William Hogarth's Rake's Progress shows Tom Rakewell inheriting his wealth from his miser father, and wasting it in a splurge of excess. It is an anti-fairy story: riches to rags, a rollercoaster of glamour, greed and despair. In eight plates the Rake ditches his pregnant fiancee Sarah, dons his new clothes, splashes out on high art and high living, and on low: the booze and whores of the Rose Tavern. As the money flies, his creditors gather and when he recoups his fortune by marrying a rich widow, he throws this away at the gambling table. From imprisonment in the debtors' prison, he tumbles to madness, Bedlam and death. On the surface then, A Rake's Progress is a stern moral tale, but Hogarth's vision of Tom's downfall is less judgment than lament, full of compassion for the fool at odds with the city. The timeless curve of the story and the blend of caustic wit and deep feeling make it a perfect model for exploring other ages of affluence and crash. How clever, then, of the Foundling Museum to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Hogarth's death in 1764 by showing the Rake alongside works by four modern artists inspired by Hogarth's prints. Clever too, to call the exhibition Progress, with its implied question mark.
The Foundling Hospital was important to Hogarth, both in his role as a benefactor and in his dogged determination to promote British art, and the exhibition reflects both these concerns. Upstairs and downstairs, we find different Rakes, each in a different medium. Here are David Hockney's etchings and aquatints, based on the sketchbook from his first trip to New York in 1961, when he was 24, thrilled by its glamour, gay bars, galleries and studios, and dazed by its Kennedy-era politics, the poverty of Harlem and the music and madness of the city. Here is Yinka Shonibare, casting himself as hero of his Diary of a Victorian Dandy, 1998, his posed photographs reminding us of the slavery that underpinned empire. "I chose Hogarth for his social commentary and the political aspect of his work", Shonibare explained when the Diary was shown at the Tate in 2007: "My series is a commentary on our times, but it is also about daring to parody the establishment - which was something Hogarth was very good at." Here, too, is Grayson Perry's Tim Rakewell striding among the taste tribes of today's Britain in the six tapestries of The Vanity of Small Differences. Commenting on these in 2012 Perry said: "Hogarth has long been an influence on my work. I identify with his Englishness, his robust humour and his depiction of, in his own words, 'modern moral subjects'."
The angry wit of those modern moral subjects is felt even when the Rake disappears. The youngest artist here, Jessie Brennan, felt anxious about not having a single protagonist, but her Fall of Ordinariness and Light, specially commissioned for the show, presents its own version of dream and collapse, an imploding pile of grandeur. Her spectral drawings of crushed photographs dramatise the demolition of Alison and Peter Smithson's 1960s "streets in the sky" housing estate, Robin Hood Gardens in Tower Hamlets - a metaphor both for the conflict over rejected modernist ideals, and for communities wrecked by gentrification. "A Rake's Progress", Brennan says, "had, and still has, the ability to confront what people's ideals of progress are". Today's Londoners are living through social upheaval, as Hogarth did: many have no hope of a home, while the super-rich buy mansions and leave them empty. There is plenty of development in London, but the utopian language of regeneration is at odds with the experience. "When a cynical government does nothing," says Brennan, "I can't understand why we don't all riot."
Hogarth made political points by eliding high life and low, like John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, a play that he painted over and over again as a young artist. Similarly, these works overturn stereotypes: Shonibare casts himself as a black dandy surrounded by obsequious white servants; Perry uses tapestries - the grand decor of the rich - to show the close weaving of taste and money. But the great allure of Hogarth's series lies in the precise placing of the story in the London of his day, the streets, salons and gaming houses of St James's, the taverns of Covent Garden, the churches of Marylebone, the Fleet prison and Bedlam. The men and women who bought the prints when they first appeared in 1735 could recognise every setting, and find the originals of many of the people, like Handel in his wig (another Foundling benefactor), with the cast list of his new opera. The plates throb with detail, deepening the satire. In the scene at the Rose Tavern portraits of Roman emperors hang on the walls: these are the idols of the so-called Augustan age, but on these murky walls all the portraits are defaced - except for Nero's.
The modern artists take up this suggestiveness, and make it their own. Hockney's etchings are full of specific references, often half hidden: Mahalia Jackson sings in Washington Square, a label on a bottle carries letters from "Lady Clairol", the dye that he first used to bleach his hair, and the plate's title echoes its advertisement - The start of the Spending Spree and the Door Opening for a Blonde. Perry's tapestries bristle with redolent objects: a graduation photo, Penguin Classics mugs, a cafetiere, an iPad. Shonibare's rooms are full of fantastic luxury goods and shimmering materials. Brennan's collapsing flats have washing hanging on their balconies. A Rake's Progress appeals to all, Brennan thinks, because of its playful quality, the way the narrative unfolds in time, and the details that make it human.
