Progress brought together contemporary responses to Hogarth’s ‘The Rake’s Progress’, by David Hockney, Yinka Shonibare MBE, Grayson Perry and Jessie Brennan
To mark the 250th anniversary of Hogarth’s death, four contemporary artists responded to his masterpiece, A Rake’s Progress. For the first time, David Hockney’s A Rake’s Progress (1961-3), Yinka Shonibare CBE’s Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1998) and Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences (2012) were shown alongside Hogarth’s original 1735 prints and a newly commissioned work from Jessie Brennan.
Hogarth’s popularity with both artists and the public has endured for over two hundred years, and his work has provided inspiration to successive generations. Hockney, Shonibare and Perry not only update Hogarth’s searing social commentary, they also add their own personal concerns to the creative dialogue. Commissioning an emerging female artist to respond to Hogarth’s work, the Foundling Museum further developed the conversation.
Hogarth, an active Governor of the Foundling Hospital, burst onto London’s artistic scene in the first half of the eighteenth century, creating a new form of narrative painting with his modern moral tales. Published as a set of engravings in 1735 in order to reach a wide audience, A Rake’s Progress follows the rise and fall of young heir and spendthrift, Tom Rakewell. On inheriting his miserly father’s fortune, Tom embraces a world of foppery and pretention, descending into a spiral of debauchery and debt, which leads him to prison and eventually, the madhouse. The series is an unflinching portrayal of the corruption, hypocrisy, vice and occasional virtue of eighteenth-century London, presented with Hogarth’s typical wit and eye for detail.
Hockney’s semi-autobiographical A Rake’s Progress (1961-3), charts the adventures of a young, provincial gay artist in New York. His sixteen etchings were produced as a direct response to his first trip to America and were initially intended to mirror the titles of Hogarth’s eight etchings. However, on return to London, Hockney soon added a further eight plates. His series explores themes of youth and the city, freedom and moral corruption. Like Hogarth, Hockney’s story ends in ‘Bedlam’.
Shonibare’s Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1998) plays with notions of culture, identity and history, by transplanting the tale to the heyday of the British Empire and making the protagonist black. Originally commissioned by Iniva for the London Underground, Shonibare’s series follows the Rake over a 24 hour period. Like Hogarth, Shonibare’s depiction of youthful hedonism, lust and wealth is alive with detail, while also highlighting the relationship between the luxury goods trade and slavery.
Perry’s hugely popular tapestry series The Vanity of Small Differences (2012) explores the complexities of the British class system, as played out through ideas of taste. Like Hogarth, Perry’s protagonist Tim Rakewell journeys through the classes, his progress highlighting the obsessions, traits and hypocrisies of each. Perry surrounds Rakewell with the ‘taste signifying’ objects he discovered on his journey through Britain for the television documentary, ‘All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry’.
Hogarth was a supporter of the Foundling Hospital from the outset. He designed the Hospital’s coat of arms, and it is thought he designed the children’s uniforms and the decorative scheme in the Court Room. Most importantly, he donated the first artwork to the Hospital: his magnificent portrait of Thomas Coram, and encouraged all the leading artists of the day to do the same, thereby creating England’s first public art gallery. His involvement in the Hospital was a catalyst for encouraging artists of all disciplines to become ‘socially engaged’. It also enabled him to promote the work of emerging artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, and to establish a community of British artists that led to the founding of the Royal Academy.
Jessie Brennan’s work formed the fourth response to Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. Brennan’s sense of humour, her intensely-observed and detailed graphic works, and her use of London as both subject matter and barometer for social ‘progress’, speaks to Hogarth’s much-loved series. Of the resulting work, A Fall of Ordinariness and Light (2014) Brennan writes:
“The commissioned work takes the form of a series of pencil drawings responding to the social housing estate Robin Hood Gardens, designed by Peter and Alison Smithson in the late 1960’s and completed in 1972, due to be demolished in 2015. The new drawings visualise the progression of the buildings’ imminent demise, symbolising the fall of social ideals of progress affected by circumstances beyond the fate of the individual. For me, Robin Hood Gardens are what remain of an apparently failed utopian ideal of community housing that have been absorbed into an ideological system of growth driven by capital and profit, part of a perpetual cycle of shifting ideals across time. A Rake’s Progress had (and still has) the ability to confront what peoples’ ideals of progress are.”
The exhibition was supported by:
This doesn’t feel like a static exhibition. It is mobile, dynamic. The very act of moving through the building reflects the narrative movement of the different Progresses, and imparts a feeling of translation, of conversation.
What’s remarkable (and alarming) is quite how alike Hogarth’s world is to our own.