William Hogarth (1697–1764), the celebrated painter and engraver, published The South Sea Scheme in around 1721 as a moralising critique of the greed that had inflated and inevitably burst the South Sea Bubble in 1720.
Clustering familiar London landmarks together in an unfamiliar way, Hogarth plays on the emotional memory of his audience while emphasising the chaos caused by the swarming crowds. The engraving seeks to satirise the folly of the money-crazed masses, warning that unfettered financial speculation can only, ultimately lead to destitution and damnation.
The South Sea Bubble describes the boom and bust of the South Sea Company. In 1720 Parliament granted the Company a monopoly to trade between Africa and Spain’s American colonies in return for taking on the National Debt. Investors, goaded by tales of Latin American gold, snapped up the stocks, wildly inflating prices as they did so. By the summer of 1720 demand reached fever pitch, and it was reported that all levels of Georgian society – from the King’s mistress to rural labourers – had invested with the hope of making a quick and easy profit. However, the market was unsustainable, and, as the realities of trade fell far short of expectation, the bubble popped causing a national crisis and wide spread financial ruin.
The inscription at the bottom of the print reads:
See here ye Causes why in London,
So many Men are made, & undone,
That Arts, & honest Trading drop,
To Swarm about ye Devil’s Shop (A),
Who cuts out (B) Fortune’s Golden Haunches,
Trapping their Souls with Lotts & Chances,
Shareing em from Blue Garters down
To all Blue Aprons in the Town.
Here all Religions flock together,
Like Tame & Wild Fowl of a Feather,
Leaving their strife Religious bustle,
Kneel down to play at pitch & Hussel; (C)
Thus when the Sheepherds are at play,
Their flocks must surely go Astray;
The woeful Cause yt in these Times,
(E) Honor, & (D) honesty, are Crimes,
That publickly are punish’d by
(G) Self Interest, and (F) Vilany;
So much for Monys magick power
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