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'Dark icons' ruled the streets of eighteenth-century London. Known to all, they had an over- bearing presence, which inflicted both a sense of fear and nervous excitement in the general public. These 'dark icons' inspired some of the period's best art; William Hogarth found humour in the darkest of characters. Eighteenth-century society was very divided, between the fabulously wealthy aristocrats and the desperately poor. Such a stark contrast created friction and a high crime rate. The lower classes resorted to a life of excessive drinking, violence, and prostitution to forge their way in society and escape their grim reality. Some of the 'dark icons' that feature in this gallery contributed to a very high mortality rate during the period. Gin's introduction to English society was a catalyst for the deterioration of London. Addiction to it influenced people's behaviour, causing them to lose sight of their morals to the extent that they would literally kill for the next sip. Due to the lack of an organised police force and few respected authority figures, murder was common. However, if you were caught, the punishment was severe; you would be hanged at Tyburn, as crowds of indifferent spectators watched. Some condemned criminals were notorious and would have been immediately recognised in Hogarth's work, such as Mother Needham a notorious brothel-keeper who died of the injuries sustained while standing at the pillory, a sentence she received for keeping a 'disorderly house.' Her death in 1731 shortly preceded her appearance in plate one of Hogarth's The Harlot's Progress. The dark world of prostitution was a recurring subject for the artist. One of the fatal consequences of the trade - the contraction of syphilis - is frequently alluded to in his images through the ominous presence of black beauty spots used to hide the symptomatic sores. Yet, a life in Bedlam asylum was, perhaps, a fate worse than a syphilitic death. Inside the mental institution, life consisted of 'madness' and 'melancholy', and often, patients served as entertainment for visiting members of the upper classes, as can be seen in the final plate of The Rake's Progress.

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All images © Trustees of the British Museum

1.William Hogarth, A Harlot's Progress, Plate I, engraving (1732)
2.Anonymous, The Funeral Procession of Madam Geneva, engraving (1736)
3.Bernard Baron after William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode, Plate III ("The Inspection"), engraving (1745)
4.William Hogarth, The Four Stages of Cruelty, Plate III ("Cruelty in Perfection"), engraving (1751)
5.William Hogarth, The Four Stages of Cruelty, Plate IV ("The Reward of Cruelty"), engraving (1751)
6. William Hogarth, A Rake's Progress, Plate VIII, engraving (1735)