Hogarth: Room guide, room 8

This gallery examines Hogarth’s graphic representations of social disorder, crime, cruelty and punishment, including Gin Lane and Industry and Idleness

The increase in poverty and overcrowding in London during the first half of the eighteenth century was related to the unprecedented levels of migration from the countryside. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the rise in population led to a rise in crime and social unrest. Whether London was essentially a more dangerous and anarchic environment than in the late seventeenth century is debatable. However, the ruling elites certainly thought so and feared for their persons, their property and their commercial interests.

Concomitant, but not the cause of the social problems, was the dramatic upsurge in gin drinking among the lower classes. Drunkenness affected all levels of society. However, the middle and upper classes took a very different view of it when appraising its impact on the rest of society. Thus the ‘gin epidemic’, from about 1720 to 1751, was increasingly held to be the primary cause of wider social evils.

At the height of this crisis Hogarth created Industry and Idleness, Gin Lane and Beer Street, and The Stages of Cruelty. These works continued the satirical series last seen in Marriage A-la-Mode but eschewed its elegance and wit in favour of a hard-hitting, polemical approach and are remarkable for their rigorous, unflinching examination of social disorder, crime and punishment. 

William Hogarth  Sarah Malcolm March 1733

William Hogarth
Sarah Malcolm March 1733

Sarah Malcolm was convicted and hanged for the brutal murder of an elderly widow and her two servants, which occurred during a robbery in the Inns of Court in February 1733. Hogarth visited her in Newgate prison a few days before her execution. In general terms, the purpose of producing prints, such as the one displayed here, was to capitalise on the topicality of the event and the notoriety of the criminal. Moreover, Malcolm’s life represented the kind of cautionary narrative that Hogarth utilised within Industry and Idleness and The Four Stages of Cruelty. Born into an Anglo-Irish merchant family in Durham, she moved to London and into service after her father lost the family fortune. Her circumstances took another downward turn when, during her employment at a public house near Temple Court, she came into contact with London’s criminal world.

Malcolm was executed in Fleet Street in March 1733, before a huge crowd of onlookers. Although she had confessed to the robbery, Malcolm protested her innocence of the murders to the very last. Her ‘confession’ was printed in The London Magazine and The Gentleman’s Magazine and as a pamphlet entitled ‘A true copy of the paper, delivered the night before her execution by S Malcolm on the night before her execution to the Rev. Mr. Piddington, and published by him’.

William Hogarth
Jack Sheppard 1724
Pen and ink and chalk on paper
330 x 245 mm
Museum of London

Prior to execution, the most notorious and celebrated criminals were often visited in prison by members of the public. Hogarth’s father-in-law, James Thornhill, visited the thief and jail-breaker Jack Sheppard in 1724, and executed this vivid portrait of him in his cell at Newgate prison. Thornhill also accompanied Hogarth to see the thief and murderess, Sarah Malcolm in 1733. Both these visits resulted in prints that formed part of the buoyant market for convict portraiture, trial and execution images and keepsakes, as well as for criminal biography.

Sheppard was executed in November 1724. The long cart-ride from Newgate prison to Tyburn was reputedly watched by an enthusiastic crowd of almost 200,000 people. He had been arrested five times during that year, but managed to escape prison four times, and consequently became something of a working-class hero. His life story was the subject of theatrical performances and biographies (one written by Daniel Defoe) and he was an inspiration for the character of Captain Macheath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Other celebrity criminals of the period included James Macleane, the so-called ‘Gentleman Highwayman’, who was executed in 1750. Hogarth included his anatomised skeleton in the final scene of The Four Stages of Cruelty, displayed nearby.

Alexander Smith
A Compleat History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highway-men 1719
British Library, London

Paul Sandby
Last Dying Speech c.1759
Watercolour over pencil on paper
171 x 144 mm
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

In Plate 11 of Industry and Idleness, Tom Idle, who is found guilty of theft and possibly murder, is taken to Tyburn surrounded by a huge crowd of spectators. The condemned often addressed the throng and, as shown in Hogarth’s print (centre foreground) and in this watercolour by Paul Sandby, the speeches were published as pamphlets or broadsheets by opportunist print-sellers and sold by street hawkers. Occasionally the speeches were sold at the execution itself, in some cases propagated by the criminal themselves, in order to protest their innocence or to complain about perceived injustices during the legal process.

From the early eighteenth century, the Ordinaries of Newgate (the chaplains who had access to criminals awaiting execution) had been publishing accounts of trials, confessions and hangings. The confession of the thief and murderess Sarah Malcolm was published in this way (see Hogarth’s portrait print, displayed nearby.) These accounts, as with executions themselves, accorded with the public’s prurient interest in crime and punishment. But they also paralleled the basic ethos behind public executions as a deterrent, the irony being, as Hogarth’s print demonstrates, that the huge crowds proved to be a magnate for thieves and often resulted in violent behaviour.

William Hogarth
The Industrious Apprentice Married and Furnishing his House c.1747
Pen and brown ink and grey wash on paper
210 x 290 mm
The British Museum, London

This drawing represents a fascinating insight into Hogarth’s working methods and above all the process by which he developed the narrative for Industry and Idleness. The scene, showing Francis Goodchild and his pregnant wife overseeing the installation of paintings and furnishings in their new house, was not used in the final sequence of prints. It was replaced presumably by Plate 6, in which Hogarth infers that Goodchild’s highly advantageous marriage is a case of social climbing. The ambiguity of Goodchild’s ‘virtuous’ career may be present in this drawing, given that he is shown busily surrounding himself in luxury.

