The purpose of this exercise was to understand the meaning of and explore the use of denotation and connotation through examination of two engravings by William Hogarth.
Key words from the brief:
- The popular satirical engravings Beer Street and Gin Lane were part of a campaign to curb gin drinking amongst the poor in London
- Compare the two images and identify how Hogarth has used denotation and connotation
- Think about the visual language and symbolic structure
Denotation and connotation in William Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane satirical prints
In the late seventeenth century gin distillation was encouraged by the British government as way to generate revenue through exports and to keep up the price of grain. They went as far as banning French imports of wine to encourage its growth. The industry had no quality standards and got out of hand, causing huge social problems.
The 1736 Gin Act was designed to correct this by putting controls around the sale of gin.
William Hogarth’s prints were issued in 1751 and were designed to support the Gin Act by shocking the lower classes to reform through depicting the evils and effects of excessive gin drinking on the poor.
- Denotation: the literal or primary meaning of a word or image, in contrast to the feelings or ideas that the word suggests
- Connotation: an idea or feeling which a word or image invokes for a person in addition to its literal or primary meaning
A comparison of denotation
A comparison of the outward or literal meaning of the different aspects of the prints.
|Beer Street||Gin Lane|
|People||Apart from the pawnbroker (Mr Pinch) who is being handed a beer through a small window in the shop door, the scene is one of well-fed and happy people relaxed and enjoying a drink of beer after a day’s work. No-one in this image is completely intoxicated.
People are well dressed and jolly, surrounded by the tools of their trade or the outputs of their toil.
The scene is one of industrious workers having a well-earned drink of beer.
A man in almost the centre of the image is bending down, bottom facing the viewer. He appears to be repairing a cobblestone in the road.
There are two interesting figures that don’t seem to belong to the scene.
|In contrast, Gin Lane is a scene of poverty, desperation and decay. The people are thin, malnourished and dressed in rags.
The central figure that gives the image its immediate impact is a mother slouched on the steps in the centre foreground of the picture, so inebriated on gin that she’s dropped her baby that is falling backwards down to the gin cellar below. Rather than looking after her baby, her only concern seems to be the snuff box that she’s holding in her hands.
Death is everywhere. In the background, a naked corpse of a women is being lowered into a coffin whilst a small baby lies a few feet away crying.
A figure in the background is carrying a large spike with a child impaled on it with its mother runs towards it.
A lone figure just distinguishable in the second floor of a house is hanging by the neck from the rafters.
A drunken crowd brawl outside of the gin distillers. Unlike the drinkers in Beer Street, these people are completely intoxicated to the extent that a man is being fed a drink of gin lying in a wheelbarrow.
A mother on the edge of the image in the bottom right hand corner is giving her baby a gin.
The undertaker standing over the open coffin, and S Gripe the pawnbroker are the only figures in the picture doing any work. The pawnbroker is examining, with a stern face, a handsaw and kitchen utensils from a couple.
A man in the foreground is gnawing on a bone that he’s sharing with a dog.
A small detail just visible over piles of rubble is a funeral procession.
A man holding a crutch is fighting with a blind man with a bandage wrapped around his head.
|Buildings||All apart from the Pawnbroker’s shop that is in bad repair, (presumably through a lack of business), the other buildings in the scene are well kept and in good shape. The scene shows a fairly prosperous and well-kept street.
The public house in the background has scaffolding up its front and builders on the roof are having a break with a tankard of beer.
Along the side of the building a large barrel of beer is being hoisted up to the top floor.
The steeple of St Martin in the Fields is visible above the rooftops in the background.
|Hogarth based the scene on a slum in the Parish of St Giles. The scene is one of desolation and decay.
The only buildings in good repair are the pawnbrokers, gin cellar and gin distillery in the foreground.
The buildings in the mid and background are in a state of disrepair. The second storey of one of the houses is actually collapsing into the road below. Piles of rubble lie in the road where once there were houses.
Several of the building are being propped up to prevent them from collapsing. The roof of one house has partially fallen in and widows are boarded up.
|Objects in the scene||A painter is just putting the finished touches to a pub sign depicting a group of villagers hand-in-hand around a large mound of barley under which there is a caption ‘Health to the barley mow’.
