Sybaritic self-destruction: Thoroughly modern Rakes

He is dissolute, amoral - and enjoying a renaissance. As Tate Britain revisits 'A Rake's Progress' by Hogarth, Guy Adams celebrates the 21st-century version, while Sarah Harris finds that Tom Rakewell's journey is still a path well followed

Hats off, as cheery gossip columnists are inclined to say, to Mr Tom Rakewell: by the standards of his day, he sounds like quite a lad.

The son of a rich 18th-century merchant, Tom inherited pots of cash at a precariously young age and proceeded to blow the lot in a blizzard of booze, gambling, and expensive whores.

In his thirties, he attempted to salvage his fortune by marrying an ugly but wealthy old woman, only to fall back into bad ways and waste her money on high living, too. He was eventually incarcerated in a debtors' prison, before ending his days in a mental asylum.

Tom is, of course, a fictional character: he is the subject of A Rake's Progress, the famous series of eight paintings by William Hogarth, reproduced on the facing page, which is about to be unveiled as the centrepiece of a much-hyped retrospective at Tate Britain.

It is, however, no exaggeration to describe him as a modern icon. The rake has recently been packing out the Donmar Warehouse theatre in London, is about to hit the National Theatre, and seems seldom to have been out of the news. He has been the subject of an opera (Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress) and a series of David Hockney etchings: a symbol of a proud breed of Englishman who has occupied a special place in the nation's heart for 400 years.

We are fascinated by rakes; always have been. The rake is dissolute, unrestrained, and amoral. He (never she) sleeps around because he wants to; he takes drugs because it is fun. He lies, he gambles, he is selfish. Most of all, he lives for pleasure.

The golden age of rakery was the 17th and 18th centuries, although the word "rake" actually came into being in the 16th as a bastardisation of the word "rakel," meaning "rash, rough, coarse and hasty". It was an era when young men would suddenly find themselves in possession of large fortunes, and set off in search of entertaining ways to spend them.

Today, the rake has evolved. Where inherited wealth was the fuel that powered traditional members of their club, the oxygen of the modern recruit is fame. Rakes prosper in celebrity circles; they're never happier than when falling out of nightclubs, or checking-in for another bout of rehab -Hogarth's Bedlam meets 2007.

Recently, the trend has also hit theatreland, with several plays about rakes currently on offer. Some are modern, such as Patrick Marber's current hit Don Juan in Soho. Others are classics, like the National Theatre's revival of George Etherege's masterpiece The Man of Mode, which opens on Tuesday.

Asked about the phenomenon, Marber says that we owe our fascination with rakes to the fact that they are (or at least appear to be) free, while the normal human is not.

"By 'free', I mean the freedom to seduce, lie, be cruel, selfish, amoral," he says. "Most of us try to conduct our lives according to a moral code, but the rake does not. This is usually punished in literature. Molière sends his Don Juan to a literal hell of flames and screaming. My Don Juan recognises (to his horror) that only suicide will satisfy his relentlessness."

Marber reckons that every human society "needs" its rakes, just as it needs stars, gods and villains. "We need to know what we are not in order to know what we are," he says. But this is a particularly rake-ish era.

David Lan, the artistic director of the Young Vic, will this month open The Soldiers' Fortune, a play set in the early Restoration period, about two former soldiers who cultivate their sexual attractiveness in order to stave off financial ruin.

"What I find so interesting about all of these plays, and one of the reasons I think we're seeing so many at the moment, is that they're set in an era very like today," he says. "In both periods, there's a tremendous difference between haves and have nots, and if you don't have either money or power, you have to use whatever is available to you. That's exactly what a rake does."

The modern rake beams from our televisions (Russell Brand), or glides effortlessly round London's champagne-fuelled social circuit (Freddie Windsor). He even sits in the House of Lords (Jeffrey Archer). But his zenith has, for the past 50 years, been reached through the music industry.

From Mick Jagger and Keith Moon to Pete Doherty and Kurt Cobain, a chaotic lifestyle has been at the apex of both rock and roll and rakery. It sells records. It even livened up the recent series of Celebrity Big Brother, courtesy of the ersatz punk rocker, Donny Tourette.

Tourette's publicist, Mike Watson, admits that high living is at the heart of his client's popular appeal. "People are fascinated that he's out there living that lifestyle," he says. "It means they don't have to. It's a really honest way of living your life. You've nothing to hide. Lots of people do drugs and hide it. But Donny will go on a 72-hour bender and talk about it, and people find that refreshing; they respond well to honesty."

