Booze and bedlam: a London night out past and present

Silk, Squalor and Scandal: Hogarth in London
Cuming Museum, Elephant and Castle, London
Until 16 February 2008

Star rating: 5/5

Each successive generation considers itself more debauched than the one before it. But Hogarth’s depiction of 18th century London definitely alludes to a darker capital in days gone by, writes Mark Drinkwater.

On show are more than 20 engravings by Hogarth based on paintings he made famous. Rather than simple line drawings of these popular scenes, they are incredibly detailed images containing much more information than their painted counterparts ever did.

This work will be of interest to more than historians, and visitors will be struck by how much it resonates with contemporary issues. The accompanying notes highlight his commitment to social reform. Having experienced a debtor’s prison as a child when his family were imprisoned, it is likely this shaped his empathic portraits of the poor and subsequently inspired him to become a founding governor of the Foundling Hospital, where he devoted more than 20 years to helping abandoned children.

His best known work, Gin Lane, gave support to the Gin Act of 1751. In highlighting the evils of the liquor, the picture portrays a mother who is oblivious to her baby tumbling into a cellar. In the shadows of the image lurk yet more scenes of depravity as a man gnaws on a bone with a dog, mothers feed their toddlers gin, and a man hangs himself.

Similarly, the Rake’s Progress tells the shocking story of the downfall of a social climber who succumbs to greed and ends his days in the notorious asylum Bedlam. In a further tale of (im)morality, A Harlot’s Progress, Hogarth traces the fate of innocent country girl Moll Hackett who arrives in London and finds herself being taken in by a brothel keeper – a fate not so different from those who are trafficked from abroad into the capital’s contemporary sex trade.

While the images portrayed are grotesque exaggerations, the themes of Hogarth’s London – violence, slum housing, corrupt politicians, prostitution and ritual alcohol abuse – are not so different from the issues facing the city today.

Mark Drinkwater is a community worker in Southwark, south London

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