The Bottle is brought out for the first time: The husband induces his wife "Just to take a drop". George Cruikshank. 1847. First illustration in The Bottle. Etchings reproduced by glyphography, folio page: 46 x 36 cm (24 inches by 14.5 inches), framed. which enabled the publisher, David Bogue, London] to sell the entire series for one shilling" (Vogler, p. 159). . [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

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Although she at first demures, the wife agrees to accept a small glass of alcohol with her cake after the mid-day meal in a perfectly harmonious lower-middle-class parlour. Unlike his previous work for Charles Dickens and William Harrison Ainsworth, Cruikshank here avoids his usual comedy and caricaturing of officials worthy of ridicule, such as the parish beadle. Instead, he pursues a moralistic agenda in a highly realistic setting reminiscent of the staging of contemporary domestic melodrama. Cruikshank creates a detailed image of a respectable urban middle-class family, here composed of of wife, husband, adolescent daughter, and two younger children. In "An Artist in Time: George Cruikshank in Three Eras," Louis James, who describes the significances of the material objects in the scene, explains the contemporary context of the entire series, which involves not only alcoholism, but also Samuel Smiles's doctrine of self-help, and the celebration of British industry in the forthcoming Great Exhibition:

As in The Gin Shop, the series is not simply about the evils of drink. (For what it is worth, one may note that Cruikshank became a teetotaller after The Bottle was published.) It is a companion piece, by antithesis, to the literature of working-class endeavor also closely linked to teetotalism such periodicals as John Cassell's The Working Man's Friend (1850-53). Drink was evil because it threatened the economic ethic of self-help, with its ancillaries of self-respect and the ordered family unit.

In this essentially materialistic world, the objects of respectability and domestic security took on potent significance. By entering into it and using it Cruikshank showed his profound sense of a central area of Victorian culture at a time when it was moving towards the celebration of industrial artifact in the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Bottlealso shows his extraordinary versatility. His imagination was essentially that of a visionary. More characteristically Cruikshank's machines and objects take on human or inhuman life. In The Bottle this impulse was completely restrained. Even the bottle itself remains solid, dark glass, throughout. Its weight breaks the wife's skull. [pp. 167-68]

Cruikshank, who argues that alcohol consumption quickly leads to addiction, which in turn leads to the misery of poverty and unemployment, here differs from Charles Dickens. The novelist does not ascribe "poverty, misery, wretchedness, insanity, and crime" (conditions that Cruikshank identified in the preface to the second, "cheap" edition) exclusively to the consumption of "intoxicating liquors" (cited by Vogler, p. 159). Dickens thought the oppoisite — namely, that alcoholism, as Cruikshank depicted it in "The Gin Shop" in Sketches by Boz and the figures of Nancy and Sikes in Oliver Twist, stems from poverty and hopelessness rather than the other way round. He commented to his intimate friend and business advisor John Forster that "the drinking should have begun in sorrow, or poverty, or ignorance" (quoted in James, p. 165). Dickens therefore did not regard "universal total abstinence" as the speedy solution to society's ills.

The Bottle and its sequel, The Drunkard's Children, which are largely unknown today, struck a chord with the middle classes, not merely those puritanical religious groups who were obsessed with imposing a dogmatic temperance agenda. Within just a few days of issue in 1847, the initial folio, priced at a shilling, had sold over 100,000 copies, and within weeks it had spawned numerous dramatic adaptations, several poems, and a even a short novel. Wilfred Hugh Chesson in his analysis of Cruikshank's teetotalism "progresses" justly describes The Bottle and its sequel, The Drunkard's Children, as "famous" — although

both these works . . . have as little charm as a stentorian oration in a small chapel. The story they tell, told also in verse by Dr. Charles Mackay [The Bottle; a Poem, 1848), is the ruin of a working man and his family through drink. The appeal of The Bottle is simple enough to appal the aborigines of Africa. . . ; the impulse of the beholder is to smash the bottle rather than spill and waste its contents. Yet when the eye succeeds in detaching itself from this pompously evident bottle, it perceives that the artist has cared also for details less immediate, but of finer eloquence. The liberally filled mantelshelf of plate 1 is at least not a mere labour of memory, though no one exceeds George Cruikshank in the pictorial multiplication of domestic details. This mantelshelf is a symbol; symbols, too, are the open cupboard, so well furnished that a less industrious artist would have shut it, and the ill-drawn but well nourished felinity by the fire. [55-56]

Inspired in part by Cruikshank's own drinking, both narrative-pictorial series of the late 1840s established Cruikshank as a kind of "Modern Hogarth." However, as opposed to the narrative development of the theatrical scenes of The Rake's Progress and The Harlot's Progress, in the contrasting scenes of idleness and industry in Gin Lane (1751) and Beer Street, Hogarth falls back on the strategy of depicting stark differences, of debauchery and dissipation versus moderation and civic order; moreover, he does not preach — he merely describes the radically different London street scenes in vivid detail, and lets the viewer arrive at his or her own conclusions about the perils of gin, and the benefits of beer in modest proportions. As Richard A. Vogler points out, “Although Cruikshank's prints do not involve as much detail as Hogarth's, they certainly do offer a more complicated visual narrative than meets the eye at first glance. Of particular interest in the first three designs of this series is the symbolic use of setting and ornamentation to convey the theme of ‘home sweet home’” (p. 160).

