On the surface, this painting presents the chaos and crowds at the annual fair in Southwark, the district of London south of the Thames at London Bridge. An annual tradition since the fifteenth century, the fair finally became so raucous that it was closed in 1762 as a public nuisance. Among many other distractions, the painting shows the variety of theatrical entertainments typical of the fair, as well as strolling musicians, a pimp trying to beguile two country girls, a pickpocket, gamblers, and a dancing dog dressed in human clothing. Hogarth was not so much painting Southwark Fair in particular as, in his words, “the Humours of a Fair” in general.
Many of Hogarth’s witty and humorous paintings disguise a moral message: "Southwark Fair" is his most vivid statement on the stage as a metaphor for life. He displayed the full range of reprehensible activity at the fair in the hope that the spectator would recognize themselves and consider the wisdom of his own behavior. Among various moral symbols, an advertisement on the right touts a performance of "The Fall of Bajaset," which materializes in the collapse of the temporary stage into a china shop.
Hogarth spread his messages through the sale of prints reproducing his paintings. "Southwark Fair" was painted specifically for that purpose. The Art Museum’s collections also contain a copy of the print.