WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Abbess

Well, if turnabout is fair play, it’s time to examine A Harlot’s Progress by William Hogarth. I’ll be the first to admit: Moll’s story seems much sadder to me than Tom Rakewell’s.

The history behind the art is fascinating. There were two schools of thought in conflict in the war on prostitution at the time of Hogarth’s painting. The official attempts at eradication were championed by Justice John Gonson, whose fervent enthusiasm to clean up London – especially Covent Garden – was regularly documented in the city papers. Both brothel and street prostitutes were initially portrayed as “vain, artful temptresses” wholly responsible for “moral corruption and the spread of disease.” With a little time and investigation, however, public perception became tempered by a new impression of the prostitute as a blameless country girl who came to the city, alone and entirely vulnerable, only to be gulled into harlotry by malicious a brothel keeper.

Hogarth combined these two depictions into his Harlot, Moll Hackabout, and even referenced several real-life characters in some scenes (including Justice Gonson). He struck upon the idea of painting the story of his fictional Moll after painting the portrait of a prostitute in her living quarters on Drury Lane. He decided to paint Moll’s life from her arrival in London from the country through her eventual death in the city in an allegorical manner similar to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Moll’s story then led him to paint A Rake’s Progress and, ten years later, Marriage à-la-mode.

A Harlot’s Progress was a series of six paintings and engravings. The paintings were destroyed in a fire at Fonthill House in 1755, but the original engraving plates survived, and are in the public domain.


A bawd, the mistress of a brothel.

A Harlot’s Progress – Plate 1 – Moll Hackabout Arrives in London, by Willliam Hogarth, 1732, Public Domain.

From the Wikipedia description:

The protagonist, Moll Hackabout, has arrived in London’s Cheapside. Moll carries scissors and a pincushion hanging on her arm, suggesting that she sought employment as a seamstress. Instead, she is being inspected by the pox-ridden Elizabeth Needham, a notorious procuress and brothel-keeper, who wants to secure Moll for prostitution. The notorious rake Colonel Francis Charteris and his pimp, John Gourlay, look on, also interested in Moll. The two stand in front of a decaying building, symbolic of their moral bankruptcy. Charteris fondles himself in expectation.

Close up of brothel owner – Abbess – A Harlot’s Progress – Plate 1 – Moll Hackabout Arrives in London, by Willliam Hogarth, 1732, Public Domain.

Londoners ignore the scene, and even a mounted clergyman ignores her predicament, just as he ignores the fact of his horse knocking over a pile of pans.

Moll appears to have been deceived by the possibility of legitimate employment. A goose in Moll’s luggage is addressed to “My lofing cosen in Tems Stret in London”: suggesting that she has been misled; this “cousin” might have been a recruiter or a paid-off dupe of the bawdy keepers. Moll is dressed in white, in contrast to those around her, illustrating her innocence and naiveté. The dead goose in or near Moll’s luggage, similarly white, foreshadows Moll’s death as a result of her gullibility.

The inn sign, with a picture of a bell, may refer to the belle (French for beautiful woman) who has newly arrived from the country. The teetering pile of pans alludes to Moll’s imminent “fall”. The goose and the teetering pans also mimic the inevitable impotence that ensues from syphilis, foreshadowing Moll’s specific fate.

The composition resembles that of a Visitation, i.e. the visit of Mary with Elizabeth as recorded in the Gospel of Luke 1:39–56.

Close up of clergyman ignoring Moll – A Harlot’s Progress – Plate 1 – Moll Hackabout Arrives in London, by Willliam Hogarth, 1732, Public Domain.


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