Tag Archives: Hogarth

Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress Plate 6

After a long journey entailing bawds, degenerates, and harlots, Moll has found her inevitable.  She’s 23.  As of September 2, 1731, she’s also dead.  A plate atop her coffin records this, but we can be assured that outside the minds of harlots nothing will remain of her memory.  After all, she is in a room with the soon-to-be dead–women marked by syphilis or the hangman’s noose.

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One woman in the plate stares out, making eye contact with us.  Her name: Elizabeth Adams.  Her execution date: 1737.  Her crime: theft.  She sits in perfect composure as a clergyman worms his hand up her skirt.  Indeed, she is the only composed person in the room, her expression one of sardonic resolution.  She knows her fate and yet she doesn’t resist it.  The clergyman, meanwhile, is tingling with pleasure, his flute spilling suggestively upon his lap.  The other mourners are similarly pursuing their own ends.

Moving counterclockwise we see Moll’s child, chief mourner of the ceremony.  He leans against his mother’s casket, spinning a top in his fingers.  He may as well be alone in the room for all he is disengaged.  The wretched procuress directly to the right is moaning, her heel kicked up as if in pain–probably from facing another lost source of income.  The bottle of Nantz (or brandy) beside her bears a grim, theatrical face.  Is this in reference to the tragicomedy of the scene?

The undertaker pursues a harlot whose outstretched hand points toward Moll as he adjusts her glove.  Although it is difficult to see, she is plucking from his pocket the harlot’s most coveted accessory: a pocketwatch.  Despite the properly observed mourning customs–the white handkerchiefs, the sprigs of rosemary (once thought to prevent contagion)–nothing is as it should be.  Nobody acts as one would assume.  The funereal atmosphere is tempered by conceit.

 A moon shines behind a window and a reflection hovers in a mirror.  The harlot inspecting her face has good reason for vanity; a spot appears and with it, anxiety.  The “progress” continues.

Among the remaining mourners, we have four unidentified harlots in pairs.  The pair nearest Moll appear to grieve, most likely for their own fate, but amidst this grieving one harlot complains of her finger pain.  The two garbed in black are in full mourning.  As one sips her drink, the other wrings her hands.  But there is something about them that looks conspiratorial.  Perhaps they were foes of Moll and regard her death with both defeat and triumph.  It could be my flawed modern sensibility, but with their dark cloaks, they look a little like witches, their heads arched together.  A witches hat and twigs did appear in plate 3 and I can’t help but wonder why Hogarth would distinguish them from the other harlots by putting them all in black.  They are also fairly centered on the plate, in view between the two figures sympathetic to Moll, and by contrast I’m not entirely convinced they are, in fact, maudlin.

To the left we see Moll’s maid again, no longer protective but still disapproving.  She’s disgusted by the clergyman’s sinning, and appears to be clearing a plate and flute from Moll’s casket lid.  But really, is there a better use for Moll’s casket than a bar?  The youngest harlot thinks so.  Hogarth placed her as the sole truly touching figure in the plate.  She stands just to the left of Moll’s country hat, hung up for the last time.  As she lifts aside the lid, her fingers poised as if in surprise, her face is gentle.  She’s curious, perhaps having recently crossed over to the opposite side of innocent, and we can almost hear her thoughts: “Is this going to happen to me?”

The answer, of course, is yes.  It is unlikely Moll’s diseased corpse dissuades the young harlot.  Moll herself could not be dissuaded and neither will the thousands who continue after her.  The clergymen can’t save them.  The men who quench their needs upon them won’t.  And so we continue.

Missed previous A Harlot’s Progress Plates?

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Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress Plate 5

We’ve come a long way with Moll so far and in Moll’s case, it shows.  Recently sprung from the gaol, she’s back to her dreary lodgings and considerably worse for wear.  Syphilis has come knocking at her door, or shall we say teeth, as the medicine’s side effect has made itself known by now.  Moll’s head is wrapped, her teeth presumably loosened beyond repair, and she looks to be moaning in pain.  Gone are the silks and jewels of the harlot.  Her entire body is now shrouded in cloth, no longer accessible, her desirability but a memory. 

Much to the chagrin of her maid, Moll’s doctors–one of them Dr. Jean Misaubin, a renowned French quack–are arguing about the proper way to proceed.  The options?  More mercury pills, maybe a little cupping, a little bloodletting?  Trouble is, Dr. Richard Rock, whose advertisement for anti-venereal pills lies on the floor (much like the pastoral letter of Plate 3), is as useless as the quack.  There’s no cure for Moll but death and I think we can all agree that’s not a very good one.  Treating syphilis with mercury pills was primary until the 20th century, although in truth it made the pox a more difficult condition as symptoms were heaped on top of symptoms.  Tooth loss, diminished sensory perception, and neurological damage were just some of the painful side effects.    

