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"Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence, clean straw for nothing." So reads the advertisement that lures addicts to the gin drinking den in Hogarth’s famous engraving from 1751, Gin Lane. There’s nothing alluring about the scenes of alcohol-induced depravity portrayed in this image.
Hogarth intended to shock and disgust the observer, achieving his aim so successfully that the impact still reverberates today. The eye is immediately drawn to the woman who dominates the centre foreground, so drunk that she does not even realise her child is tumbling over the balustrade to a likely death on the stairs in front of the entrance to the Gin Royal cellar. The woman’s ragged and filthy clothing, exposed breasts and unkempt hair are the hallmarks of the addicted drinker who prostitutes herself for money to buy more gin. The syphilitic sores on her leg are reminiscent of plague spots, and this is no coincidence, because Hogarth's message is that gin is the contemporary plague. Her mob cap with its once pert ribbon is set askew on her head. It is the only remnant of respectability left, almost grotesque in comparison to the rest of her condition. She fumbles for snuff as her child falls.
Below the woman, collapsed onto the steps, is a skeletal figure with bare breast and legs, whose clothing suggests a former soldier. He has the sunken eyes and hollow cheeks of a corpse. The only indication that a spark of life remains is the way his left arm still firmly clutches the basket containing his gin. In the basket there is also the pamphlet on the evils of gin that he was selling in order to raise money to buy drink. This cadaverous figure is reminiscent of the starving soldiers in Hogarth's painting "The Gate of Calais" (Also known as "O the Roast Beef of Old England".) His black dog sits loyally and forlornly beside him. Its message is that despair is now his only companion.
In the street behind the three foreground figures of the man, the woman and the plummeting child is a hellish scene. A gin-crazed man has impaled a baby on a spike while its mother screams in horror. Not far away, another mother sedates her baby with a cup of gin. There is no escape; lifting the gaze to avoid the scene, the observer encounters a coffin swinging above the street to advertise an undertaker’s shop. Shifting the view to the left, the eye contemplates the three balls of the pawnshop. Looking down to avoid their message of poverty and hopelessness, the viewer meets the jug hanging outside the gin cellar, the underworld entrance to temporary oblivion and permanent damnation.
The positioning of the three signs reveals the mastery of composition in this work of Hogarth. They are a trinity that marks the repetitive cycle of the gin addict, from gin shop to pawn shop to death. Hogarth gives us the addict’s view of the world, and it still shocks. The church in the background, that of St George, the nation’s patron, is dominated by the mocking cross made by the three hanging balls advertising the shop of pawnbroker Mr Gripe. It is not only the inhabitants of Gin Lane who are decaying. The buildings are as crazy and rotten as the people, displaying gaping holes in their fabric and tumbling into the street. The scene in front of the pawnshop reveals the reason: the carpenter is pawning his tools while a woman, possibly his wife, offers up her pans in exchange for money to buy gin. Home, employment and sanity have all been given away and the only people who are doing well from this situation are the pawnbroker, the gin distiller and the undertaker.
Hogarth chose the slum area of St Giles to locate his vivid visual commentary on the evils of gin. It was a political statement, a response to the misery and despair that had resulted from the government’s promotion of the distilling industry. This deliberate attempt to promote sales of spirituous liquor at home and abroad would probably be described as “kick-starting the economy” today. It was as controversial then as any modern government's attempt to promote gambling and other potentially addictive products or services to raise revenue. The government had even banned the import of French wines in order to ensure that people bought home-produced spirits. At first viewed in a positive light for its beneficial effect on the economy, it wasn’t long before some politicians, particularly the Whigs, could see the consequences of the policy.
If any politicians were still in doubt about these consequences, Hogarth’s image served to “speak truth to power”. It is reinforced by the equally vivid lines written by the Reverend James Townley that can be read underneath the print, which speak of gin as a “cursed Fiend” that preys on humankind, and a “damned Cup” of “liquid fire”. The description, like Hogarth’s image, burns with imagery of hell and damnation.
Hogarth intended his work to reach the beneficiaries of this state of affairs, the wealthy and political elite who had made it possible, as well as the poor who suffered the consequences. It would cost them one shilling to purchase a print. Although even this may have been beyond the means of many, selling them at a low price meant that he could produce and distribute his work widely and in a far more influential way than he could have done with a single artwork. Hogarth lived in what is often considered to be the golden age of English painting. The generation following Hogarth would produce two of the most famous and successful eighteenth-century artists, Joshua Reynolds and George Stubbs. Yet nothing could be further from the portraiture of these two painters than Hogarth’s blistering visions of street life, whether through this, Gin Lane, perhaps his most famous image, or his dramatic series such as “A Harlot’s Progress”, “A Rake’s Progress” or “Marriage á la Mode”.
However, Gin Lane was only part of the story. This was one of a pair of etchings and engravings, the other being “Beer Street”, intended to show the harmonious inhabitants of a street where people drink beer in moderation as part of their recreation when resting after labours. The people of happy Beer Street remind the viewer of Breughel’s merry peasants, who know precisely how and when to celebrate.