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Gin and Morals, Please

By Thomas Triedman at The New Criterion

William Hogarth, Gin Lane, 1751, red chalk, Morgan Library & Museum, purchased by Pierpont Morgan.

“Cruelty and Humor” may be the subtitle of the Hogarth exhibition on display at the Morgan Library through September 22, but “Beer and Gin” would be more fitting. In the early eighteenth century, the British government (amid heightened tensions with France) instituted a policy to promote gin, a traditionally British drink, at the expense of French brandy. The policy proved too effective: by 1743, the average Brit was—in an intoxicated and nationalist frenzy—drinking 2.2 gallons each year. A satirist, agitator, and, in the words of David Bindman, “self-consciously English artist,” William Hogarth (1697–1764) employed his work in the hopes of chilling the “Gin Craze” of the 1750s.

Hard alcohol has, for many centuries, limited forbearance. The crusade against spirits probably began with Pittacus, an ancient Greek historian, who believed that “a blow given by a drunken man [should have been] more feverishly punished than if it had been given by one that was sober.” His idea set a precedent that extended well into William Hogarth’s era. For instance, Henry Fielding, the eighteenth–century British writer and Hogarth’s close friend, wrote that gin—“poison,” he called it—was “the greatest evil of all.” In fact, he viewed gin as the primary reason to rouse “[government] power from its presently lethargic state” and ultimately to crack down on excessive drinking—even at the expense of civil liberties.

While Hogarth sought to address the problem by advocating for legislation, he also viewed the “Gin Craze” as the symptom of a larger issue: a moral degradation that was evident in eighteenth-century working-class London. This one-room exhibition, assembled by Jennifer Tonkovich, the Eugene and Clare Thaw Curator, logically reveals Hogarth’s journey—from recognizing the issue to exploring its underlying causes.

The prints Beer Street and Gin Lane (both 1751) that open the exhibition were, according to Hogarth, “calculated to reform some reigning vices peculiar to the lower class of people.” In the background of Beer Street, construction workers atop a steeple raise a glass of local beer to their king. In the foreground, a young woman buys back many of the goods she pawned as fishwives and laborers enjoy a beer outside a tavern. Hogarth touches on piety and nationalist loyalty, along with the blossoming economy, to paint the picture of a locally brewed utopia.

Read the rest at The New Criterion