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  • image P47
SM P47. ©Sir John Soane's Museum, London. Photo: Art UK

William Hogarth (1697 - 1764)

A Rake's Progress VIII: The Madhouse


Oil on canvas

Height: 62.5cm
Width: 75.2cm

Museum number: P47

Not on display

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 Mad House
The eighth and final scene in A Rake’s Progress takes place in ‘The Mad House’, the Royal Bethlem Hospital, or ‘Bedlam’. Tom, wearing only a loin-cloth, lies prostrate in the foreground, chains at his wrists and ankles, fists clenched. His youthful, healthy, strong physique is at odds with his unseeing and vacant expression; in his despair his reason has left him entirely. His pose mimics that of the sculptural ‘Figure of Raving Madness’ (1675) by Caius Gabriel Cibber which, along with its partner ‘Melancholy Madness’ surmounted the stone gates of Bedlam between 1675 and 1815.3

Tom is being restrained for his own protection by a red-coated warder and his assistant after trying to take his own life. Although not visible in the painting, the first state of the associated engraving shows a patch on his stomach. A broadsheet explaining the story of the engravings issued by Thomas Bakewell with Hogarth’s approval in August 1735 states that ‘Having attempted to lay violent Hands upon himself, as appears by the Wound in his Side, they are obliged to chain him.’4 The ever-faithful Sarah Young has brought Tom food, the bowl of broth lying neglected as, overcome by weeping, she crouches by Tom’s side lamenting his pitiful state.

The scene is both figuratively and literally a dark one and some of the details are only evident in the associated engravings.5 Nonetheless, Tom’s fellow-inmates clearly present many of the known forms of madness. Behind Tom crouches a tailor with a tape measure over his arm and pattern samples pinned to his hat kneeling before an imaginary client, his pride in his work having overtaken his sanity.6 On the far left of the painting is a man wearing a miniature of a woman and a straw ruff around his neck: he is so lovelorn that he has lost his wits. In the engraved plate the name ‘Betty Careless’, carved upon the rail of the stair on which he sits, is that of his unrequited love, a well-known, beautiful and celebrated courtesan. Next to him a fiddler plays whilst balancing a book on his head and beside him a man is dressed as the Pope with his a paper hat and wooden staff mimicking the papal mitre and ferula. On the opposite side of the room we see two cells, 55 and 54, which contain more inmates experiencing delusions of secular and religious authority. In cell 55 is a man wearing a crown made of straw and holding a mock sceptre, whilst sitting regally upright on a wooden bed and urinating against the wall. The occupant of cell 54 lies on his stomach, his hands clasped and face contorted in prayer as if receiving divine communication, a tall crucifix behind him.

Hogarth re-painted the area of the canvas between cells 54 and 55 many times7 suggesting that he changed his mind about this part of the composition. On the far left, behind the door to cell 55 is a man, stripped to the waist, wearing a cap, his right arm bent, apparently holding chalk to the wall. In the associated engravings8 he is the only character shown between the two cell doors, implying that this was the intended final version of Hogarth’s painting.9 As the prints clearly show, the man has addled his brain trying to discover a formula for calculating longitude at sea, perhaps the greatest scientific problem of the time which pre-occupied many eighteenth-century mathematicians.10 A man kneels in front of the scientist, his head raised to the heavens which he searches through a mock telescope made of rolled paper, perhaps seeking from the stars the answer to the same problem of longitude as the man drawing on the wall.

There are three other scarcely visible forms emerging ghost-like through layers of paint. The first, also by cell 55 and over whom the ‘mad scientist’ has been painted, is a florid gentleman in a brown wig, wearing a formal coat and fine lace neckcloth, who was presumably intended to be a figure of authority within the madhouse. The second, next to the doorframe of cell 54 is a dark-haired man facing the wall who may have been an early alternative to Hogarth’s ‘mad scientist’. Between them is a third man whose face appears cadaverous or Punch-like in profile. This third man could be read either as wearing a tall, plumed, military-style hat and carrying a tall staff, perhaps initially intended to represent a form of military madman, or as a first attempt at the regal inmate of cell 55.11

