A Rake's Progress, a series of eight paintings by 18th- century English artist William Hogarth, details the roguish antics of its well-heeled anti-hero, Tom Rakewell, whose surname's etymology comes from the notion of raking up hell. Byron's epic poem Don Juan charts the exploits of the 17th-century Spanish noble ne'er-do-well, and the full title of Mozart's famous opera, based on the same character, is Il Dissoluto Punito, Ossia il Don Giovanni, which translates as 'The Rake Punished, or Don Giovanni'. (Mozart himself was no stickler for propriety, as evidenced by his canon in B-flat major, Leck mich im Arsch - literally, 'Lick me in the arse'.) Easily the most compelling character in William Thackeray's Vanity Fair is the debauched blue- blood Lord Steyne.
The dissolute cad is as prevalent a persona in the fictional canon as the noble savage, the tragic hero or the penniless but honest working girl. As well this character type is not limited to previous centuries - British actor Nigel Havers is just one actor to have made a career out of playing posh cads - or European culture (as demonstrated by Japanese woodblock artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's A Dissolute Nobleman Drinking with Geisha).
And, whether you believe in Aristotelian mimesis or Oscar Wilde's counterpoint assertion that, 'Life imitates art far more than art imitates life', what is certain is that reality is as replete with such well-heeled, extraordinarily licentious characters as our cultural repository. Arguably the original high society libertine was John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, a poet and courtier to Charles II who personified the Restoration's rampantly active rebellion against the
Puritan era's vehemently censorious disapproval of any kind of pleasures of the flesh. Generally attributed to Wilmot is the obscene Restoration closet drama Sodom. First published in 1684, the play's characters included Bolloxinion, King of Sodom; his queen, Cuntigratia; Buggeranthos, general of the army; and a trio of maids of honour called Fuckadilla, Cunticulla and Clytoris.
Wilmot's behaviour was even more gloriously obscene than his doggerel. For 15 years, following a youth misspent abducting young countesses and roistering with the navy in the Second Dutch War, Wilmot led a group dubbed the Merry Gang by metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell. This band of aristos and literary reprobates, which included the wit Charles Sedley and the enviably titled Master of the Revels Thomas Killigrew, were notorious for escapades such as public simulation of buggery and regular, gleeful genital exposure. A tavern-haunting whoremonger for his entire brief life, Wilmot died from venereal disease, inevitably enough, aged 33.
By now, though - 1680 - rampant bacchanalia had caught on in high society, and a couple of decades after Wilmot's death another well-heeled bounder, by the name of Philip Wharton, entered the world. A dashing Jacobite reprobate, the 1st Duke of Wharton was described by one biographer as 'two men: one, a man of letters, and two, a drunkard, a rioter, an infidel and a rake'. A freemason and fervent atheist, Wharton founded the first organisation to bear the name Hellfire Club, in 1719. His goal was to deride religious faith by publicly presiding over a feast of Christian ritual parody, with plenty of satanic trappings ladled over the top, in a tavern near London's St. James's Square.