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A Rake’s Progress VIII

23 December 2014

Bethlem’s most famous fictional patient is probably Tom Rakewell, the creation of the artist and satirist William Hogarth (1697-1764). A Rake’s Progress, a series of paintings (later published as engravings) depicting scenes from Tom’s life, was Hogarth’s exposé of the cruelty, depravity and hypocrisy which he saw in London society, as well as a morality play in which evil finally comes down on the head of the evildoer. Here on the blog we have been publishing and commenting on the 8 engravings in sequence, and we have finally arrived at Bethlem, where the last act of the drama unfolds.

This last engraving in the series shows Tom as a dying patient in Bethlem Hospital, being comforted by Sally Young, his ever-loyal mistress. Our narrator calls the Hospital “the senate of mankind, where each man may find a representative”,1 and indeed Hogarth uses Tom’s fellow sufferers to indicate the supposed effects of magnified and unrestrained passions across a wide range of human experience: religion, science, politics, music, fashion, and romance.

“By these expressive figures we are given to understand, that such is the misfortune of man, that while, perhaps, the aspiring soul is pursuing some lofty and elevated conception, soaring to an uncommon pitch, and teeming with some grand discovery, the ferment often proves too strong for the feeble brain to support, and lays the whole magazine of notions and images in wild confusion.”2

Tom’s case was not entirely different: his own aims were never lofty, but his efforts were no less determined. “He was pretty steady, consistent and persistent, in carrying out his ideas and tendencies, whatever we may think of them…He who fights under the black flag is supposed to fight as desperately, as strenuously…as he who fights beneath the white”.3

So ends Hogarth’s morality play, in which the fictional Tom is Everyman, who “plays out his part” and fulfils “the mission of his life”,4 even if that is only to stand as a warning to those who will heed it.

1 J. Trusler and E.F. Roberts, The Complete Works of William Hogarth, vol. 2, p 87.

2 ibid., p. 103.

3 ibid., p. 100.

4 ibid.

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