The South Sea Scheme, by William Hogarth

William Hogarth’s 'The South Sea Scheme' and the topography of speculative finance

Clare Walcot explores the significance of the London landmarks depicted by William Hogarth in his printed satires on speculative finance

In 1721, William Hogarth (1697–1764) published The South Sea Scheme, a graphic satire of speculative finance run riot. The eponymous scheme, which had been intended to pay off the national debt, is depicted as part of a wider speculative delirium exerting its ‘magick power’ on public and private finance alike. The inevitable consequences, for a city seduced by hasty routes to riches, are clearly displayed in the emblems of honest trade which lie abandoned within the now anarchic London streets.

The South Sea Scheme, by William Hogarth

The South Sea Scheme, by William Hogarth

Hogarth’s engraving provides a moralising critique of the greed that inflated and inevitably burst the South Sea Bubble

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Satirical prints were a highly complex cultural form, mocking social or political mores through a combination of words and images drawn from a mix of high and low sources. A frequently dense collage of literary, pictorial and topical allusion, such images were both sophisticated and playful. One of Hogarth’s earliest graphic satires, The South Sea Scheme addresses the trauma of financial turmoil through a typically deft weave of references. 

Significantly, this moral tale is played out against a highly theatrical backdrop of composite scenery that brings together several discrete London landmarks: the Monument, Guildhall and a site known as Exchange Alley, all off-set by the looming presence of St. Paul’s. Graphic satire is not usually thought of as ‘topographical’, and Hogarth is not conventionally classified as a ‘topographical’ artist. However, a brief tour of Hogarth’s imaginative reassembly of the London landscape will show that he was particularly attuned to the complex cultural histories of the capital’s streets, buildings and public sculpture. 

The Monument 

In mocking tribute to the speculative frenzy of recent months, Hogarth re-dedicates the Great Fire Monument to the ‘Memory of the Destruction of this City by the South Sea in 1720’. South Sea Company shares had been traded at wildly inflated, unsustainable levels during the summer of that year, culminating in a ruinous financial crash every bit as disastrous for the city as the fire of 1666. Hogarth was not the first to employ this landmark and its inscriptions and sculpture in a critical commentary on current events. Following its erection in the mid-1670s, the Monument had almost immediately become a site of contest over cultural memory, employed in interpretation and re-interpretation of the past. In 1681, an inscription was added to the Monument’s north side which recast the original account of the destruction by claiming the Great Fire as part of a wider Popish plot

In The South Sea Scheme, the column is not only re-inscribed once again, but now also re-located from Monument Yard, a small square on the east side of Fish Street Hill close to where the fire started. Instead he places the Monument opposite Guildhall, and adjacent to temporary structures including a wooden carousel. Maps of the period often juxtaposed noted buildings to foster a particular image of the capital or a political statement. Here, Hogarth’s remade urban topography represents destruction, corruption and chaos. Re-situating and re-inscribing the Monument in this way also suggested that the past could be readily re-written. By placing disparate objects, buildings and sites together in an imagined urban topography, Hogarth encouraged a chain of associations and multiple readings, playing on the instabilities of collective memory.

The Monument

Monument to the Great Fire of London

The Monument to the Great Fire of London, drawn and engraved by Sutton Nicholls between 1725–28

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The Monument was one of the tallest structures in London and served as a platform from which to view the city rebuilt in the wake of the Great Fire. In this print though, it has been truncated so that such an all-encompassing viewpoint is no longer possible. Instead, the outlook is a street level one, limited and confined. An overarching public perspective is exchanged for that of narrow self-interest. The large relief sculpture carved on the west side of the pedestal by Caius Gabriel Cibber (1630–1700) which celebrated the role of the Crown and City in the triumphant rebuilding of the capital here takes animated form, as Hogarth redistributes it across the entire scene. Adapted from Cibber’s figure of Time, a personification of Fortune is being dismembered by the Devil, her flesh thrown to the waiting crowd below. If Cibber depicted the restoration of London over time, celebrating the values of diligence and industry, Hogarth shows that the Devil offers a rapid and unearned transformation in the fortunes of individuals. The personification of Trade lies neglected and ignored by the crowds who ‘Swarm about ye Devil’s Shop’, jostling for a piece of Fortune.

