Idle Hands: WIlliam Hogarth's Immoral Exploration of Early Modern London (1732- 1751)

As the Age of Enlightenment dawned on the dim streets of London England in the late 18th century, scholars and artists alike were eager to reform those still left in the dark. William Hogarth (1697- 1764), presented here today, is most well known for his detailed and playful narrative etchings of London's mischief, sin and the resulting cautionary tales. As the Early Modern Period was one of the most rapidly changing times in English history, Hogath's work reflected enlightenment themes of morality and political commentary influenced by the increased English urban population and access to printed materials. As the social classes further stratified,  new "high" and "low" cultures were exposed. Hogarth too wished to expose what immoral activities were plaguing the back allies and sometimes the main streets of London. These curated prints highlight the progression of mostly upstanding citizens through subtle sin and deviance to the madness of the uncontrolled spaces lower classes of London. Hogarth's humorous narratives told in these selected works present not only the period's moral code of conduct, but a glance into the mischievous lives of Early Modern Londoners. These prints are most certainly an enjoyable representation of social, political and economic commentary of this period.

Taken from the series "Four Times a Day" originally printed in 1738, "Morning" depicts a scene just before 7:00am. This work highlights the cyclical nature of sin in this period. Drunkards and gamblers are left on the busy streets from the previous night. This notes the lack of social support for the ailing individuals in this period. Hogarth wishes to express the dangers of the night creeping their way into the everyday lives of the Upper classes as well.
Young Ms. Moll Hackabout finds herself in the busy centre of Cheapside in the first plate of "The Harlot's Progress". Hogarth in this scene aims to juxtapose the innocence of Ms Hackabout who represents the clear and pure rural life of women to that of the brothel keeper who offers her profitable work as a seamstress in the city. Hogarth begins the story with the gentle decent of naive Ms. Hackabout's grace, stating how simple it is to fall into a immoral life.
The story of this young gentleman, Thomas Rakewell touches on the themes of carelessness and greed in this period. Hogarth's etching full of immense lively detail allows the viewer to explore the many flaws of the Rake, his staff and family. This series is one of Hogarth's longest, with a total of nine panels. Thomas's irresponsibility and neglect for his family warn the viewer not to let one's fortune go to their head.
This etching depicts one of the most iconic scenes from the early modern period in England. Paired with its companion "Gin Lane" this work show's Hogarth's favored of the vices. Beer at this time was considered to be a respectable and social drink that would not cause direct harm to the structure of society. Beer was also a domestic product, and therefore a English tradition. The scene of "Beer Street" is juxtaposed with the new and foreign product, gin. This is just one of the many ways Hogarth subtly sent an economic message about Early Modern England. The viewer can see in the smallest of details "Beer Street" is a functioning and prosperous portion of the city, with upper class citizens happily contributing to the development of London.
Perhaps one of Hogarth's most well known works, "Gin Lane" sings of the chaotic nature of sin that spread across the city. As this print was produced near the end of Hogarth's career, he was already well known for his satirical yet cautionary works, and spared no expense in the sinful details in this panorama. Take a moment to explore the many small scenes unfolding in this work. While this piece does make a clear political statement, it also does not shy away from Hogarth's classic dark humor. While many details were realities of London's lanes, Hogarth was not afraid of playful exaggeration to prove his point.
The first plate from Hogarth's dual series of apprentices begins the story of the lazy young man, Tom Idle working beside Francis Goodchild the industrious apprentice. Hogarth in this series aimed to discourage one of the most unpleasant vices of this period, idleness. As the industrial revolution began to slowly bloom in England urban labor was becoming a dime a dozen, hard work and drive would easily set you apart and lead to a prosperous life.
Returning to the adventures of Ms. Hackabout in the 3rd plate of the "Harlot's Progress", the viewer can see she has quickly been immersed into the daily activities of the brothel. This scene is filled with subtle signs of her career as a prostitute. As syphilis was an emerging concern, Hogarth hints at Moll's deviance with black sores on her cheek. With illusions to witch craft, theft and multiple male guests, Hogarth spares no expense to strike fear in those who might consider sending their daughters to the city.
In dark corner of London we see the idle apprentice has completely left his work behind for the night life of the city. Gambling and spending his time with a prostitute has lead Tom into the hands of the law in this scene. Hogarth coyly hints at the corrupt nature of law enforcement during this period as the "whore" is subtly paid off. Hogarth was known for his political as well as social commentary and the concept of police and surveillance as we know them was only just emerging.
In the last plate of the Rake's series the viewer can see the breakdown of Thomas's life. In this period prisons were not yet formal institutions of the state and it was often common practice to classify debtors as "ill" and house them in asylums with other poor or mentally ill patients. Rakewell at this time is incredibly indebted and is institutionalized with other sinners in "Bedlam" hospital.
The final plate from "Four Times a Day" gives a glimpse into the most chaotic moments in London. "Night" in the city was metaphorically and literally dark in this period leaving citizen at risk of carriage crash and, theft. As is hinted at in the "Morning" plate vice and sin run free in the streets of London. With the danger of fire. assault and the grips of lustful vices around every corner, it is clear why Hogarth sought to depict the London night.
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