British Museum on Hogarth's Prints

'Hogarth claimed that these prints were 'calculated to reform some reigning Vices peculiar to the lower Class of People'. They were published in support of a campaign directed against gin drinking among London's poor. Consumption of cheap spirits by the poor had soared in the early eighteenth century, with dire social consequences. The campaign was led by Hogarth's friend the novelist Henry Fielding (1707-54), who was chief magistrate for Westminster from 1749 to 1754. It was successful: an act against gin was passed later in 1751. This prevented retail sale of gin by the shops that sold normal household necessities, and was effective in curbing the evils of spirit drinking.

Beer Street celebrates the virtues of the mildly intoxicating traditional national drink. Beer inspires artists and refreshes tradesmen and labourers. It can be drunk safely on rooftops. The newfangled foreign spirit gin, however, inspires violence and careless inebriation. A gin-sodden mother is oblivious to her child's fall. Addiction to spirits leads to negligence, poverty and death.

The verses were written by Hogarth's friend James Towneley to make plain the meaning of the images. The prints were too expensive for the urban poor, but would have been within the means of the middle-class electorate. The horrors of Gin Lane provided imagery for propaganda against alcohol for another hundred years.'

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pd/w/william_hogarth,_beer_street.aspx

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