In 1725 Sir James Thornhill, the greatest British artist of the time, responsible for the spectacular decoration of the inner dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Painted Hall at Greenwich, opened a free school for artists at his home at Covent Garden. Hogarth joined the group of similarly-minded artists and sometimes acted as an assistant, finishing details of some of Thornhill’s commissions.
For several years Hogarth had been making sketches of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras poems, a satire on the Civil War of the previous century. During 1725 he created a series of twelve large prints and, working in conjunction with the print-seller Philip Overton, invited subscriptions. The prints were delivered in early 1726 and were so successful that smaller versions were issued several months later to accompany a new publication of the poem. These prints, in which he told a visual story over a series of illustrations, marked a new and important step in his career.
By the mid-1720s Hogarth was already producing pictures of a theatrical nature. The outstanding success of 1728 was John Rich’s adaption of John Gay’s play The Beggar’s Opera. His normal modus operandi would have been to quickly publish a social commentary inspired by the play, profiting on the back of its great popularity with the public at large. This time, however, he changed his method and chose initially to produce a single oil painting. To do so he sat in the audience, drawing on large sheets of sketching paper and it is the earliest painting to record a scene from an actual English stage play. Over several years Hogarth produced six versions of The Beggar’s Opera based on his original and it created a lasting friendship between Hogarth and Rich, who purchased the original and then commissioned a larger version to hang in his new Covent Garden Theatre (now the Royal Opera House).
From his time at the academy, Hogarth knew Thornhill’s daughter Jane. In 1729, when Hogarth was 32 and she still only 19, Hogarth obtained a marriage certificate and three days later they wed out of town, at the parish church at Paddington, without the consent of Jane’s father. Despite an initial rift, Hogarth and Thornhill were to later become friends and collaborators.
The success of The Beggar’s Opera and the contacts made through Committee of the House of Commons of 1729 brought new connections and a steady flow of commissions from aristocrats, politicians and mercantile clients. The majority of the nearly 30 paintings he produced between 1728 and 1732 were ‘conversation pieces’, family group portraits.
What was becoming clear by the beginning of the 1730s was Hogarth’s increasing ability to visually tell a dramatic story through a group of characters and their theatrical setting. What began as a simple sketch of a Drury Lane prostitute and her servant in 1730 attracted favourable comments. Hogarth was encouraged to gradually extend it into a series of six paintings called The Harlot’s Progress. He had previously produced many individual settings but this was the first to tell a complete visual dramatisation without text. Not only was it an everyday and contemporary story that Londoners could relate to but also featured known, living, and notorious people recently involved in scandals. Each of the six pictures acts much like a scene in a play, with the drama played out through the actions of the individual characters, told visually, and therefore appealing even to the illiterate. Although a serious moralistic tale it also contains humour and, while acting as a warning, does not preach a particular argument.
The original set of paintings of The Harlot’s Progress were exhibited at Thornhill’s home in the spring of 1732 and caused a sensation, bringing critical acclaim for combining satire with fine art, and made a celebrity of their creator. Many satirical and humorous prints were being produced at the time but The Harlot’s Progress was something new and original that Londoners had not seen before. Hogarth invited subscriptions to a series of prints, word spread around London, and he was quickly enjoying a healthy income of up to £100 per week.