Beer Street and Gin Lane

Set in the parish of St Giles, a notorious slum district, Gin Lane depicts the squalor and despair of a community raised on gin. Desperation, death and decay pervade the scene. The only businesses that flourish are those which serve the gin industry: gin sellers; distillers; the pawnbroker and the undertaker, for whom Hogarth implies at least a handful of new customers from this scene alone.

In comparison to the hopeless denizens of Gin Lane, the happy people of Beer Street sparkle with robust health. The only business that is in trouble is the pawnbroker: Mr Pinch lives in the one poorly-maintained, crumbling building in the picture. In contrast to his Gin Lane counterpart, the prosperous Gripe, who displays expensive-looking cups in his upper window (a sign of his flourishing business), Pinch displays only a wooden contraption, perhaps a mousetrap, in his upper window, while he is forced to take his beer through a window in the door, which suggests his business is so unprofitable as to put the man in fear of being seized for debt.

William Hogarth (1697–1764) was a major English painter, printmaker, pictorial satirist, social critic and editorial cartoonist. His work ranged from excellent realistic portraiture to comic strip-like series of pictures called “modern moral subjects”. Much of his work, though at times vicious, poked fun at contemporary politics and customs.

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