On the 250th anniversary of his death, William Hogarth remains one of the most fascinating and innovative artists of the 18th century. He is most famous for his “modern moral subjects”, a type of #Art that satirically mirrors the manners and morals of the period in which he lived.
Particularly interesting, extravagant, and somehow very contemporary, is the engraving Gin Lane which is perhaps the best-known piece of propagandist art ever produced in England. It artfully depicts London’s descent into the gin craze: the year was 1751, a period when poor people were drinking to forget misery. And they were drinking gin, in pint glasses: in the 18th century, Londoners were on average drinking two pints per head per week.
People were completely addicted to this liquor: the government’s attempts to stop the flow of gin mainly resulted into riots and cries of “No Gin, No King”. Hogarth, along with his friend novelist Henry Folding, thus thought they should be the ones to highlight the problems relating to drinking gin and to get the message across.
At the centre of this picture of decay, a drunk woman lets her child slip from her arms, presumably to its death. The whole image is a portrait of despair, starvation, beggary, suicide, poverty, and the collapsing buildings stand as a metaphor for the deterioration of all morals and society.
More than two hundred years later, this witty, provocative, and satirical engraving is very much at home in our contemporary society. Public worries and moral panic associated with drink are indeed modern phenomena. As Professor Peter Borsay - whose work has being published on the History & Policy website - said: 'At first glance, the parallels between the 18th century gin craze and contemporary binge drinking appear striking. I don't think it's the drinking that merits the comparison, but the moral panics that characterised both periods, fuelled by pressure groups, the media and perceptions of government complacency."
Truly, #Alcohol and moral panic over binge drinking were everywhere - and still are. Yet there is probably a difference between past and present. Going back to Hogarth, we shall not forget Gin Lane’s companion piece, Beer Street. If the former is a strong critique to this evil foreign liquor, this other 1751 Hogarth’s engraving encourages viewers to drink the weaker and local ale. People in Beer Street are prosperous, joyful and the message conveyed is that not only beer is good but also inspiring for artists.
And here lies the difference: nowadays, there is no more distinction between Beer Street and Gin Lane, no distinction between poor and rich, beer and gin: drinking is the problem, and it is universal. If drinking habits might differ among social classes, alcohol is what remains, matters, and scares. But if we have no misery to forget, what is the reality we are trying to escape? And this perhaps is what should worry the most.