Jun 292011

This is an essay about rakes—human and otherwise—about words, definitions, art, 18th century London, paper, printmaking and William Hogarth. It’s an essay that shows what you can do via the simple art of meditation (with a little repetition thrown in), or it demonstrates how a word has tentacles that stretch far and wide into the culture at large, into history, into the inner reaches of human existence. It has a lovely zen feel AND it has pictures.

Susan Olding is the author of Pathologies: A Life in Essays, which won the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Readers’ Choice Award and was longlisted for the BC National Award for Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals in Canada and the U.S., including The New Quarterly, Prairie Fire, and The Utne Reader. A two-time winner of the Event creative nonfiction contest, she also won the inaugural Edna Award for Nonfiction from TNQ and the Brenda Ueland Prose Prize for Literary Nonfiction from Water~Stone (Minnesota).  She lives in Kingston, Ontario.

“A Rake’s Progress” is slated to appear in Slice Me Some Truth: An Anthology of Canadian Nonfiction, edited by Luanne Armstrong and Zoe Landale (to be published by Wolsak and Wynn later this summer).



A Rake’s Progress

By Susan Olding



As a child, I hated the rake. I hated the way its tines caught the long grass. I hated the blisters it raised on my hands. I hated bagging. The leaves clumped in slimy piles. The piles hid fallen apples, pocked with wormholes, soft with rot. Why did I have to rake, while my friends’ voices rang in some happy outdoor game, or while my book lay open near the fireplace? Was it my idea to plant so many trees? The rake was taller than I was. We made ungainly dance partners. Reluctant to lead, I wrenched the thing around; stiff and obtuse, it stuttered behind or scraped against my shoes. If I complained enough, my mother might relieve me of my duties. I’d slink away, guilty in the knowledge that I’d bought my sloth at the expense of her sore back.


I used a fan rake. The kind whose tines spread wide as a peacock’s tail. But rakes come in dozens of varieties. There are rakes made of steel, aluminium, bamboo, and rubber. Adjustable rakes, crescent-shaped rakes, snaggle-tooth rakes, thatch-removing rakes, rock rakes that look like pitchforks, double-fans that hinge like jaws. There are rakes designed to smooth, rakes designed to gather, rakes designed to disturb the dirt.


British printmaker William Hogarth didn’t have to dig to discover the dirt of 18th century London. His satirical eye raked the city, gathering its sins at a glance. The streets of the poor and the parlours of the wealthy alike provided compost for his imagination. Often described as the father of sequential art, Hogarth called his pictures his “stage,” and he loved to dramatize the moral issues of his day. His most famous series, “A Rake’s Progress,” depicts the rise, decline, and fall of one Tom Rakewell, n’er-do-well son of a miserly merchant. The thought of a parent’s sore back would never have stopped profligate Tom. In the series’ first plate, he is fitted for fine clothes before the earth has been raked smooth across his father’s burial plot.



Two enormous maples dominate our narrow lot; until a few years ago a third overhung the garden; a fourth and fifth and sixth stand only a few feet away at the house next door. Some Victorian bureaucrat must have envisioned the bower that now shades Bagot Street, the closest thoroughfare, but in his day, the trees were hardly more than saplings. Or that’s what I believe, based on some reproduction prints of the nearby Courthouse, circa 1910.


The art of printmaking on paper originated in China, two hundred years before the birth of Christ. By the 15th century, it had passed from Asia to Europe, where its first acknowledged master was a maker of playing cards.


Even the street urchins play cards in “A Rake’s Progress,” but their wolfish expressions suggest that gambling is the opposite of child’s play. Hogarth’s rake wagers his happiness for his pleasure and in the end, he loses both. He jilts his pregnant lover, squanders his father’s fortune on high living and low entertainment, and then marries a much older woman for her money, which he promptly dissipates. In the sixth plate we see him on his knees in the gambling den, fist raised to heaven in fury over his losses, oblivious to a fire that has broken out behind him. Nearby, other gamblers weep or brood or gloat, while the croupier calmly gathers the winnings into a pile of gold.



