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  • image P46
SM P46. ©Sir John Soane's Museum, London. Photo: Art UK

William Hogarth (1697 - 1764)

A Rake's Progress VII: The Prison


Oil on canvas

Height: 63cm
Width: 75.5cm

Museum number: P46

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 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 painted 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 Prison
Scene seven shows Tom, unable to pay his debts, incarcerated in ‘The Prison’, actually the Fleet prison for debtors just outside the walls of the City of London.3 Debtors ironically required money to support themselves in the Fleet Prison as well as the wherewithal to pay their creditors so they could leave. The provision of any service such as food, basic furniture or firewood must be paid for: such fees were known as ‘garnish’. Tom is seated (left) wearing a torn blue coat and red hose with gold ‘clocks’ at the ankles,4 a relic of his previous lavish lifestyle. Behind him stands the jailor with his key, holding a book inscribed ‘Garnish / Money’ at which he points expectantly. The pot-boy holds out his hand, demanding payment before he will give Tom the tankard of beer he has brought.

Tom, penniless as a result of his gaming and high living, has resorted to writing a play which he hopes to sell for a large sum to secure his release. The manuscript of the play is rolled up on the table at Tom’s elbow next to a rejection letter ‘Sr. I have read your / Play and find it will / not do / yrs / J R ..h’ which is a reference to John Rich (1692-1761) the manager of Covent Garden Theatre who was renowned for his success in putting on plays.5 Tom’s one-eyed wife is imprisoned with him. In contrast to her appearance in scene five (‘The Marriage’) her clothes are now plain, her grey hair untidy, she is thin and she has lost some of her teeth. She is filled with rage at the state to which Tom’s profligacy has brought her, her outstretched arm with its clenched fist recalling Tom’s in the previous scene as he too rages against his fate. The combination of Rich’s rejection, the demands of the prison staff for money and his wife’s exhortations appear to have unbalanced Tom’s mind, his helpless and somewhat inane expression indicative of his approaching loss of reason.

The group on the other side of the cell crowd around Sarah Young, identifiable by her clothing, who has come to visit Tom and seeing him in such a parlous state has fainted. Their child tugs at her skirts, and her mother, wearing the same dress as in scene one, slaps her arm whilst another woman tries to revive her using smelling salts.6 Her corset has been loosened to allow her to breathe more easily and her display of flesh, in contrast with her modest demeanour in all other scenes, exemplifies the extent of her distress at Tom’s predicament.7

To the right of the painting, helping to support Sarah is a bewigged man, perhaps in the garb of a lawyer who has, like Tom, devised a scheme to try and get out of prison ‘Being an New / Scheme for / Paying ye. Debts / of ye. Nation / by T.L. now a / prisoner in the / Fleet’.8 All the inmates, in the absence of funds, are hatching plans to win their freedom. In the background an alchemist wearing a coat, red hat and goggle-like glasses to protect his eyes prods a furnace in the hope of making a precious substance. A telescope in the window bars and a book on the shelf ‘on ye. Philosophrs: Stone’ suggest that prisoners are desperate enough to search the stars and myths of old for a solution to their financial woes. On opposite sides of the canvas there are parallels between Tom’s loss of control and Sarah’s loss of consciousness as the hopeless nature of his plight dawns on them both.

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 William Hogarth’s father, Richard, was imprisoned in the Fleet between c. 1708 and 1713. It was possible to pay a fee of five guineas to live outside the prison itself, but still within its precincts or ‘Rules’ and the Hogarths resided at Black and White Court, Old Bailey, next door to the Ship Inn, where it is believed that Richard ran a school to pay for the family’s food and lodgings. Richard was released in September 1712 under the ‘Relief of Insolvent Debtors Bill’ which related to those owing less than £50 and obliged their creditors to accept whatever the debtor could afford. Jenny Uglow, Hogarth: A Life and a World, 1997, pp.25-27.
4 The ankles of men’s nether hose were decorated with lavishly embroidered sections called clocks, from a Dutch word meaning bell-shaped. Daniel Delis Hill, The History of World Costume and Fashion, 2011, p. 398.
Clocking was a largely decorative effect in stockings of the calibre Tom would have owned when he was admitted to the Fleet Prison but it could also be used to strengthen stockings and extend their life.
5 Particularly his very profitable production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera in 1728.
6 Smelling salts, or ammonium carbonate, irritates the lining of the airways, prompts inhalation and therefore, supposedly more vigorous breathing.
7 It has been suggested that the fainting woman’s naked breasts are too indecorous to allow her to be the otherwise modest Sarah Young. Mark Hallett and Christine Riding, Hogarth, 2006, pp. 92-93. However the similarity of her dress and the similar colour of the ribbons in Sarah’s cap in scenes one, four and seven, along with the pattern on the mother’s dress which is identical in scenes one and seven suggest that this is indeed Sarah.
8 Hogarth’s father, Richard, similarly sent proposals for increasing Royal revenue to reduce the National Debt to Robert Harley, Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1710 in the hope of securing his release from the Fleet. Jenny Uglow, Hogarth: A Life and a World, 1997, p.26.

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, 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
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
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

P40, series
P41, series
P42, series
P43, series
P44, series
P45, series
P47, series
P46, series

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