The main protagonist of this series is Tom Nero, who starts out in the care of the parish of St Giles-in-the-Fields, the same location represented in Gin Lane. While Gin Lane showed gin drinking (and its consequences) as an epidemic, here we see another, albeit related, social epidemic – that of wanton cruelty. In ‘Autobiographical Notes’ Hogarth tells us that the images ‘were done in the hopes of preventing in some degree that cruel treatment of poor Animals which makes the streets of London more disagreeable to the human mind, than any thing what ever, the very describing of which gives pain’. Indeed, the very first scene shows youths of the area already comfortable in their abuse of animals. As the series progresses, however, it becomes apparent that society as a whole is either indifferent to or encouraging violent behaviour.

The extended moral of the whole series, therefore, is that cruel children, if left unchecked by society, become cruel adults. Hogarth suggests that it is a natural progression from Nero’s abuse of animals to his life of crime, culminating in his vicious attack on another human being. Only then, belatedly, does the establishment intervene with an act of legalised violence, hanging. The final scene continues the theme to startling and ironic effect, when, after execution, Nero’s body is brutally and gratuitously dissected, watched by lawyers, surgeons, clerics and gentleman onlookers.

First Stage of Cruelty

William Hogarth The Four Stages of Cruelty: First Stage of Cruelty 1 February 1751

William Hogarth
The Four Stages of Cruelty: First Stage of Cruelty 1 February 1751
Etching and engraving
380 x 320 mm

Courtesy Andrew Edmunds, London

This street scene shows a group of youths, almost all of whom are participating in or encouraging the abuse of animals and birds. Boys are seen tying a bone to a dog’s tail, cauterising the eyes of a bird, stringing up kittens from a signpost or cockfighting.

The worst abuse is being inflicted by Nero, who pushes an arrow into the anus of a terrified dog being restrained by two other boys. Another youth is distressed by what Nero is doing and attempts to stop him by offering a tart. To the left of Nero, a boy draws a hanged man on the wall and points at him, underlining the inevitable: that Nero’s behaviour will deteriorate further and cost him his life.

Second Stage of Cruelty

William Hogarth The Four Stages of Cruelty: Second Stage of Cruelty 1 February 1751

William Hogarth
The Four Stages of Cruelty: Second Stage of Cruelty 1 February 1751
Etching and engraving
458 x 385 mm

Courtesy Andrew Edmunds, London

This scene suggests that the abuse of animals is widespread in the streets of London. On the left Nero (now grown-up) beats his horse, the poor creature having collapsed under the strain of the cart. This is overladen with four lawyers, who are too penny-pinching to hire two carts and insensitive to the suffering they are causing.

On the left a poster displayed near the door of ‘Thavies Inn Coffee House’ advertises ‘Broughton’s Amphitheatre’, a well-known venue for boxing. ‘James Field’ and ‘George Taylor’, named below, were celebrated pugilists.

Importantly, Field was hanged for highway robbery eleven days before Hogarth’s print was published, thus establishing an interrelationship between violent sports, entertainments and criminality.

Cruelty in Perfection

William Hogarth The Four Stages of Cruelty: Cruelty in Perfection 1 February 1751

William Hogarth
The Four Stages of Cruelty: Cruelty in Perfection 1 February 1751
Etching and engraving
380 x 320 mm

Courtesy Andrew Edmunds, London

Nero has embarked on a life of highway robbery. He is seen here being apprehended after committing a murder in the dead of night.

As with Tom Idle in Industry and Idleness, Hogarth underlines that the reality of being a highwayman is far from the glamorous, romantic existence presented by popular heroes such as Captain Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera.

Indeed, Nero’s grotesque appearance conveys the inherent viciousness of his character and brutalising way of life. His victim, Ann Gill, his lover and partner-in-crime, lies prostrate on the floor, her throat slit. Her swollen stomach makes it clear that she was pregnant.

The Reward of Cruelty

William Hogarth The Four Stages of Cruelty: The Reward of Cruelty 1 February 1751

William Hogarth
The Four Stages of Cruelty: The Reward of Cruelty 1 February 1751
Etching and engraving
320 x 380 mm

Courtesy Andrew Edmunds, London

As a piece of propaganda, this macabre image was calculated to deromanticise criminality and its consequences. It takes place in the Cutlerian theatre near Newgate prison.

Nero has been hanged at Tyburn and, as was the case with other executed criminals, his body is being dissected for the purpose of studying anatomy. The chief surgeon sits in the centre on a high-backed chair with the royal coat of arms hanging above, thus resembling a high court judge. This neatly represents the official process of judgement and punishment, which in the case of hanged criminals could extend beyond death itself.

The skeletons of dissected criminals were usually refused a Christian burial and subsequently displayed as specimens, as can be seen in the niches to the left and right.

  • The Four Stages of Cruelty is on display in Room 8 of the exhibition