h i s t o r y n orma c l a r k e
London with the Many Sins The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London’s Golden Age
By Vic Gatrell (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 512pp £25)
The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London
By Hannah Greig (Oxford University Press 368pp £25)
What Vic Gatrell calls bohemians and what Hannah Greig calls the beau monde rubbed shoulders in London in the 18th century, though you would not think so from these books. Greig’s subjects, the people of fashion and privilege who formed an exclusive elite within the elite, are everything Gatrell hates. Their representative in The First Bohemians is Sir Joshua Reynolds, who painted them and moved in their circles. Gatrell’s focus is Covent Garden in its heyday, after the ‘Quality’ had left. As the area became a centre for writers and artists, so the ‘people of fascination’, as Henry Fielding put it, were driven out. They made their way westward to Hanover Square and beyond, their removal ‘unlamented’ by the theatre folk, musicians and artists who moved in to live and work alongside tradesmen, market people, pickpockets and prostitutes. Hogarth, who was born and lived his whole life in the neighbourhood, typified the new bohemian artist. His quasi-realist style conveyed the vivid life around him in images that challenged the neoclassicism promoted by Reynolds, a hugely successful society portrait painter and, later, the first president of the Royal Academy. The book glosses over the fact that Reynolds was every bit as bohemian as Hogarth, if by that we mean (as Gatrell seems to) a frequenter of Covent Garden’s taverns and bagnios, a heavy drinker and a customer for the sexual services available. On the whole, none of this emerged in Reynolds’s paintings, though the erotic portrait Cupid as a Link Boy gives one plenty to think about.
Hogarth’s narrative series A Harlot’s Progress first brought him fame. He was cashing in on the market for underworld and criminal tales first opened by novelists such as Daniel Defoe with Moll Flanders, and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. As in print, so in painting: the power of wealthy patrons was beginning to give way to a paying public; but while in literature the novel really was a new form, with new critical values evolving that had room for democratic ideas (not to put it any more strongly), in painting the old exclusive and elitist values of connoisseurship continued. Hogarth had much to battle. Gatrell brings art and literature together, as Hogarth did in his print The Distressed Poet, and offers a history of ‘bohemians’ largely structured by available pictures. The result is stimulating, provocative and partial; there is much that will be familiar to 18th-century specialists, and much that is left out.
One of Gatrell’s themes is the marked difference in how Covent Garden was represented in early and late 18th-century images and texts. The change, briefly and simply, was from misery to delight. By the 19th century writers such as Hazlitt, Dickens and Macaulay were creating nostalgic versions of a lost world. It was literally lost because slum clearance programmes demolished the courts, alleys and dark rookeries that gave the location much of its character. Gatrell’s dependence on these later descriptions muddles the perspective at times, though his distinction between
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£14 uk (£18 elsewhere) inc. p&p email: email@example.com the genial humour of Charles Lamb in 1801 and the savage satire of Hogarth’s earlier era is telling. Lamb memorably evoked the joy of living in ‘London withthe-many-sins’: its lighted shops,
all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden, the very women of the Town, the Watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; – life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night, the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street, the crowds, the very dirt & mud, the Sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old book stalls, parsons cheap’ning books, coffee houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes, London itself a pantomime and a masquerade.
Some writers earlier in the century, most notably Samuel Johnson, had made similar observations: you could not be tired of London, apparently, and yet, in the 1730s, London, and Covent Garden in particular, was likely to be represented as a brutal place, corrupt and dangerous.
The First Bohemians covers a good deal of the ground Gatrell travelled in his wonderful, prize-winning City of Laughter – even to the extent of reprising some of the material. That book was avowedly about caricature and satire. The beau monde were often the satirist’s targets, as in Thomas Rowlandson’s The Wonderful Pig, a creature whose exceptional talents ‘drew the attention of the beau monde … women of the first fashion waited four hours for their turn to see him’. Greig doesn’t mention the learned pig. In The Beau Monde she asks us to stop laughing and think seriously about the systems and strategies mobilised by the elite – the small group who mattered and who knew everybody else who mattered – to maintain their power. The project is a sound one, but it was never likely to produce surprising answers. It is not news to be told that attendance at court was significant and that clothes were a form of display of wealth, rank, privilege; nor that parliament was more or less an ‘upper-class enclave’. Gossip within the circles of power was inevitably political: that elite women were politically engaged has been well shown already, as Greig acknowledges. How the ‘chitter-chatter’ translated into influence and power is harder to measure, and it is noticeable that the instances Greig gives
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