In his youth, Hogarth showed few signs of amounting to much. He was born in 1697 to an unsuccessful entrepreneur who ended up in Fleet Street Prison for unpaid debts, a fate so notorious in England that both Shakespeare and Dickens wrote about it. Forced to work to support his family, the young Hogarth became an apprentice to a silversmith, who taught him the delicate craft of engraving. By the early 1720s, he was paying his way by carving designs for publishers and shopkeepers, while also using the same skill set to fashion more elaborate prints of his own design. Initially, he had no way of reproducing or selling his art without the services of a professional printer, who monopolized the required technology and took a hefty bite of the profits.
Hogarth’s earliest surviving prints date from around this period, and one of the many miracles of his career is that, even in his early twenties, his visual style—marked by ribald humor, richness of detail, and a devastatingly sharp eye for faces—already seems completely, unmistakably Hogarthian. The South Sea Scheme (1721), occasioned by a recent economic panic, surveys the sorry suckers—prostitutes, members of the clergy, and everyone in-between—who are about to squander their money on worthless joint stock companies, appropriately symbolized by a merry-go-round. Speculators push and shove for a chance to ride the sinister machine, oblivious to what will happen if they fall off.
A decade later, Hogarth scored his first major commercial success with another panoramic work of social satire: a six-part mock-epic about a young lass who travels to London, prostitutes herself, and succumbs to venereal disease. This series, “A Harlot’s Progress” (1732), so delighted London’s merchant classes that Hogarth, breaking artistic protocol for the time, was able to sell his works directly to buyers instead of depending on a middleman dealer. He even succeeded in lobbying for a law that cracked down on publishers selling bootlegged copies, so that he would continue to earn 100 percent of the profits for his intellectual property. This law, the “Hogarth Act” of 1735, was a milestone in British copyright law and would have been enough to get the artist’s name in the books, even if he’d never drawn another line.