Beer Street and Gin Lane

These famous prints formed part of the successful campaign in support of the Gin Act of 1751. Despite attempts by the British government to control its production and distribution, including the unpopular Gin Act of 1736, gin drinking was at an all-time high during the first half of the eighteenth century among the poorer levels of society. Unlike beer, which was relatively low in alcohol, gin (an abbreviation of the Dutch word geneva) was very potent and widely used as a fast-acting, inexpensive antidote to boredom, suffering and deprivation.

Hogarth’s hellish vision of a gin-soaked society was made all the more immediate to his contemporary audience by being set in a London location, St Giles, a poverty-stricken area to the west of Bloomsbury (the steeple of St George’s Bloomsbury, with its figure of King George II, is in the distance). Conversely, Beer Street is staged in a relatively prosperous area within sight of the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the spire of which is visible in the background. By 1750, while approximately one in fifteen houses sold gin in the City of London and Westminster as a whole, in St Giles, as in other poor areas, the ratio was estimated at one in five.

William Hogarth
Beer Street (third state) 1 February 1751
Etching and engraving on paper
390 x 326 mm
Courtesy Andrew Edmunds, London

In the interest of polemics Gin Lane and Beer Street conform to the kind of polarised circumstances previously adopted by Hogarth in Industry and Idleness. Each represents an imagined ‘reality’; two contrasting urban scenes of order and disorder, prosperity and ruination, contentment and despair. The verses at the bottom emphasise a patriotic agenda, beer being the ‘happy Produce of our Isle’, that ‘warms each English generous Breast | With Liberty and Love’, while gin, which originates in Holland, is the ‘Damn’d cup’ that ‘cherishes with hellish Care, Theft, Murder, Perjury’. Beer Street therefore establishes a correlation between the drinking of native beer and the political, economic and social well-being of the nation.

William Hogarth, ‘Gin Lane’ 1751
William Hogarth
Gin Lane 1751

William Hogarth
Gin Lane 1751

In Gin Lane, the pawnbroker shop, the undertakers and the distillery are the only premises in good order. The rest of the townscape is marked by buildings that are toppling or derelict. In the streets the alcohol-fuelled crowds are being incited to riot or are pouring gin into their own or others’ mouths, including the very young. The central female figure seated on the stairs emphasises the ravages of alcoholism. Dishevelled, half-naked and oblivious to all but the snuff that she is taking, she allows her child to fall headlong into the stairwell of a gin-cellar and to certain death.

William Hogarth
Beer Street (second state) 1751
Etching and engraving on paper
380 x 321 mm
Courtesy Andrew Edmunds, London

In this earlier version of Beer Street, Hogarth made greater emphasis to the patriotic agenda surrounding the drinking of English beer. The blacksmith on the left holds a tankard in one hand, meanwhile hoisting a startled Frenchman, who is depicted as scrawny and helpless, into the air. The verse at the bottom mirrors this by describing beer as having strength-giving properties (‘happy Produce of our Isle/ Can sinewy Strength impart’), whereas water, a weaker liquid, is left to France. In the later print, the blacksmith is seen brandishing a leg of ham and the Frenchman has been replaced by a paver who fondles a market seller.

Hogarth and popular prints

The Four Stages of Cruelty, like Gin Lane and Beer Street, are commonly considered ‘popular’ prints. However they were priced at 1 shilling, a sum well beyond the means of the vast majority of Londoners. Hogarth’s prints – and their stark message – could only have reached the wide audience he purportedly sought through public display, in shop windows or workshops, or through the production of low-cost copies. Hogarth attempted to address this latter possibility by commissioning wood cuts, a far cheaper technique than copperplate etching and engraving, on lower-grade paper, for The Four Stages of Cruelty. In the event only the last two, below, were executed in this format, as even this technique proved financially prohibitive.

There is little doubt, however, that Hogarth’s powerful images made an impact on contemporary society. Gin Lane and Beer Street are generally credited with being a crucial influence on the passing of the Gin Act of 1751. And Hogarth himself noted with satisfaction that a report had reached him of a church sermon inspired by Industry and Idleness and that City masters purchased set of these prints as Christmas gifts for their apprentices.

John Bell after William Hogarth
Cruelty in Perfection 1751
Woodcut on paper
451 x 378 mm
Courtesy Andrew Edmunds, London

John Bell after William Hogarth
The Reward of Cruelty 1751
Woodcut on paper
458 x 385 mm
Courtesy Andrew Edmunds, London

William Hogarth
The Cockpit (or Pit Ticket) 5 November 1759
Etching and engraving on paper
318 x 385 mm
Courtesy Andrew Edmunds, London

The scene in this mock ticket is set in the Royal Cockpit in Birdcage Walk near St James’s Park. As Hogarth shows, cockfighting was a popular sport enjoyed by men from all levels of society. In the centre the figure of the blind Lord Albermarle Bertie presides over the fight, taking bets. An inveterate gambler, Bertie was the second son of the Duke of Ancaster and thus a member of one of the most important aristocratic families in the country.

The cold reality of this sport is here underlined by the men’s insensitivity to the cruelty inflicted in the name of entertainment as they jostle each other, scramble to make bets and shout encouragement at the sparring birds in the centre. In this context the scene relates directly to The Four Stages of Cruelty, which also demonstrates that society as a whole both tolerates and encourages violence. The presence of the hangman in the foreground of The Cockpit, repeats the connection between animal cruelty and criminality established in The Four Stages of Cruelty, which Hogarth described as ‘calculated to reform some reigning vices peculiar to the lower class of people’. The Cockpit underlines the fact that members of the ruling elite actively participated in these ‘reigning vices’ and were thus, ironically, leading ‘the lower class of people’ by example.

See also

Hogarth Industry and Idleness

Hogarth past exhibition at Tate Britain, series

Hogarth The Four Stages of Cruelty

Hogarth past exhibition at Tate Britain, series