After more than a hundred years of neglect George Cruikshank’s panoramic depiction of a crazed and drink-sodden
On 25 May, following more than a year of painstaking restoration work, the cleaned, relined, restretched, reframed and revarnished canvas – all 14,720 pullulating square inches of it – will be put on display in a special celebration of Cruikshank at Tate
Cruikshank had been a graphic satirist in his youth, much influenced by the founding fathers of English caricature, James Gillray and William Hogarth. The Bacchus, which he painted near the end of his long life, when he had become a prominent campaigner in the Temperance movement, riotously extends a tradition dating back to the eighteenth century. Its most obvious antecedent is Hogarth’s celebrated print protesting against the sudden, dreadful “gin craze” that swept through London in the 1740s and 1750s: Gin Lane, in which a gaggle of drunks loll and sprawl around the central figure of a near-comatose mother who allows her baby to fall, from her limp grasp, to an early death. As if to acknowledge that work as the forerunner of his own, Cruikshank has included Hogarth’s mother and baby, placing them just below the centre of his swirling composition. The inclusion only serves to point up the manic originality of Cruikshank’s work which, with its reeling cast of drunks from all walks of life, presents us with Gin Lane to the power of ten. Beneath a soot- and smoke-blackened sky – Ruskin’s “dark stormcloud of the nineteenth century” – all of
The action takes place in a kind of park partly inspired by
The tomb on which the maniac prances is decorated with skulls, the epitaph chiselled into its stone surface underlining the totality of the destruction drink can do to a man’s family: “Sacrificed at the shrine of Bacchus: Father, Mother, Sister, Brother, Wife, Children, Property, Friends, Body and Mind.” Huddled disconsolately around its base, widows and orphans embody urban poverty as it was in a world before the advent of state welfare - where to be down truly did mean to be out. For all its undeniable exaggeration and grotesquerie Cruikshank’s picture conveys the texture of city life at the height of the Industrial Revolution with startling immediacy: the smog, the dirt, the overcrowding, the juxtapositions between rich, cocooned in their world of crystal and fine wines, and poor, condemned to rotgut liquor and a shiftless life on the streets.
The Worship of Bacchus has an undeniably hysterical edge to it. By the time he came to paint it, Cruikshank believed that all the ills of his age could be laid at the door of alcohol – an oversimplified view, to be sure, but one with more substance to it than might nowadays be supposed. The Industrial Revolution had seen an unprecedented influx of migrant workers to the ever-expanding nineteenth-century cities. This workforce, forced for the most part to live in appalling slum conditions, was easily tempted into the warm, brightly lit and palatially splendid gin-shops and pubs that soon sprang up on every corner – a phenomenon frequently commented upon by journalists of the time, including Cruikshank’s sometime collaborator Charles Dickens. Such establishments offered working-class men the brief anaesthetic respite of alcoholic oblivion. Brewers and distillers made millions – the term “beerocracy” was coined to describe the most successful of them – and in the process helped millions of their customers to turn themselves into alcoholics.
The church, the principal institution of social welfare at the time, failed miserably to remedy the situation. Many observers believed that this was because the designers of pubs and gin palaces had cannily turned them into parodies of churches, with their stained glass windows and their bright promise of communion around the altar of the bar. Such ideas are implicit in Cruikshank’s painting, a scene of bacchanalian “worship” in which the only visible church is spied, at a distance, through cemetery gates. (The picture contains several other sideswipes at men of the cloth, seen variously tippling or encouraging the consumption of communion wine – a practice much criticised by Temperance campaigners). Religion offered no cure for the crisis, only burial of the dead.