Guildhall

Hogarth identifies the building housing the ‘Devil’s Shop’ as Guildhall, in part by the statue of the giant. The Guildhall giants were a long-established feature of the civic pageantry of the Lord Mayor’s Show and in 1709 ordered to be erected as permanent fixtures in the Great Hall. Protectors of the City, the giants symbolised the role of the authorities in defending London’s interests and liberties. However, unlike the Roman-armour-clad central figure of King Charles II (1630–1685) in Cibber’s relief, facilitating the restoration of the City, the similarly attired giant in Hogarth’s image looks on from the side lines as chaos reigns below.

The Guildhall, London

The Guildhall, London

View of the Guildhall, London made in around 1770

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In Cibber’s image the devastation is countered with a portrayal of London rising anew under the beneficial conditions of good government during Charles II’s reign. Ceremonial pageantry and public artworks frequently depicted the overthrow of forces of destruction by legitimate authority. In The South Sea Scheme, Hogarth allows no such redemption and unruly forces run riot. Indeed, Hogarth’s image could almost be seen as a parody of the four pageants for the Lord Mayor’s Show of 1676. In that year, Jordan’s London Triumph’s staged good government and marshal virtues as productive of ‘Fortune’s Bower’; where peace, honour and riches reigned.[1] The fourth and final pageant was a scene of ‘drolls’, in which ridiculous figures represented unproductive disorder as a necessary counter to the earlier pageants, in order to further legitimate just authority. In Hogarth’s print, good government has been corrupted, fortune’s bower is a grotesque travesty and the forces of disorder, no longer contained within the droll, have taken hold. Pageants, such as London Triumph’s of 1676, were staged annually for the Lord Mayor’s Show. During these events, the route back from Westminster followed a familiar pattern; after a spectacle on the Thames, the assembly disembarked at Black Fryers Stairs and frequently processed through Ludgate Street, St. Paul’s Churchyard, and Cheapside before returning to Guildhall. The scenes were temporary structures in the street, a theatrical public spectacle employing a range of symbols, costume, song and speeches to provide layers of meaning. These were designed to be readily understood by the crowd in order that they could bear witness to the virtues of good government associated with the Lord Mayor and Guildhall. In making use of the imagery of public spectacle in the South Sea Scheme, Hogarth directed an understanding of meaning, but also allowed for a certain level of intentional ambiguity.

Among the scenes animating Hogarth’s street theatre is a procession of women waiting to engage in ‘Raffleing for Husbands with Lottery Fortunes’ in Guildhall, where the state lottery was drawn. State lotteries were established in 1694 as a form of speculative activity integral to the government’s raising of revenue. They were employed in the management of the nation’s finances as a means to borrow money directly from the public. In order to legitimate state lotteries, undertaken for the public good, in 1699 those for private interest were made illegal. Many of the motifs used in satire on private lotteries were transferred to that on state lotteries. In Hogarth’s South Sea Scheme, the lottery is represented largely in line with these turn of the century satires, which linked female participation in the activity with a desire to carve a rapid route to wealth by finding a partner with lottery riches. 

In 1724, Hogarth sold his own print on the state lottery along with The South Sea Scheme. Newspaper reports of the drawing of the state lottery made links between Whitehall, Guildhall, and Exchange Alley, where tickets were bought and sold at artificially inflated prices. At the Banqueting House tickets were prepared and the public could witness their placement in the two lottery wheels. These were ceremonially transported from Whitehall to Guildhall, where a temporary structure was erected in the Great Hall for the event. The draw was a theatrical public spectacle in which the crowd could bear witness to its validity and fairness. If distinct in many ways from the visual vocabulary of The South Sea Scheme, Hogarth’s Lottery also satirises the pageantry used to legitimate state-sponsored speculative activity. Here, the state lottery is depicted as being as threatening as the South Sea Scheme, in its potential for manipulation and self-interested mismanagement. Recognisable features of Guildhall, be they the giants in The South Sea Scheme or the royal portraits located on the wall behind the Lottery’s monument, are employed in parody of their original function. Actions carried out by monarchical sanction are now undertaken under the authorisation of money, with one of the royal portraits now an emblem of the state lottery and the wealth it brings in. Both prints offer an underlying assessment of the means by which wealth should be generated and spent, and its destructive, unjust and irresponsible distribution by these new speculative means.

