The Rake’s Progress: Scene 8, The Rake in Bedlam (Oil on Canvas, 62.5 x 75 cm, Sir John Soane’s Museum, London) is one of a series of eight paintings by 18th century artist William Hogarth. Produced from 1732-33, the series was engraved and published in print in 1735. The series depicts the downfall of Tom Rakewell, heir to the fortune of a rich merchant, who loses all his money on luxurious living and is consequently imprisoned in first the Fleet Prison, then Bedlam. As a group, these works have been described as an ancestor to the storyboard.
One of his first series on morals, the success of A Rake’s Progress resulted in numerous pirated copies. In defense, Hogarth lobbied in parliament for greater legal control over the reproduction of his and other artists’ work. His argument prevailed in 1735, when the Engraver’s Copyright Act (known as “Hogarth’s Act”) was passed, becoming the first copyright law to deal with visual works as well as the first to recognize the authorial rights of an individual artist.
Here, student Landon Naylor shares his interpretation of the eighth scene of the series:
William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress of 1733 depicts the fall of Tom Rakewell, a fictional character created by Hogarth based on the 17th-century phenomenon of the “rake.” The term rake, short for rakehell, was used to describe habitually immoral men who partook in gambling, drinking, and womanizing-often amassing large debts in the process. Originally seen as harmless aristocrats who combined wild and carefree living with intellectual pursuits, Hogarth’s paintings of Tom Rakewell-and later his prints-contributed to the rake’s use as a moralizing subject. By the 18th-century, stories told about rakes usually ended with prison, venereal disease, or insanity. For example, the final scene in The Rake’s Progress, entitled The Rake in Bedlam, finds Tom in the mental asylum at the nonfictional Bethlehem Hospital in Bedlam and the scenes prior depict Tom’s descent into debtor’s prison. As a patient of Bedlam, Tom loses all the privilege his former wealth afforded him. Tom is poor and mentally unsound, but he is not alone-his discarded ex-fiance and members of London’s high society (on Sundays paying visitors were allowed in) have entered the asylum and both pity and marvel the spectacle at Bedlam.