Progress retold

David Hockney, A Rake’s Progress, Plate No. 1 – The Arrival, 1961-63

If Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress was a morality tale for its time then it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s a tale that’s been retold by others for different times and changed moral imperatives. Over time inevitably, things change. There are few – if any – moral absolutes. Interpretation is key. Produced over two centuries after Hogarth’s series, David Hockney’s  A Rake’s Progress tells the familiar tale of inheritance leading to a dissolute life and, ultimately, the mad house in a series of 16 prints: twice as many as the original, but fewer than the 24 plates apparently originally suggested to Hockney. Started while Hockney was still studying at the Royal College of Art, the series was largely made in London but is set in New York, where Hockney spent the summer of 1961. The rake here is Hockney himself, though he is drawing on his own experiences and twisting them to broadly fit Hogarth’s narrative, so that rather than receiving an inheritance from his father, Hockney’s rake gets money from a collector, though he is beaten down from $20 to $18 for his print.

Plate 1a – Receiving the Inheritance

Hockney references not only his own experiences but observations drawn from advertising and the shock to the system of arriving in New York at the start of the 1960s. Though Hockney travelled from London, where he’d been living as a student for a couple of years, the scale and pace of New York must have come as a shock to the system and it’s evident from the series that he embraced the challenge of a new culture.

Plate 3 – The Start of the Spending Spree and the Door Opens for A Blonde

In Plate 3 the reference to the door opening for a blonde for instance tells of Hockney dyeing his hair blonde – presumably to look more fashionable, in much the same way as Hogarth’s Rakewell dons fashionable clothes – while also referring to a Clairol advertising campaign of the time. Hockney’s vision of Bedlam is of identikit people all plugged in to the same radio station, WADC.

Plate 8a – Bedlam

I think one of the main pleasures of this work for me is the way that it can be read as a narrative or unpicked further to reveal more about the time in which it was made. The way Hockney has made his own experiences fit broadly into Hogarth’s narrative reveals a lot not only about the life of a promising young artist at the start of his career in a time of immense social and cultural change but also about Hockney’s wit. This is a work that becomes more entertaining the more one engages with it.

Over the intervening half century, Hockney has made work in different styles drawing on a wide range of subject matter – as his exhibition at the Royal Academy earlier this year amply demonstrated, and for my money, mostly not in a good way – but, for me at least, it’s the work from the start of his career, and in particular the work he made while at the RCA that is the strongest, and perhaps the most subversive.

David Hockney: A Rake’s Progress is currently on display at Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, Cumbria [thanks to John Pindar for the info].

The series is also in the Tate Collection but not currently on display, although it is possible to arrange to see prints and drawings by appointment.

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