Beer Street and Gin Lane

Beer Street and Gin Lane

"Beer Street" and "Gin Lane" are two prints issued in 1751 by English artist William Hogarth in support of what would become the Gin Act. Designed to be viewed alongside each other, they depict the evils of the consumption of gin as a contrast to the merits of drinking beer. At almost the same time, Hogarth's friend Henry Fielding published: "An Inquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers" which dealt with the same subject. Issued with "The Four Stages of Cruelty", the prints continued a movement which Hogarth had started in "Industry and Idleness", away from depicting the laughable foibles of fashionable society (as he had done with "Marriage à-la-mode") and towards a more cutting satire on the problems of poverty and crime.

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 allude to the prosperity of Beer Street as the cause of the misery found in Gin Lane.


The Gin Craze

The gin crisis was genuinely severe. From 1689 onward, the British government had encouraged the industry of distilling, as it helped prop up grain prices, which were then low, and increase trade, particularly with colonial possessions. Imports of French wine and spirits were banned to encourage the industry at home. Indeed, Daniel Defoe and Charles Davenant, among others, particularly Whig, economists, had seen distilling as one of the pillars of British prosperity in the balance of trade. [Dillon p.15] (Both later changed their minds—by 1703 Davenant was warning that, "Tis a growing fad among the common people and may in time prevail as much as opium with the Turks", [Dillon p.13] while by 1727 Defoe was arguing in support of anti-gin legislation. [Dillon p.69] ) In the heyday of the industry there was no quality control whatsoever, and licences for distilling required only the application. When it became apparent that copious gin consumption was causing social problems, efforts were made to control the production of the spirit. The Gin Act 1736 imposed high taxes on sales of gin, forbade the sale of the spirit in quantities of less than two gallons, and required an annual payment of £50 for a retail licence. It had little effect beyond increasing smuggling and driving the distilling trade underground. [Dillon p.122] Various loopholes were exploited to avoid the taxes, including selling gin under pseudonyms such as "Ladies' Delight", "Bob", "Cuckold's Delight" and the none-too-subtle "Parliament gin". [Warner p.131] The prohibitive duty was gradually reduced and finally abolished in 1743. Francis Place later wrote that enjoyments for the poor of this time were limited: they had often had only two, "sexual intercourse and drinking", and that "drunkenness is by far the most desired" as it was cheaper and its effects more enduring. [Quoted in Paulson (Vol.3) p.25] By 1750, over a quarter of all residences in St Giles parish in London were gin shops, and most of these also operated as receivers of stolen goods and coordinating spots for prostitution. [Loughrey and Treadwell p.14]


The two prints issued a month after Hogarth's friend Henry Fielding published his contribution to the debate on gin: "An Inquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers", and aim at the same targets, though Hogarth's work makes more of oppression by the governing classes as contributing factor in the gin craze, and concentrates less on the choice of crime as a ticket to a life of ease.

Hogarth advertised their issue in the "London Evening Post" between 14 and 16 February 1751 alongside the prints of "The Four Stages of Cruelty", which were issued the following week:

Paulson sees the images as working on different levels for different classes. The middle classes would have seen the pictures as a straight comparison of "good" and "evil" while the lower classes would have seen the connection between the prosperity of Beer Street and the poverty of Gin Lane. He focuses on the well-fed woman wedged into the sedan chair at the rear of "Beer Street" as a cause of the ruin of the gin-addled woman who is the principal focus of "Gin Lane". A further contrast is made between the woman in the sedan chair and the woman fed gin as she is wheeled home in a barrow in "Gin Lane".


