Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress II – The Levée.
In the 1730s, London’s streets were said to be full of abandoned babies, born to mothers who couldn’t support them. Desiring to do some good, the retired sea-captain Thomas Coram established The Coram Hospital to take some of these children in, raise and educate them, and apprentice them to appropriate trades. In a booming wartime economy, the Hospital promised to grow the nation’s population of dutiful workers, but was widely condemned by people who felt it gave sanction to promiscuity. This harsh world finds poignant expression in today’s Foundling Museum, where visitors can see the tokens mothers left with their children at the Hospital gate: everything from rings and cameos to thimbles and coins.
William Hogarth was a governor of the Hospital from its beginnings, and one of his earliest projects there was to decorate the great Court Room. Hogarth’s painting of Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter can still be seen there, alongside the paintings he commissioned from his contemporaries, all of which use Biblical precedent to respond to the theme of abandoned children – Ishmael, Moses and Christ. This room became the first approximately public space to see contemporary art, giving a slyly appropriate edge to the historical journey from these beginnings to this year’s exhibition, Progress, which commemorates the 250th anniversary of Hogarth’s death with a selection of contemporary artworks responding to Hogarth’s own painting and print series, A Rake’s Progress.
One of his so-called ‘Modern Moral Subjects’, along with A Harlot’s Progress, Hogarth’s series shows the ‘progress’ of Tom Rakewell, from gaining his inheritance and attending orgies to his arrest for debt and eventual incarceration, chained and insane, in another hospital, ‘Bedlam’, then based at Moorfields, to the east of Coram’s Fields, and depicted alongside other London hospitals in the Foundling’s Court Room. Rakewell’s ‘progress’ is in fact an ironical descent, as explored by the only work here specially commissioned for Progress, Jessie Brennan’s drawing series, aptly titled A Fall of Ordinariness and Light. This shows the progressive pictorial demolition of a condemned estate in Tower Hamlets, questioning assumptions about what ‘progress’ means. Brennan’s work, like all the works exhibited here, is hung in and around the Hospital’s own story and collection; these contemporary drawings are hung alongside Emma Brownlow’s nineteenth-century scenes of Foundling life, all illustrating Victorian pride in the original Coram mission.
It is testament to the power of Hogarth’s original series that the other works here are all pre-existing responses to it. Here are Grayson Perry’s Vanity of Small Differences tapestries (2012), David Hockney’s 1961-3 print series A Rake’s Progress and Yinka Shonibare’s photographic Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1998). It is often commented that, unlike the Harlot, Hogarth’s Rake never really seems to enjoy himself: constantly surrounded by influencers and overwhelmed by his surroundings, his journey is a passive descent, with none of the vigorous activity of his notable rakish precedents – such as the Earl of Rochester, writer of bawdy verse, abductor of heiresses, said to have been drunk for five years together.
Hockney’s Rake’s Progress, a beautiful example of the artist’s consummate printing technique, is similarly passive: the semi-autobiographical hero does not witness prison first hand, but in the cinema, part of the American consumer culture with which Hockney was fascinated. He is frequently shown abbreviated, even reduced to just a head or profile: like Hogarth’s, Hockney’s figure feels much smaller than the world around him.
Meanwhile, in Grayson Perry’s series we follow ‘Tim Rakewell’ from birth to death as he moves through the English class system – perhaps more of a Pilgrim’s Progress than a Rake’s. Here the trappings of each class, from Penguin mugs and iPads to fake tans and tweed, glitter in technicolour tapestry, echoing how, for Perry, the minutiae of Hogarth’s series captures ‘a class, a place, and a time’, but leaving Rakewell as a void at its heart.
By contrast, Yinka Shonibare’s photograph series places the artist explicitly at the centre of the works, arguing that the black man, like Hogarth’s rake, was able to move through eighteenth-century society but never to be truly part of it, watching only from the ‘margins’. Shonibare’s series shows the artist-as-protagonist – though here not rake but ‘dandy’ – assertively in the centre of the action. His progress is also a decline, from sobriety to orgy, but there is more stability in Shonibare’s images: we sense the Dandy will rise again the next day. Perhaps this is to do with the photographic medium, which gives these works a punch and pep that is subtler and more drawn out in the intricacy of engraving – importantly, Hogarth himself reworked his Rake from an original set of oils. Hogarth’s spirit is definitely here: indeed, with so many of the contemporary works including the artists’ own autobiographical elements, it is nice to see his pet pug Trump, used as something approaching Hogarth’s signature, popping up throughout Perry’s tapestries.
Progress is at the Foundling Museum, London from 6 June – 7 September 2014