In The Bottle, Cruikshank ascribes the deterioration of the formerly respectable, close-knit family solely to the father's introducing the demonic beverage to his compliant wife. Cruikshank begins his narrative-pictorial series with a scene of model domesticity and ends the sequence in madness, despair, and murder. Most of the eight plates are set in the same room, which, like the family members, deteriorates over the course of the narrative. "In Plate I the door with its prominent lock is a protective delimitation of the family circle. Two plates later it hangs open, and flat light drains the room of intimacy" (James, p. 167). Cruikshank’s figures, however, are not members of the debauched lower orders seen in Hogarth's satire on the dangers of gin; they are closer to some of the better dressed characters in Cruikshank's own 1839 illustration for Dickens's Sketches by Boz in The Gin Shop. Combining the roles of story-teller and graphic artist, Cruikshank delivers his "anti-progress" by means of continuing figures and details, beginning with the parlour and its nuclear Victorian family, like scenes in a play. According to James,

the design of the series owes much to the theatrical "box set" introduced into England a few years previously (1841) by Madame Vestris. In all but one of the scenes the setting remains the same, the cleverest effect of all coming in the final act, where the mad cell is shown to have exactly the same lay-out as the sitting-room in which the story opened, but denuded of all human meaning. . . . Within this set framework Cruikshank was able to chronicle minutely the degradation of the group, physically and symbolically. . . .

Everything here indicates frugality, domesticity, order, and love. From the neatly stacked cupboard to the carefully washed and mended clothes the family wear, all is well kept. Although it is an urban scene the housewife has procured flowers, and lavender gives fragrance to the room from behind the mirror. The lavender is like (a Victorian reader would have savored the comparison) an offering to the household gods of the hearth, over which it is placed. The design of the grate is itself significant. An early nineteenth-century pattern still to be found in working-class houses built at this period, it was practical, economical, and graceful, reflecting the family morality and taste. It is ripped out by Plate V. [pp. 166-67]

The clock indicates that the mid-day meal has just concluded, and the partially-cut cake on the table accords with the time on the clock, 12:53 P. M. Among the details suggestive of respectability and lower-middle-class propriety are the Bible, the picture of the church, china figurines on the mantel, and miniatures of the royal couple, renowned as model parents. The idealized cottage on the mantel, the miniatures, and statuettes are analogues for the happy family; over the course of the eight illustrations these symbolic objects gradually disappear, beginning with the figure of the man at the left, which appears to have been knocked over in the second frame. The kitten in front of the coal fire plays harmlessly with its mother's tail. The two younger children have presumably just eaten lunch at their own table, and their older sister is now putting the dishes away (a detail that suggests that the family does not employ a servant, and is therefore not quite of the class of Charles Dickens's parents, for example). The elegant furnishings, the tidy bric-a-brac, the carpet, the roaring coal-fire, the open china cupboard, and the well-clothed family at their ease constitute a lower-middle-class paradise that the serpent, the black gin bottle, has already penetrated.

As Martin Meisel and Vogler note, the popular folio series was the subject of both a poem of volume length, a penny novel by Gabriel Alexander (1848), a sonnet by Matthew Arnold, and eight dramatic adaptations, "temperance melodramas," which people not unlike Cruikshank's characters watched at London's minor theatres. Journalist and playwright Douglas Jerrold in his review of Cruikshank's initial folio collection in Douglas Jerrold's Weekly Paper (11 September 1847) predicted that the eight highly dramatic illustrations would lend themselves to immediate stage adaptation; indeed, he described Cruikshank's modern "progress" as "a perfect domestic drama in eight acts": "There is, so to speak, excellent dramatic conduct in this tragedy of The Bottle . . . and event follows event in natural order, leading as surely to the tragic end, as the fable of a Greek tragedy" (cited in Meisel, p. 124). It was, as he predicted, "speedily placed upon the stage" — of eight different theatres, in fact. The foremost of these London plays derived from Cruikshank's best-selling narrative-pictorial sequence was Tom Taylor's melodrama in two acts, "Founded Upon the Graphic Illustrations of George Cruikshank," first staged at The City of London Theatre, but soon popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Although it lacks what Roberson Davies terms Cruikshank's "incisiveness and stimulating grotesquerie" (237), the success of Taylor's adaptation had much to do with the adaptor's carefully modelling the production's sets and situations (from One: the Happy Home through Eight: the Madhouse) on the original illustrations. Cruikshank's sensational folio, reasonably priced for middle-class consumption, was a mid-Victorian publishing and cultural phenomenon.

Related Material


Chesson, Wilfred Hugh. George Cruikshank. The Popular Library of Art. London: Duckworth, 1908.

Cohen, Jane Rabb. Part One, "Dickens and His Early Illustrators: 1. George Cruikshank. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio University Press, 1980. Pp. 15-38.

Davies, Robertson. "Playwrights and Plays, 1840-1850." The Revels History of Drama in English, Volume VI: 1750-1880. Ed. Clifford Leech and T. W. Craik. London: Methuen, 1975. Pp. 231-240.

James, Louis. "An Artist in Time: George Cruikshank in Three Eras." George Cruikshank: A Revaluation. Ed. Robert L. Patten. Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1974, rev., 1992. Pp. 156-187.

Kitton, Frederic G. "George Cruikshank." Dickens and His Illustrators. London: Chapman & Hall, 1899. Pp. 1-28.

McLean, Ruari. George Cruikshank: His Life and Work as a Book Illustrator. English Masters of Black-and-White. London: Art and Technics, 1948.

Meisel, Martin. Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England. Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1989.

Mellby, Julie L. "More than 100,000 copies sold in the first few days." Graphic Arts: Exhibitions, acquisitions, and other highlights from the Graphic Arts Collection, Princeton University Library. Web. 13 April 2011.

Vogler, Richard A. Graphic Works of George Cruikshank. Dover Pictorial Archive Series. New York: Dover, 1979.

Last modified 7 August 2017