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Characters II

Gin Lane

William Hogarth (1697-1764), Gin Lane. 1750

This scene of drunken confusion is imaginary, but Hogarth nevertheless shows in the distance the steeple of St George's, Bloomsbury with its statue of George I wearing a toga. He is pointing out the association between excess in artistic style with excess in private manners and morals, and perhaps also the inability of the government and the church to remedy the evil effects of gin. The steeple was originally adorned with lions, unicorns, festoons and crowns (these gorgeous baroque touches were removed in 1871). Horace Walpole called the building a 'master-stroke of absurdity', and the Pocket Guide to London says that the church 'enjoys the privilege of being at once the most pretentious and ugliest ecclesiastical edifice in the metropolis. All the absurdities of the classic style are here apparent.'

The print was produced as part of a campaign to restrict the sale of gin (and bad taste in art), the effects of which are graphically depicted here: buildings are allowed to go derelict, children die from neglect, the honest businessman hangs himself for lack of trade, the pawnbroker prospers, the gin manufacturer thrives, the coffin maker does excellent business and the general population create mayhem.

Gin was first produced in Holland in the early 17th century and became popular in England after the arrival of William and Mary from the Netherlands in 1688, when regulations regarding distillation were relaxed. It was a cheap and a strongly alcoholic drink, advertised with the following catch phrase:

Drunk for a Penny
Dead drunk for two pence
Clean straw for Nothing

Drunkenness became a major social problem and the government subsequently made several attempts to control its sale, including the Gin Act of 1736, which required retailers to obtain a licence for 50 and increased duty fivefold, but this measure was very unpopular, and various means of evasion were practised, for example the sale of gin under other names, including 'Ladies Delight',  'Strip-me-Naked', and 'Cuckold's Comfort', and the government was forced to repeal the Act following riots in 1743. Another more successful attempt to legislate was made in 1750.

Beer Alley

William Hogarth (1697-1764), Beer Alley. 1750

In this print the spire of St Martins in the Fields can be seen in the distance, serving to contrast the good taste of James Gibbs' monument with the pompous baroque conceit of Hawksmoor's church shown on the Gin Lane print.

Under the influence of good old British beer, Prosperity and Contentment crown Father Fatness with Happiness, and buxom Wenches show a proper inclination to Flirtatiousness. The only business not flourishing here is the pawnbroker's on the right. Compare the pawnbroker in Gin Lane.

Further evincing a rather well developed sense of good order and proper conduct, the parcel of books in the lower right corner is on its way to the luggage maker to be used as lining paper. The books include Modern Tragedies, Hill on Royal Societies, Turnbull on Antique Painting, Politicks Vol. 9999 and Lauder on Milton. Lauder had tried to impugn Milton with plagiarism, and, as a parcel, the books represent views and opinions for which, if good sense prevailed, there would be no market.


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