A croupier’s tool is called a rake.


Our shed smells of citronella candles and peat moss. Its roof is low and sloping, so the rake gets wedged there and I need to tug it free. Back in the garden, I survey the scene. The old maples are profligate, giving everything away at once. The younger, smaller trees and those later to leaf out bide their time, like players holding tight to their cards. I’m the family gardener. I rake in stages.


Hogarth began his working life as a metal engraver. But he found the work tedious, and from an early age, he aimed to become an artist. Printmaking was the logical extension of his early training, so it is not surprising that he turned first in that direction. Shortly afterwards, he also began to study painting, enrolling in one of the new English academies. It wasn’t long, however, before he became disenchanted with the established methods of instruction. Typically, a student would work begin by copying the works of the old masters; he would go on to copy antique casts; and finally he would copy figures from life. Hogarth considered this a waste of time. He wanted to work directly from nature. He wanted, he said, not to copy objects “but rather to read the Language of them … and if possible find a grammar to it.”



Lesson Plan: Choose two leaves that you think look exactly the same. Lay them on something flat, one on top of the other. If you see any part of the bottom leaf sticking out, find another, because these don’t match. If you don’t see any part of the bottom leaf, turn both leaves over, still together. Check again. If you can’t see any part of the bottom leaf, you’ve found a match! Congratulations!

Now you have two matching leaves. But are they really, truly identical? How about the veins? Those are the little lines flowing out from the stem of the leaf. Do they match too? Try this! Hold each leaf up to the light and compare the way the veins run. Hmmm. What do you think? What do your two leaves look like? Do the vein lines match too? Or are leaves perhaps like snowflakes or like people, with no two exactly alike?


In Hogarth’s day, people depended on their tools to help them plant and cultivate the gardens that kept their families alive. And in the still largely agrarian society of the 18th century, those tools were custom-made and valuable. This made them a common target for thieves. Newspaper advertisements of the time offer hefty rewards for the return of lost or stolen garden tools, including all types of spades, hoes, shovels, and rakes.


Tom Rakewell’s gambling losses finally land him in debtor’s prison. It’s a dismal, disorderly place, sunk in a basement, heated by a smoking stove in which one of the other inmates tries to turn dross metal into gold. Tom sits, lost in dejection, with his wig askew, and a day’s growth of beard on his cheeks. Next to him is a table holding a rejected manuscript that represents his final hope of escape. Meanwhile, his one-eyed wife, a serving child, and the prison warder all demand money from him that he doesn’t have, and his jilted lover, who has come to help him, faints in horror at the scene. Their daughter, now a young child, tugs at her mother’s skirts and howls in anguish.

Hogarth’s work is much admired for its accurate detail, and he is known to have visited the pubs and gambling dens and brothels that served as his settings. What was less well known to his contemporaries—because he never spoke about it—was that his knowledge of the debtor’s prison was more intimate still. During Hogarth’s childhood, his father spent five years in Fleet prison following a failed business venture, living first in a cell, and later, in housing within the prison precinct, where his family shared his quarters. No artist has painted more jails or places of confinement than Hogarth. And Tom’s daughter’s suffering might be Hogarth’s own; the girl’s expressive brows, her slightly turned-up nose, and her rounded cheeks resemble his, in his self-portraits. All his life, his father’s fall would haunt him.



Thin as rakes, my parents do not do their own yard work any more, although it drives my father crazy to sit and watch while others work. Sometimes my brother helps with the gutters while I haul the hose around or scoop out the window wells. The old fruit trees are dead and gone, so there isn’t as much raking.


The word “rake” derives from Old English by way of Old Norse and Old High German. The verb was in use by the year 1250, but no one seems to know exactly when or how the tool itself was invented. Love child of a pitchfork and a spade, it performs tasks that neither parent could do as well.


