The images of ‘Gin Lane’ and ‘Beer Street’ by William Hogarth, were created for the purpose of educating the public. Between 1730 and 1750, gin brought back by soldiers from the low countries was made popular by the fact that it was cheap raw spirits. It became a popular drink with the poor and they would sell all they had for the effects of the drink. People in poverty became addicted to it.
The two illustrations by Hogarth, were created in stark contrast in a bid to support an Act being brought in 1751 to licence the spirit and reduce the impact on society. It aimed to promote beer as a way to drink alcohol as beers then were significantly lower in alcohol.
The images portray two very different and extreme situations where gin creates chaos and beer creates calm. Gin was considered the blight of the working classes at the time. It was cheap and easy to make, and the barley provided a market for farmers. However, distillers had a powerful voice, and a tax was introduced in 1729. This ended up suppressing distillation of good gin and increase the production of inferior gin. In 1735, taxes and licenses were pushed onto retailers but repealed in 1743.
John Clarke’s illustration, ‘The Funeral Procession of Madam Geneva’ in 1735 was an expression of the death of gin. The symbolism of the funeral procession for grief and the name reference to ‘jenever’, the Dutch gin that was introduced to the country by returning soldiers from the low countries.
There are obvious denotations in each image to support the ‘gin is bad and beer is good’ message. In ‘Gin Lane’, the street is crumbling, coffins adorn the street and people unaware of their surroundings are acting like animals or ignorantly causing death. Their gin stupor has created a nightmare situation and the only people to benefit from it are pawnbrokers. The clean city and spire of the church are distant in the background and distorted, to indicate that all manner of society has been lost.
In contrast, ‘Beer Street’ is a happy and calm situation, where people are portly, well fed, educated, employed and engaged with society in a positive way. There are no children on the street and those present are visibly happy with their life. There is a positive impression of a repaired city with the one building in disrepair being the pawnbrokers. Even still, the pawnbroker receives a beer so there is a sense of comradery and community. There are no poor people here and the street is even greeted with aristocracy passing through. Commerce is thriving here. ‘Beer Street’ has two copies, this one has a man in black passing by in a jovial manner. In the second print it has a couple in this position and the man sitting with a pipe is holding a leg of beef, as seen in the image below.
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