This series of twelve engravings was first published on September 30th 1747, and it is the largest set of themed images that Hogarth ever produced. At first glance it seems to be simply a moralistic tale of two young apprentices. However, as is often the case with Hogarth, if you scratch the surface what appeared straightforward becomes a lot more complex: this artist was a master of subtlety and hidden meaning. The set, which can be viewed in order here, begins with a scene in which both apprentices appear, and the engravings are then themed in pairs, with the good apprentice, Francis Goodchild, appearing first, followed by Tom Idle making a mess of his life. This continues until Plate Ten, in which both men appear together for the last time. It is followed by the climatic final pair in which the order is reversed, with Tom going to the hanging tree of Tyburn, and Francis returning home in a state coach after being made Lord Mayor of London, the reward for the industrious life that he has lived.
The setting is the Spitalfields area of London. Hogarth's contemporaries would have recognised this as one of the wildest parts of the city. Besides numerous ale-houses and brothels, Spitalfields contained many French Huguenot immigrant weavers whose fortunes often wavered between relative prosperity and great poverty. Riots were not uncommon, and the weavers were often synonymous with a debauched, violent and reckless lifestyle.
Hogarth lived much of his life in London, becoming familiar with both Spitalfields and Covent Garden, the pleasure centres of the capital. As a young aspiring artist he married the daughter of Sir James Thornhill, the finest English painter of the period, a liaison which helped to propel him into the mainstream of contemporary art. Like Francis Goodchild, he worked hard, but his marriage certainly helped his progress. Much in the experiences of both figures in this series could be semi-autobiographical, both in reality (for example, we know by Hogarth's own admission that when he was an engraver's apprentice he was idle and dissolute) and in terms of what it reveals of his ambition: he was always very conscious of his own social standing and that of others.
In the introductory scene we see the two heroes of our tale working at their looms. Francis Goodchild is toiling industriously, a copy of The 'Prentices Guide open on the floor, carefully propped against a thread winder. Above his head are two broadsheets with the words 'Whittington | Ld Mayor' and 'Valiant London 'Prentice,' obviously hinting towards his future. In contrast, his colleague Tom Idle is asleep when he should be working, his copy of the same 'Prentices Guide thrown on the floor, where it lies torn and neglected. Above his head is pinned Daniel Defoe's tale of Moll Flanders, the girl born in Newgate Prison who, after becoming a servant, embarks upon a career of prostitution, drunkenness and thievery which ultimately finds her facing a death sentence at the Old Bailey, later commuted to transportation to New England. In front of him is a (probably) empty ale mug inscribed Spitalfields, a place famous for its dissolute apprentices. On the far right of the picture the master is about to enter, carrying a large cudgel with which he will undoubtedly awaken the dozing Tom.
This first scene showcases an artistic technique which is deployed throughout the whole series. Whenever Goodchild is shown, the landscape that he inhabits is ordered and straight: there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place. Tom, however, is always surrounded by chaos. The lines are curved and disjointed—nothing quite fits together. The space that he inhabits is irrational and unpredictable, except for its final outcome. Beneath the portrayal of each man is an appropriate Bible verse. For Tom: "The Drunkard shall come to Poverty, & drowsiness shall cloath a man with rags." For Francis: "The hand of the diligent maketh rich."
The theme of the first pair of plates is the Church, a very Hogarthian symbol of established authority. In the second plate in the series, Francis is shown taking part in a service, while in the next plate Tom languishes outside a church. The positions of both are clear, both physically and morally: one is well situated inside the Establishment, the other set apart. However, if we look closely, we detect signs that not all is as it should be.
Francis appears to be concentrating on his singing, but his master's daughter has a gentle smile, perhaps a sign that she is enjoying the close proximity of this eligible young man whom she will eventually marry. Behind them a sleeping man appears to be snoring, while further to the right is a large well-dressed woman, full of her own importance. Only the old lady who holds the keys to the pew appears in any way devout, while the splendour of the interior occupies the central space. This is a church for those of wealth and status. It is not a deeply religious scene but one of social self-importance, an image that resonates with the theme of 'see and be seen.' However, Hogarth cannot resist a final irony: in the background, the pews are full of people crammed into tiny spaces like the prison cells where the likes of Tom will end their lives. The title tells us that Francis is 'performing the duty of a Christian,' which suggests that, like most of the others in the church that morning, he is only there because he feels he ought to be. Even as a young man, he has learnt that one way to get on in life is to be seen to conform to notions of 'respectability.' A bonus for him is that he is clearly acceptable to his master's daughter, an obvious path to social advancement. The Biblical extract reads: "O! How I love thy Law it is my meditation all day," which, in the context, is more of a reflection on social orthodoxy than on religious observance.
