Taverns in Art

What’s better than looking at paintings? Looking at paintings of beer!

In some cases, paintings can be a useful tool for the historically-minded, particularly if we’re looking at periods before photography was widely available. Examined carefully, realist paintings can give us a visual reference, an idea of what particular scenes might have been like.

For the past while, I’ve been periodically looking for beer-related art, and I’m delighted to say that I’ve found some examples which are a) aesthetically pleasing and b) informative. I’ve pulled two examples showing two tavern interiors from opposite ends of the century: John Lewis Krimmel’s Village Tavern (1814-1815) and John Henry Henshall’s Behind the Bar (1882). Placed side-by-side, they show how dramatically taverns changed over the century (caveat: I’m not an art history specialist).

Let’s start with Krimmel. Krimmel was born in Germany and emigrated to the United States in 1809, where he painted scenes of everyday life…including taverns:

"Village Tavern," John Lewis Krimmel (1814-1815) Courtesy: www.amhistory.si.edu
“Village Tavern,” John Lewis Krimmel (1814-1815)
Courtesy: http://www.amhistory.si.edu

Right away, there is a sense that this is a small, intimate space. In fact, the décor is quite similar to that of our taproom at Black Creek: very rough, rustic, and plain. There is also a horse visible just outside, suggesting that this tavern may also function as a stopping point for travellers.

The bar area is a little different from our taproom: it’s a self-contained booth, with a door that could close it right off. Using the bartender for scale, it doesn’t look like there is any room to fit casks back there, but it looks like he’s holding the handle of a beer engine, so there are probably casks in a cellar below.


Another view of a beer engine.
Another view of a beer engine.


However, do you see that little glass bottle just over the bartender’s shoulder? I’m guessing that’s some variety of spirits—likely whiskey, given the time period. Now look: of the three drinking vessels in use, two are clear glasses and one’s an opaque mug. There’s also another little glass bottle sitting on the table. Two whiskey-drinkers and one beer-lover, perhaps?

The range of social interactions on display is also really interesting. There is a woman and child in the tavern (don’t say it never happened!), possibly family of the man in the hat (after all, the woman’s laying her hand on his arm). Across the table, an older man reads a newspaper while two men have a spirited conversation at the bar. The man in red charging in seems relieved to see the bartender!

So it’s a public space, a communal space. Particularly telling is the writing desk tucked away in the background at right. Perhaps it was where the tavernkeeper sorted his accounts, but I wonder if it was like the writing desk in the parlour of the Half Way House—meant for use by patrons.

One more detail that’s really cool: look right over the door to the bar area. The days of the week are etched into the wood. I’m not sure why, and I’m intensely curious to find out!


Now, let’s jump across the pond and forward almost seventy years.

John Henry Henshall was an English painter, who also specialized in scenes of everyday life. Here is his portrayal of a bar:

"Behind the Bar," John Henry Henshall (1882) Courtesy: http://www.dickens.port.ac.uk/enterainment/
“Behind the Bar,” John Henry Henshall (1882)
Courtesy: http://www.dickens.port.ac.uk/enterainment/

Immediately, it is obvious that this establishment is bigger: bigger size, bigger clientele, bigger staff. There are also six beer engines on display, as opposed to one potential one—this establishment obviously has more beer on tap than the earlier tavern. However, there are still a combination of opaque mugs and clear glasses. In fact, the lady drinking to the picture’s far left seems to have a citrus peel in her glass and there appear to be knives stashed under the bar—bartending appears to have become more involved than simply pouring and serving!

And there are still women and children present. You’d be much less likely to find female bar-staff in Canada, but it wasn’t quite as unusual in England. Being a barmaid could be a pretty good job, though the divider between the two sections of the bar intrigues me.

It’s a little harder to see the range of social interactions, but this doesn’t seem like the kind of place that would have a writing desk tucked in the corner. Nor would I expect someone to settle in for a leisurely mug of stout and a newspaper. It’s still a public space, but the tone has shifted: our clientele is becoming more transitory, more “customers” as opposed to “guests.”

And the really, really interesting detail: there is an advertisement on the left wall. The words are a little hard to decipher, but it seems to be for an award-winning pale ale.

Let’s think about that for a moment.

First of all, pale ales are becoming more popular, overcoming the earlier preference for dark beers.

Second, the brewing industry is becoming well-organized enough to hold standardized competitions.

Third, we’re seeing a shift towards establishment of brand loyalty from bar to bar. The pub isn’t serving whatever the local brewer has made: breweries are growing and seeking to attract a broader base of customers (not just whoever is in the immediate area).


Looks like pictures really are worth a thousand words!