Through a detailed analysis of ‘A Rake’s Progress’,

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Through a detailed analysis of ‘A Rake’s Progress’, and considering both form and function, discuss how Hogarth’s work was affected by the transition from one medium to another.

The Rake’s Progress is the only work by Hogarth in which we can compare his skills and method of approaching painting with his engraving, as both versions still exist and indeed, the engravings appear as though the greatest amount of care and attention had gone into their composition. The Rake’s Progress can be read as a satire of the traditional romantic progression, as the central character of the work, Tom Rakewell, the son of a rich merchant, comes to London, spends all of his father’s money on gambling and whoring, is imprisoned and eventually is put into Bedlam, the mental asylum. The overall tone, however, is not one of tragedy, but of black and satiric comedy. Hogarth uses a variety of narrative and symbolic pictorial devices to achieve this effect, and it is the main way in which the original paintings of the Rake’s Progress differs in the way it is expressed in each medium.

Hogarth’s copyright act of 1735 in many ways marked a change in the economics of the artistic scene in Britain at the time. Because the ownership of engravings and paintings remained in the possession of the artist, the artist could find it easier to appeal to the sensibilities of the middle classes rather than an aristocratic patron. Waterhouse (1953) comments that “In 1735 Hogarth’s copyright act, immediately followed by his engravings of ‘The Rake’s Progress’ marks a step forward in the artist’s status” (p. 125). This development contributed to generating an environment in which a challenging satirical piece such as “The Rake’s Progress” could be disseminated on a more democratic basis, utilising the technologies of mass production and print making while simultaneously making money for the artist and not forbearing the copyright of the materials by publishing the material. This had the effect of both changing the market from rich patrons and churches, to a prosperous middle class, and subsequently this had an impact on the morality and the themes of “The Rake’s Progress.” It was likely therefore, that Hogarth decided to put considerably more time into creating the engravings of “The Rake’s Progress” rather than concentrating on the grander, colourful spectacle of the paintings. For financial reasons, the printed versions of “The Rake’s Progress”, its subject matter and tone something which the middle-classes would be more likely to empathise with or endorse, should be regarded as the central work, rather than the paintings. Waterhouse (1953) comments that the painterly quality of “The Rake’s Progress” was “extremely uneven.” He continues by saying: “At times it reaches the highest degree of exquisite paint and at others it is merely perfunctory” (p. 130). The reasons behind this were purely economic. In combination with the copyright act passed through Parliament, which allowed for artists to support themselves economically more easily without relying on painting for rich patrons or the establishment, along with the development of printing technologies that allowed a cheaper dissemination of works to the affluent middle-classes, Hogarth presumed that it was likely that a single painting on this subject, and with this thematic quality would sell as well regardless of the amount of time put into it.

The technical limits of engraving and painting are brought into stark relief by the differences between Hogarth’s paintings and his engravings. Engraving allowed the artist to work in a more literary fashion: instead of having to sell the pictures separately and as artefacts that worked on their own merits, the engraving medium allowed for the printing of successive pieces, which encouraged a more “literary” style to develop, and which took into greater account the symbolic and narrative threads of previous works. “The Rake’s Progress” is exemplary in how these themes develop over the course of the eight prints. There are a number of themes that echo throughout the engravings that are absent in the paintings. In Plate Three, the orgy scene in which Tom spends and is robbed of all of his father’s money, the woman in the background attempts to set fire to a map of the world. This arson is developed further in the second scene (Plate 6) depicting hedonism in the drinking house, which actually depicts a fire. There are various other parallels in these two scenes that are lost in the paintings. While Plate 3 depicts female prostitutes and opportunists who steal and rob Tom of his wealth, Plate 6 depicts a similar scene, but with men instead. This balances the portrayal of gender in the overall piece, and therefore eschews easy interpretations that Hogarth had any covertly misogynistic intent. Although the painting also offers this interpretation, the absence of the fire in the painting tends to separate the two pieces, which fail to be brought together by this common narrative strand.

The paintings, as well as reflecting an appeal towards a specific market and generating the pieces to operate in isolation from one another, was also burdened by the processes of painting itself. Engraving allowed for more focus to be placed on the literary and the symbolic intent of the prints. Because of the “spectacular” nature of painting, that elevates painting towards an ideal of representing reality through the detailed use of light, colour and painterly technique, often subtle “literary” and narrative threads are lost in the overall image. The paintings of “The Rake’s Progress” are notably less enriched by references and allusions to current events. Also, much of the literary referencing is dropped in favour of more universal themes. Engraving more easily allows for more detailed technical work to take place, and in “The Rake’s Progress”, this is encapsulated by a series of symbolic gestures that serve to heighten the moral and ethical views of the artist himself, displaying a critique of the hypocrisies of class and class mobility in a way that painting, in regarding the realistic rendering of subjects more highly than providing allusions and richly symbolic content, tends to eschew.

