Lettres de Monsieur*** a un de ses amis a Paris pour lui expliquer les estampes de Hogarth, 1746. Describing the engravings of A Rake’s Progress to a friend John Andre Rouquet offered a detailed description of the performances’ of posture dancers.
9 It is not known if John Bonvin was an actual landlord of the Rose Tavern, but the literal translation of the French ‘bon vin’ as good wine suggests a hostelry where the wine is good and the host hospitable.
10 Catherine Molyneux, ‘Hogarth’s fashionable Slaves: Moral Corruption in Eighteenth-Century London’, ELH, Vol. 72, No. 2, Essays in Honour of Ronald Paulson (Summer, 2005), pp.503-04 discusses the black pregnant woman in the background of A Harlot’s Progress, plate 4, (1732). She states that ‘I have not discovered any early eighteenth-century references to black prostitutes in London, but Hogarth may have been commenting on a reality.’ The black woman in A Rake’s Progress III: The Orgy is dressed no differently to the others in the scene and there is no indication that her role was different to any of the other women depicted.
11 David Dabydeen, The Black Figure in 18th-century Art, 2011,
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/abolition/africans_in_art_gallery_05.shtml; David Dabydeen, Hogarth’s Blacks, 1987, pp.96-97.
12 Crawford, Andrew, Collection of Ballads and Songs, 1826-28. Although the title is now illegible on the painting it is evident on the associated prints.
13 One copy, sold at Sotheby’s 20 April 1955 (80), is in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.

Provenance help-art-provenance

A Rake's Progress was exhibited in Hogarth’s studio from December 1733 and remained in his possession until the paintings' sale by private auction on 17 February 1745 to Alderman William Beckford (d. 1770) of Fonthill, who paid £184.16s for them. For more biographical information on Beckford see the introduction to the series.

His son, William Thomas Beckford sold the contents of Fonthill Splendens at Christie's on 27 February 1802 where A Rake’s Progress was lot 86. The series was bought by John Soane for 570 guineas. According to the diarist Joseph Farington ‘Mrs Soane was the bidder and was authorised by Him to go to £1,000.’1 Although Soane had been unwell with gout during the month of February ‘by the end of the month he was better’ 2 and he called upon Farington on 28 February. This suggests that he was content to entrust bidding on A Rake’s Progress to his wife Eliza.

1 Garlick, Kenneth and MacIntyre, Angus (eds), The Diary of Joseph Farington, vol v August 1801-March 1803, 1979, p. 1752.
2 Darley, Gillian, John Soane, An Accidental Romantic, 1999, p. 148.

Literature

John B. Nichols, Biographical Anecdotes of William Hogarth, 1781, revised eds 1782, 1785
John Ireland, Hogarth Illustrated, 3 vols.: 1 and 2, 1791 and 1793 (2nd ed.); 3 (supplement), 1798
John Nichols and George Steevens, The Genuine Works of William Hogarth, 3 vols: 1, 1808; 2, 1810; 3, 1817
John Britton, Union, 1827, pp.40, 53-54
John Soane, Description, 1830, pp.15 and 41
John Soane, Description, 1835, pp.16 and 23
William Hazlitt, Lectures on the English Comic Writers (3rd edition), 1841, p.274
David Kunzle, 'Plagiaries by Memory of A Rake's Progress', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. XXIX, 1966
Ronald Paulson, Hogarth: His Life, Art and Times, 1971, vol. I, pp.322-333 and passim
Kenneth Garlick and Angus MacIntyre (eds), The Diary of Joseph Farington, vol V August 1801-March 1803, 1979, pp.1752 and 1754
David Bindman, Hogarth, 1981, pp.62-71 and passim
David Dabydeen, Hogarth’s Blacks, 1987, pp.90-100
Elizabeth Einberg, Manners and Morals: Hogarth and British Painting 1700-1760, Exhibition Catalogue, Tate, 1987, cat.74-81, pp.96-97
S. Feinberg Millenson, Sir John Soane's Museum, 1987, p.78
Ronald Paulson, Hogarth’s Graphic Works, 1989, pp.89-98
Christina Scull, The Soane Hogarths, 1991
Ronald Paulson, Hogarth, 3 volumes, 1991-93, pp.20-35 and passim
Peter Thornton and Helen Dorey, Miscellany, 1992, pp.vii, 122 and 126
Lars Tharp, Hogarth's China: Hogarth's paintings and 18th-century ceramics, 1997, pp.58-63
Jenny Uglow, Hogarth: A Life and a World, 1997, pp.239-40 and passim
Robin Simon and Christopher Woodward (eds), A Rake's Progress: From Hogarth to Hockney, Exhibition Catalogue, published by Apollo for Sir John Soane's Museum, 1997
republished as Apollo, vol. CXLVIII, no. 437, August 1998 (special issue on A Rake's Progress)
Christopher Woodward, 'William Beckford and Fonthill Splendens: early works by Soane and Goodridge', Apollo, 432, 1998, pp.31-40
Gillian Darley, John Soane: An Accidental Romantic, 1999
Matthew Craske, William Hogarth, 2000, passim
Helen Dorey, 'Sir John Soane's Pitzhanger', in Trackers, Exhibition Catalogue, Pitzhanger Manor, 2004
Mark Hallett and Christine Riding, Hogarth, Exhibition Catalogue, Tate, 2006, cat. 44 (the series), pp.86-93
Christina Scull, The Soane Hogarths, second revised edition, 2007, pp.31-49 and passim
New Description, 2007, pp.20, 22-26 and 97
Elizabeth Einberg, William Hogarth, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, 2016, pp.133-141
David Bindman (ed.), Hogarth: Place and Progress, Exhibition Catalogue, Sir John Soane's Museum, 2019, cats.7-14
Bruce Boucher, 'Soane and Hogarth' in David Bindman (ed.), Hogarth: Place and Progress, Exhibition Catalogue, Sir John Soane's Museum, 2019, pp.17-23
Joanna Tinworth, 'Life in Hogarth's London', Minerva, September/October 2019, pp.40-45

Exhibition history

A Rake's Progress: Life in the City, Pitzhanger Manor and Gallery, London, 18 March 2020 - 31 December 2020
Hogarth: Place and Progress, Sir John Soane's Museum, London, 9 October 2019 - 5 January 2020
Hogarth, Tate Britain, London, 2 December 1971 - 6 February 1972
Hogarth, Tate Britain, London, 5 February - 29 April 2007
Manners & Morals - Hogarth and British Painting 1700-1760, Tate Britain, London, 15 October 1987 - 3 January 1988
The Rake's Progress: From Hogarth to Hockney, Sir John Soane's Museum, London, 26 March - 31 August 1997
The Soane Hogarths, Sir John Soane's Museum, London, 30 March - 19 June 2004; 26 August 2005 - 25 February 2006

Associated objects

P40, series
P41, series
P43, series
P44, series
P45, series
P46, series
P47, series


If you have any further information about this object, please contact us: worksofart@soane.org.uk