Spotlight: Hogarth’s ‘Beer Street’
William Hogarth’s life is a true rags-to riches story. Born into a poor middle class family, his father was an unsuccessful schoolmaster and spent time in prison for paid debts. Hogarth (1697-1764) however rose the ranks of London society, and after training as an engraver, becoming a multi-disciplined painter printmaker, he eventually went on to marry a Noblewoman. He became by far the most successful English artist of his era.
Hogarth was deeply influenced by classical art and emulated its academic style and form to represent comical and satirical messages about contemporary London life. His scenes of morality – drunkenness, gambling, infidelity – offered a never-before-seen interpretation of high-low culture. These prints became very popular and mass-produced.
Time and again Hogarth made surprising advances in his career, one example being promoted to the King’s painter. Thanks to a bitter court case where Hogarth sued an influential client who, after completion of a commission decided he did not want Hogarth’s work, Hogarth won and was appointed King’s painter. Another example, Hogarth escaped the threat of French prison after being found depicting the drawbridge in Paris and sent to question. Upon completing a series of satirical prints of French life for his accusers, they were sufficiently amused and let him return to England.
Hogarth’s ‘Beer Street’ (1751) is one of a pair of prints representing the consequences of drinking, the other being the more famous ‘Gin Lane’. ‘Beer Street’ shows the positive consequences of drinking the ‘good’ drink beer, with prosperity, orderliness and cheerful neighbourly streets. (In contrast, Gin Lane shows the social problems created by a city of gin drinkers. London was experiencing a ‘gin crisis’ eventually this print was mass-produced as public propaganda, as so many of Hogarth’s satirical cartoons were.)
Arguably a more interesting piece, certainly a more positive social commentary of the time (but who wants good news stories, right?) ‘Beer Street’ depicts industry, health, bonhomie and thriving commerce. In the picture it is George II’s birthday and people are toasting his health. It is celebration of Englishness, industriousness and celebration.