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George Cruikshank's The Worship of Bacchus

Derek Rutherford discusses the background to a re-discovered painting

Tate Britain together with a BBC documentary* has rescued from obscurity a great painting, which has not seen the light of day for almost 100 years. 'The Worship of Bacchus' by George Cruikshank had its first public showing in 1862 and was last exhibited in Newcastle upon Tyne from 1905-1909.

John Ruskin considered Cruikshank as "the most gifted etcher since Rembrandt". For Andrew Graham Dixon he is "the forgotten man of British art – a giant of his time"; and of the painting, in his BBC documentary he concludes:

"Victorians didn't like the picture; it's not genteel; it's not pretty; it isn't nice. It doesn't tell a reassuring lie about their world, but it does tell the truth about their world, an unacceptable truth about their world. For all its exaggeration, for all it's bravado it really is the only Victorian painting that really confronts poverty and injustice and violence. And so, the reasons why the Victorians didn't like it are precisely the reasons why it should actually last and be kept up forever on the walls of Tate Britain as a reminder of what Victorian Britain was really like."

It took three years for Cruikshank to complete the painting. For him it was not a picture for he had not the 'vanity' to call it so.

Cruikshank described the picture as a map, "a mapping out of certain ideas for an especial purpose". The purpose being to show the horrors arising from the consumption of alcohol for the whole of society. A temperance obituary to Cruikshank describes the painting as: "an eloquent protest against the drinking customs of society, and a no less eloquent - and terribly ghastly – exposition of the evils wrought on that same society by the vice of drunkenness".

However, for art critic and public the painting was a tremendous flop. Jerrold, his friend and biographer, describes the scene in the exhibition room in Exeter Hall in 1862: "It was empty. There was a wild, anxious look in his face when he greeted me. While we talked, he glanced once more or twice at the door, when we 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? His trusty friend Thackeray had hailed it in The Times. A great company of creditable men had combined to usher it with pomp into the world. All who loved and honoured and admired him had spoken words of encouragement. Yet it was near noon, and only a solitary visitor had wandered into the room".

Contrast this with the success of "The Bottle" a series of eight prints which he published in 1847. Described as Zola-like realism, he charts the progressive decline of a once prosperous mechanic and his family through the introduction of alcohol to the family, unemployment, the bailiffs and impoverishment, begging, child neglect and death, domestic violence, murder and finally insanity.

Robert Upstone, in his booklet accompanying the Tate's exhibition, describes The Bottle as a "shocking sequence of compositionally taut designs, unflinching in their realism". Thirty years after publication a total abstinence journal wrote "the moral effect they produced has surely not been equalled since the publication of the plates of Hogarth's Harlot's Progress". Within weeks over 100,000 prints had been sold. They were particularly popular with the poor and dramatised at many theatres. Not only was The Bottle responsible for converting tens of thousands to total abstinence, it was also responsible for Cruikshank's own conversion.

When he showed The Bottle to William Cash, the Chairman of the National Temperance Society, he was confronted with a crisis of conscience. Cash candidly put it to him that given his grasp of the damage done by alcohol, why was he not a teetotaller? Put on the spot, Cruikshank decided "to give his example as well as his art to the total abstainers".

From that time Cruikshank, as converts often do, became the zealot. In the campaign against alcohol problems, he ranged himself side by side with the Total Abstinence Party. This lost him many former admirers and friends including Dickens. Whilst The Bottle inspired Matthew Arnold to compose an ode To G Cruikshank there were others offended by its implications. On the day after its publication Dickens wrote:

"I think it very powerful indeed: the last two plates most admirable .. I question whether anybody else living could have done it so well .. The philosophy of the thing, as a great lesson, I think all wrong, because to be striking, and original too, the drinking should have been done in sorrow, or poverty, or ignorance – the three things in which, in its awful aspect, it does begin."

A view which continues to prevail is that "alcoholism comes in people not in bottles" - tackle the social conditions of people and the alcohol problem is solved. This was not the view of George, for he had experienced the conviviality associated with alcohol and drink had not become a problem until he was in middle age. He had experience of acute intoxication not chronic. For George drinking was the start of a process which did not originate in "sorrow, or poverty or ignorance". He was a product of his age where "no man was considered a gentleman, unless he made his companions drunk".

Speaking a short time before his death, George Cruikshank said:

"If intoxicating liquor could be taken without danger, then temperance would be a good principle; but, as it is a deadly poison and does too much mischief, the best thing is to abstain from it altogether". It was not a view of The Times which in the week of George's death had carried an article attacking the prejudice of total abstinence: "Temperance societies cannot but be discredited by their extreme denunciations of an article of food (intoxicating liquor) which has been hitherto valued the most highly by the most civilised and progressive races of mankind".

If this could be written sixteen years after the first exhibition of The Worship of Bacchus, it is understandable why the picture was not a success among society's mainstream when first exhibited.