The contrasting third plate shows the exterior of the same church, probably at the same time as the previous scene. Some late parishioners are entering, while Tom is busy gambling and trying to hide money under his hat. Not only is he sprawled disrespectfully on top of a tomb, but he also looks as if he is trying to cheat his friends. The scene is the complete opposite of the previous one: unlike Francis, Tom is untrustworthy and dishonest, even amongst his so-called friends. His gambling colleagues are grotesque figures, ill-dressed and probably disease-ridden after a lifetime of debauchery and excess. Everything around them is either broken or upturned, and the splintered bones and skull from the freshly-dug grave not only symbolise the passage of time and Tom's ultimate fate, but also contribute to the overall effect of chaos that will epitomise Tom's life. This is not a place that a respectable person would like to be on a Sunday morning. Notice the friend with the eyepatch whom Tom is trying to cheat, for he will appear later—and also observe the parish beadle, who is about to deliver punishment amid the disorder. The Bible verse this time reads: "Judgements are prepared for scorners & stripes for the back of Fools."
The next pair of plates return us to the world of work. Here, in Plate Four, Francis has progressed from the workshop floor, which can be seen in the background, and is now working alongside his master, who leans on him with an outstretched arm pointing to the busy looms as if to say "One day, all this will be yours." A liveried servant of the City Corporation is shown delivering cloth, a symbol of the prosperity of the business and of Francis' success within it. The two entwined gloves in front of the men confirm that they are now trusted partners.
Once again, Hogarth cannot resist adding some disquieting humour. A dog, a symbol of steadfast loyalty, is annoying a nearby cat. Cats would have been an essential asset to a weaver's workshop, since mice and rats would eat and damage the expensive cloth, but they were also representative of a lazy, dissolute lifestyle, since they could not be trained or trusted like a dog. This cat is not backing away: his back is arched, his claws are out, and the dog is carefully keeping his distance despite his own aggressive stance. Hogarth is making explicit the idea that within our controlled, ordered world the wild and unpredictable will surface, no matter how much we may try to fight it. The Biblical text confirms Francis' rising stock in the commercial sphere: "Well done good and faithfull servant thou hast been faithfull over a few things, I will make you thee Ruler over many things."
The fifth plate, the companion piece to Plate Four, shows Tom on his way to a life at sea. His mother weeps as he is rowed to the waiting ship, indicated by one of the men. His apprentice's indenture, which he has just thrown overboard, is floating away, his association with his master and Francis now formally over. As in the other scenes concerning Tom, there is a threat of violence: the man behind him taunts him with the cat o' nine tails, the vicious whip commonly used for punishing sailors. On the coast, with its four windmills, Tom's fate is foreshadowed by a gibbet from which an executed criminal hangs, perhaps a sailor left there as a warning to others. The sailor's hand seems to be pointing towards the ship which Tom is about to board, but in fact it is closer to the gibbet, a warning which Tom will ignore. In contrast to the tidiness and symmetry of the weaver's workshop in the previous scene, the sea is choppy and uncontrolled, the sky dark and foreboding. The Bible verse emphasises the role of Tom's mother in this scene: "A foolish son is the heavinefs of his mother."
