The painting comprises William's long city series called Industry and idleness. Unlike the previous A Harlot’s Progress collection that described the life of a prostitute, William creates this series to illustrate the outcome of hardwork and laziness to children. He uses two protagonists, Francis Goodchild, the good apprentice, and Tom Idle, the bad apprentice. The series compares physical appearance and their characters. Goodchild is depicted as polite, elegant and courteous while Idle is contorted and monstrous. The theme of each collection is a reflection of their environments. At the beginning of this series, the two protagonists share the same working space to underscore the uniformity in their social potential. However, Goodchild separates himself from the unruly occupants and goes to live in a rather structured environment associated with literally uprightness, good morals of the middle class. Idle lives outside these locales hence, the resulting behavior of an undisciplined individual who lacks moral duty.
The Idle ‘Prentice return’d from Sea, & in a Garret with common Prostitute painting was developed to show the contrast between Tom Idle’s life and that of Goodchild regarding relationships. In the previous plate (the sixth plate), William portrays Goodchild as decent champ married to the master’s daughter. William uses this plate to portray Idle’s contrasting situation: in a relationship with a common prostitute. Tom Idle and his companion are living in a dismal state. Both he and his companion are lying on a broken bed. The prostitute examines Tom’s non-monetary spoils from his last highway spree. There are bottles at the hearth suggestive of venereal disease almost similar to those in Plate 3 of A Harlot’s Progress series. There is a broken bottle and flute, together with a pair of breechs, which have been discarded on the bed clothing, indicative of their drunken depravity. Hogarth also shows a cat falling from a chimney, which startles Tom given his constant fear of the law.
William created the Industry and Idleness collection as a set of engravings. At the time he developed this series, artwork was increasingly getting commercialised. It was viewed in public buildings, shop windows, tarvens and sold in printshops. As a result, William Hogarth had no option but to use engraving technique when creating the Idle ‘Prentice return’d from Sea, & in a Garret with common Prostitute painting. He treated his subjects like a dramatic writer; the painting provided a stage to express himself.