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Art print series; A Rake’s Progress

William Hogarth was a British painter, maker of art print series, and satirist who created everything from fine art portraiture through to political cartoons, which had such a distinctive style and approach it coined the term Hogarthian. Born in 1697 he studied an apprenticeship as an engraver, and began his interest in cartoons sitting and sketching the street life and characters he saw day to day around London. Attending St Martin’s Academy to study art he began to mix in artistic social circles and developed an early career on commercial projects such as engraving coats of arms, book illustrations, and designing tapestries.

By the 1720’s Hogarth was beginning to experiment with highly accomplished engraved political cartoons, and found work producing oil painted portraits of public figures, from wealthy nobility to famous actors and murderers. Through the 1730’s he continued painting and engraving, often with a satirical edge to the work, but things really began to happen for his career when he turned to moral works; series of paintings and limited edition art print engravings commenting on the downfall of immoral and reckless characters.

The first of these was the six part Harlot’s Progress, originally a series of paintings, and then engravings, which showed six scenes from the Harlot’s life, journeying into prostitution and imprisonment before dying from a sexually transmitted disease at the age of 23. Partly inspired by Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and partly through Hogarth completing a painting of a prostitute and finding himself curious about the life that had brought her to that point. The series sold incredibly well as art prints, and it wasn’t long until inspiration for another series struck.

The Rake’s Progress engraved art print series

Work on Rake’s Progress began in 1732, with the series of eight paintings and prints published three years later, the same day that the Engraver’s Copyright Act came into law after lobbying by Hogarth for such protections, ensuring the series couldn’t be pirated as Harlot’s Progress had been. The print series told the story of Tom Rakewell, son of a rich merchant, who rejects his pregnant fiancee, squanders his inheritance on drinking, gambling, and prostitutes, then marries a rich divorcee and spends her fortune, leading to his demise, imprisonment, and insanity.

Comparing the paintings and art prints side by side emphasises Hogarth’s talent for engraving. The compositions and storytelling are equal across both, but where the paintings are somewhat muddy in colour, and good but unexceptional, the work on the engravings is sublime. This partly comes about from Hogarth’s method, which used painting as a way to figure out his compositions and images, with adjustments easily made simply by painting over the work; something impossible with engravings which seem truly to have been the finished artwork.

A satirical critique of many of the issues prevalent in 18th Century Britain and London, just as Harlot’s Progress had been, Rake’s Progress became another widely sold and admired series full of beautiful linework, detail, lighting, and depth. Deservingly admired in it’s time and through to today, the series of prints helped cement Hogarth’s growing reputation as one of Britain’s finest artists, with an impact that would reach across centuries.

The legacy of one of the world’s best known series of prints

In the 20th Century it began to become clear what an impact the series could still have on creators many years after the time Hogarth satirised. In 1935 Gavin Gordon composed a ballet based on the series, and two feature films made in 1945 and 1946 drew their inspiration from the story. 1951 saw a Stravinsky opera, later staged with David Hockney set designs, who went on to create his own series of Rake’s Progress prints. In 1975 the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick released Barry Lyndon, which closely mirrored Hogarth’s storyline, and became famed as one of the most beautiful films ever shot thanks to it’s stunningly lit group compositions of characters, taking much inspiration from the original series.

Even today the legacy of inspiration and re-imagining continues; in 2012 a series of tapestries by Grayson Perry, in 2014 a series of copper engravings by Ulrike Theusner, and a depiction in Henry Hudson’s 2015 show at Sotheby’s S2. The British filmmaker Alan Parker once commented that Hogarth’s artworks and prints were a bit like the original feature film storyboards, and you cannot help but think that had Hogarth been born in a later time, his talent for composition and storytelling would have made him a great filmmaker.

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