For instance, Plate 1 details, written on a script, the words “Put off my bad shilling”. “Put off” could easily be read as spend, and thus this provides an ironic allusion to both the power of money to corrupt, and the subsequent actions of Tom that results in his fall from grace. Plate 2 offers more details that add to the subtlety of the piece. Hogarth decides to feature in his print a long scroll, which again is absent in the painting. It displays a long list of known noblemen and members of the aristocratic elite. The baffled expression on the face of Tom suggests with subtlety that Tom doesn’t exactly fit into the society that he has found himself in, and that his irresponsibility with money, coupled with his falsely acquired elevation to this level of society will inevitably lead to confusion, strife and his own destruction. Plate 4 is especially detailed in its construction and its critique of class hypocrisy. A bolt of lightning in the engraving replaces the sunnier climate portrayed in the painting. This heightens the dark mood surrounding his arrest, and metaphorically suggests his decline from form and fall from grace through bombarding us with a series of omens that symbolically echo this air of Tom’s impending collapse. Gordon (2003) additionally comments that “These omens, caught in comical stasis, are even more devastatingly echoed by the bolt of lightning, complete with directing arrow about to strike ‘White's’, a gambling house for the aristocracy.” This print also contains wordplay and class-based satire. Although the lightning bolt is subtle in where it is directed, the hidden meaning of the vice that occurs within these aristocratic circles is acerbically satirised by the presence of the children on the right side of the composition. They gamble and cheat as the aristocrats would. In addition, there is a literary reference to “White’s”, because they are huddled around a sign that says “Black.” Perhaps here Hogarth is commenting on the hypocrisies of class and that money has surpassed virtue and goodness in disturbing and profound ways in the urban environment. Although they are labelled as opposite, the irony is that the only difference between the aristocrats in the gambling halls and the children on the street corner is in terms of wealth. This presents an allusion that is absent in the painting, presumably because the market for the painting would be those very aristocrats who are being satirised, and also that the restrictions on the subject matter of paintings doesn’t historically allow for such acutely literary wordplay. Plate 5 depicts a crack running through the last five of the Ten Commandments on the wall which, along with the broken-down appearance of the church, suggests a receding faith and morality among the urban rich. The engraving of Plate 7 also adds to this richness of symbolism with the presence of wings in the top left corner of the engraving. Presumably, this was left out of the original painting because, without reference to the other pieces, this symbol would be meaningless, and priority was placed in the paintings on developing a series of monumental “spectacles” rather than work that satirically questioned the political, sociological and ethical codes of the time by richly entwining narrative and metaphorical threads into a single, coherent document.

In Hogarth’s “Rake’s Progress”, the differences between the engraved and the painted versions of the work differ on a number of levels and for a number of different reasons. Firstly, the passing of the copyright act in 1735 allowed for artists to maintain artistic control of their work after it had been distributed. This allowed for a greater democratisation of artistic work and, along with developments in technology and the printing press, made a work more profitable if it could utilise this technology and appeal to the newly emergent affluent middle-classes of the period. The sociological differences in the target markets of the two types of art led to differences in subtlety regarding their satirical, class-based themes. It also meant that Hogarth could conceivably make money from satire, as the intention of the artist in this form is not to produce flattering works for rich patrons, or hugely rich and spectacular Christian works for the church. In short, the democratisation of distribution channels for engraved art in terms of printing changed the market for art production, and allowed for artists to promote their different views. Secondly, the development of engraving as a medium worked in conjunction with developments of the printing presses, and as an art, eschewed the need to create a rich, colourful piece of work in order to find a patron that would conceivably purchase the painting. In engraving, because of the limitations in creating a “spectacular” and singular piece of work, room is made for cramming in a dizzying entourage of pointed metaphors and symbolic and literary meanings beyond the actual engraving itself. Almost every print contains ironical remarks and comparative and satiric allusions to other art, to common cliché, or to class stereotyping. Also, technologically, printed engraving is disseminated together in one binding, instead of separately, as is the case with paintings. Thus, it was more justifiable for Hogarth to develop his themes from one print to the next, and also to develop his metaphors, allowing them to generate more richness and complexity with every print. The result is that engraving developed into a more “literary” narrative style that prioritises the narrative thread over the singular intent of the painting. Also, because of engraving in books innate lack of colour or “spectacle”, the rich meaning of the pieces, as Gordon (2003) suggests, “recede through a greater range of visual planes.” Metaphor, symbolism and upholding narrative threads throughout the plates are favoured over spectacle and the depiction of universal themes. “The Rake’s Progress” was a financial success as an engraving because it took into account the limitations and the liberating qualities of using this particular medium, and also appealed to the new and emergent market of literate middle class citizenry.


Bowen, M., William Hogarth: The Cockney’s Mirror. (D. Appleton & Company, 1936)

Gordon, I. R. F. (2003). “A Rake's Progress.” in The Literary Encyclopedia. [accessed 4th November 2006].

Waterhouse, E. (1953). Painting in Britain, 1530-1790. (London: Penguin)

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