Friday afternoon, after a week of slogging away in the office what better to start off the weekend than a well earned drink? After a long day, the masses swarm off to the local, desperate for a refreshing pint to be enjoyed amongst friends.
Alcohol features prominently in our society, whether it be the after work drink, socials, festivals, parties and even at sporting events, where alcohol has become very much part of the sport itself: the football World Cup stands testimony to this, with beer adverts plastered everywhere and anxious fans downing pints as the game gets underway. I visited the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) to unearth alcohol’s art of seduction, curious as to why so many fall prey to its power.
The RCP campaigns on matters of public health and the current president Professor Jane Dacre is making a stand for a minimum unit price on alcohol. I half expected to be preached at on the dangers of alcohol. Instead, I was delighted to find that the RCP present a balanced and light-hearted view on the subject. After all, I discover that the RCP are in fact renowned for their extravagant drinking and dining habits, so it would be hypocritical if they lectured on the woes of drinking.
‘The College suspended’ by Leslie Wood, (1988) is a fine satirical print made at the expense of the RCP’s legendary reputation. Taken from the 1785 novel,The Surprising adventures of Baron Munchausen, it illustrates one of the Baron’s embellished tales, describing how he attached the RCP to his hot air balloon and left it suspended in mid-air for three months. Those concerned with the guests’ welfare needn’t worry, though, Munchausen explains they had so much food for one feast that they could have stayed in the air for twice the time.
The exhibition is divided into seven overarching themes, spanning the last 300 years of alcohol intake. The content both shocks and amuses as it charts the pitfalls and pleasures of wine, beer and spirits. Beginning with the gin craze of the 1700s when London was in the grip of an ‘epidemic’of drunkenness, we travel through the centuries and finish off with the binge drinking youths of today. As one journeys through time, one experiences drinking campaigns of destitution and disease offset with idealisations of beer and cartoonists’ satires. See if you can resist chuckling at the Mock funeral for Madam Geneva (the nickname for gin) (1736).
The graphic illustrations by Paula Rego serve as a harsh reflection of alcohol abuse. Her artwork focuses on disorderly households with parents slumped in chairs drunk out of their wit’s end and neglecting their children. I find them unpleasant and wonder whether they could possibly deter some from reaching for the bottle? It’s a relief that these are countered with delightful artefacts and many a witty pro-alcohol sketch, such as the charming etching, ‘Wine in a ferment and spirits in hot water’ (1847) by George Cruikshank. Taking the form of a councillors’ meeting, the alcohols have come together to express their outrage against the temperance campaigner ‘Father Matthew’ with Port acting as the stately chairman trying to calm his fellow councillors.
Alcohol as medicine
In this section, viewers can rejoice in beneficial health claims for alcohol. Spirits were once viewed purely as medicinal and beer prescribed as a remedy for many health issues. ‘Guinness is good for you’ proclaims a Guinness leaflet dating back to 1925. A humorous point is that, in the past, doctors regularly recommended Guinness for their patients. Pregnant women were even advised to drink it because of its richness in iron.
Here we discover the shocking practises reformers used to deter civilians from alcohol and discourage drunkenness. The ‘Pledge Certificate’ (1935) was the most prominent artefact for me. Children only in their 7th year signed the pledge of abstinence from alcohol. A deceitful tactic thought up by the British Women’s Temperance Association. There was no mention of alcohol, so many children had no idea what they were signing! Alongside, lies George Cruikshank’s impactful etching, ‘The gin palace and the upas tree’ (1842). Using the tree as a metaphor, Cruikshank likens the effect of alcohol to the tree’s poisonous sap. The pile up of dead bodies amid the roots is a warning of drinkers’ fate.
The pub and the social spaces of drinking
A nice cabinet showcase celebrating the pub in all its glory. In some areas of London there are more pubs than shops! Photos and etchings show the British in high spirits as they raise their glasses high, clinking in good cheer, singing and gaming. The importance of the uniquely British institution resonates. An effective snapshot, justifying why such an establishment has been, and will probably be forever more, a popular haunt for us British.
The closing exhibit brings to our attention the extent of alcohol advertising and the expertise of companies’ subliminal marketing strategies. In bold and gleaming white lettering ‘Carlsburg’ stretches across the front of a child’s Liverpool football shirt. This is an ideal feature piece to showcase the dominance of beer branding. I was startled by the fact that children, aged 10-11 years, recognise alcohol branding, such as Carlsburg and WKD, more easily than Mr Kipling cakes or Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. You may ask yourself: ‘What is the Government going to do about it?’ To which the RCP provides a statement on the Government’s responsibility and expectations.
‘This Bewitching Poison’, albeit a small and disjointed exhibition that monopolised the first floor landing and has a few displays slotted in amongst the existing treasuries collection on the ground floor (the RCP justifies its reasons for doing this), is a fascinating combination of paintings, prints and rare books. After viewing it, will you still be joining your friends for a drink in the local or avoiding the bottle entirely?
The ‘This bewitching poison’ exhibition is on until 28 July 2014 at the Royal College of Physicians, Regent’s Park.