In the mid-eighteenth century, England experienced a drug crisis. Gin, a cheap new beverage with a much higher alcohol content than previous popular drinks, became a threat to society. Poor people drank gin instead of working, instead of taking care of their children, and instead of behaving responsibly in any way. Gin-drinking was accused of every evil that we have associated with various drug problems in our society in the last 50 or 75 years. Pressure grew to create laws regulating the manufacturing and distribution of gin — which was completely unregulated at the time.
William Hogarth (1697-1764) was a successful artist, who issued large editions of his etchings at affordable prices. As the pressure grew for something to be done about the gin epidemic, he created a print called Gin Lane that caricatured and emphasized the social dangers of gin. The center of the print is a woman whose drunkenness is so severe that she is letting her infant fall out of her arms. Throughout the rest of the print are equally egregious examples of debauchery and dysfunction. For a detailed description of what each image means, see the article "Beer Street and Gin Lane" in Wikipedia.
|William Hogarth, Gin Lane. 1751.
The companion print to Gin Lane is called Beer Street. Beer, a much lower-alcohol drink than the distilled gin, had been the choice of Britain's lower classes (and others) for centuries, especially because it was much safer to drink than any drinking water available at that time. Beer was considered a patriotic drink -- a native English product, while gin was a foreign introduction. While the people in Beer Street are prosperous-looking, and seemed to be hard workers, there's also quite a bit of satire in this print. According to the analysis in Wikipedia:
"On the simplest level, Hogarth portrays the inhabitants of Beer Street as happy and healthy, nourished by the native English ale, and those who live in Gin Lane as destroyed by their addiction to the foreign spirit of gin; but, as with so many of Hogarth's works, closer inspection uncovers other targets of his satire, and reveals that the poverty of Gin Lane and the prosperity of Beer Street are more intimately connected than they at first appear. Gin Lane shows shocking scenes of infanticide, starvation, madness, decay and suicide, while Beer Street depicts industry, health, bonhomie and thriving commerce, but there are contrasts and subtle details that some critics believe allude to the prosperity of Beer Street as the cause of the misery found in Gin Lane."
William Hogarth, Beer Street, 1751.
The satire and caricature in Hogarth's works, including many other than these two, has always appealed to my sense of humor and my interest in social problems in times past. The foibles of society always could be made into amusing and penetrating art works! I'm sharing this with Elizabeth at Altered Book Lover for the weekly blog event featuring drinks that she sponsors each Tuesday.
Blog post © 2020 mae sander, public domain prints taken from Wikipedia.