The sign-painter is the most difficult figure of the two images to characterise. In preliminary sketches he appeared as another jolly fat archetype of Beer Street, but by the time of the first print Hogarth had transformed him into a threadbare, scrawny, and somewhat dreamy character who has more in common with the inhabitants of Gin Lane than those who populate the scene below him.Most simply he may be a subtle aside on the artist's status in society—he carries the palette that Hogarth had made his trademark and which can be seen in several of his self-portraits. However he is painting a sign advertising gin, so his ragged appearance could equally reflect the rejection of the spirit by the people of Beer Street. He may be also be a resident of Gin Lane, and Hogarth includes him as a connection to the other scene, and as a suggestion that the government's initial policy of encouraging the distillation of gin may be the cause of both Gin Lane's ruin and Beer Street's prosperity. He is ignored by the inhabitants of Beer Street as they ignore the misery of Gin Lane itself. [Hallett p.192] Paulson suggests that he is the lone "beautiful" figure in the scene. The corpulent types that populate "Beer Street" would later feature as representations of ugliness in Hogarth's "The Analysis of Beauty", while the painter, as he leans back to admire his work, forms the serpentine shape that Hogarth identified as the "Line of Beauty". Thomas Clerk, in his 1812 "The Works of William Hogarth", writes that the sign-painter has been suggested as a satire on Jean-Étienne Liotard (called John Stephen by Clerk), a Swiss portrait painter and enameller whom Horace Walpole praised for his attention to detail and realism, mentioning he was "Devoid of imagination, and one would think memory, he could render nothing but what he saw before his eyes". [Clerk p.25] In his notes in Walpole's "Anecdotes of painting in England", James Dallaway adds a footnote to this statement about Liotard claiming "Hogarth has introduced him, in several instances, alluding to this want of genius". [Dallaway in Walpole p.747]


"Beer Street" and "Gin Lane" with their depictions of the deprivation of the wasted gin-drinkers and the corpulent good health of the beer-drinkers, owe a debt to Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "La Maigre Cuisine" and "La Grasse Cuisine" engraved by Pieter van der Heyden in 1563, which shows two meals, one of which overflows with food and is populated by fat diners, while in the other the emaciated guests squabble over a few meagre scraps. Brueghel's compositions are also mirrored in the layers of detail in Hogarth's two images. [Bindman p.180] [Paulson (Vol.3) p.24] Inspiration for these two prints and "The Four Stages of Cruelty" probably came from his friend Fielding: Hogarth turned from the satirical wit of "Marriage à-la-mode" in favour of a more cutting examination of crime and punishment with these prints and "Industry and Idleness" at the same time that Fielding was approaching the subject in literature. [Hallet p.181] Paulson thinks it likely that they planned the literature and the imagery together as a campaign.


Charles Knight said that in "Beer Street" Hogarth had been "rapt beyond himself" and given the characters depicted in the scene an air of "tipsy jollity". [Knight p.6] Charles Lamb considered "Gin Lane" to be "sublime", and focused on the almost invisible funeral procession that Hogarth had added beyond the broken-down wall at the rear of the scene as mark of his genius. His comments on "Gin Lane" formed the centre of his argument to rebut those who considered Hogarth a vulgar artist because of his choice of vulgar subjects:

bquote|There is more of imagination in it-that power which draws all things to one,-which makes things animate and inanimate, beings with their attributes, subjects and their accessories, take one colour, and serve to one effect. Every thing in the print, to use a vulgar expression, "tells".
Every part is full of "strange images of death." It is perfectly amazing and astounding to look at.Lamb]

The critic, William Hazlitt shared Lamb's view that Hogarth was unfairly judged on the coarseness of his subject matter rather than for his skill as an artist. He singled out "Gin Lane" and "The Enraged Musician" as particular examples of Hogarth's imagination and considered that "the invention shewn in the great style of painting is poor in the comparison". [Hazlitt p.301]

Both John Nichols and Samuel Felton felt that the inclusion of Turnbull's work in the pile of scrap books was harsh, Felton going as far as to suggest Hogarth should have read it before condemning it. [Felton p.66]

After the Tate Britain's 2007 exhibition of Hogarth's works, the art critic Brian Sewell commented that "Hogarth saw it all and saw it straight, without Rowlandson's gloss of puerile humour and without Gainsborough's gloss of sentimentality", but in a piece entitled "Hogarth the Ham-fisted" condemned his heavy-handedness and lack of subtlety which made every of his images an "over-emphatic rant in his crude insistence on excessive and repetitive detail to reinforce a point". [Sewell. "Evening Standard"]

