On ViewSir John Soane’s Museum
Hogarth: Place and Progress
October 9, 2019 – January 5, 2020
William Hogarth’s ‘Modern Moral Subjects’ have been brought together for the very first time, in the former residence of Sir John Soane. Loaned from institutions across the country, these paintings and engravings dramatize the grubby reality of 18th century London, while retaining a contemporary charge, despite their conception some 280 years ago. The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751) seems progressive—for the time—in its condemnation of animal abuse, while the corrupt political practices of The Humours of an Election (1754–55) suggest parallels with recent events, like Britain’s contentious exit from the European Union, and the impeachment proceedings brought against President Trump.
Given our general understanding of “progress” as a movement of ongoing improvement, the term’s conception in this exhibition is something of a misnomer. While Hogarth’s series have a didactic thrust encouraging progressive reform—the iconic Gin Lane (1751) helped to pass the Gin Act—his pictorial sequences themselves are synonymous with decline. In drawing an analogy between London locations and his characters’ morality, he invokes John Bunyan’s religious allegory A Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), where the protagonist Christian journeys through areas like “the Slough of Despond” seeking spiritual redemption. Hogarth’s “progresses” diverge from Bunyan’s, however, by illustrating the downward spiral of vice more frequently than virtue’s saving grace.
Placed in dialogue in the Rear Gallery are A Harlot’s Progress (1732) and A Rake’s Progress (1734). These are cautionary narratives, with trajectories proceeding from humble origins to sensual excess, and culminating in incarceration, insanity or death. The mise-en-scène of the first plate of A Harlot’s Progress reiterates this schema. On the left, the “harlot” Mary arrives from the Yorkshire countryside seeking employment, modestly dressed and of reserved demeanour. On the right, a lavishly attired, pockmarked brothel madame appraises Mary’s features, and two randy gentlemen peer out at the women from a tavern doorway. The city setting and its dissolute characters provide an inverted image of Mary’s healthy country ways, and imitate the young girl’s eventual moral decline and tragic death from syphilis.
Hogarth’s series echo the belief of theologian St. Jerome that one should “be ever engaged, so that when the devil calls he may find you occupied.” Mary’s downfall is signalled in the second engraving where, now the pampered wife of a Jewish merchant, her lack of utile employment leads her to engage in an extramarital affair. By the fourth plate of A Harlot’s Progress, she’s been incarcerated in Bridewell Prison for prostitution. Reiterating the correlation between idleness, vice, and criminality seen throughout Hogarth’s “Modern Moral Subjects,” Mary stands beating hemp in front of raised stocks engraved with the phrase, “Better to work than to stand thus.”
The Protestant work ethic that rewards hard graft and punishes idleness structures the series “Industry and Idleness” (1747), whose didacticism is conveyed through the parallel progresses of two apprentices, Tom Idle and Francis Goodchild. Whereas Idle descends into criminality, is betrayed by his accomplices, and ends hung from the gallows at Tyburn, Goodchild ascends in social status: marrying his master’s daughter, becoming co-owner of ‘West and Goodchild,’ and eventually Mayor of London. Unequivocally confirming Hogarth’s moral imperatives are excerpts from the Book of Proverbs: those on the first plate state that, “the drunkard shall come to poverty,” but “the hand of the diligent shall maketh rich.”
Despite the reproving tone of these works, it’s unlikely Hogarth felt the violent deaths of his characters justified. Exhibition curator David Bindman notes that the artist was “hostile to excessive moralising,” while some of the series’ events echo his lived experience: Hogarth never completed his apprenticeship as an engraver, for example, and his father spent five years in Fleet Prison for debt. Perhaps embittered, his conception of progress is undoubtedly ironic. The only “progress” the Harlot and Rake experience is physical and mental dissolution, just as the only “reward” for cruelty in The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751) is Tom Nero’s public execution and evisceration at the hands of the Company of Surgeons.
Excepting the anomalous, unfinished series The Happy Marriage (after 1745), Place and Progress dynamically conveys Hogarth’s rejection of the Enlightenment era’s faith in progress and human perfectibility. This cynical view has its apotheosis in his last engraving, Tailpiece, or the Bathos (1764). Leaning back, Father Time expires among the ruins of classical antiquity, while the sign for The World’s End pub depicts Earth in flames. His fingers graze a will, of which Chaos has been appointed the sole executor, and he weakly exhales, “Finis.” Completed the year of Hogarth’s death, its weary fatalism channels what he felt to be “the irrevocable moral decay of the nation.” The apocalyptic progress envisioned in his work, however, has yet to be realized.