As Robert Upstone points out the Worship of Bacchus is "teeming with figures a zealous, animated manifesto rather than just a work of art. Every section of British society is included; every element of the state, and it also shows alcohol being foisted on previously teetotal cultures of the new Empire". A missionary taps a Hindu on the shoulder, whilst another Hindu points to the bottle in the missionary's pocket. The painting is a dense network of vignettes. At the bottom of the painting are innocent scenes of a christening, a wedding reception and a birthday party. At the top of the picture are the factory chimneys, the breweries and distilleries with the mental asylum, prison and gallows. In the picture's centre is the figure of Bacchus at whose feet brewers and distillers dispense alcohol to the crowds who run riot and commit horrible crimes. In the middle of it all is a man who has broken free from his strait jacket and dances on a tomb with the inscription "Sacrificed at the throne of Bacchus father, mother, sister, brother, wife, children, property, friends, body and mind".

Cruikshank intended the picture as illustrative material for temperance lecturers who, believing that prevention was better than cure, would convince moderate drinkers to become abstainers. In the lecture he gave to the temperance worthies when launching the picture, he said:

"Although we tell where moderation begins, no one can tell where it will end I believe that I have pointed out broad, undeniable facts which will, I hope, induce all those who have not yet adopted our principles, and practices to take the matter into their most serious consideration. It is a difficult thing for a moderate drinker to understand why he should leave off his small quantity because there are others who take a large quantity If they become convinced that our principles are right, they will at once see that by abstaining themselves they will not only help to save millions of their fellow creatures from destruction, but will themselves, in all probability, have better health and longer life." The credo of his teetotalism was most likely recorded in a speech he made in December 1849, barely twelve months after his decision not to drink.

"I believe that by nature, and from the profession that I formerly belong to, that of a caricaturist, I have as keen a sense of the ridiculous as most men. I can see clearly what is ridiculous in others. I am so sensitive myself, that I am quite alive to every situation, and would not willingly place myself in a ridiculous one, and I must confess that if to be a teetotaller was to be a milksop, if it was to be a namby-pamby fellow, or a man making a fool of himself or of others, then indeed I would not be one – certainly not; but if, on the contrary, to be a teetotaller is to be a man that values himself, and tries by every means in his power to benefit others; if to be a teetotaller is to be a man who strives to save the thoughtless from destruction; if to be a teetotaller is to be a man who does battle with false theories and bad customs then I am one. I have been a convert but a short time, not much over twelve months. I wish that I had acted upon the principle of total abstinence only thirty years ago, for if I had, I am convinced that at this time I should have been much better both in body and mind. I have experienced much benefit already, both physically and mentally. I never did sneer at or scorn the question of temperance, yet I have never thought that I should stand up as a teetotal advocate".

Whilst this zealotry annoyed the elite of his day, it was a relevant radical agenda for those concerned with raising the lot of their fellow working men and women and who saw drink as a hindrance.

Teetotal sentiment inspired early leaders of the Labour Party – Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson and Philip Snowden to mention a few. Indeed Keir Hardie proffered this advice to socialists on the temperance issue: "Each socialist is by his creed under moral obligation to find his greatest pleasure in seeking the happiness and good of others. The man, who can take a glass of beer or let it alone is under moral obligation for the sake of the weaker brother who cannot do so, to let it alone. To me, this matter is one of serious moment."

Temperance had an important place on the political agenda. It was part of the radical reforms needed to improve the lot of working men and women. In 1872 Josephine Butler described temperance people as "abstainers, steady men, and to a great number members of chapels and churches, and many of them are men who have been engaged in the anti-slavery movement and abolition of the Corn Law movement. They are the leaders of good social movements, men who have had to do with political reforms".

Richard Cobden, the leader of the Anti Corn Law League in 1849 wrote:

"The temperance cause really lies at the root of all social and political progression in this country .. the moral force of the masses lies in the temperance movement and I confess I have no faith in anything apart from that movement for the elevation of the working classes".

Joseph Chamberlain, speaking in 1876, said:

"Temperance reform lies at the bottom of all further political, social and religious reform. The enemies of strong drink are the friends of mankind".

Thomas Burt, the Northumberland Miners Union leader and later to be the Father of the House of Commons was actively engaged in temperance reform from the 1860's and in 1905 at the TUC Congress stated:

"I regard the temperance question as one of greatest social topics of the time. If democracy is to have a great future, one of the things it will have to do will be, individually and collectively, to grapple with the drink problem".

Perhaps the resurrection of Cruikshank's The Worship of Bacchus might encourage social historians to recognise the contribution of the 19th century temperance movement to the great improvements which took place in the conditions of the working men and women in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Perhaps too it might have some lessons for those who determine alcohol policy today. It may remind present politicians of all parties that it was the drinking patterns of 19th century England which gave rise to licensing law, not the other way round as the present Government and other proponents of twenty four hour drinking would have us believe.

At the commencement of the BBC documentary 'A 1000 Ways of Getting Drunk in England' a shot is shown of the Bigg Market in Newcastle on a Saturday night crowded with youngsters whose aim is to 'get smashed'. England's long love affair with drink and drunkenness continues.

*1000 Ways of Getting Drunk in England BBC Television Narrator Andrew Graham Dixon Producer Nicky Pattison

The Worship of Bacchus in Focus Robert Upstone TATE Publishing

The painting The Worship of Bacchus by George Cruikshank is exhibited at Tate Britain.