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SM P40. ©Sir John Soane's Museum, London. Photo: Art UK

William Hogarth (1697 - 1764)

A Rake's Progress I: The Heir


Oil on canvas

Height: 62.2cm
Width: 75cm

Museum number: P40

On display: Picture Room - inside planes (by arrangement or on some pre-booked tours)
All spaces are in No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields unless identified as in No. 12, Soane's first house. For tours https://www.soane.org/your-visit - not all tours show the inside of all planes.

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 painted 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, though there were Italian engraved precedents. 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 Heir
‘The Heir’, the first painting in the series, presents Tom Rakewell, the son of a City moneylender who has recently inherited his father’s fortune. The father and son’s history is described in a diary of sorts in the bottom right foreground of the picture. ‘Memo’dums /. 1720. May 3rd my Son Tom / came from Oxford / 4th Dind. at the / French Ordinary / 5th June - Put of[f] my bad shilling.’ Tom has been expelled from Oxford University, presumably for riotous behaviour during the ‘May Day Revels’, the night of 31st April, a night notorious for student misconduct before May Day on the 1st of May. Far from reflecting upon the alternatives available to Tom after his expulsion, Old Rakewell, a shocking miser, merely records that they ate cheaply at a local ‘ordinary’, or cheap restaurant.3 Tom’s father’s love of money is so great that he has even recorded passing off his bad, or forged, shilling so that he should not be out of pocket. Elsewhere in the picture there are hints of familial pride. Old Rakewell has acquired a coat of arms hung in duplicate above the door, and a portrait of himself, weighing gold dressed in the full costume of a moneylender, is displayed over the mantelpiece.4 Furthermore he sent Tom to Oxford, presumably hoping he would learn to be a gentleman. However, the diary reveals a shallow relationship with his son, the avaricious father did not provide Tom with solid moral foundations.

The setting attests to Tom’s father’s miserliness. The leaded glass panes and mullioned windows suggest a post-Great Fire vernacular survival5 in the City of London rather than anything more modern or elaborate. The room is a mean, unfashionable one, lacking material comforts: the fireplace is small with a stone surround, unlikely to provide warmth as it is being laid by the maid with wood shavings, not logs. The miser wears his coat (now hung on the door) and fur cap (on the mantelpiece) to make up for the lack of heat from the fire. There is limited lighting. On the mantelpiece is a ‘save-all’: a small pan inserted into a candlestick to save the ends of candles. Even the cat is emaciated, suggesting that the whole household has been deprived of essentials in favour of conserving money. An inventory of the dead man’s belongings is underway but his few hoarded possessions are negligible. Ill-stacked in a cupboard on the right of the painting are old shoes, boots, wigs, two swords and a broken jug. Jumbled in a box in the bottom right-hand corner above the diary are a spade and a broken lantern.6

Tom’s father’s wealth derives not from productive industry but from moneylending and investing in funds. Bundles of paper on the floor in the central foreground are labelled ‘Mortgages’, ‘India Funds’ and ‘Bonds’.7 That the meanness of his existence was a deliberate choice is confirmed by the large sums of money that he has bequeathed to Tom. The chest in the foreground is filled with moneybags labelled ‘1000’, ‘2000’ and ‘3000’ as well as glittering silver plate. A servant disturbs a cache of coins hidden behind the rotten and splintering cornice whilst pinning black cloth drapes around the room. This is an act of full mourning expected from a wealthy household which ironically his father would probably have condemned as excessively expensive.

The first scene offers numerous indications of Tom’s incipient folly and profligacy. He is being measured for new clothes - either a suit of mourning clothes or perhaps a richly decorated suit in an act of vanity8 - by a tailor presented in a subservient position. Whilst Tom’s back is turned he is being robbed by one who should have served him: seated at the table is ‘A lawyer, by his dress … employ’d to make an inventory of the Estate’9 who, with a sly expression on his face, is reaching into the bag of gold he is meant to be counting.

To the extreme left of the painting is the other main protagonist, Sarah Young, dressed in a demure country style, including an apron, a simple fichu and with a rose at her breast. She holds a handkerchief to her face, her eyes downcast, tears running down her cheeks, is evidently pregnant and clearly presenting a gold ring in her left hand as evidence of an offer of marriage. The older female, whose stance and expression clearly indicate the forceful personality of a termagant, is Sarah’s mother. The letters tumbling from the mother’s hands reveal their history as lovers: ‘To Mrs. Sarah Young in Oxford … Dearest Life … & marry you’. Sarah has arrived in good faith to meet her beloved, presumably expecting a warm welcome and is instead rejected by him. He denies his promises and offers her some gold coins, perhaps a year’s wages for a servant, as an incentive to depart in silence, leaving behind the letters and ring. Tom’s rejection of Sarah’s simple, faithful love, and his consequent downfall, form a major theme of this series of paintings.

This catalogue entry was prepared by Joanna Tinworth in April 2021. Sir John Soane's Museum is grateful to Emeritus Professor David Bindman for his peer review.

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 The word ‘ordinary’ in respect of meaning a plain meal is first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1589.

4 That it is a portrait is made clear because the hat depicted in it is also shown on the mantelpiece. Elizabeth Einberg, William Hogarth, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, 2016, p.134.

5 The Great Fire of London obliterated 436 acres or about one third of London in 1666. https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/great-fire-london-1666.

6 The spade and broken lantern may be allusions to the end of life given the recent demise of Old Rakewell. The spade could reference grave-digging and the lamp or lantern is sometimes considered as night personified, so the broken lantern could refer to Old Rakewell’s ‘eternal night’. See James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, 1996, p.186.

7 According to an eighteenth-century source, Rolt, A New Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, 1761, “‘Funds’ usually referred to ‘the public security that is given to the people’ by the state for ‘money borrowed of them’. It also meant the offerings of public or monied companies such as the East India Company.” David Hancock, ‘Domestic Bubbling': Eighteenth-Century London Merchants and Individual Investment in the Funds’, The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Nov. 1994), p.680. The East India Company traded spices, cotton, silk, indigo, saltpetre and transported enslaved people between Africa and India.

8 Elizabeth Einberg, William Hogarth, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, 2016, p.134.

9 The broadsheet which accompanied Thomas Bakewell’s authorised engravings after A Rake’s Progress cites the figure as such.

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.


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,The Union of Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting, 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
Elizabeth Einberg, Manners and Morals: Hogarth and British Painting 1700-1760, Exhibition Catalogue, Tate, 1987, cats. 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
David Bindman, Hogarth and his Times: Serious Comedy, Exhibition Catalogue, British Museum, 1997
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
Jacqueline Riding, Hogarth: Life in Progress, 2021

Exhibition history

Hogarth, Tate Britain, London, 2 December 1971 - 6 February 1972
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
Hogarth, Tate Britain, London, 5 February - 29 April 2007
Hogarth: Place and Progress, Sir John Soane's Museum, London, 9 October 2019 - 5 January 2020
A Rake's Progress: Life in the City, Pitzhanger Manor and Gallery, London, 18 March 2020 - 31 December 2020

Associated items

P41, series
P42, series
P43, series
P44, series
P45, series
P46, series
P47, series

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