HOGARTH, William
(b. 1697, London, d. 1764, London)

Gin Lane

Etching and line engraving, 359 x 341 mm
Various collections

Among the strong didactic pieces by Hogarth is Gin Lane, his graphic lecture on the evils of drinking gin. "Idleness, poverty, misery and distress, which drives even to madness and death" - this is the price one pays for indulgence in this poison. The companion print, Beer Street, encourages the use of this beverage, for, as Hogarth said, it is an "invigorating liquor" and on this street "all is joyous and thriving. Industry and jollity go hand in hand." No modern copywriter could produce a more persuasive argument.

In most of Hogarth's plates one does not look for expert handling, for he used his craft to tell a story rather than to demonstrate a technical skill - which he did not, in fact, possess. We "read" his pictures. We must examine every section of the plate, as we would read every page of a book to know everything that happens.

In the lower left-hand corner is the notorious gin cellar. Over the entrance is an inscription: Drunk for a Penny/Dead Drunk for Two Pence/Clean Straw for Nothing. On the lower right is a cadaverous itinerant ballad seller who also retails gin and obviously has imbibed more than he has sold. In the background, the buildings are empty or toppling - the area is rapidly becoming a slum. In one exposed room a man has hanged himself. In the right middle section there is some gaiety, some fighting, and much drinking.

In front of a pawnshop on the other side of the square, a carpenter is trying to pledge his tools, a housewife her pots. Their receipts will, of course, go for gin. The most horrible scene is in the foreground, where a woman, breasts exposed and a drunken grin on her face, reaches for a pinch of snuff. She has lost her grip on her child, who falls over the railing to the pavement below. Hogarth's point is well made.