This painting shows a pivotal scene from Act 3 of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, in which the highwayman Captain Macheath is chained in Newgate Prison and threatened with death by hanging. He stands between two kneeling women, both insisting that they are his wives and imploring their fathers to spare him. Lucy Lockit, in turquoise, is the prison warden’s daughter. Polly Peachum, wearing white, is the daughter of the corrupt thief-catcher.
Art holds a mirror up to life
William Hogarth (1697‒1764) first painted this scene in 1728, soon after the opera opened, and it is one of the earliest paintings of an actual stage performance. It highlights the intersections between art, real life and theatre. Wealthy audience members are seated on stage with the actors, and the life like prison setting is framed with theatrical curtains. Above the stage, there are ribbons bearing Latin inscriptions, including ‘Veluti in Speculum’ meaning ‘as in a mirror’. At the sides, two satyrs crouch on plinths, perhaps hinting at Gay’s satirical message that the social elite is more corrupt than the world of rogues we see here.
The Duke of Bolton’s affair with Lavinia Fenton
This is all the more ironic since the painting captures the moment ‒ on the opening night of the opera ‒ when the Duke of Bolton (seated on the far right) fell for Lavinia Fenton, the actress playing Polly. The Duke pursued Miss Fenton until the end of the season, when she became his mistress, and they married when his wife died in 1751.
The 1731 version of Hogarth’s oil painting
Hogarth made his name as a copper-engraver, and this scene is one of his first attempts at painting in oils. It exists in at least six versions, and this image, now in the Tate Gallery, was made in 1731. It was only in these later versions that Hogarth added the Duke of Bolton, probably after the affair had become a notorious public scandal.