Archive for January 7th, 2011

Yesterday I mentioned Bryan Talbot and his book Alice in Sunderland.  One aspect of the book that I failed to mention was an interesting case he made about the beginnings of the British comic books genre.  He cites the Bayeaux Tapestry (which I have been meaning to highlight here for some time) as an early example of a story, the Norman conquest of Britain, being told through the use of pictures.  He also goes into an interesting discussion of  William Hogarth, the British painter/printmaker whose work, particularly his prints, were often serial in nature, telling a story by their relationship to one another.

Hogarth (1697-1764) is an icon of British art and a populist whose prints reached across many levels of British society, hanging in homes of many classes.  His work was often satirical in nature and dealt with pressing social issues of the time.  His most popular was Gin Lane, which was coupled with another print, Beer Street.  They were made in order to garner support fot the Gin Act of 1751 which was enacted to curtail the gin craze that had seized Britain for the first half of the 18th century.  Gin was inexpensive to produce and was sold cheaply.  At the time the average Londoner was purported to be drinking up to 2 pints of gin per week and authorities of the time felt that this was leading to idleness and moral decay.

Hogarth dealt with the issue by showing the contrast between the accepted practice of drinking beer (considered safer than drinking the water of that time, given the unsanitary conditions) to the evils brought on by drinking gin. In Beer Street, Hogarth depicts the drinkers as well clad, jolly and fat– signs of health and wealth.  There is a sense of orderliness with workman at labor and all businesses being prosperous, except for the pawnbroker, whose building is in disrepair.  The artist who is shown painting the sign is in rags and is shown to be a gin addict through the detail on the smaller sign where he has painted a gin flask rather than a beer bottle.

The contrasts in Gin Lane are drastic.  Scenes of decadence and decay abound.  At the forefront is the drunken, bare-chested mother who has lost her grip on her child who tumbles over the railing down to an underground gin house. Her companion is an emaciated balladeer whose sheet music has the title The Downfall of Madame Gin.  In the background, the scenes are evn more lurid.  A barber hangs himself, his business failing because the gin addict spends all his money on drink, not haircuts.  A woman is feeding baby gin.  A man is gnawing on a large bone while his friend is so drunk that a snail has time to crawl upon his shoulder.  Buildings are in disrepair and falling down.  The only businesses that prosper are the undertaker, the gin houses and the pawnbroker, where a workman is pawning his tools for drink.  There are other signs of madness, as the detail shown here illustrates.

It’s pretty powerful stuff and Talbot does a nice analysis of the compositions of the two prints, showing how Hogarth creates a feeling of orderliness and calm with the strong vertical and horizontal lines of Beer Street and contrasts that to Gin Lane with a composition that features frantic motion with clashing diagonals.  There is little stability and chaos reigns in his composition.  Masterfully done.

The Gin Act of 1751 was written into law and by the mid 1750’s the gin craze had subsided, although many cite the higher cost of grain at the time which drove up the price substantially as a larger factor.

Whatever the case, Hogarth has produced two intriguing prints that have great interest even today.

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