Such was the scale of the problem that it has been estimated that at any given time, in the mid-nineteenth century, one in four Londoners was drunk. Cruikshank was by no means alone in identifying drink as the greatest social evil of the period. Other prominent campaigners against alcohol abuse included his acquaintance Thomas Cook, who invented the concept of the working-class holiday or excursion specifically to provide a stimulating alternative to a day in the boozer. To be a Temperance campaigner, in Victorian England, was to be part of a radical movement intended to improve the lot of the urban poor. Only once the workers had been sobered up could they be politically organised, as founding fathers of the Labour Party such as Keir Hardie – another Temperance man – understood very clearly. So The Worship of Bacchus is, among much else, a key document of
Cruikshank’s state-of-the-nation panorama may be read in many different ways, because the artist has structured it using several simultaneous principles of organisation. Looked at vertically, it can be seen as the story of a single, individual life. The baby being christened in the vignette at the bottom matures to become the rosy-cheeked Bacchus at the top, only to degenerate into the strait-jacketed “mad Tom” in the middle. Viewed horizontally, the painting depicts the way in which alcohol has insinuated itself into the rites and rituals that attend all lives. The drinking scenes running along the bottom of the picture, for example, show a wedding, a christening, a birthday and a funeral, a boozily parodic reprise of the old tradition of painting the sacraments. The left-hand side of the picture offers yet another perspective, charting the corruption of youth. Children are taught to drink by their fathers, grow into drink-crazed students and end in alcoholic criminality, epitomised by the drunken sailor being flogged for his sins as a burning boat – no doubt destroyed as a result of his failings – blazes on the horizon. A similar progression can be inferred on the right hand side, only here it is a soldier who receives the flogging. Army and navy, church and state – every one of
The multitudinous stories that throng the canvas are all progressions towards a bitter end, sharing the same, doomy, downward momentum. Even Cruikshank’s imaginary cityscape has been structured as a kind of narrative telling the tale of a descent into darkness. Reading from left to right, we are first shown the causes of drunkenness: smoke-belching factories, breeding grounds of human misery, cheek-by-jowl with breweries, distilleries and pubs. Then, moving gradually across, we encounter the institutions made necessary by alcoholism: Police Station, House of Correction, General Hospital, Cemetery, Magdalen Hospital (where syphilitic Victorian prostitutes would go to die), Union Work House, Jail (complete with a tiny, chilling gallows scene silhouetted against the sky on its roof) and finally Lunatic Asylum, the only representation of such a place in all of British nineteenth-century painting, a dour block-built construction complete with green-painted steel shutters on the windows to keep the addled inmates from jumping out.
The most eloquent guide to the picture’s mass of detail remains George Cruikshank himself. In his astonishingly vigorous old age he toured the work around
“I have not the vanity of calling it a picture,” the artist told his first audience, “it being merely the mapping out of certain ideas for an especial purpose.” Just what those ideas were, he went on to elaborate. In fact he went on and on, the full text of his speech, which was taken down by an industrious stenographer, running to more than 20 pages. The flavour of his Temperance orations, in which explanation was mingled with exhortation and numerous digressions into personal reminiscence, can only be conveyed in quotation. Here he is, “explicating” just a few of the central figures in his composition:
“Below the statues are the priests and priestesses officiating or, in other words, the publicans, their wives, potboys and barmaids handing the intoxicating liquors over the bar, and taking the money from the worshippers. One of these publicans is worshipping so devoutly himself that he is falling a sacrifice to his deity as well as many of his customers. This is unfortunately too often the case, and there is a disease of the viscera called the “publicans’ disease”, and very many of these persons also die from delirium tremens. I know of many such cases; indeed, not far from my own residence there are three public houses very near each other: at one, the landlord was so mad with delirium tremens that he was obliged to have a keeper with him; and at the same time, within twenty yards of that house, the son of another publican died from the same disease; and beyond that house the publican was so affected with delirium tremens that he hung himself! He had gone upstairs to lie down, and his wife sent their little boy to call his father down to tea. The child returned and said ‘Mother! Father’s got my sash, and he won’t give it to me.’ The woman rushed upstairs, fearing something wrong, and found that her poor wretched husband had hung himself with his child’s sash!”
