If you ever feel like your moral compass may have become slightly off-balance since being a university student, rest assured that William Hogarth’s ‘Tom Rakewell’ was probably worse. If you need proof, it currently awaits at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, where life lessons can be found in two versions of The Rake’s Progress, Hogarth’s original 1735 series of engravings and David Hockney’s 1961 semi-autobiographical rendition.
Hockney casts himself in the role of Hogarth’s Rakewell, but there are stark differences between the stories of the two characters. Hogarth’s Rake abandons his education in favour of a life of corruption, which culminates in his mental and physical demise. Hockney’s series is based upon his first trip to New York as a young, gay artist, an experience that resulted not in a state of moral destitution, but rather, an increased creative confidence and lifelong fascination with America that would influence some of his most famous paintings.
Firstly though, the viewer must make a distinction between Hockney, the artist, and Hockney, the subject. Whilst in reality, Hockney’s trip propelled his career, his Rake’s Progress, like the original, ends in misfortune, with the artist stripped of his individuality and rendered a faceless, mindless, robot. This might have been a projection of that which Hockney feared for himself, or a representation of an experience he was already familiar with: it was only after his move from Bradford to London in 1959 that he “met kindred spirits and the first homosexuals who weren’t afraid to admit what they were… I thought, “I like that. That’s the way I want to live. Forget Bradford.” (taken from Christopher Simon Sykes’ biography of the artist)
The liberal expressiveness of London at that time, and what Hockney described as the “sheer energy” of New York are translated into the free, impulsive style of the print series. This also marks the largest stylistic contrast with Hogarth’s engravings, which are beautifully decorative despite the moral ugliness of their content. For this reason, it’s tempting to categorise Hogarth’s collection as only descriptive but in fact, his Rake is as self-reflective as Hockney’s, acting as a platform from which the artist conveys his own views on what constitutes an immoral life, evidently excess, drug use and sex.
Judging from the Hogarth engravings, Hockney would have made for a model 18th-century Rake, not only in terms of his personal image, sexuality and alcohol consumption but also in his decision to leave his hometown and shrug off the constraints of his background. The viewer is introduced to Hogarth’s Rakewell as he is being measured for a suit in which to launch his new lifestyle, and Hockney, too, returned to London blonder, wearing American clothes. The difference, one feels, is that Hockney’s transformation was a genuine reflection on his emerging confidence and identity, whereas Tom Rakewell’s elaborate disguise only exemplified his inner emptiness.
Viewing the exhibition inevitably prompts self-evaluation. For many, university is a time of both academic and personal progress, where our tolerance for unfamiliar lifestyle choices and values is put to the test. Our ultimate academic success is measured for us, but it is up to us to determine how successful our moral development has been.
Hockney’s series was an instant success, so it seems that his self-perceptiveness was to enable him to avoid meeting the ruin of his Rake. Perhaps Hockney hoped that by showing integrity where Hogarth’s Rake did not, and injecting his Progress with the open-mindedness that was absent in the original, his fortune might just swing in the direction of the famous artist responsible for his inspiration, and not that of the subject.