The next two plates reveal the apprentices' relationships with the opposite sex. In the first (Plate 6) Francis has just married his master's daughter, and his name and that of his father-in-law are visible on the sign in the top centre. The house itself is new and modern, built of stone, and just a few yards from the monument to the Great Fire of 1666 in the background. This is a wedding in which no expense has been spared. A servant is at the door, giving away scraps from the wedding feast to the poor. In the foreground is a famous London beggar of the period called 'Philip in the Tub,' an old soldier or sailor who had lost his legs, and who used to appear at weddings selling broadsheets. The one that he is advertising is entitled 'Jesse or the Happy Pair,' and is a ribald ballad which advises the new bridegroom on how to keep his wife under control. Behind the happy bridegroom, who is rewarding one of the drummers for his playing, his new wife is sniffing a nosegay. Although this is a happy, vibrant scene of a wedding day, lurking in the background are darker ideas which Hogarth's contemporaries would have understood. The band is playing 'rough' music with bones and drums, loud and chaotic. This was de rigeur at weddings, since it was thought to bring good luck to the marriage. However, 'rough' music would also be played to censure unions of those from widely differing social classes, and this wedding would certainly fit that mould. Francis has swiftly risen up the social ladder and is now safely established in its upper reaches, but he has not achieved this by hard work alone. The band also serves to remind us that the chaos which surrounds Tom Idle is never far from view, even when someone like Francis Goodchild is getting married. The Biblical text confirms the social importance to Francis of this marriage: "The Virtuous Woman is a Crown to her Husband."
In Plate 7, the contrast with the previous plate could not be greater: Tom has returned from the sea and is living in squalor. While in both plates the central characters are disturbed by loud noise, Tom's reaction is quite different to that of Francis—instead of openly engaging with his situation, he is panicked and withdrawn. Here, the noise is produced by a cat (the symbol of sloth and indiscipline) falling down the chimney and bringing several bricks down with him, which signifies the dilapidated nature of the house and also reminds us of the cats in previous plates. The bed on which Tom and his female companion lie is broken, as is their life together: she is carefully examining the spoils from his thieving, particularly an earring which strongly resembles a gallows, while the bottles on the mantlepiece are probably 'quack' cures for venereal disease. In contrast to the open doors, windows and light of the wedding scene, here everything is shuttered and enclosed, with solid planks holding the doors locked. The faded roof encloses the action, from which Tom has no escape, cowering in fear of discovery. The Biblical text emphasises the point: "The sound of a Shaken Leaf shall Chace him."
The next connected pair of plates return us to social interiors. In the eighth plate Francis, as one of the two sheriffs of London, is guest of honour at a City function, and his wife is there to support him. They sit in front of a portrait of William III (a king who did much to ensure the Protestant succession). Again, the scene is well ordered, as the 'great and good' enjoy a substantial meal, but Hogarth cannot resist poking fun at these righteous men. Francis and his wife are very much in the background, and the event itself is the subject. In the foreground, sharply in focus, are a group of eight men far too busy gorging themselves on food and drink to engage in any conversation. Hogarth's sharp eye shows us the greed and gluttony on display even at this exalted social level. The Bible verse accompanying this plate is particularly fascinating, since it hints that the marriage was a means by which Francis secured his social standing, perhaps even his position of sheriff, than a genuine love match. It reads: "With all thy getting get understanding, Exalt her, & she shall promote thee: she shall bring thee to honour, when thou dost Embrace her." The verse refers to understanding, but 'she' suggests a different interpretation in these circumstances.
Tom's social interior, depicted in Plate 9, is quite different. In 1747, there was a noted house in Chick Lane, Smithfield, called the Blood-Bowl House, so named for the apparent frequency of violent acts which took place within its walls. It was a meeting-place for prostitutes, thieves and receivers of stolen goods, and an inn where, according to Hogarth's biographer of 1833, "there seldom passed a month without the commission of some act of murder."
Things have progressed in our story, and the spent pistol on the floor is a clear indication that someone has been murdered. The friend with the eyepatch who was with Tom outside the church in Plate Three is now sharing the spoils of a robbery with him, and neither seems aware of the anarchy around him. The murdered man is being thrown into the cellar, while behind the central figures, a massive brawl is taking place. Between Tom and his accomplice is a woman carrying a large tankard; most of her nose is missing, a symptom, at the time, of advanced syphilis. Some playing cards are littered on the floor, evidence that gambling (probably fixed) often takes place here. A shadowy figure beside the fireplace wears a soldier's uniform and hat, and is likely on the prowl for female company. To the left, Tom's female companion can be seen taking a coin from an officer of the law who is entering the room. There is no escape for Tom, although his absorption makes him oblivious to what is about to take place. Unlike Francis' wife, who has helped him make his way up the social ladder, Tom's companion has ensured that he is about to be swept away from it altogether. The Biblical text here is rather enigmatic, referring to her, rather than to Tom directly: "The Adultrefs will hunt for precious life."