During Hogarth’s coming-of-age, engravers were employed by printers or booksellers. Once an engraving was complete, the printers kept the plate and made copies as they wished; only a small fraction of the income from these copies went to the engraver himself. Not surprisingly, this practice infuriated Hogarth; more surprisingly, perhaps, he decided to do something about it. Together with a group of his friends, in 1734 he introduced a Bill into Parliament to give designers and engravers the same copyright protection that authors had won a few decades earlier. Engravers would be considered the owners of their work, entitled to proceeds from any copies for fourteen years after the work’s first issue, and fine artists’ prints would—at long last—be recognized as fine art.

The Act that still bears Hogarth’s name received Royal assent in 1735, and shortly afterwards, having whetted his audience’s appetite with a painted version of “A Rake’s Progress” in 1733, he released the first prints to a group of eager subscribers. Of course, even after the Act, print sellers found ways to pirate engravers’ work, but their legal position was compromised, and if caught, they faced charges. Meanwhile, the painted canvas could no longer be understood as the sole site of aesthetic value. The print gained status as a legitimate form of artistic expression—and mass production lost some of its stigma.



The leaves fall fast in October. If I had a golden ducat for every leaf I raked, I’d be richer than Tom Rakewell. If I had a guinea for every pile, I’d be raking it in. I could fit myself out in fashion, I could hire a music master and a fencing master and a dancing master—and even a gardener, as Tom does, in Hogarth’s second plate. I could hire a decorator and advertise my taste with some original prints. Maybe a few Hogarths.


We see Tom last in Bedlam, wigless, dressed only in rags, as bare and forked as a leafless tree, gawked at by fashionable ladies who seek entertainment in the antics of the insane. His private horror has become a public spectacle. Critics claimed that Hogarth had pushed the point too far; after all, it was rare, in real life, for a rake to be brought so low. But Hogarth’s target was less Tom himself than the society that bred him. On the surface “A Rake’s Progress” is a simple morality tale in which the protagonist’s rotten values and stupid choices cause his downfall. But on closer inspection, it seems that Tom is only partly to blame. The son of a cold, unloving miser—the kind of man who would hide coins in his walls while starving his cat—Tom’s values merely reflect what he has learned at home and what he has imbibed from his culture. In the first plate, he’s pictured as a fresh-faced, gullible boy, hardly more than a child. Behind his back, a lawyer—who ought to be his advisor—steals money from his father’s desk, while the tailor who is “taking his measure” carries a pair of scissors sharp as a knife. And throughout the series, Tom seems as much victim as predator. He is seduced by the city’s attractions, blind to its dangers, yet despite his debauchery and foolishness, he never loses his capacity to feel. His susceptibility to emotion in an unfeeling world ultimately drives him mad. Stretched out on the floor of Bedlam, he looks like a martyr. He looks, almost, like Christ, and he might be suffering for us all. For the story of a man undone by the temptations of fortune is as old as time itself, and however tempted we are to rake Tom over the coals, each of us can see ourselves in his awful, anguished face.


Dragging the rake across the garden of our new home, I wondered if I might disturb anything—a child’s time capsule, a pet’s grave, a lost ring. So far, I haven’t unearthed any secrets, but in clearing the ground, I am conscious that the instrument I use is defined by its teeth.



Today, rakes are mass-produced. The metal parts are moulded and the wooden handles are turned with machines. One rake looks and feels pretty much the same as its brothers in the production line. Factories stamp them out at a tremendous pace and they are so inexpensive that people don’t think twice about replacing them.


Engraving is exacting, exhausting work. The artist must cut into a plate of copper with even pressure and great precision. To do so he uses a tool called a burin, or graver, that has an extremely sharp edge. When pushed through a soft metal, the burin produces a miniature furrow, much like that made by a farmer ploughing a field—or a rake in the sand.


Hogarth’s prints are now in the public domain. At auction, the finer examples still fetch a hefty price, but you can use his images freely as illustrations or on a web site. A man who set up a school on democratic principles, who punctured the pretensions of the upper classes, who lavished the same attention on a painting of his servants as he did on his commissioned portraits of the rich—I doubt if he’d be dismayed by this. He didn’t want others to gain wealth at the expense of his hard labour, but he did want his work widely known, or he’d have abandoned his burin for the paintbrush right after his first brush with fortune. Instead, even as he gained a reputation as a painter, he kept producing prints. And in the fine needlepoint technique of the prints, he was able to add the most telling detail, so what was lost in colour was gained in a more complex social commentary.



