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Art and Alcohol – at TATE Britain

Jane Ryan | 18/11/2015

An intriguing look into art that has captured Britain's gluttony for booze is currently on at TATE Britain. Curated by David Blayney Brown.

A stimulant, a social lubricant, a powerful addiction. We’ve been imbibing booze for centuries and the potent liquid has had its moments of glory as well as its destructive lows. Alcohol, in all its forms, has wormed its way into our literature and our art – something which TATE Britain has chosen to shine a spotlight on.

Inside a cavernous orange room within the splendour of the gallery, Art and Alcohol charts the representation of booze in art. And it’s all here, the seedy, grimy history of drinking from the infamous 1751 Gin Lane by William Hogarth to Richard Billingham’s photography in the 1990s.

It’s an insightful collection and an intriguing look into how alcohol shaped the lives of many living in Victorian Britain, the time when the majority of the collection was produced. And while there are moments of merriment in the pictures, dancing, smiling, healthy people raising a glass in toast, the overall feel is a bleak outlook for those who had one sip too many. Scenes such as desolate children without parents, a family losing all their possessions thanks to the father’s alcoholism and a woman drawing her meaty arm backwards to swing a punch at her drunk husband fill the room.

Art and Alcohol might not be a beautiful collection, noted for the dazzling colours, perfect brush strokes or even the cohesion of the art, after all it cuts across time and medium, but it's certainly thought provoking - imagine just what those painters must have seen to turn to their canvas and depict the horror of the addicted drunk. 

" artist, nor author, dare attempt to represent or describe, to the fullest extent, the horrible crimes and disgusting deeds that are committed under the influence of wine, beer, or spirits. No, it cannot, it dare not be done." Wrote George Cruikshank (whose work The Worship of Bacchus is also displayed) in 1862.

It’s interesting to note (and possibly something the gallery should point out) that the addiction-riddled 1700 to1800s weren’t fuelled by any alcohol you could buy today. Without wanting to venture too deep into a science lesson, those Londoners were drinking the highly addictive and poisonous methanol whereas we today drink ethanol. What we call gin is nothing like the gin that every third Londoner was distilling in their bathtub back when Hogarth sketched Gin Lane or Henry Fielding wrote "What must become of the Infant who is conceived in Gin? with the poisonous Distillations of which it is nourished both in the Womb and at the Breast." 

We've chosen to pull out four works which showcase the very different styles of art to be found at the collection, however the exhibition is free at TATE Britain until autumn 2016 so well worth visiting in person. 


Robert Braithwaite Martineau - The Last Day in the Old Home 1862 - Oil paint on canvas

In Robert Braithwaite Martineau's painting alcohol has driven the family to ruin and forced them to sell their ancestral home. While the women seemed concered by their fate, the father simply raises another glass and encourages his young son to follow in his path. 


Benjamin Robert Haydon - Chairing the Member 1828 - Oil paint on canvas

Injecting a more jovial atmosphere into the collection, this painting is based on the notoriously lax King’s Bench prison, where Haydon was imprisoned for debt. It was said to be largely run by its inmates, who on this occasion witnessed by Haydon enacted a mock election, stoked by expensive drink. 


Edward Le Bas - Saloon Bar 1940 - Oil paint on canvas

Captured by Le Bas in a Knightsbridge pub during the Second World War, this woman drinking alone is one of many who could have been missing a husband, lover or brother away on service or even killed. Before the war, women seen drinking alone would have attracted disapproving or suspicious glances, but the war changed this, giving women the freedom to drown their sorrows or indulge in merriment as they so pleased. 


Gilbert & George - Balls: The Evening Before the Morning After 1972 - 114 photographs, black and white, on paper mounted between glass and card

Perhaps the most interesting piece of art within the collection, Gilbert & George attempted to depict alcohol’s progressive effects. They embraced drinking as a subject, and a stimulant to alter consciousness or raise confidence. Each picture is a story in itself but they pull together wonderfully to chart through a night on the sauce. The pictures were all taken in the former Balls Brothers Bar, Bethnal Green Road in east London and developed in different sizes, with varied clarity or distortion, to mirror alcohol's effect.


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