Royal College of Physicians explores history of alcohol in This Bewitching Poison

By Culture24 Reporter | 18 October 2013

Ale used to be safer than water, wine was the drink of Royalists, caudle combined sweetened wine, cream and egg served hot and a 1660s recipe lists a wine-heavy mixture of herbs and distilled spirit as “an excellent drink against the plague”.

A photo of an old poster advertising beer
Guinness is Good for You (circa 1925). Poster© Wellcome Library, London
The Royal College of Physicians might have been at the forefront of research which now sees alcohol as essentially unhelpful in a medical sense, but it wasn’t always the case. And the artists responding to the concept of a sherry or two, from 19th century illustrator Gustav Dore to George Cruikshank and Paula Rego, make for some formidable works to accompany what looks like an intoxicating show opening at the start of 2014.

An image of a cartoon of a man sipping beer under the watch of a skeleton
Thomas Rowlandson, The Last Drop (1811)© Wellcome Library, London
Some of the mugs are a few shots short of a pint glass: a Charles II Coronation cup carried wine – the drink of Royalists – during the English Civil War, and a beer holder is thought to have been used by a child at the Mount Street Workhouse, where beer was on the in-house menu.

At the height of the gin-crazed 1700s, Dr John Freind, a fellow of the College, warned of “the fatal effects of the frequent use of several sorts of distilled spirituous liquors” in a petition to the House of Commons, leading to a robust Act, in 1751, restricting sales within the rampant gin trade.

Another expert, George Cheyne, unwittingly provided the title of the exhibition in 1724. Writing an essay on health and long life, the writer and physician acknowledged the attraction of alcohol. Cruikshank’s prints, conversely, formed a series, The Bottle, culminating in a drunkard father murdering his wife.

  • This Bewitching Poison: Alcohol and the Royal College of Physicians opens at the Royal College of Physicians on January 13 2014.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More pictures:

An image of a black and white cartoon showing a drunkard father attacking his wife
Print II from the series The Bottle, by George Cruikshank (1847)© Wellcome Library, London
An image of a black and white cartoon showing a family sat around a drawing room
Print IV from the series© Wellcome Library, London
An image showing a colour cartoon of two people speaking inside a bar
It Would be Terrible to have to Close this Place Down© Roger Penwill, Cartoon Museum collection
An image of a cartoon showing a political leader walking among the urban poor
Priority Lane (2012)© Martin Rowson
An image showing two ancient small cylindrical pots
Antimony cup and Leather Case (1637)© Royal College of Physicians
You might also like:

Five-year, £1.4 million project to reveal "unsung heroes" of biomedicine

Museum of London welcomes Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men

16th century dissections revisited in Royal College of Physicians' Curious Anatomys display

Latest comment: >Make a comment
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share
    Back to article
    Your comment:
    DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted at are the opinion of the comment writer, not Culture24. Culture24 reserves the right to withdraw or withhold from publication any comments that are deemed to be hearsay or potentially libellous, or make false or unsubstantiated allegations or are deemed to be spam or unrelated to the article at which they are posted.
    Museum Crush digest sign up ad
    We are culture24