The last time that we saw our two heroes together was in the first frame. Breaking the cycle of paired images, the tenth image shows them meeting for the last time. At the beginning of the series, the two men occupied the same social space: a weaver's workshop. Now they are not only socially divided - Tom is a common criminal, while Francis is now a magistrate - but there is also a physical barrier between them. On one side is order, represented by the magistrate enforcing the law, while on the other the dishevelled criminal pleads for his life, with a noisy crowd behind him waving various swords and pikes. Francis covers his eyes as Tom unsuccessfully pleads his case. Hogarth seems to be setting the scene for the final act, but this morality play again has a subversive undercurrent. To the left, the bailiff is swearing in Tom's accomplice who has turned King's evidence, but the latter is swearing the oath with his left hand, making his testimony illegal. Look carefully, and you will see Tom's former companion slipping money into the hand that the bailiff is holding behind his back. Why? Tom's mother weeps while the court official, who closely resembles one of the gluttons in Plate Eight, studiously ignores her. So is Francis turning his head away in revulsion at Tom's misdeeds, or because he is aware that a miscarriage of justice is taking place and that he is party to his old friend's execution for a crime that he did not commit? The two biblical extracts, one for each man, offer a clue. For Tom: "The wicked is snar'd in the work of his own hands." For Francis: "Thou shall do no unrighteousnefs in judgement."
The final scenes show Hogarth at the peak of his powers, with two depictions of public celebration, one macabre, the other supposedly joyous. In the first image (Plate 11)Tom, on a cart accompanied by a Methodist preacher, is desperately studying the Book of Common Prayer while leaning against his own coffin. The executioner sits astride the crossbeams of the gallows in the background, smoking his pipe, clearly bored with waiting for his next victim. Tom is the centre of attention in the final moments of his life, surrounded by the swirling mass of London's inhabitants. The chaotic crowd scene dominates the foreground. All kinds of cruelty and barbarism are taking place. In the centre, a drunken woman holds a baby while trying to sell a broadsheet of Tom's final words, despite the fact that he has not spoken them yet. Behind her is a brawl, and to her left a drunkard holds a dog cruelly by the tail, perhaps a metaphor for the fate of the loyal. Further along a pickpocket is at work, watched carefully by two young apprentices enjoying their Tyburn holiday-are these the next young Tom and Francis in their first days together? To the right, an upturned fruit cart is the scene of yet another fight. One can almost hear the noise and commotion as the crowd push forward to get a good view of the gibbet and the final act. The ultimate irony, personified by the pickpocket, is that most of the crowd in the centre come from the very social group who will provide the next victim for Tyburn's hanging tree. The Bible verse merely confirms Tom's miserable fate, but is also a warning to those who have attended his execution: "When fear cometh as desolation, and their destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distrefs cometh upon them, they shall call upon God, but he will not answer."
In the twelfth and final scene the crowd are acknowledging the installation of Francis as Lord Mayor of London. The fine buildings are overflowing with well-dressed spectators enjoying the passage of one of their own, as he makes his way home from receiving the highest honour that the city can bestow. They politely fill the windows and balconies of the new stone buildings. The Prince and Princess of Wales occupy the balcony on the right, their presence giving the occasion the stamp of royal authority. However, as with the previous scene, most of the action concerns the spectators in the foreground. On the far right a boy holds a broadsheet offering 'A full & true account of ye Ghoft of Tho. Idle.' Next to him is a riotous group of militia with muskets and tankards, one of whom celebrates by firing his weapon into the air. Presumably they are there to keep order, but have become carried away and are now joining in. The rest of the crowd push and jostle, rather like the spectators in the previous scene. On the far left, a drunken pair look as if they are about to fall over a child pushing a wheelbarrow.
So far as Francis is concerned, he now has the reward that all his hard work deserves, and yet Hogarth inserts a final twist. As we look at the little figure in the grand coach gazing wistfully at the teeming horde of humanity in front of him, does he not appear slightly ridiculous? His hat is enormous, and the sword of state is so large that it has to poke out of the window. Francis has succeeded in all that he set out to achieve, but is it really worth anything? Would he be happier as one of the crowd again? This final plate is bordered by cornucopias (horns of plenty) which support the last, possibly ironic Biblical reference: "Length of days is in her right hand and in her left hand Riches and Honour."--Paul Flux