Hogarth's Beer Street and Gin Lane prints
Words by Simon Difford
In 1750 William Hogarth released his print, ‘Gin Lane’, depicting the excesses and resulting hardship brought about by gin consumption. In his engraving a man is depicted gnawing on one end of a bone with a dog chewing the other, while on the opposite side of the picture a mother pours gin down her baby’s throat.
Above her, a suicidal bankrupt hangs from a beam within his crumbling house while the undertaker's house next door, marked by its hanging coffin, is pristine due the prosperity of its owner at the gin drinker's expense.
The picture is set in the heart of St. Giles, an area at the eastern end of Oxford Street then notorious for its gin houses and where Centre Point stands today. Hawksmoor's St. George's church in Bloomsbury and its spire can be easily identified in the background of Hogarth's work, which he tops the with a statue of George I as a symbol of the crown being above the church. But above all else is the pawnbroker's sign, actually forming a cross on top of the church, illustrating how society's values had been inverted by the effects of gin. The mother sprawled on the steps in the picture's foreground is thought by many to be the artist's personification of Judith Defour [see 1734]). The women pictured with marks on her legs denoting illness is neglecting her child as it falls from the steps, meanwhile her gin influenced expression is one of blissful ignorance.
Gin Lane is one of a pair of engravings by Hogarth, the other, 'Beer Street', is in stark contrast. In this picture the church rises above all and a drooping pawnbroker's sign is below the level of the royal standard flying from the spire to mark the king's birthday. Only the artist is thin and gaunt in Beer Street. The rest are depicted has happy and plump, many enjoying their ale. Quite different to the unhappy depraved souls of Gin Lane.
This page on the Tate's website, where the works hang today depicts the prints set against corresponding scenes from modern day London.
These works of propaganda are thought to have been commissioned by Hogarth's friend, the magistrate Henry Fielding.