Dual shafts of light illuminate and connect two key features of the composition: the Rake, naked in the foreground and two finely dressed ladies, their delicate laces picked out by the sunlight in the background, who have come to view the inmates. At this time Bedlam was, like other prisons and hospitals, open to paying visitors who came out of curiosity to see the spectacle of the deranged men and women. One visitor hides her eyes behind her fan to avoid the sight of the regal lunatic urinating and yet appears to be half smiling, mocking the sorry state of the madmen, by comparison with Sarah Young who cried tears of pity for Tom.12 In a cruel twist of fate Tom has ironically become a figure of fun for the very aristocrats whose society he aped before.

Tom’s penury and insanity are his reward for an immoral life dedicated to the extravagant pursuit of pleasure, gambling and social climbing. Striving for elevation in society, without accomplishments or integrity to support his advancement, ‘he represents the bourgeois whose life is a flight from origins, a disavowal of his father and a search for a new self’.13 In fact his ‘progress’ from his original station as a City moneylender’s son is no progress at all: he ends his life in Bedlam which was deliberately located outside the walls of the City of London, to exclude the insane outcasts from polite and hard-working society. At each moment in the series when the potential for redemption offered itself in the guise of Sarah Young, who represents a moral and useful life, Tom rejected it, thus fully deserving his sorry end.

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.

April 2024: while this picture is not on display for a period for conservation a facsimile has been substituted.

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 gates of Bedlam with Cibber’s statues on the piers were illustrated by a pupil in Soane’s office (SM 27/6/9, (1812)), and used by Soane in his lectures to the Royal Academy as its Professor of Architecture in 1817, 1819, 1820 and 1832.
4 The broadsheet continues ‘He is afterwards confin’d down to his Bed in a dark Room where he miserably expires.’ though this is not evident in the painting. Thomas Bakewell, An Explanation of the Eight prints of A Rake’s Progress … copied from the Originals of Mr William Hogarth according to Act of Parliament, 1735.
5 Ronald Paulson, Hogarth’s Graphic Works, third revised edition, 1989, pp.97-98. Hogarth was still making revisions to the third state of the engraving in 1763, the words ‘Retouch’d by the Author’ being added to the end of the verses beneath the engraving.
6 Jonathan Swift, Tale of a Tub, 1704, Sect. II.
7 First recorded in 1991; Christina Scull, The Soane Hogarths, 1991, p.48. X-rays dating to 1997 exist which confirm the under-painting which seems to have become more apparent with the passing years as examined in 2021 by Amy Griffin, Tate conservator, Melanie Caldwell, freelance conservator and Joanna Tinworth Curator (Collections) Sir John Soane’s Museum. Also Elizabeth Einberg, William Hogarth, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, 2016, p.140.
8 Ronald Paulson, Hogarth’s Graphic Works, third revised edition, 1989, pp.316-18.
9 Christina Scull, The Soane Hogarths, 1991, p.48.
10 Seamen had long used the position of the sun or North Star in the sky to figure out latitude — that is, the distance from the equator in the north-south direction. Calculating longitude was harder, which was problematic for commercial shipping and could lead to deadly navigational errors. In 1714, the British Board of Longitude announced a competition: £20,000 would be awarded to whoever developed the most accurate way to calculate longitude at sea. John Harrison received awards from the Longtitude Commissioners between 1737 and 1773 for his ‘sea-watch’.
11 Close study of X-rays dating to 1997 show the florid gentleman clearly, with highly finished features and luxuriant hair, wearing a formal white shirt and coat. The other two figures are fair less easy to see in the x-ray.
12 It has been suggested that the lady dressed in apricot is Betty Careless on the basis that the dog in the foreground may be hers and is barking at the lovelorn lunatic because he recognises him from his assignations with Betty. However this is open to interpretation and arguably not the primary reading of the scene, which would appear to be the connection between Tom and the visitors rather than another inmate and the visitors. Elizabeth Einberg, William Hogarth, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, 2016, p.140.
13 Ronald Paulson, Hogarth’s Graphic Works, third revised edition, 1989, p.98.

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
P46, series
P47, series

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