The Four Stages of Cruelty

The Four Stages of Cruelty

"The Four Stages of Cruelty" is a series of four printed engravings published by William Hogarth in 1751. Each print depicts a different stage in the life of the fictional Tom Nero.

Beginning with the torture of a dog as a child in the "First stage of cruelty", Nero progresses to beating his horse as a man in the "Second stage of cruelty", and then to robbery, seduction, and murder in "Cruelty in perfection". Finally, in "The reward of cruelty", he receives what Hogarth warns is the inevitable fate of those who start down the path Nero has followed: his body is taken from the gallows after his execution as a murderer and is mutilated by surgeons in the anatomical theatre.

The prints were intended as a form of moral instruction; Hogarth was dismayed by the routine acts of cruelty he witnessed on the streets of London. Issued on cheap paper, the prints were destined for the lower classes. The series shows a roughness of execution and a brutality that is untempered by the humorous touches common in Hogarth's other works, but which he felt was necessary to impress his message on the intended audience. Nevertheless, the pictures still carry the wealth of detail and subtle references that are characteristic of Hogarth.


In common with other prints by Hogarth, such as "Beer Street" and "Gin Lane", "The Four Stages of Cruelty" was issued as a warning against immoral behaviour, showing the easy path from childish thug to convicted criminal. His aim was to correct "that barbarous treatment of animals, the very sight of which renders the streets of our metropolis so distressing to every feeling mind".cite book|title=Anecdotes of William Hogarth, Written by Himself: With Essays on His Life and Genius, and Criticisms on his Work|author=William Hogarth|chapter=Remarks on various prints|pages=pages 64–65, 233–238 and 336|year=1833|publisher=J.B. Nichols and Son
] Hogarth loved animals, picturing himself with his pug in a self-portrait, and marking the graves of his dogs and birds at his home in Chiswick. [cite book|author=Uglow, Jenny|title=Hogarth: a life and a world|publisher=Faber and Faber|year=1997|id=ISBN 0-571-16996-1|pages=501]

Hogarth deliberately portrayed the subjects of the engravings with little subtlety since he meant the prints to be understood by "men of the lowest rank" when seen on the walls of workshops or taverns.cite web
title=Art of William Hogarth|publisher=Haley and Steele|year=2003|accessmonthday=15 January|accessyear=2007
] The images themselves, as with "Beer Street" and "Gin Lane", were roughly drawn, lacking the finer lines of some of his other works. Fine engraving and delicate artwork would have rendered the prints too expensive for the intended audience, and Hogarth also believed a bold stroke could portray the passions of the subjects just as well as fine lines, noting that "neither great correctness of drawing or fine engraving were at all necessary". [Quoted in Uglow, p.506.]

To ensure that the prints were priced within reach of the intended audience, Hogarth originally commissioned the block-cutter J. Bell to produce the four designs as woodcuts. This proved more expensive than expected, so only the last two of the four images were cut and were not issued commercially at the time. Instead, Hogarth proceeded to create the engravings himself and announced the publication of the prints, along with that of "Beer Street" and "Gin Lane", in the "London Evening Post" over three days from 14 February – 16 February 1751.cite book|title=Hogarth: Art and Politics, 1750–64 Vol 3|author=Ronald Paulson|pages=596|publisher=Lutterworth Press|year=1993|id=ISBN 0718828755] The prints themselves were published on 21 February 1751cite web|url=|title=The Four Stages of Cruelty|author=I. R. F. Gordon|publisher=The Literary Encyclopedia|date=2003-11-05|accessmonthday=15 January|accessyear=2007] and each was accompanied by a moralising commentary, written by the Rev. James Townley, a friend of Hogarth's. As with earlier engravings, such as "Industry and Idleness", individual prints were sold on "ordinary" paper for "1s." (one shilling), cheap enough to be purchased by the lower classes as a means of moral instruction. "Fine" versions were also available on "superior" paper for "1s. 6d." (one shilling and sixpence), for collectors.

