In connection with the National Museum’s exhibition “Grayson Perry. Fitting In and Standing Out”, we invite you to an intimate encounter with the picture story “A Rake’s Progress”. The series consists of eight paintings executed in 1732–34 by the English painter William Hogarth (1697–1764). In 1735, Hogarth published the pictures as a series of etchings, and it is a set of these prints that are presented in this exhibition.

The reason for showing “A Rake’s Progress” in parallel with the Grayson Perry exhibition is that Perry’s tapestry series “The Vanity of Small Differences” from 2012 is inspired by Hogarth’s famous tale, which Perry relocates to contemporary Britain. Perry’s series of six woven tapestries can be seen on a video screen, alongside Hogarth’s original prints.

A new socially engaged art

William Hogarth is often called the father of English painting. During the 18th century, London’s population expanded rapidly and the city gained a large, wealthy middle class. This social group was hungry for paintings that reflected their everyday life and concerns. It was the court and the nobility who defined tastes in visual art, while styles of execution and subject matter were under the control of the Royal Academy of Arts. For the Academy and many of its artists, it was Italy and France that set the standards for good painting. But mythological and religious themes and the formal style held less appeal for the nouveau riche middle class. A new market for art emerged that allowed artists to make a living independently of the Academy and the patronage the upper class. One of the innovations that found popularity was the picture story, a genre that reflected modern life in the big city in all its facets.

A Rake’s Progress

“A Rake’s Progress” is the story of Tom Rakewell. The tale begins with Tom inheriting money from his father. It is no small fortune that the miserly and ascetic merchant has left his son. Tom is a womaniser with a penchant for partying, gambling and luxury. He is born into the middle class, but aspires to improve his social standing. His inheritance is soon exhausted and he is arrested for falling into debt. His former fiancée rescues him from his predicament. But to secure a new fortune, he marries a wealthy, elderly widow. After losing every last penny at the gambling table, he is thrown into the debtor’s prison. Tom ends his days in a mental hospital, ravished by syphilis.

Hogarth tells this story in a series of action-packed pictures, a satirical narrative form that he fills with references to celebrities, class identity and taste. We follow Tom on a journey through the social classes of 18th century London.

The Vanity of Small Differences

In the tapestry series “The Vanities of Small Differences”, Grayson Perry imagines how Rakewell’s story might unfold if set in contemporary Britain, albeit with a different starting point. The protagonist of Grayson’s story is one Tim Rakewell, the son of a working-class single mother. A computer geek, Tim takes the leap out of the working class by going to university to study computer science. There he meets his future wife, a girl from higher up the social ladder. Tim builds a successful computer company and settles down to a prosperous family life in the upper middle class. On selling his company, he becomes fantastically rich and buys a country estate, where his neighbours are members of the nobility. But the upper class can only be admired from the outside, and Tim has no hope of becoming one of them. Suffering a mid-life crisis, Tim acquires a new glamorous young wife and a Ferrari. But he cannot escape his class background and its culture of rowdiness. He meets his end in a traffic accident.

Like Hogarth’s story, Perry’s pictures are full of action and the story is conveyed through satire and humour. With its numerous allusions to taste and class identity, the series depicts a journey through contemporary British class society.