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A Rake’s Progress IV


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, one each month, and will continue to do so until we finally arrive at Bethlem where the last act of the drama unfolds.

The fourth engraving in the series shows Tom at the point of being thrown into debtor’s prison, his coach having been intercepted by bailiffs on the way to a party at St James’ Palace.

Tom has managed to live above his considerable means, and has amassed gambling debts: “He will lose one, two, three thousand pounds at hazard in a single night…He will bet insanely on his horses at Epsom or Newmarket, and lose-lose-lose; but he is in the charmed circle; the mani is working - nothing can hold him back.”1

The bailiffs demand fifty guineas, and as Tom has no more than twenty in his pocket, his fate appears sealed - until Sarah Young, the lover he was shown rejecting in the first plate of the series, comes to his aid, and uses the money she has saved from her work at millinery to keep the bailiffs at bay.

The moralising comment continues: “Must this resplendent hero sponge (it is no better) upon the poor little milliner, besides having done her such a great original wrong…Truly, a woman that once loves, is a long-suffering, patient, devoted slave, martyr and angel.”2 The same cannot be said for our male ‘hero’.

To be continued.