An Emblematical Print on the South Sea Scheme
This print, executed in the tradition of the topical political caricature, was prompted by the mania for political speculation begun around 1711 and concluding nine years later in general financial chaos and ruin. In return for assuming a portion (and later all) of the national debt, the South Sea Company was granted a monopoly on trade between South America, the Pacific Islands and England. The resources of these then exotic, unknown lands were considered rich and limitless.
Initially, the company prospered and advanced more ambitious schemes. A swarm of other companies grew up in imitation of the South Sea Company, proposing such undertakings as the invention of a wheel for perpetual motion, one even proposing a "design which will hereafter be promulgated." Speculation raged through England and soon shares had increased in price beyond the remotest possibility of profitable return. In 1720 the South Sea Company stock rose from £128 per share in January to £300 in March to £550 in May to £1000 in July. Panic resulted. By the end of 1720 the stock market had collapsed, the South Sea "bubble" had burst and thousands of naïve speculators were ruined.
This bluntly allegorical work depicts a populace consumed by speculation of all kinds to the point where they have forsaken their middle-class concerns for trade, industry, religion, honor and honesty. In the center of the carnival-like scene, which is filled with violence and chaos, there stands a merry-go-round operated by the South Sea Company projectors. Mounted on it are a bizarre variety of figures: a terrified Scots noble (he wears a "blue garter"), a gleeful, witch-like hag, an idle bootblack and a clergyman in dalliance with a prostitute. Atop this wheel of fortune stands a goat, the symbol of desire, set between horns of cuckoldry on the house where women choose husbands by lot and the distant cross on the pointedly remote St. Paul's.
To the left, the Guildhall (identified by the statue of Magog) has been possessed by the devil (he is also a Father Time figure—he stands with a scythe beneath a clock) who butchers Fortune and throws her flesh to the mob, who scuffle for it. A schoolmaster in the crowd is being robbed. In the corner three other "teachers" of differing faiths play hustlecap in attitudes which, as Antal points out, suggest "Playing at Dice for Christ's Mantle." In the foreground "Honesty" is broken on the wheel attended only by an impassive clergyman.
Under the London Fire Monument, which is now adorned with foxes, "Honour" is scourged by "Vilany," who prepares to murder his victim; the mask has fallen from the victimizer's face. His assistant is an ape who takes the shirt from the Christ-like "Honour's" back. In the shadows, "Trade" languishes alone on the ground.
This companion work to the "South Sea Scheme" is an exposé of the evil effects of lotteries which were used by the state to raise money in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Didactic in purpose and middle-class values, it reveals well how early Hogarth's interests and bias were formed.
The scene, which is given a dramatic, stage-like effect by it drapery contains a number of allegorized bourgeois virtues and vices arranged in balance and antithesis. Following the practice common in such prints, the commentary is full and explicit.
[Excerpt from Engravings by Hogarth, edited by Sean Shesgreen (Dover, 1973).]