The Lottery, by William Hogarth

The Lottery, by William Hogarth

The Lottery was first published in 1724, around three years after its sister engraving The South Sea Scheme appeared

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Exchange Alley

Those distinct activities depicted in The South Sea Scheme – share speculation, participation in the lottery, and gaming – were locatable to specific, if interconnected, sites springing up and altering the dynamics of the urban topography. Exchange Alley was a tangle of narrow passages with entries from Lombard Street, Cornhill, and Birchin Lane. These streets, and the coffee houses of Jonathan’s and Garroway’s therein, were the sites of share dealing situated directly opposite the Royal Exchange. Following the Great Fire, the swiftly reconstructed Royal Exchange was re-opened in 1669. For a time, notably during the Nine Years’ War (1689–1697), commerce also included buying and selling stocks and shares. In 1697 an Act was passed to regulate stock-jobbers. Now excluded from the Royal Exchange, these individuals moved into Exchange Alley, which ensured that this area would become characterised as an isolated, circumscribed enclave within the respectable trading district.

A Prospect of London and Westminster, showing the Royal Exchange

A Prospect of London and Westminster

This prospect of London shows the dome and nave of St. Paul's rising above the houses on the opposite bank of the river Thames, along with the spires of other churches, grand houses and civic buildings rebuilt after the Great Fire of London devastated the City in 1666.

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In The South Sea Scheme, a rotating structure represents the uncontrolled effects of speculative activity, the hub of which was the Alley. A crowd of speculators await their turn on the carousel; at its apex Hogarth depicts a goat standing above a sign which reads ‘Who’l Ride’. Many associations were prompted by this inscription, including the proverb ‘set a beggar on horse-back, and he’ll ride’. In Moral Reflexions upon Select British Proverbs, published in 1708, the phrase was identified with ‘upstart Ladies’ and ‘young Mushroom-Noblemen’ who had risen to grandeur by fortune, and who, once elevated, ride ‘to the Devil’.[2] In Hogarth’s South Sea Scheme, the Exchange putatively offered the potential to elevate figures such as the shoe cleaner. However, it could only be a pretence that would be as artificial as the ape standing before the Monument, who attempts to assume the Robe of Honour. The ape represents a ridiculous figure in extravagant attire and sword, suggesting emulatory modes of behaviour could alter outward appearance but true nature could not be disguised.

Hogarth’s graphic satire creates an imagined London street spectacle in which was enacted the folly of speculation in 1720. In this way, it parodies the printed pageant. In these works, the publication and its illustrations were conventionally held to be an enduring reminder of the temporary spectacle, and referred to as ‘a lasting and visible Monument to Posterity’. Such is the density of allusion contained within The South Sea Scheme, however, there is a good deal more that could be said, not least about its relationship to other prints satirising the series of financial crises sweeping the Continent.[3] While appreciation of such matters could of course add significantly to an understanding of the print, the brief remarks offered here on the imaginative topography Hogarth deploys are meant to open up a possible alternative perspective on the engraver’s art. This would be less about Hogarth’s admittedly dazzling synthesis of various pictorial references, and more about his deployment of a more familiar, shared knowledge of the street.

[1] Thomas Jordan, London Triumph’s (London, 1676), pp.11-14.

[2] Oswald Dykes, Moral Reflexions upon Select British Proverbs: Familiarly Accommodated to the Humour and manners of the Present Age, (London, 1708), pp. 99, 100, 98.

[3] I discuss this more thoroughly in ‘Hogarth’s The South Sea Scheme and the Topography of Speculative Finance’, Oxford Art Journal, vol 35, n.3, (2012), pp.413-432. See also Mark Hallett, The Spectacle of Difference: Graphic Satire in the Age of Hogarth, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1999) and Ronald Paulson, Hogarth, 3 vols, (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1991-3).

  • Clare Walcot
  • Clare Walcot’s research interests focus on financial innovation in the 18th century and its impact on the visual arts.

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