Moll’s overwhelming misfortunes aside, she does appear to have recouped a few protectors.  One is her maid—the same who turned devious when they were suffering in the gaol in Plate 4.  But the past is now resigned to the past.  Moll shares her maid’s condition, indeed Moll is in greater decline, and maybe this explains the maid’s renewed defense of her mistress.  The landlady, or bawd, is presently the one taking advantage of Moll, availing herself of the room’s untended possessions.  Notice in particular the shoes to the left of the bawd’s knee.  They appear to be the same pair that Moll’s maid donned in the gaol.  How’s that for full circle?   

Moll’s second protector is noticeably absent.  Remember the Jewish merchant from Plate 2?  A Passover biscuit, or honeycombed circle above the door multitasking as a fly-catcher, suggests that he’s been for a visit.  In her current state, it is doubtful Moll would have the funds to pay for her lodgings and/or her medical care.  Has her former protector taken pity on her then, perhaps thanking his lucky stars he got out from between her thighs when he did?

Plate 2 & Plate 5 Comparisons

Plate 2 and Plate 5 have similarities worth pointing out.  First, the table in the center of the plate is being knocked over, but this time not by Moll.  At this stage, her arrogance is gone.  In fact, she is barely conscious.  The table in Plate 5 much more resembles the table in Plate 3, the beginning of her demise. 

Children also appear in both plates, but their presence is remarkably contrasted.  At Moll’s height in Plate 2, the child is an exotic slave kept for the sole purpose of flaunting her wealth.  By Plate 5, the child—misbegotten by a prostitute and a patron—is anything but prestigious.  For one, he’s squatting on the floor like an urchin; two, he’s scratching his head and playing with the fire absent any supervision.  Is this suggestive of the “evils” that befall those who sin?  Do the sinners perpetuate societal problems in the most inevitable way—through their progeny? 

A harsh assessment, but one Hogarth is going for.  If you recall the details in Plate 4, the indebted card player had a daughter who possibly suffers from Down’s syndrome or another syndrome that affects cognitive functioning.  With his round face and absentminded expression, the little boy in Plate 5 may be similarly afflicted.  Given that mental disorders and even disease were once thought of as a punishment for sin, I think we can logically apply this here.  Moll’s prostitution has led to illness, but who is the true perpetrator of society’s ills?  Moll?  Her patrons?  The hypocrites who purchased Hogarth’s works just to prove their virtue?  

This is the best part about Hogarth.  He made his living by mocking society.  He doesn’t put much faith in the Church, the judicial system, or his time’s social police force, the Society for the Reformation of Manners.  Indeed, he suggests those who make highly public shows of decency and morality are the most immoral of us all and leaves us wondering: is this true?

Missed the previous plates?

Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress Plate 4

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Moll is fast coming to a grave end.  She’s been apprehended by Sir John Gonson, imprisoned for her profligate ways, and thrown in the hemp workhouse with the rest of “her kind” (presumably said with a sneer and a slimy smile).

Sneering, indeed, was the chief way Moll achieved her fame with the living, breathing public that consumed her.  The public loved her–and by her I mean every country girl turned whore by ill luck and toes up fate.  She was an object of derision, of pity and glances staying only so long as to see her rise and meteoric fall.  What was Moll but just another low woman treading the worn path of death?   One foot into the Bell Inn and her destiny was already shaped, be it through the usual killer, the pox, or by hanging once her fading looks forced her into thievery.

Either way, Moll’s one ladybird that ain’t gonna fly long.  She’s found her cage.  Bridewell.  On Fleet River.  It is better than the flogging room where before hemp and beetles women were beaten as a proper punishment:

In addition to the pillory and sign behind her reading “Better to work than to stand thus”, Moll’s got a lot to worry about.  The gaoler is singling her out, demanding she press on harder while his wife is greedily plucking at Moll’s neckerchief and winking at her husband.  Moll looks a trifle alarmed standing there in her floral pettitcoat, partly because she’s nervous it’s going to be ripped off her and partly because she’s wondering, “how the bloody hell did I get here?”

Although Bridewell was mainly a prison for women, the gentleman to her left gained his hemp duty due to cards.  They’re on the floor, shredded in half near the relaxed dog that seems to mind not the least the beating of hemp.  The woman and two girls to his left are likely his family, imprisoned alongside him until they’ve earned back his debt.  The larger of the two girls doesn’t look entirely fit for the workhouse, perhaps suffering from a physical condition or a mental illness, but neither she nor the pregnant woman further down can expect full reprieve.