Hogarth's art is extravagant, ruthless, violent and tender by turns: he could mock and touch the heart at the same time. He understands the helplessness of the outsider, like Tom Rakewell, venturing into the tight cliques of the rich. But as an artist, he values the outsider's uncluttered view. This participant/outsider duality is felt in the later Rakes, in Hockney's reaction to New York, and in the Nigerian-born Shonibare's celebration of the dandy as an "outsider, who upsets the social order of things". Does it help artists not to "belong"? As Shonibare said in a recent interview, "That's what the artist is striving for, this independence of mind. I've always liked these Trojan-horse ideas, where you can camouflage, but then you can potentially cause a lot of havoc." Perry too, is in disguise, and not, this time, as his alter ego, Claire: "I have a thick crust of Islington," he told the Guardian's Charlotte Higgins, "but if you cut me, you would find Essex there. The tone of my taste decisions is often very Essex, but I put an Islington spin on them. That might be the deciding factor in my entire oeuvre - I am an exquisite punk."
As the show's curator Caro Howell says, Hogarth's work "acts like a lightning rod for other artists' particular concerns": the politics of sex, gender, race and class; of progress and disenfranchisement. Placing the original Rake's Progress in conversation with them makes them spring into relief. Hogarth often called himself a dramatist, and much of the work here has a cinematic quality, pulling us in. In the intimate space of the Foundling Museum, Perry's tapestries loom close, so that you seem to meet the men and women walking through them - as you do with Hogarth's series. The immediacy and recognition makes them both more overwhelming and more familiar. This doesn't feel like a static exhibition. It is mobile, dynamic. The very act of moving through the building reflects the narrative movement of the different Progresses, and imparts a feeling of translation, of conversation. The works seem "to fly around", as Brennan says, "reflecting off each other".
The show gains more than this from its setting. Hogarth was governor of three charitable hospitals, but the Foundling Hospital was closest to his heart, demonstrating what Howell calls his "benevolent engagement as well as his commercial marketing nous and awareness of the importance of branding - almost the first thing he did was to create a badge". He went beyond this, designing uniforms and supervising wet nurses, and he and his wife Jane, childless themselves, fostered several children over the years. He used his art - as he would later in Gin Lane and Industry and Idleness - as an instrument for social change.
Hogarth himself carried a shadow from his childhood. His father, an immigrant teacher from the north, was a publisher of Latin and Greek textbooks who tried to set up a Latin-speaking coffee house in Smithfield. Not surprisingly this failed, and - like the Rake - he was incarcerated in the Fleet prison for debt, taking his family with him. In Shonibare's view Hogarth's hatred of authority began here: "his work was irreverent towards the authority that imprisoned him". His career had the makings of a story: an apprentice silver-engraver who turned to printmaking, he married the daughter of the painter Sir James Thornhill and painted pioneering "conversation pieces" of high-ranking families. But the itch to mock authority always upset his courting of the polite world, and after the success of A Harlot's Progress in 1732, the first of his "modern moral subjects", he turned to engraving for the wider market, defiantly hanging a tradesman's sign outside his door.
Three years later, when the Rake was published, he won the first copyright act, Hogarth's Act, protecting engravers' work from piracy. By now he was a leading figure among the artists of Old Slaughter's Coffee House and the St Martin'sLane Academy, raging against an art market that favoured old masters and continental painters, and at connoisseurs blind to the talent outside their own back door. Sorely aware of the lack of exhibition spaces, he saw the potential of the Foundling Hospital when it was established in 1739, with its attraction for well-off visitors. His powerful portrait of the founder, Captain Coram, expressed his admiration but also shouted his claim that he could do grand-manner portraiture as well as any French court painter. In the hospital's Court Room, with its wonderful rococo interior, his painting of Moses Brought Before Pharaoh's Daughter took pride of place among works by London artists, including Hayman, Highmore and Wilson. All the artists were well established, except one, the 21-year-old Thomas Gainsborough, whose inclusion was a gesture of support for talent and optimism for the future of British art. There is a parallel in today's show: the three men are established, if far from establishment, figures, while Brennan is from the coming generation. Her inclusion highlights the importance the older artists place on such support, in schemes such as Shonibare's "Guest Works", where he lends his studio space to younger artists. And it's good, too, to have a woman's take on the Rake, especially one that refuses to be overtly gendered.
When I talked to Howell, as she ducked under ladders amid the bustle of preparation for the show, she was excited. She sees Progress as part of the museum's continuing dialogue between past and present. "So much of our work is with vulnerable, marginalised children," she says, "and so much of their experience is about feeling isolated, unloved, unacknowledged. It is amazing when they come here and realise that they have a history, that there were people in the past who were like them, and that those people are celebrated - they have a museum dedicated to them." Next week the museum holds its 10th birthday celebration, and behind it, on the walls of the museum, the Rake and his modern fellows walk through their stories of aspiration and fall, the dreams and madness of Hogarth's age, and our own.
Progress is at the Foundling Museum, London WC1, until 7 September. foundlingmuseum.org.uk. Jenny Uglow is the author of Hogarth: A Life and a World (Faber).
The Heir, the first scene of Hogarth's Rake's Progress
Ross Ramgobin (Owen Wingrave) and the Household Cavalry
From top: Grayson Perry's The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal; Yinka Shonibare's Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 14:00 Hours; David Hockney's A Rake's Progress: Bedlam; Jessie Brennan's A Fall