On the table in front of two large men is a copy of a speech of the king.
A basket full of books bundled together sit in the foreground of the image.
A couple, arm in arm sit reading a ballad. The man holds a basket of fish and the women is balancing a basket of fish on her head.
|A coffin sign hangs on a wall in front of the undertakers.
A man in the background is beating himself over the head with a pair of bellows.
The objects the couple are showing to the pawnbrokers are tools of the trade or domestic essentials – a saw and cooking utensils.
A note in the basket of the drunken soldier in the bottom corner of the image reads ‘The downfall of Mrs Gin’.
Use of connotation
A examination of the use of symbols and ideas that generate meaning or feelings above and beyond the literal and obvious representations in the prints.
- Mr Pinch the pawnbroker is being handed a tankard of beer through a small window the shop door indicating that he is so unpopular and/or poor that he needs to keep himself locked behind closed doors.
- The flag on the steeple of St Martin in the Fields indicates it’s the King’s (George II) birthday.
- The pliers on the waist of the man sitting under the pub sign indicates he’s a blacksmith or cooper.
- The man sitting next to him is a butcher because of the steel he’s carrying
- The name of the tavern with the scaffolding is ‘The Sun’ symbolising warmth, goodness and renewal.
- The Frenchman being held up and ejected from the scene is a symbol of Englishness and patriotism.
- Overall the connotation of the scene is one one English plentifulness and peace through the hard working industriousness of the people.
- The syphilitic sores on the women’s legs who had dropped the baby indicates she’s a prostitute.
- The black dog sitting in the lap of the skeletal figure collapsed in the bottom right of the picture is a symbol of despair and depression.
- The name of the distiller is ‘Kilman Distiller’ which describes the effect of the gin craze.
- The snail on the wall in front of the girl leaning against the wall is a symbol for the sin on sloth.
- The cross formed by the sign of the pawnbroker’s shop in the foreground sits perfectly aligned with the church steeple in the background indicating the corruption of the residents of Gin Street.
Visual language and symbolic structure
The symbolic structure or the way in which symbols are used reinforce the literal reading of each scene. It’s interesting to reflect on how much of the symbolism would be meaningful to the intended audience. The visual language is very layered and sophisticated. It operates on different levels. For the more educated and wealthy middle class viewers, the ones able to afford the 1 shilling to buy the prints, they would make a comparison of good against evil and feel a certain smugness or validation in the qualities of hard work and free market endeavour.
For the poor, those that may see copies of the prints in public places, they would see the connection between the wealthy middle classes completely uninterested and unaware of the dire conditions in the city slums.
The most impactful image, and the one that is carrying the most meaning is Gin Lane. The impact is strengthened by the cross like composition that converges and emphasises the central figure of the mother dropping her baby.
It’s fascinating to closely exam these images and wonder at the layers and layers of meaning and how much of it was understood by the different audiences.
When I think of contemporary examples of imagery used for health campaigns, the messages are more simple and focused, but the power and impact come from a combination of denotation and connotation.
A great example ‘Hooked’, an NHS anti-smoking campaign from 2007.
The campaign was incredibly effective at reaching its target audience, with a 90% awareness within smokers resulting in the highest ever response by any anti smoking campaign run by the Department of Health.
Most successful adverts operate in this way.
It has been valuable for me to start thinking of breaking down images into denotation and connotation and to examine the use of each. I hadn’t really appreciated until now how much the practice of some forms of illustration are underpinned by these two different but related concepts.
List of illustrations
Figure 1 Hogarth, William (1751) Beer Street [etching, engraving] At: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/beer-street-1 (Accessed on: 12.10.19)
Figure 2 Hogarth, William (1751) Gin Lane [etching, engraving] At: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/gin-lane-1 (Accessed on: 12.10.19)
Figure 3 Hooked (2007) NHS Campaign [Advertisement] At: https://www.solopress.com/blog/print-inspiration/design-insight-the-most-shocking-anti-smoking-posters-ever-made/ (Accessed on: 19.10.19)