Beer Street and Gin Lane,
Two engravings by William Hogarth (1697-1764),
Issued in 1751,
Engravings on paper
© Wikimedia Commons
Debauchery, drunkenness and the cares of life
Jesus said to his disciples:
‘Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened with debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of life, and that day will be sprung on you suddenly, like a trap. For it will come down on every living man on the face of the earth. Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen, and to stand with confidence before the Son of Man.’
Reflection on the engravings
Today is the very last day of the church’s liturgical year. The new liturgical year begins this evening when we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent. In a few hours the Advent wreaths will go up in our churches. The colour of the vestments will change from green to purple. Advent is above all a time of prayerful waiting for the coming of the Lord. It is appropriate then that the gospel for the last day of the liturgical year, just on the cusp of Advent, should highlight the need for that attitude of prayerful waiting and watching.
Jesus makes his point through painting a picture that if don't watch ourselves, 'debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of life' may well take over. He thus acknowledges that the cares and pleasures of this earthly life have enormous power to absorb us completely. Our defence against that is to be prayerful people, attentive and awake to the Lord who is both coming and present.
Our two prints titled 'Beer Street' and 'Gin Lane' depict what debauchery and drunkenness looked like in 18th-century England. Issued in 1751 by William Hogarth, they were made in support of what would become the Gin Act. The Gin Act was an act of Parliament aimed at reducing the consumption of gin and other distilled spirits, which was regarded as one of the primary causes of crime in London. Designed to be viewed alongside each other, the two prints depict the evils of the consumption of gin as a contrast to the merits of drinking beer (lower in alcohol content).
William Hogarth portrays the inhabitants of Beer Street as happy and healthy, nourished by the native English small beer and ale. Beer Street depicts industry, health, bonhomie, and thriving commerce. Gin Lane stands in stark contrast, showing the street as destroyed by addiction to gin. The poverty of Gin Lane is further accentuated by shocking scenes of infanticide, starvation, madness, decay and suicide.
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