Going round the room, Moll’s servant is relishing this moment, we might say with schadenfreude.  Instead of sympathizing with the her mistress’ plight, she’s grinning while adjusting Moll’s worn stocking on her thick legs.  While also sitting.  What earned her this privilege (or is Moll just the bigger fish?) and why is the  mobcapped woman beside her occupied with scraping Moll’s lace?

Aside from the unfortunate persons populating the room, another aspect of interest–which unfortuantely fails to show in the picture–is the rudimentary hangman drawing beneath the window.  The name “Gonson” is written nearby.  Gonson, if you remember, was the magistrate from the Society for the Reformation of Manners.  He hauled Moll in and if we are to infer anything by his cartoonish state, the prisoners, notably harlots, blame him for their current predicament.

A placard stating “The Wages of Idleness” (translation: how all the prisoners got here), takes another aim at Moll’s real sin.  For the first time since her arrival in plate 1, she’s wearing her work apron.  The hemp she’s forced to beat is just one of the various tasks in the workhouse, but it may have further signifance because hemp was used for the hangman’s noose.  Not only that, it’s tough, lacerating the neck when used to choke or hang someone.  Given that Moll’s outlet outside prositution is thievery as suggested in her association with James Dalton in plate 3, would she possibly have pounded the hemp that would one day end her life?  Circumstances lead her elsewhere but like everything Hogarth, there’s a little irony involved, isn’t there?

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Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress, Plate 2

Oh, how greatly Moll has fallen since arriving on London’s doorstep.  Such was the way with most 18th century prostitutes, rags to riches and back again, except that rags the second time around were death shrouds.  But we’ll get to that later.  For now, Moll has glided into glory, her slippered feet barely entertaining thoughts of touching the ground.  For a country girl with few prospects or hopes of luxury, she is living the dream, but it’s already begun to crumble.

Despite the tumultuous milieu, Moll is at her peak here.  She’s snagged a Jewish lover (notice the thick, black eyebrows!) and although he seems to have given her everything her heart desires, she’s already cavorting with other men.  In the background, her young lover sneaks by on stockinged feet, Moll’s maid holding his buckled shoes, and we have only leave to assume he slithered out of the drawn canopy bed moments before.  Her affluent lover is a bit disconcerted by the scene he’s unknowingly interrupted, mostly because Moll is kicking over the table and making a petite moue at him in her cheeky way.  With the expression on his face, he has to be wondering what’s got hold of his pretentious ladybird.  “She used to be so sweet, so innocent,” he groans. His silent lamentation is the beginning of the end for Moll.

Instead of the shy, new-to-London chit we saw in the last plate, Moll is all about wanton sophistication.  She’s wearing a patch on her forehead, the sign of a haughty or majestic demeanor.  She knows how high she’s risen in a short period and although she seems secure in regard to her fine furnishings and person, she is anything but. Her life has turned into one big, rollicking farce.  She’s a masquerader, her true self concealed beneath so many layers of paint, and at this point, she’s enjoying it.  Her tea is spilling, her pots of rouge and paint breaking, but it’s all in good fun.  Moll finally has tenuous power over someone and she’s exploiting it just as others have exploited her.

Paintings and Appurtenances

As a fallen woman existing on the margins of Christian morality, Moll bears a kinship to the men in the two portraits behind her.  The paintings are of  Thomas Woolston and Samuel Clarke, English freethinkers who placed rationality and nature above doctrine.  The question begs to be asked: as with the larger canvasses above, do the portraits simply belong to her patron or does Moll sympathize with their sitters, judging herself as acting in accordance with the natural order?  For what, she might ask, could be more natural than sex?

The two remaining paintings in the plate recall scenes from the Old Testament.  Like everything else in the house, they are presumably owned by the man who is affording Moll this extravagant lifestyle.  Her gown now has the effulgence of Mother Needham’s in Plate 1 and matches the upper part of the coat on her very own slave.  During this period, ladies were known to hire black boys to serve them tea, a tradition taken from colonialism, and carried out with great pretension back in England.  His presence is highly suggestive of the process of creating wealth that in turn provides for Moll’s lifestyle, but at the same time, he is dressed to mock it.  Like the monkey, he is Moll’s exotic toy, just as she is the exotic toy of her patron.  Indeed, all of Plate two centers on deceit.  But we’re left to wonder . . . who’s fooling who here?