Hogarth's Gin Lane
The spirit of reform William Hogarth's 'Gin Lane' was only one element of the artist's campaign to persuade people to switch to beer.

William Hogarth's famous 1751 print "Gin Lane" has shaped our vision of 18th-century London - a hellish cesspit of vice, ruination and wasteful death created by the contemporary obsession for that piquant grain-and-juniper concoction, gin.

Hogarth's engraving was circulated widely, and its legacy has lived on as the definitive depiction of the era. As a result, we take it for granted that the streets of Bloomsbury were strewn with bare- breasted women, so pickled and loose-limbed as to let their infants tumble to their death; that the corpses of recent gin victims were left to rot in their clothes by the wayside; that babies were fed gin and, occasionally, roasted on spits; and that London's poor were ready to pawn the roof over their heads for a cup of mother's ruin.

Hogarth was once referred to by cartoonist David Low as the "grandfather of the political cartoon". He was the first to bring great artistic skill to so-called "low art", the term for satirical observation of life from street - or often, gutter - level. His witty imagery, dense in detail and meaning, has been duplicated in books, illustrations, advertisements and posters for the past 250 years; these pictures have become part of Britain's national heritage.

By the 1750s, Hogarth was a big name, already known for his Harlot's and Rake's Progress series, and in a good position to wield ideas for social change through selling his prints. As louche and lush as Londoners could be, and as rife as the 18th-century craze for gin was, Hogarth exaggerated the situation for satirical effect. But the print was not predominantly conceived as a warning to the poor; "Gin Lane" was actually part of a campaign to jolt the government into cracking down on gin consumption and distillation - and to act as a strong warning to the middle classes. Hogarth's message to the well-to-do employer was clear: if you continue to allow your workers to indulge their gin habit, and encourage their dependency by paying them partly in gin (which many did), then you'll have hell on your hands.

Hogarth was not alone in waging his reformist campaign. His good friend, Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones and a Bow Street magistrate, wrote a report in conjunction with Hogarth's prints, on the growing crime rate in London, and directly blamed gin for its increase. Their dual efforts were rewarded: the government eventually passed the 1751 Gin Act that summer and shut down a large number of gin retailers, introduced a stronger police presence and offered rewards to informers.

Gin was strong and cheap - despised as "the curse of the working classes". But its poor reputation was also because it was a recent import. Gin was first distilled in Holland in the 17th century. During the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), British soldiers fortified themselves with a slug of "Dutch Courage", as it became known. An instant hit, the liquor soon made its way over to Britain and flourished under the reign of Dutch Protestant William of Orange (1688-1702), who was keen to promote grain-based alcohol rather than import brandy from Catholic countries.

Britain soon went gin mad, thanks to the abolition of licensing fees and taxes. By the 1720s, it was estimated that one in four London households was involved in some way in selling or distillation. Drunkenness plagued the streets, crime rates shot up and government attempts to curb distillation through steep licensing fees were ignored.

At the time of Hogarth's campaign, the gin craze had reached its peak. The woman in the foreground of "Gin Lane" was inspired by a news story about a woman whose gin addiction had led her to kill her baby. Hogarth maximised the shock factor and contemporariness of his print.

"Gin Lane" has captured our imagination. But it was only one side to the story - and one side to a pair of prints. Considered in isolation, "Gin Lane" looks like the work of an artist promoting prohibition, but Hogarth was no puritan. In a lesser-known twin print, he proposed an alternative tipple for the nation: beer.

Good old British ale fuelled a healthy, productive life, according to Hogarth. "Beer Street" demonstrated that ale-induced tipsiness - in contrast to gin-addled drunkenness - fostered honest labour. "Beer Street... was given as a contrast, where the invigorating liquor is recommended in order to drive the other out of vogue. Here all is joyous and thriving," the artist wrote in his autobiographical notes.

The idea of contrasting prints looks back to Brueghel's 16th century "La Cuisine Maigre" and "La Cuisine Grasse". Like that lively duo, "Beer Street" and "Gin Lane" make an equally amusing game of "Spot the difference". Instead of the wretched woman in the foreground of "Gin Lane", in "Beer Street" Hogarth depicts flirtatious coupling, with beer as a social facilitator that encourages natural courtship and union.

In "Gin Lane" the drunken masses are unemployed and unemployable, and the affluent pawnbroker, gin merchant and undertaker are profiteers; "Beer Street" hums with happy, ale-girthed workers and tradesmen. The pawnbroker's shop, however, is in disrepair. The name of the ale house, The Barley Mow, suggests plenitude and contentment - a stark contrast from the ditty above the gin cellar in the foreground: "Drunk for a Penny, Dead Drunk for Two Pence, Clean Straw for Nothing."

In "Beer Street", Hogarth links the production and consumption of ale with British prosperity: the church flag shows that it is King George II's birthday, for example, and the workmen wave their caps in celebration. There is a strong sense of national pride, common in Hogarth's work - in earlier versions of the print, the leg of mutton brandished in the air here was actually a skinny Frenchman.

Hogarth sold both these prints for about a shilling each - less than he sold many of his prints for. Though still expensive for the gin-thirsty commoner, by reducing the price he showed his determination to spread his message.

With St George's of Bloomsbury in the background, "Gin Lane" depicts a gloomy vision of the district that is now Soho. His picture of sozzled Londoners sprawling on the city streets brings to mind a very contemporary concern - binge drinking.

A shilling print differs from today's press headlines about inebriation and disorderly behaviour - but the concept is similar, and London's west end, a mecca for binge drinkers, is a mere drunken stumble away from the epicentre of Hogarth's gin slums.

But there is one big difference - gin is now the tipple of choice for a civilised dinner-party aperitif, while binge-drinking - and its accompaniment of projectile vomit and inappropriate flashes of flesh - is blamed largely on a very British predilection for strong lager. Perhaps Hogarth is partly responsible? Certainly, the artist would not recognise "Beer Street" as it is today.

Hogarth, Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG, 020 7887 8000. From February 7 to April 29.