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On 13 February, 1751, Hogarth announced the publication of the pair of engraved images entitled Beer Street and Gin Lane. From the time of this first announcement, the didactic function of the engravings was made clear by the artist, who stated that "the subjects of those prints are calculated to reform some reigning vices peculiar to the lower class of people." The vice Hogarth was particularly concerned with exposing was the drinking of gin, which is clearly vilified in Gin Lane (Gallery 3, Image 2). Beer Street, on the other hand presents a more palatable image of London, one underpinned by an interest in constituent parts working harmoniously as a whole.

Beer Street presents a collage of narratives, each dealing with aspects of daily life in an industrious and content Britain. This collage is bound together by the cohesive symbol of beer and its consumption. In the foreground a butcher, blacksmith, paviour and two fishwives are brought together during a break from their respective working days to enjoy a draught of beer, described in the accompanying caption as variously health-giving, patriotic, strength-imparting, cheering and the upholder of "Labour and Art".

In addition to this layering of narratives, we see embedded into the engraving a composite of thematically overlapping visual and literary media. Signifiers of patriotic industry such as the overflowing baskets of the fish women are situated emphatically next to a pamphlet outlining a scheme of fisheries development. This synergy of images and supplementary written texts can be observed in numerous individual instances throughout the work, together promoting education and self-improvement.

Hogarth shows that this collaged streetscape is also a site of dynamism, as the network of symbols is being further added to even as we view the piece, with the sign painter content in his work, elevated above the various narratives of the near foreground. The artistic process of collage construction is played out for our benefit. On Beer Street, there is no halting the creative and industrious might of the British nation.


-Louis Boyd

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