24 May – 2 December 2001
George Cruikshank’s vast canvas The Worship of Bacchus, which has not been exhibited for over a century, will form the basis of a display at Tate Britain. This is the latest in a series of in-focus displays which place individual works of art in their social, historical and aesthetic contexts. These displays exemplify Tate Britain’s commitment to examining the ways in which art has helped to mirror and shape ideas of national identity.
Presented to the nation in 1869, The Worship of Bacchus 1860-2 has been ignored for decades, languishing in store. Now fully restored, it is revealed as one of the most original, ambitious and didactic works in the history of British art. Cruikshank was a devoted teetotaller and intended the picture to sum up all his passionately held beliefs about the social damage done by drink. By meticulously illustrating all the evils and horrors of alcohol he hoped to sound a rallying cry for the reform of what he saw as the principal social ill of Victorian Britain, the cause of crime, social and family dysfunction and ill health. Every section of nineteenth-century British society is depicted in the picture, as well as British colonialists foisting alcohol on previously teetotal cultures. The painting is a dense network of vignettes, ranging from mild, apparently innocuous drinking scenes at the bottom of the picture, to images of murder, execution and madness at the top.
George Cruikshank (1792-1878) was one of the most prolific and famous illustrators of the nineteenth century, his long career stretching from the Napoleonic Wars to the 1870s. He was best known for his humorous designs and satires, and his illustrations for the books of Charles Dickens. But at the age of fifty-five Cruikshank turned to temperance, and while he never lost his sharp sense of humour, the remaining thirty years of his life were devoted to bringing social reform through teetotalism. In Cruikshank’s day temperance was a mass movement which boasted around three million adherents in Britain, and the exhibition will give a flavour of this wider social culture.
Recent Home Office reports analysing the relationship between drink, crime and social corrosion, and the continuing debate around alcohol and British culture, illustrate the great relevance of Cruikshank’s masterpiece for a twenty-first-century audience.
A catalogue, supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, accompanies the display, featuring an essay by Robert Upstone, Tate Collection Curator. A BBC film presented by art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon and entitled 1000 Ways of Getting Drunk in England, examines the work and its relation to drinking culture and is broadcast on 2 June on BBC2.
Exhibition open daily 10.00-17.50.
Go to George Cruikshank’s The Worship of Bacchus in the Tate Collection