A Sobering Exhibition: Art And Alcohol At Tate Britain Reviewed

Art and Alcohol, Tate Britain ★★★☆☆

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 25 months ago
A Sobering Exhibition: Art And Alcohol At Tate Britain Reviewed Art and Alcohol, Tate Britain 3
Gilbert & George, Balls: The Evening Before the Morning After - Drinking Sculpture 1972 © Gilbert and George

Tate Britain's Art and Alcohol is a sobering affair. The opening gambit, William Hogarth's notorious Gin Lane, is almost enough to put you off your Sipsmith and tonic, what with all the babies plummeting to their deaths and poor souls impaled on spikes. Seminal though the engraving is, it's essentially the 18th century equivalent of a 'Binge Drink Britain' headline from the Mail. Hogarth's Beer Street could have been used for moral ballast, but that's not to be.

The melodrama is eased down a notch after Gin Lane but the tone remains distinctly pro-temperance. Richard Billingham's photo of his alcoholic father — staring into the middle distance as his wife apparently gives him an earful — is a soul-sapping snapshot of domestic life soured by the sauce.

Such scenes are nothing new, even if they weren't always so subtle. The Last Day In The Old Home, by Robert Braithwaite Martineau (1862), paints a well to do family torn apart by booze and gambling; while mother and young daughter sob their hearts out — their worldly possessions put up for auction — an incorrigible father spurs on his son to raise a glass of plonk, presumably to a bleak future. Come to the show with a couple of Malbecs inside you, and by now you'd be feeling pretty guilty.

But there's fun to be had at Art and Alcohol too, thanks largely to Gilbert and George's Balls: The Evening Before The Morning After. Composed of numerous photos (taken in what was the Balls Brothers Bar in Bethnal Green), the artists capture the essence of one of those nights that runs away with you; one drink turns to two, turns to five... you get the picture. Individually, the artists' snapshots aren't all that interesting, but squelched together into a gradually blurring montage they become intoxicating. Squint at them from the other side of the room and they almost become a big blackened liver.

George Cruikshank, The Worship of Bacchus 1860-2

Facing this montage on the other side of the room is the exhibition's other blockbuster; George Cruikshank's vast canvas, The Worship of Bacchus. As if he's taken one part Gin Lane, one part Balls, then shaken vigorously with a fair few gallons of 99% abv Morality, Cruikshank runs roughshod over the Victorians' drinking habits. "Excitement from strong drink and drunkenness," said Cruikshank, "is, in fact, temporary insanity...". Ironically The Worship of Bacchus verges on the insane too; kiddie-winks are fed wine (again), babies are put in mortal danger (again), people are beaten up and shot, while others — off their noggins on booze — carouse around statues of Bacchus himself.

It's a beautifully executed, yet flat-out nuts, sermon on boozing — summing up an exhibition that oozes the dangers of alcohol and sidesteps any joys of it. Then again, Cruikshank's father did die in a drinking contest, so maybe the artist had a point.

Art and Alcohol is on at Tate Britain, Millbank, Westminster, SW1P 4RG, until the hazy end date of 'autumn 2016'. Entrance is free.

If you're interested in hearing more about London's history of drinking, come to Londonist's own talk, London Is... Drinking, on 30 November, at Conway Hall. We'll be extolling the virtues of London's boozy past (and discussing its negative effects) with the help of beer gurus Pete Brown and Melissa Cole, and medical writer (and author of The Dedalus Book of Gin) Richard Barnett.

There'll also be beer, cider and gin served up by some of London's finest purveyors of drink. Tickets £8+booking fee (concessions £5).

Last Updated 17 November 2015