The reception by the general public is difficult to gauge. Certainly one shilling put the prints out of reach for the poorest people, and those who were pawning their clothes for gin money would not be tempted to buy a print, but there is evidence that Hogarth's prints were in wide circulation even among those that would have regarded them as a luxury, and there are records from the 18th century indicating that his works were used for moral instruction by schoolmasters. [Bindman p.183] At any rate, the Gin Act—passed in no small measure as the result of Fielding and Hogarth's propaganda—was considered a success: gin production fell from seven million gallons in 1751 to four and a quarter million in 1752, the lowest level for twenty years. [Dillon p.263] By 1757, George Burrington reported, "We do not see the hundreth part of poor wretches drunk in the street". [Quoted in Dillon p.263] Social changes, quite apart from the Gin Act (among them the increase in the price of grain after a series of bad harvests) were reducing the dependence of the poor on gin, but the problem did not disappear completely: in 1836, Charles Dickens still felt it an important enough issue to echo Hogarth's observations in "Sketches by Boz". Like Hogarth, Dickens noted that poverty rather than gin itself was the cause of the misery:

The vast numbers of prints of "Beer Street" and "Gin Lane" and "The Four Stages of Cruelty" may have generated profits for Hogarth, but the wide availability of the prints meant that individual examples did not generally command high prices. While there were no paintings of the two images to sell, and Hogarth did not sell the plates in his lifetime, variations and rare impressions existed and fetched decent prices when offered at auction. The first (proof) and second states of "Beer Street" were issued with the image of the Frenchman being lifted by the blacksmith, this was substituted in 1759 by the more commonly seen third state with the Frenchman was replaced by the pavior or drayman fondling the housemaid, and a wall added behind the sign-painter. Prints in the first state sold at George Baker's sale in 1825 for £2.10s,Ref_label|d|d|none but a unique proof of "Gin Lane" with many variations, particularly a blank area under the roof of Kilman's, sold for £15.15s. at the same sale.Ref_label|e|e|none Other minor variations on "Gin Lane" exist - the second state gives the falling child an older face, perhaps in an attempt to diminish the horror,Hogarth p.233] but these too were widely available and thus inexpensive. Copies of the originals by other engravers, such as Ernst Ludwig Riepenhausen, Samuel Davenport and Henry Adlard were also in wide circulation in the 19th century.

Modern versions

The iconic Gin Lane, with its memorable composition, has lent itself to reinterpretation by modern satirists. Steve Bell reused it in his political cartoon "Free the Spirit, Fund the Party" which added imagery from a Smirnoff vodka commercial of the 1990s to reveal the then Prime Minister, John Major, in the role of the gin-soaked woman letting her baby fall, [Hallett p.37] while Martin Rowson substituted drugs for gin and updated the scene to feature loft conversions, wine bars and mobile phones in "Cocaine Lane" in 2001. [Riding, "The New York Times"]


a. Note_label|a|a|none The snuff may be a playful reference to Fielding, who was renowned as a heavy snuff taker. [Paulson (2000) p.284]

b. Note_label|b|b|none This woman appeared as she does here, wedged into a sedan chair with her hoop skirt pinning her in place, as the subject of a painting displayed in Hogarth's "Taste in High Life", a forerunner to "Marriage à-la-mode" commissioned by Mary Edwards around 1742. [Paulson (Vol.2) p.204]

c. Note_label|c|c|none While Davenport's engraving of "Gin Lane" is a faithful reproduction of Hogarth's original there are multiple minor variations in his engraving of "Beer Street": noticeably elements from both states are mixed, and lettering is altered or removed on the copy of the King's speech and the scrap books.

d. Note_label|d|d|none Baker had bought a number of Hogarth's works at Gulston's sale in 1786 where the first state prints of "Gin Lane" and "Beer Street" sold for £1.7s. Whether they were bought by Baker directly is not recorded.

e. Note_label|e|e|none Compare this with the four plates of "Four Times of the Day" which sold for £6.12s.6d., [Hogarth p.199] and a unique proof of "Taste in High Life" which went for £4.4s. [Hogarth p.212] A proof (probably unique) of the print of Hogarth's self-portrait (with his pug) "Gulielmus Hogarth 1749" sold for £25. [Hogarth p.227]



* cite book|title=Anecdotes of William Hogarth, Written by Himself: With Essays on His Life and Genius, and Criticisms on his Work|first=William|last= Hogarth|chapter=Remarks on various prints|date=1833|publisher=J.B. Nichols and Son

* cite journal|journal=The Reflector|first=Charles|last=Lamb|title=On the genius and character of Hogarth: with some remarks on a passage in the writings of the late Mr. Barry|volume=2|issue=3|date=1811|pages=61–77|url=

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