Holding forth on the stage above them Cruikshank must have struck his listeners, prospective pledge-signers all, as an extraordinary sight. In his early seventies, nearly bald, yet an incurable dandy, he is said to have been the last man in
Cruikshank told his audience that he had laboured since his earliest years to discourage the taking of excess alcohol, although the truth was somewhat different. He had indeed produced a series of extremely successful prints from the late 1820s attacking the spread of gin shops and the rise of alcoholism. Beginning with The Gin Trap of 1828, such work culminated in a series of prints called The Bottle which – following very much in the mould of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress – charted the gradual destruction of an entire family by alcohol addiction. Yet at the same time, Cruikshank had consistently ridiculed the supporters of Temperance and held fast for years to the belief that drink was only a problem for those unable to hold it. It was not until the end of the 1840s, when the artist was in his late fifties, that he became a convert to the movement.
The motives behind Cruikshank’s belated but passionate attachment to the Temperance cause were complicated. Like many opponents of alcohol abuse he was himself a reformed alcoholic. During his youth, as he rose mercurially from anonymity to become the best known and bestselling satirist of his age, he was famous for his ability to drink all comers under the table. He was following in a family tradition, albeit one with rather grim consequences: his father, Isaac, also a caricaturist, drank himself to death in a yard of ale competition in 1812; while his brother, Robert, another artist, died in middle age from cirrhosis of the liver brought on by an overfondness for the bottle. Such events may have played a part in Cruikshank’s conversion to Temperance, but the primary cause seems to have been his awareness that he was in personal and professional crisis. His career had foundered badly from the late 1830s on, when demand dwindled for his rambunctious, scabrous, unruly brand of Georgian caricature – Victorian humour being rather milder and more polite than that of the previous period. He reinvented himself, initially to great effect, as a book illustrator, collaborating with Dickens on Sketches by Boz and Oliver Twist, the cast and story of which were actually invented by Cruikshank (a fact which Dickens later and largely successfully tried to suppress). Such work led Ruskin to dub him the greatest etcher since Rembrandt, while Whistler described him as the greatest British artist of the entire nineteenth century. His influence spread to Europe, and especially Paris, where Cruikshank’s more impromptu essays in urban observation were collected and emulated by Edouard Manet, and played a formative part in the development of Impressionism. But despite all that, by the late 1840s he was finding it increasingly difficult to get work and his drinking had spiralled out of control.
So Temperance offered Cruikshank personal salvation while also giving him a cause, in the support of which he hoped and believed he might at last make his accommodation with the Victorian age. As it turned out, rather tragically, he was wrong. Cruikshank laboured on Bacchus for nearly eighteen months. He found the process of painting arduous and difficult, having spent his life working primarily with the pencil and the etching needle. The Worship of Bacchus was his only work of any note in oils and when it was first placed on exhibition, in a gallery next to the Lyceum Theatre, in the centre of London, Cruikshank hoped it would redeem his artistic reputation. Thousands would come, see and be converted. The great George, the mighty George Cruikshank, elasticated hairpiece and all, would be recognised once more as one of the giants of his age. The author Blanchard Jerrold described a painful visit to see Cruikshank’s masterpiece halfway through the exhibition’s run: “I remember seeing him standing in his exhibition room. It was empty. There was a wild, anxious look in his face, when he greeted me. While we talked, he glanced once or twice at the door, when he heard any sound in that direction. Were they coming at last, the tardy, laggard public for whom he had been bravely toiling for so many years? Here was his last mighty labour against the wall, and all the world had been told it was there…Yet it was near noon, and only a solitary visitor had wandered into the room.”
Considering the kinds of pictures the Victorians liked to hang on their walls – soppy-eyed portraits of dogs, medievalist fantasies, idealised landscapes, faintly risque depictions of pneumatic nudes – it is hardly surprising that the late nineteenth-century audience did not take to Cruikshank’s work. It was too coarse, too unrestrained, above all too honest for them to be able to stomach. But the Victorians’ principal reason for rejecting The Worship of Bacchus – the simple fact that it told far too many unpalatable truths about their world – is precisely why the picture deserves to be rescued at last from the obscurity to which the painter’s prudish contemporaries consigned it.
Thanks principally to Stephen Deuchar, Director of Tate