William Hogarth and the Idle Prentice at Play
By f.taylor, on 19 June 2020
This post was written by Lisa Bull, MA Museum Studies, Institute of Archaeology.
Image: William Hogarth,The Idle ‘Prentice at Play in the Church Yard, during Divine Service, plate three from the series Industry and Idleness (1747)
Industry and Idlenessis one of a group of series defined as Hogarth’s “modern moral series”, for which he is arguably most famous.
The series includes A Rake’s Progress (1735), Marriage A-la Mode (1745) and The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751). He produced these works to show how depictions of modern urban life could unfold like a theatrical narrative.
This series was not commissioned; it was created by Hogarth to highlight the moral issues of society at that time that he felt were prevalent and needed attention. These prints were mass-produced due to advancing printmaking technology. Hogarth kept his designs relatively simple with the main message that weak morals led to a life of vice, crime and perhaps death.
Industry and Idlenessfollows the careers of two apprentices: Francis Goodchild, the ‘good’ apprentice and Tom Idle, the ‘bad’ apprentice. The series is 12 plates in total and it compares Idle and Goodchild in terms of their career and character development, but also their physical attributes as well.
What is Hogarth trying to say?
In Plate 3, titled The Idle ‘Prentice at Play in the Church Yard, during Divine Service,Hogarth is highlighting the issue of gambling. Tom Idle is playing hustle-cap in the street, outside a church while others are going inside for the service. He is playing with a group of questionable characters who look dishevelled and unruly. They are using a coffin as a playing table and are surrounded by gravestones and bones. They seem unaware of their surroundings, completely engaged in the game which likely involves money.
Hogarth wanted to highlight to working children the possible rewards of hard work and the risk of disaster if they did not apply themselves. He purposely kept the designs relatively simple to ensure not much explanation was needed, as his key audience was young people.
What is hustle-cap?
Hustle-cap is an old English game usually played in the streets, where coins are ‘hustled’ or shaken together in a cap before being tossed. It has been compared to the game of pitch-and-toss which is a general term that refers to games that involve chance, where bets are made in relation to the way in which coins fall (heads or tails) after being thrown.
The game involves guessing how coins (usually halfpence) will land after being thrown in a cap. The person who guesses correctly wins the money. In ‘The Idle ‘Prentice’, Tom Idle is attempting to cheat by hiding some of the half-pennies under the brim of his hat. Two of the characters on the right have seen this. It is suggested that there is betting involved as they are unaware of their surroundings and it looks tense with the expressions and stances of the characters. Additionally, there is a “beadle” (a church official) behind Idle who looks ready to strike him on the back with his cane as punishment for gambling.
How to play
The game needs two players or two teams, some coins and a cap.
- Decide the amount to include in the bet
- Players decide which side they think most of the coins will face when thrown (up or down)
- Place the coins inside a cap
- Shake the cap
- Turn the cap up onto a table
- Count the number of halfpence facing-up and down
- The player who guessed correctly wins all the coins
There may also be a version where players guess how many coins there will be e.g. facing-up and the person who guesses correctly wins the contents of the cap. This would allow more than two people to play.