Complete set of William Hogarth’s The harlot’s Progress, 1732.
Painted and engraved by William Hogarth. This edition is the Heath edition of 1822.
Plate size: approx. 15 1/2 x 12 1/2 inches. Framed in egg and dart wood carved frames.
Condition: Excellent— A nice dark, deep impression.
The series of paintings proved to be very popular and Hogarth used his experience as an apprentice to a silversmith to create engravings of the images, selling a “limited edition” of 1,240 sets of six prints to subscribers for a Guinea. Pirate copies of the engravings were soon in circulation, and Hogarth procured a 1735 Act of Parliament to prohibit the practice. Soon after, Hogarth published his second series of satirical and moralistic images, A Rake’s Progress, followed some years later by Marriage à-la-mode.
The original paintings were destroyed in a fire at Fonthill House in 1755, the country house of William Beckford (1709–1770) builder of Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire. The original plates survived, and were sold by Hogarth’s widow, Jane, to John Boydell in 1789; by him to Baldwin, Cradock and Joy in 1818; and then to Henry Bohn in 1835.
Moll Hackabout has arrived at the Bell Inn in Cheapside, fresh from the countryside, seeking employment as a seamstress or domestic servant. She stands, innocent and modestly attired, in front of Mother Needham, the brothel keeper, who is examining her youth and beauty. Needham may be acting on behalf of Colonel Charteris, who stands in the doorway to the right, fondling himself while ogling the new arrival. On the left, the churchman’s horse has upset a stack of pots, portending Moll’s imminent ‘fall’.
Moll is now the kept mistress of a wealthy London Jew and lives in a well-appointed town house. He has arrived unexpectedly, interrupting Moll and her aristocratic lover in bed. In order to create a diversion, while her lover sneaks out, Moll is kicking over the small table and clicking her fingers dismissively. Although Moll is clearly beautiful and desirable, her keeper’s look of disbelief suggests that she is misjudging the security of her position.
Having insulted and betrayed her wealthy keeper, Moll has been cast out and ‘demoted’ to the position of a common prostitute. As indicated by the tankard in the lower right corner, the dingy garret she now occupies is situated around Covent Garden, which was renowned for its brothels. Moll looks alluringly towards the viewer, unaware of the arrival of Justice Gonson to arrest her. The bottles of medicine around the room suggest that the small black spots on her face are more than just fashionable face patches and are in fact hiding the tell-tale signs of syphilis.
Moll is in Bridewell Prison, the house of correction for prostitutes, wayward apprentices and petty criminals. She is seen beating hemp. The marked change in her circumstances are emphasised by the incongruity of her fine clothes within the cheerless prison. Her appearance clearly amuses some of the female inmates – one mockingly touches the lace and silk of Moll’s clothing, while directing a wink and wry grin at the viewer.
Moll has returned to the garret. After the humiliation of prison confinement she is now dying from venereal disease, indicated by the shroud-like ‘sweating’ blankets that swathe her body. The servant who tends her turns angrily on two doctors quarrelling over the efficacy of their respective cures, while ignoring the evident distress of their patient. In any case, they are both quacks. Moll’s illegitimate son sits by the open fire. The innocent victim of this series, we are left to wonder if he too will enter the world of vice and crime.
The indifference shown towards Moll in Plate 5 is mirrored by the final scene, where ‘mourners’, most of whom are fellow prostitutes, gather round the coffin. That the cautionary lesson of Moll’s short life remains unheeded by many in the room is underlined by some prostitutes taking the opportunity to ply their trade. On the left a parson, staring into space, delves beneath the skirt of the young and beautiful prostitute next to him. She looks out towards the viewer with half-closed eyes and a faint smile on her lips, reminiscent of Moll’s alluring expression in Plate three. Clearly the cycle of innocence corrupted, sex, decay and death will continue unabated.