Variations on plates III and IV exist from Bell's original woodcuts, bearing the earlier date of 1 January 1750, and were reprinted in 1790 by John Boydell, but examples from either of the woodcut printings are uncommon.Ref_label|A|a|none


"First stage of cruelty"

In the first print Hogarth introduces Tom Nero, whose name may have been inspired by the Roman Emperor of the same name or a contraction of "No hero".cite web|url=,,1356440,00.html|title=A Georgian invention|author=Jonathan Jones|date=2004-11-22|publisher=Guardian|accessdate=28 January|accessyear=2007] cite journal|journal=British Medical Journal|volume=309|issue=6970|title=Dr Doubledose: a taste of one's own medicine|author=Roy Porter|date=1994-12-24|pages=1714–1718|url=|accessdate=28 January|accessyear=2007|pmid=7819999|doi=10.1136/bmj.309.6970.1714] Conspicuous in the centre of the plate, he is shown being assisted by other boys to insert an arrow into a dog's rectum, a torture apparently inspired by a devil punishing a sinner in Jacques Callot's "Temptation of St. Anthony". An initialled badge on the shoulder of his light-hued and ragged coat shows him to be a pupil of the charity school of the parish of St Giles. Hogarth used this notorious slum area as the background for many of his works including "Gin Lane" and "Noon", part of the "Four Times of the Day" series. A more tender-hearted boy, perhaps the dog's owner,cite book|title=Engravings by Hogarth: 101 Prints|author=Sean Shesgreen|year=1974|publisher=Dover Publications, Inc.|location=New York|url=|id=ISBN 0486224791Dead link|date=October 2008] pleads with Nero to stop tormenting the frightened animal, even offering food in an attempt to appease him. This boy supposedly represents a young George III.cite book|title=Anecdotes of William Hogarth, Written by Himself: With Essays on His Life and Genius, and Criticisms on his Work|author=John Ireland|chapter=Four stages of cruelty|pages=233–40|year=1833|publisher=J.B. Nichols and Son|url= ] His appearance is deliberately more pleasing than the scowling ugly ruffians that populate the rest of the picture, made clear in the text at the bottom of the scene:

Various features in the print are meant to intensify the feelings of dread: the murder takes place in a graveyard, said to be St Pancras but suggested by John Ireland to resemble Marylebone; an owl and a bat fly around the scene; the moon shines down on the crime; the clock strikes one for the end of the witching hour. The composition of the image may allude to Anthony van Dyck's "The Arrest of Christ".cite book|title=Hogarth's Enthusiasm Delineated: Borrowing from the Old Masters as a Weapon in the War between an English Artist and self-styled Connoisseurs|author=Bernd Krysmanski|location=New York|publisher=Georg Olms|year=1996|id=ISBN 3-487-10233-1] A lone Good Samaritan appears again: among the snarling faces of Tom's accusers, a single face looks to the heavens in pity.

In the alternative image for this stage, produced as a woodcut by Bell, Tom is shown with his hands free. There are also differences in the wording of the letter and some items, like the lantern and books, are larger and simpler while others, such as the man to the left of Tom and the topiary bush, have been removed.cite book|title=Hogarth|author=Ronald Paulson|publisher=James Clarke & Co.|year=1992|id= ISBN 0718828755|pages=35] The owl has become a winged hourglass on the clock tower.

"The reward of cruelty"

Having been tried and found guilty of murder, Nero has now been hanged and his body taken for the ignominious process of public dissection. The year after the prints were issued, the Murder Act 1752 would ensure that the bodies of murderers could be delivered to the surgeons so they could be "dissected and anatomised". It was hoped this further punishment on the body and denial of burial would act as a deterrent.cite web|url=|title=Criminal Punishment at the Old Bailey|year=2003|publisher=The Old Bailey Proceedings Online|accessmonthday=12 January|accessyear= 2007Dead link|date=October 2008] At the time Hogarth made the engravings, this right was not enshrined in law, but the surgeons still removed bodies when they could.

A tattoo on his arm identifies Tom Nero, and the rope still around his neck shows his method of execution. The dissectors, their hearts hardened after years of working with cadavers, are shown to have as much feeling for the body as Nero had for his victims; his eye is put out just as his horse's was, and a dog feeds on his heart, taking a poetic revenge for the torture inflicted on one of its kind in the first plate. Nero's face appears contorted in agony and although this depiction is not realistic, Hogarth meant it to heighten the fear for the audience. Just as his murdered mistress's finger pointed to Nero's destiny in "Cruelty in Perfection", in this print Nero's finger points to the bones being prepared for display, indicating his ultimate fate.

