Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress, Plate 1

Wherein Moll Hackabout, a country miss, arrives in London and pauses at the Bell Inn off Cheapside, a thoroughfare just east of St. Paul’s Church, which westward past Drury Lane and southward to St. James’s connects the primary area’s of the London sex trade.


As with all five plates, Hogarth uses plenty of rich imagery, leaving much to be dissected.  Moll and Mother Needham stand at center stage but beyond them, the dense figures and bustling scenery dim, giving us the impression of the workings that will bring Moll to her downfall.  What we are seeing here is Moll’s first foray into debauchery except she doesn’t quite know it yet.  Mother Needham is gesturing to her with a kindly posture, presumably offering assistance to the confused girl.  Moll’s trunk, bearing her initials MH, sits to the right in the street beside a dead goose with a tag strung around its neck saying: “my lofing cosen in Tems stret in London”.  Thames street, which runs parallel to the river, is home to Moll’s relations, where she is likely headed for a visit, but instead she has been waylaid by the bawd, promised God-knows-what, with the rakish Colonel Charteris looking appraisingly on.

(click for larger view)

Mother Needham and Colonel Charteris

Both historical figures, Mother Needham was the procuress of the most exclusive bawdy house in 18th century London.  Her clientele numerated among the aristocracy as well as the merchant rich, and she would go to any length to acquire new girls.  Trickery was a means of daily profit.  As in Moll’s case, she preyed on girls fresh from the country who had likely come to London to gain domestic employ.  The wagon to the left of Moll, where two girls nervously sit, brought goods and on occasion passengers into town.  All Mother Needham need do is convince them of their good luck in acquiring a post, thereby negating their journey to the intelligence office.  Similar to the vague explanations given to Fanny in Fanny Hill, these girls would have thought themselves ahead of the game as country misses looking to work in the city were a dime a dozen.  Once the seemingly proper Mother Needham conveyed them back to her establishment–Park Place, St. James–she would have arranged a quick debauchery and indebted the girl to her sordid service by means of outfitting the girl in new gowns paid by the Mother herself.

Colonel Charteris,  known at the “rape-master general”, had a reputation for hiring young female dometics for the sole purpose of luring them into his bed.  Even before his trial for the rape of Anne Bond, he solicited girls to work in his household using an alias for fear that if they recognized the infamous Charteris name, they would avoid him at all costs.  His trial in 1730 resulted in a capital felony and a death sentence.  The then 70 year old rake was carted off to Newgate prison, but two months later, he was pardoned by King George II at the insistence of, among others, his victim, Anne Bond.  Charteris, however, was a very rich man and was known to throw his money at important political figures when his foulness ran him aground.  Anne Bond, disgraced by the trial wherein the defense accused her of immorality and thievery, was rumored to have received an annuity from Charteris which would have secured her a steady income where otherwise she would’ve greatly suffered from lack of tolerable employment.

The Background

A few additional details in plate one are worth noticing.  Clockwise from the left of Moll are two toppling baskets, suggestive of Moll’s imperiled virtue.  Above the baskets are the two country girl’s, witness to what may very well await them at the next wagon stop.   On a horse that’s blithely eating hay we have a clergyman who, instead of rescuing Moll from Mother Needham, is cocking his head in persual of a letter or perhaps a list.  To the right of the clergyman’s hat a woman hangs a pair of stocking–undergarments–out to dry.  Eight pairs of hands are shown throughout the plate, each relaying an emotion.  Charteris is fishing around in his overcoat pocket, his fingers alarmingly near the fall of his breeches, whereas the pimp, John Gourlay, is crossing his hands in a speculative manner.

Back at the plate’s foreground with Moll and Mother Needham, Moll is arresting her wrist, the palm of one hand gesturing toward the bawd and, further on, the men.  Mother Needham lays a gentle hand on Moll’s chin, a slight smile on her patched face as she tilts Moll’s face to full inspection.  To the inexperienced, Mother Needham would have appeared respectable.  She is wearing fine fashionable clothing, the expense apparent in the manner her silken gown falls and catches the light.   The numerous patches on her face, although suggestive of degeneracy in our eyes, were a common indication of pock marks.  When used to a lesser degree (although some ladies did wear seven or eight), they announced a deliberate flirtation or lack thereof (see To Patch or Not to Patch).  Mother Needham’s additional accessories–gloves, a fan, and a pocket watch–were also ordinary.  The taking off of one glove for skin to skin contact, the pointing of a closed fan, and the visible watch to suggest a careful keeping of hours, however, were anything but.

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3 thoughts on “Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress, Plate 1

  1. “…..was known to throw his money at important political figures when his foulness ran him aground.”

    Very funny! I am sure that never happens today (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more).

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