Born of Boom and Bust | Jason Zweig

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Image Credit: William Hogarth, “The South Sea Scheme” (ca. 1721), The British Museum

Under a turbulent sky, a city is going mad. A public square teems with people gambling, picking pockets, beating and whipping each other. Overhead, wolves slink around.

The city is recognizable as London — that’s Guildhall on the left and St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background. But in every other respect the natural order of things is subverted. Buildings run helter-skelter through space, arranged in multiple, off-kilter perspectives that wrench the rules of artistic geometry. In the left background, a balcony swarming with women tilts crazily downward, its vanishing point impossibly high in the sky, different from that of the building to which it’s attached. The base of the monument to the right answers to another set of rules; the structures facing it, to still others.

What plays out before us is grim fantasy in the guise of a genre scene. At the center, the crowd hauls a giant wooden lever that turns a creaking merry-go-round. Satan, flames spewing from his mouth, presides over the pandemonium, while at bottom center a naked, supine figure lies strapped to a wagon wheel….

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South Sea Bubble 1720 Project, Yale School of Management’s International Center for Finance

South Sea Bubble Resources, Baker Library, Harvard Business School