While the surgeons working on the body are observed by the mortar-boarded academics in the front row, the physicians, who can be identified by their wigs and canes, largely ignore the dissection and consult among themselves.cite book|title=From Hogarth to Rowlandson: Medicine in Art in Eighteenth-century Britain|author=Fiona Haslam|publisher=Liverpool University Press|year=1996 | location=Liverpool|pages=264–5|id=ISBN 0853236305] The president has been identified as John Freke, president of the Royal College of Surgeons at the time.Ref_label|D|d|none Freke had been involved in the high-profile attempt to secure the body of condemned rioter Bosavern Penlez for dissection in 1749.Aside from the over-enthusiastic dissection of the body and the boiling of the bones "in situ", the image portrays the procedure as it would have been carried out.cite journal|journal=Bulletin of the Medical Library Association|volume=32|issue=3|year=1944|pages=356–368|title=William Hogarth and the Doctors|author=Finlay Foster|url=|pmid=16016656]

Two skeletons to the rear left and right of the print are labelled as James Field, a well-known boxer who also featured on a poster in the second plate, and Macleane, an infamous highwayman. Both men were hanged shortly before the print was published. The skeletons seemingly point to one another. Field's name above the skeleton on the left may have been a last minute substitution for "GENTL HARRY" referring to Henry Simms, also known as Young Gentleman Harry. Simms was a robber who was executed in 1747. The motif of the lone "good man" is carried through to this final plate, where one of the academics points at the skeleton of James Field, indicating the inevitable outcome for those who start down the path of cruelty.

The composition of the scene is a pastiche of the frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius's "De humani corporis fabrica", and it possibly also borrows from "Quack Physicians' Hall" (c. 1730) by the Dutch artist Egbert van Heemskirk, who had lived in England and whose work Hogarth admired. An earlier source of inspiration may have been a woodcut in the 1495 "Fasciculo di medicina" by Johannes de Ketham which, although simpler, has many of the same elements, including the seated president flanked by two windows.

Below the print are these final words:


Hogarth was pleased with the results. "European Magazine" reported that he commented to a bookseller from Cornhill (a Mr. Sewell):In his unfinished "Apology for Painters" he commented further:In his 1817 book "Shakespeare and His Times", Nathan Drake credits the representation of "throwing at cocks" in the first plate for changing public opinion about the practice, which was common at the time, and prompting magistrates to take a harder line on offenders.Others found the series less to their liking. Charles Lamb dismissed the series as mere caricature, not worthy to be included alongside Hogarth's other work, but rather something produced as the result of a "wayward humour" outside of his normal habits.cite journal|journal=The Reflector|author=Charles Lamb|title=On the genius and character of Hogarth: with some remarks on a passage in the writings of the late Mr. Barry|volume=2|issue=3|year=1811|pages=61–77|url= link|date=October 2008] Art historian Allan Cunningham also had strong feelings about the series:cite book|title=The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters and Sculptors|chapter=William Hogarth|author=Allan Cunningham|pages=57|year=1831|publisher=J and J Harper] The Anatomy Act 1832 ended the dissection of murderers, and most of the animal tortures depicted were outlawed by the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835, so by the 1850s "The Four Stages of Cruelty" had come to be viewed as a somewhat historical series, though still one with the power to shock,cite book|title=John Casell's Art Treasures Exhibition|publisher=John Cassell|year=1858|publisher=W. Kent and Co.] a power it retains for a modern audience.


a. Note_label|A|a|noneA pair of impressions from Bell's original printing were acquired for £1600 by the University of Glasgow's Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery in 2005.cite web|url=|title=National Fund for Acquisitions Grants Paid 2005–2006|publisher=National Museums of Scotland|year=2006|accessmonthday=25 January|accessyear=2007]

b. Note_label|B|b|noneThere is some confusion over the date of George "The Barber" Taylor's career and death. In his earlier work Paulson puts him as a pupil of Broughton, killed in a fight with him in 1750, and the Tate Gallery dates Hogarth's sketches to c.1750.cite web
url=|title=George Taylor Triumphing over Death|publisher=Tate Collection|year=2004|accessmonthday=25 January|accessyear=2007
] In "Hogarth's "Harlot", he states that Taylor retired in 1750 but came out of retirement in 1757 for a final fight in which he was badly beaten, dying from his injuries several months later. Most records date Taylor's championship to the middle 1730s.

c. Note_label|C|c|noneThe initials on the box are normally read as A. G. for Ann Gill, but the G resembles a D, suggesting the box too may have been stolen.

d. Note_label|D|d|noneJohn Ireland identifies the president as "Mr Frieake, the master of Nourse, to whom Mr Potts was a pupil". Since Ireland identifies him as the master of Nourse, he undoubtedly means John Freke, an acquaintance of Hogarth's and surgeon at St Bartholomew's Hospital from 1729–1755 and a Governor 1736–1756. The dissection could be taking place at St Bartholomew's Hospital, where all three surgeons were based, but it also has features of the Cutlerian Theatre of the Royal College of Physicians near Newgate (particularly the throne, which bears their arms, and its curved wall resembling a cockpit) and the niches of the Barber-Surgeons' Hall (which was not used for dissection after the Surgeons split away to form the Company of Surgeons in 1745).


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