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A Rake’s Progress V

Rake  V

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 fifth engraving in the series shows Tom, having by now “literally squandered away his whole vast fortune”, cynically contracting a marriage of convenience in order to “raise fresh supplies” to keep living the “high life”.1

His partner is depicted in the engraving, and described in text accompanying it, as an “ancient lady whose enormous wealth was considered as more than a set-off for her incomparable plainness of features”.2 “They were married”, the narrative continues, “by special licence, in a most incomprehensibly private manner; and pretty, gentle, sorrowful Sally Young [Tom’s ill-used but still-devoted amour, now coincidentally working as his bride’s domestic servant] was…bridesmaid”.3

Whether the engraving depicts Tom’s eyes as fixed on his bride, or having wandered behind her to his one-time mistress, must remain in doubt. Sally Young, for her part, “felt the dreadful presentiment keenly alive within her, that she should witness the catastrophe of his life”, according to the narrative. “What that might be, she knew not – but that it was not far off, she felt certain.”4

To be continued.