These days, the powerful roar of the leaf-blower is as sure a sign of autumn’s arrival as the fallen leaves themselves. It rattles the windows, rattles the brain. Men walk by with the blowers hitched to their hips like big guns.


The word “rake,” in military usage, means to sweep with ammunition in a straight line.


In 1753, Hogarth published a book of aesthetic theory, in which he argued that the “line of beauty” is not straight, as classicists supposed, but rather, serpentine. A curving line, as natural as the spiral of leaf nodes engraved on bare branches.



November’s leaves rustle to the ground like playing cards and skirt the curb. I fill the composter and then the paper bags, placing them in a series. Five, ten, fifteen, more.

Bare trees have a beauty of their own, the curved lines of their limbs stark against the sky like black ink on damp paper.


In his mid-fifties, Hogarth likened the process of printmaking, with its slowly emerging image, to “the first coming on of day.” “The copper plate it is done upone, when the artist first takes it into hand, is wrought all over with an edge’d tool, so as to make it print the even black, like which he does by scraping off the rough grain according to his design, artfully smoothing it where most light is required: but as he proceeds to burnishing the lights, and claring up the shades, he is obliged to take off frequent impressions to prove the progress of his work, so that each print appears like the different times of a foggy morning, till one becomes so finishe’d as to be distinct and clear enough to imitate a day-light piece.”


Charles Lamb famously said of Hogarth’s work: “Other pictures we look at—his prints, we read.” To follow the narrative of “A Rake’s Progress,” a viewer needs to look to every corner, every cranny of the plate, and consider how it relates to every other part, and then, in turn, she must think about how this plate relates to all the others in the series—and how the series relates to the world. Hogarth is fond of puns and double entendres, and the resulting ambiguities give rise to much of the humour in his work. In the second plate, for example, a prostitute steals Tom’s watch, suggesting that he is “out of time;” in the fourth plate, a sign behind him reads “Hodson Sadler,” indicating that he will soon be saddled with the results of his debt. In the final plate, a set of feathered wings hangs in one corner, a reminder of Icarus’s lofty dream, and its result. A viewer—or reader—must piece all this together, and there is pleasure in the work, and laughter in the discovery. Rejecting the straight line to a single Truth, Hogarth argues for the possibility of multiple and interwoven truths, for the beauty to be found in a warped and fallen world.


Who hasn’t flattened a leaf inside a book? Who hasn’t made a rubbing with wax crayon or a stamp pad dampened with ink? As if to pun on this idea, stylized leaves have been etched into the wet cement of some Vancouver sidewalks. But here, outside my house, rain and sun do the engraver’s work. For weeks after the last bag is carted away, leaf prints stain the pavement, as intricate and exact as any of Hogarth’s, beyond the reach of any rake.

—Susan Olding

  3 Responses to “A Rake’s Progress: Essay & Images — Susan Olding”

  1. A delightful and satisfying read! I enjoyed learning about Hogarth, how to read his plates, and the story of the Rake’s progress, all pleasingly presented in an autobiographical relationship with rakes and leaves. A lovely meditation indeed. I especially appreciated the deeper look at Tom’s tale. Brilliant. Thanks dg for posting and Susan Olding for sharing with NC.

  2. This beautiful essay practicality sings its many messages. The structure reminds me of a hymn, and the story of the paintings and Hogarth is intriguing. Reading this essay was a true learning experience for me. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Thank you both for your comments. I’m so glad you enjoyed the essay. Very interesting to compare the structure to a hymn, Cheryl. I do think of it as a “lyric” essay. I was also hoping to mimic Hogarth’s structure for the “Rake” series. It’s a narrative…but not a straightforward one. Each “plate” can be read alone as well as in relation to the others, and you can read backwards as well as forwards, and find new connections by doing so.

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