George Cruikshank’s The Bottle caused a sensation when it was published in 1847. In a series of eight plates, inspired by the 18th century painter William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress, Cruikshank charts a drinker’s decline from first glass to unemployment, poverty, violence and insanity. The plates were cheaply produced to ensure that they would be affordable for the poorer classes, but a wide range of more expensive editions were available. Imitations, dramatisations and piracies (unauthorised copies) appeared within days, followed by all kinds of Bottle-decorated merchandise from tea-sets to lantern slides.
Temperance was one of the major reform movements of mid-19th century Britain, motivated especially by the high levels of drinking amongst the urban working classes. There was much debate – as there is today – about the price of alcohol, which many regarded as too low. Cruikshank had firsthand experience of addiction to alcohol: his father and brother were alcoholics and he was a heavy drinker himself, until he signed a vow of abstinence in 1847. The Bottle represents his conviction that alcohol leads to poverty and crime, and that ‘total abstinence’ was the only way to avoid these ‘dreadful evils’.
Charles Dickens and Temperance
Charles Dickens considered The Bottle ‘very powerful’, but privately favoured moderation over abstinence, believing drunkenness to be the result of poverty and ignorance rather than the cause. As the Temperance movement gathered strength in the 1850s he expressed his dismay in two important articles in Household Words. ‘Whole hogs’ (23 August 1851) was an attack on all total abstainers. ‘Frauds upon the fairies’ (10 October 1853), published while he was writing Hard Times, challenged Cruikshank’s recent teetotal version of a popular fairy story. The ‘world is too much with us,’ Dickens wrote, to permit the destruction of imaginative literature in the name of Total Abstinence.