Prehistory of Comics Part 5: A Harlot’s Progress and A Rake’s Progress

The Splash Page

Two series of paintings by British painter William Hogarth done in the 1730s are exemplary of the ways that sequential visual storytelling would eventually function in comics and graphic novels in the 20th century (and beyond!!!).

Past the Page Turn

So the 18th century seems like it was very much. There’s the religious persecution, and then there’s the political conflicts. No fluoride, of course, so that means wooden or hippo or horse teeth. And, if William Hogarth is to be believed, the world was then divided into greedy, wanton fools eagerly seeking out their own destruction and stentorian moralizers with no sense of humor.

In the early 1730s, Hogarth painted two now-famous series of paintings, “A Harlot’s Progress” and “A Rake’s Progress.” The former documented a young woman falling into prostitution, with the latter recording a young man’s descent into debauchery, pennilessness, and madness. Both series were translated into engravings, and their publications proved popular. The paintings from “A Harlot’s Progress” were destroyed by fire in 1755.

You can take a look at all of the painting’s from “A Rake’s Program” at the Sir John Soane’s Museum website, which houses the original paintings. The 8-painting sequence runs thus:

  1. Tom Rakewell inherits a fortune from his father and, being a cad, does not grieve, sets aside his pregnant betrothed, and gets ready to party.
  2. Enter the aristocratic pre-game (so to speak), with Tom interacting with a ton of servants and teachers he has hired to attend him.
  3. Tom, drunk at a brothel, being thieved upon by strumpets, who remove his watch and, presumably, the rest of his on-hand wealth.
  4. Tom almost arrested for debts, but his set-aside betrothed arrives with moneys to keep him from jail.
  5. Tom marries a rich old lady with the hopes of inheriting, or at least spending, her fortune. (Check it–he’s already got eyes on her maid.)
  6. Tom gambling away his second fortune in a gaming house.
  7. Tom in prison.
  8. Tom in Bedlam, driven to madness. His set-aside lady love attends him, ignored. In the back of the room, a gaggle of society ladies look on, giggling at his and others’ distress.

“A Harlot’s Progress” proceeds thus:

  1. Moll Hackabout arrives in London, possibly under false pretenses, and falls victim to an older woman’s manipulations to work Moll as a prostitute.
  2. Moll, successfully ensconced in an apartment as a man’s mistress, knocks over a table to cover the exit of another lover in the background.
  3. Moll, now a common prostitute, in the moment before her arrest. (Note the witch’s hat and broomstick on the wall.)
  4. Moll in prison, beating hemp for nooses.
  5. Moll, near death, afflicted with venereal disease. Her child plays nearby.
  6. Moll’s funeral, gone at 23 years old.

One can sense in these paintings a bit of what comics would come to represent, both the storytelling tools they would canonize as well as the cultural real estate they would take hold of. The paintings aren’t meant for children, but both of these series display a strong, almost airless moralizing quality whose didactic element rhymes with what many comics would later claim as their major purpose and primary function, that of educating.

Finding Closure

The Comics Code Authority, founded in 1854, insisted that authority figures be painted in a positive light and that even the words “horror” or “terror” were too seductive to be put into the titles of comics ostensibly aimed at children.

The relationship between visual storytelling and teaching, or at least moralizing, rests, I think, somewhat on its approachability. The paintings in “A Harlot’s Progress” and “A Rake’s Progress” aren’t simple. Each brims with allusions and symbolism—the shadows collecting in the tines of a broom, the wilting motion a pile of pans makes as it collapses—but the paintings are all approachable, accessible.

All who view the paintings are invited to consider what is occurring and to observe their own emotional response to it. If what they find repulses them, then the observer might want to catalog those things in his or her own life that are likewise repulsive and do something to change them.

(Or that is what we assume Hogarth’s hopes for us.)

Comics can do plenty of functions other than moralizing, of course—they can actually do anything, as far as I can tell—but their accessibility does invite the question: What kinds of thoughts are for everyone?

The final piece—I think I’m remembering this right—from How to Be Happy by Eleanor Davis is a short strip, maybe seven panels long or something. It’s about the relationship between thinking and depression, and the way that thinking can get in the way of seeing, of feeling, of being present. That’s pretty far from William Hogarth’s religion-inspired judgments here, but Davis’s comic, like Hogarth’s paintings, is still accessible to anyone who can see and read, and the invitation for those who find themselves moved by its content remains: How will you live differently now that I have shown you what I have shown you?


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