Ultimately the rake is defined by his lack of shame. As the artist and serial sexual athlete Sebastian Horsley admits, a genuine rake does not concern himself with ethics.

"Ethics are for dullards and they're to be mocked," he says. "Right and wrong doesn't stop people sinning; it just stops them enjoying it. You should just be whatever you are without shame. It is better to be hated for what you are than liked for what you're not."

As to its hazards, he adds: "I've think I might have syphilis. I've got to go to the doctor tomorrow. Actually I'm delighted, because it's inconceivable that a proper rake could reach middle age without getting it. Of course, it also means I'm a genius. All geniuses get syphilis."

Like every proper rake, Horsley is looking on the bright side. Every cloud, even syphilis, it seems, has its silver lining.

'Hogarth' at Tate Britain opens on Wednesday

HOGARTH THEN AND NOW

The Heir

Tom Rakewell prepares for his father's funeral. He remains cheerful as his gold inheritance rains through a crack in the ceiling and a snowdrift of bonds, mortgages and indentures lie at his feet.

Lord Freddie Windsor

While the "louche" Lord Freddie Windsor is yet to come into the rapidly dwindling fortune of his parents, Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, the handsome young rogue has already invested heavily in a youthful enthusiasm for cocaine, booze and Chelsea girls.

The Musical Soirée

Young Tom has ditched his mourning attire to rub shoulders with the cream of London society. His grief is forgotten in a symphony of heaving bosoms and tinkling pianos.

Russell Brand

Modern rake du jour Russell Brand is also known to cut a dashing figure in billowing silk shirts and fitted waistcoats. I also hear the ex-drug addict is not unfamiliar with the carnal temptations of A-list soirées and crops of obliging young ladies, including Kate Moss.

The Party at a Brothel

Plate Three depicts an inebriated Tom at an orgy in Covent Garden's Rose Tavern. As the debauched scene rages, the Rake is robbed blind by a gang of opportunistic prostitutes.

Sebastian Horsley

Sebastian Horsley knows a thing or two about brothels. The London artist claims to have slept with 1,000 prostitutes, and says: "In my romantic view a woman may be a prostitute, she may be destitute but she can never be less than a lady."

The Debtor

Tom is dragged from his sedan chair by bailiffs, after squandering his fortune. He escapes arrest when his pretty young maid pays them off with a bag of gold.

Darren Day

Luckily for Darren Day, debtors' prisons no longer exist. Years of cocaine abuse and womanising ended his glittering musical career last October, when he was declared bankrupt and exchanged his £800,000 mansion for a rented two-bed semi near Barnsley.

Marrying the Widow

In desperation, Tom marries a haggard, one-eyed widow in a shabby ceremony at Marylebone church. Two dogs pose in a hideous parody of the marriage.

Jack Tweed

Gormless Jack is no stranger to the relationship of convenience. Since his tactical union with Big Brother grotesque Jade Goody, his fortunes have improved. Electrician-turned-model-turned- reality-star: what next, total world domination?

The Gambler

Plate Six finds Tom frittering his new wife's fortune away in a London gaming house. As he kneels on the floor clutching at the air, we see the Rake has now played his final hand.

Zac Goldsmith

When the dashing Zac Goldsmith loses £100,000 at cards, it barely puts a dent in his £300m fortune. He is so enamoured with the game, he recently spent a number of afternoons at the home of heiress Alice Rothschild, 23, to organise a charity poker tournament.

Sent to Prison

Ruin settles upon the beleaguered Rake in a debtors' prison. His hysterical womenfolk curse his ill luck and a telescope, propped at the window, is a symbol impending insanity.

Jeffrey Archer

It was not debt, but perjury, that led to Lord Archer's spectacular fall from grace in 2001. The former Tory politician was sentenced to four years in prison when an Old Bailey jury found that he lied in a 1987 libel case against the Daily Star, which had printed a story claiming he had slept with a prostitute.

Sent to Bedlam

The Rake's descent into madness. He is sprawled naked on the filthy floor of Bedlam asylum. The fashionable ladies are a reminder of all he has lost.

Pete Doherty

Like our unfortunate Rake, incarceration has been a frequent feature of Babyshambles frontman Pete Doherty's life. He is in and out faster than you can say "smack addict", but the question remains, will his loyal maid, Kate, stay by his side until Bedlam doth part them?

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