Few things stir up the middle class’s love for moral panic as much as alcohol.
Tate Britain’s exhibition looks at how artists have depicted the “ills” of drinking since William Hogarth’s print Gin Lane in 1751.
Society is shown on the verge of breakdown—and the booze-soaked poor are to blame.
Gin Lane is a horror show, set against a backdrop of urban and moral decay.
A riotous mob fights in the street, an inebriated man is wheelbarrowed by his drunken friends, a coffin hangs from an undertaker’s shop front.
In the foreground a baby falls from the hands of its mother, who is off her head on gin, to an almost certain death.
Hogarth was a brilliant satirist. As part of the rising bourgeois class, he skewered a morally bankrupt aristocratic London with its corruption and “rotten boroughs”. But the aristocracy weren’t his only targets.
Hogarth’s print’s fear of gin was fuelled by a bigger fear of the growing working classes and a patronising contempt for them.
What’s missing from the exhibition is Gin Lane’s counterpart—Beer Street. They were intended to be viewed together.
Here healthy-looking drinkers swill real ale, while the streets are a beehive of activity full of booming shops and merchants.
It implies that if workers drank British-brewed beer and not imported gin, there would be no problem.
This depiction of working class drinkers recurs in other paintings.
Julius Caesar Ibbetson’s two paintings, An Unmarried Sailor’s Return and A Married Sailor’s Return contrast a night of booze, sex and vice with dinner in the family home.
The family is the cornerstone of patriotism after the turmoil of the French Revolutionary Wars.
This sort of moralism by reactionaries and liberals has rightly been sneered at with equal contempt.
Writing in the Chartists’ Northern Star newspaper in 1844, the revolutionary Frederick Engels toasted the Bavarian Beer Riots.
The Bavarians who were “much addicted to its consumption in rather large quantities” revolted against higher duties.
“If the people once know they can frighten the government out of their taxing system, they will soon learn that it will be as easy to frighten them as far as regard more serious matters,” Engels wrote.
A spirited defence of drinking is welcome—but both capital’s and the working class’s relationship with alcohol is a bit more complex.
For example, what should we say about the way some construction workers are still paid in pubs in a deliberate move to make more money for the brewers?
Moralistic sneering aside, it is not something to be celebrated.
One of the most contradictory paintings in the exhibition is George Cruikshank’s The Worship of Bacchus (1862). It seems just like the others, showing the ills of drinking on a titanic scale.
A father teaches his son to drink, once grown up he’s a captain who lets his ship burn.
In the middle of the square destitute children hold signs saying “No father, no mother”. Next to them a drunken man beats a woman.
As a zealous advocate of temperance Cruikshank does misfire, but he is trying to point out the hypocrisy of Victorian society.
Why did so many drink gin? It was encouraged as a cheap import, and was arguably safer than the water supply, so grew in popularity.
Hogarth’s subjects are damned to squalor, placated on cheap gin, and then sneered at for it—but that’s not something worth moral panic.
In 1968 photographer John Walmsley was still a photography student at the Guildford School of Art.
In June students in the new art colleges went into occupation against the lack of resources.
This was happening against the backdrop of a movement against US imperialism and the Vietnam war.
In March thousands had marched on the US embassy in Grosvenor Square in central London. Walmsley captured both of those momentous events on film.
This exhibition is an opportunity to see the photographs and there will also be talks alongside it.
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