A Harlots Progress burst onto the London scene just after an official crackdown on prostitution had begun, focused specifically on Covent Garden. The most prominent figure in this initiative was Justice John Gonson, whose missionary zeal in cleaning up the streets was regularly reported in the London press. Prostitutes working in brothels and on the streets tended to be characterised as vain, artful temptresses who were directly responsible for moral corruption and the spread of disease. By the 1730s the emphasis on blame and revulsion was partially tempered by a journalistic convention that presented the prostitute as an innocent country girl who arrives in the city, alone and vulnerable, and is tricked into prostitution by a devious brothel keeper.
Hogarth incorporated these inconsistent representations into A Harlots Progress, giving them greater resonance and topicality by folding into the storyline references to real-life characters, including Gonson himself, who appears in Scene 3. In Scene 1 Moll is met by Elizabeth Mother Needham, a notorious brothel keeper who died in 1730 after being brutally assaulted by the London crowd as she stood in a pillory. In the background stands Colonel Francis Charteris, an infamous Scottish rake nicknamed The Rape-Master General of Britain. In March 1730 he was convicted for the rape of a maidservant in his employ.
Moll Hackabout has arrived at the Bell Inn in Cheapside, fresh from the countryside, seeking employment as a seamstress or domestic servant. She stands, innocent and modestly attired, in front of Mother Needham, the brothel keeper, who is examining her youth and beauty. Needham may be acting on behalf of Colonel Charteris, who stands in the doorway to the right, fondling himself while ogling the new arrival. On the left, the churchmans horse has upset a stack of pots, portending Molls imminent fall.
Moll is now the kept mistress of a wealthy London Jew and lives in a well-appointed town house. He has arrived unexpectedly, interrupting Moll and her aristocratic lover in bed. In order to create a diversion, while her lover sneaks out, Moll is kicking over the small table and clicking her fingers dismissively. Although Moll is clearly beautiful and desirable, her keepers look of disbelief suggests that she is misjudging the security of her position.
Having insulted and betrayed her wealthy keeper, Moll has been cast out and demoted to the position of a common prostitute. As indicated by the tankard in the lower right corner, the dingy garret she now occupies is situated around Covent Garden, which was renowned for its brothels. Moll looks alluringly towards the viewer, unaware of the arrival of Justice Gonson to arrest her. The bottles of medicine around the room suggest that the small black spots on her face are more than just fashionable face patches and are in fact hiding the tell-tale signs of syphilis.
Moll is in Bridewell Prison, the house of correction for prostitutes, wayward apprentices and petty criminals. She is seen beating hemp. The marked change in her circumstances are emphasised by the incongruity of her fine clothes within the cheerless prison. Her appearance clearly amuses some of the female inmates - one mockingly touches the lace and silk of Molls clothing, while directing a wink and wry grin at the viewer.
Moll has returned to the garret. After the humiliation of prison confinement she is now dying from venereal disease, indicated by the shroud-like sweating blankets that swathe her body. The servant who tends her turns angrily on two doctors quarrelling over the efficacy of their respective cures, while ignoring the evident distress of their patient. In any case, they are both quacks. Molls illegitimate son sits by the open fire. The innocent victim of this series, we are left to wonder if he too will enter the world of vice and crime.
The indifference shown towards Moll in Plate 5 is mirrored by the final scene, where mourners, most of whom are fellow prostitutes, gather round the coffin. That the cautionary lesson of Molls short life remains unheeded by many in the room is underlined by some prostitutes taking the opportunity to ply their trade. On the left a parson, staring into space, delves beneath the skirt of the young and beautiful prostitute next to him. She looks out towards the viewer with half-closed eyes and a faint smile on her lips, reminiscent of Molls alluring expression in Plate 3. Clearly the cycle of innocence corrupted, sex, decay and death will continue unabated.
- A Harlot’s Progress is on display in Room 3 of the exhibition