When Hogarth embarked on his second Progress in 1733, ‘the rake’ was a long established symbol of masculine waywardness and depravity. An inveterate consumer and ‘man of leisure’, the rake of convention fritters his fortune, usually inherited, on sex, drink and gambling. Along the way he amasses huge debts and seduces, impregnates and abandons at least one young woman. As with the prostitute, a literary convention had developed in which the rake starts life as an impressionable young man from the country who comes to the city after inheriting money and swiftly embarks on a dissolute life. His fate typically involved venereal disease, debtor’s prison and death.

Hogarth also made use of other male types. A middle-class man aspiring to be a cultured aristocrat was known as a ‘cit’. Thus we find Tom not only conforming to the profile of the carousing rake but at various moments patronising musicians and poets, going to an audience at court and even writing a play. His inordinate concern with outward display, furthermore, finds parallels with ‘the fop’. In addition, Tom’s pretensions and self-delusion are mercilessly lampooned by Hogarth by absurd juxtapositions between himself and classical heroes and Roman emperors, who feature in paintings within Scene 2 and Scene 3.

William Hogarth The Rake's Progress: 1. The Rake Taking Possession of his Estate 1734

William Hogarth
The Rake’s Progress: 1. The Rake Taking Possession of his Estate 1734
Oil on canvas

Courtesy Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Scene 1

Tom Rakewell, the son of a recently-deceased financier, has arrived home after inheriting his fortune. The scene is full of details underlining the wealth that has been hoarded in this unkempt, gloomy house. The family steward seated at the table, furtively steals some money. Tom, being fitted for a new suit, is seen attempting to pay off his pregnant lover/fiancée, Sarah Young, who stands weeping at the door holding a wedding ring in her hand. Sarah’s mother angrily rejects the handful of gold coins being offered by Tom.

Scene 2

In direct contrast to the manner in which his father lived, Tom has quickly adapted to a life of luxury. He is seen here aping the fashionable aristocratic practice of the morning levee; an audience with visitors and tradesmen while the aristocrat prepares for the day. The crowd of people vying for Tom’s attention, including those in the adjoining room, is meant to appear absurd, satirising both the taste and entertainments associated with high society and those members of the middle class, like Tom, who indiscriminately aspire to it. Indeed Tom’s lack of judgement and pursuit of pleasure will be his undoing.

Scene 3

This chaotic scene is set in the notorious Rose Tavern, a brothel-cum-tavern in Covent Garden. Tom, lolling drunkenly on the right, makes a risible contrast with his studied elegance in Scene 2. Near the doorway on the left, a street singer performs a bawdy song, which is probably more suited to Tom’s musical taste than the opera being played at the harpsichord in Scene 2. Standing to her left is a waiter who holds a polished salver to put on the table for the prostitute-cum-stripper, seen removing her clothes in the foreground, who will spin and pose upon it.

Scene 4

The upshot of Tom’s profligate lifestyle is shown in Scene 4, set in St James’s, Mayfair. Tom is on his way to St James’s Palace to be presented at court. Unfortunately he has been stopped by a bailiff who is about to arrest him for debt. He has been saved by the timely intervention of Sarah Young. In Scene 1 Tom had offered her mother a derisory sum of money to buy off Sarah who was pregnant with his child. Here she offers the bailiff her hard-earned wages. This demonstrates her generous spirit and enduring, if misplaced, love for him.

Scene 5

The scene is set in Marylebone Old Church, north of Hyde Park, which was renowned for clandestine weddings. Having squandered his fortune, Tom attempts to appropriate another one, not through gainful employment, of course, but marriage. Having rejected marriage with the young, pretty and faithful Sarah, Tom’s bride is now an ageing, dumpy, one-eyed heiress. Sarah can be seen entering with Tom’s child in the background. Her attempt to interrupt this shameful ceremony is prevented by a brawl between her mother and an overzealous church attendant. Any hope of salvation for Tom now appears to have gone.

Scene 6

Tom is seen losing another fortune in a dingy gaming den. A number of fortunes are changing hands, underlined by the reactions of the men around the card-table in the centre. Meanwhile a nightwatchman on the right sounds the alarm as smoke pours through the ceiling. Tom kneels on the floor, distraught. Like the majority of the people in the room, he is too obsessed with gambling to notice or care that the building is on fire. He looks angrily towards heaven with his arms extended and his fists clenched, railing against God or fate.

Scene 7

Tom is now in The Fleet, the debtors’ prison. His previously plump wife, standing to his left, is now emaciated, indicating their desperate circumstances. In order to raise some cash, Tom has written a play, which lies rolled on the table next to him. Of course, this is as madcap a scheme as the alchemist seated at the back, attempting to make base metal into gold. This latest failure has infuriated his wife, who scolds him. Meanwhile, the jailer points at a ledger awaiting payment. With no course of action left to him, Tom has gone into a paralytic stupor.

William Hogarth The Rake's Progress: 8. The Rake in Bedlam 1734

William Hogarth
The Rake’s Progress: 8. The Rake in Bedlam 1734
Oil on canvas

Courtesy Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Scene 8

The final scene is set in Bethlehem Royal Hospital (Bedlam), an institution for the poor and insane. He is lying in the foreground almost stripped of clothes and thus his social pretensions. Sarah weeps by his side knowing that Tom is beyond her help. Like prisons and other hospitals, Bedlam was open to paying visitors. Within this scene an aristocratic lady and her maid are standing towards the left, amused and disgusted by the antics of the unfortunate people around them. The irony is that, while Tom had set out to mimic the aristocratic lifestyle, he finishes by being one of its entertainments.

  • The Rake’s Progress is on display in Room 3 of the exhibition