Tuesday, 31 January 2012

"Gin Lane," William Hogarth, and Moral Crisis in the 18th Century

The scourge of the "demon drink" gin on the poor citizens of 18th century London was best captured by the brilliant cartoonist William Hogarth (1697-1764) in his 1750 engraving Gin Lane. The image of the irresponsible, feckless, and often female gin addict was embedded in conflicts over class, law and order, religion, decorum, and ultimately the cause of moral regulation.


 William Hogarth's Gin Lane (1750)

Some time ago I read Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason by University of Toronto academic Jessica Warner (*). She describes the concern over the drinking of gin as the first in a series of modern moral panics, in which authorities ascribed blame erroneously. She concludes, in essence, that it was not gin that made people poor, rather it was poverty that caused them to drink.Warner constructs her narrative as a three-act play; in the second act "virtue triumphs over prudence." By this she refers to the ill-fated attempts to regulate the manufacture and sale of gin, including the highly divisive use of neighbourhood informants. These measures, by failing to address the reasons that gin was highly in demand, simply displaced the problem. Act three ("In which time passes and wisdom is gained") reflects the pattern of many phases of moral regulation, particularly the temperance and prohibition movements in Britain and North America. In modern terms, she explicitly references the "war on drugs," and how many of the policies currently implemented reflect the wrong-headed attempts to curtail the drinking of intoxicating liquors.

Such subjects are by no means simple, papered over with layers of public and private morality, appearance and reality, truth and hypocrisy. William Hogarth was among the first artists and cartoonists to elucidate these divisions in a way that was understandable and accessible to a wide audience. I have been fortunate enough to view many Hogarth originals, including the "Rake's Progress" series of painting that reside at the Sir John Soane's Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Here is the incomparable modern day satirist Ian Hislop, a favourite of the Idle Historian, talking about the allure of the Soane Museum, and the elemental role of Hogarth as the "father" of English satire.





(*) N.B. Warner's book includes an unexpected segment in the acknowledgements which is one of the most shockingly frank non-acknowledgements I've ever read in a scholarly book: [Regarding the British Library]: "There I encountered a staff that was impervious to exploitation in any form; indeed, such was their fondness for reading The New York Review of Books that many could scarce find the time or energy to help readers humbler than themselves." (!)

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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