These days when we visit London we invariably stay at the Travelodge in Drury Lane. There, in Covent Garden, you’re at the heart of things, a walk gets you to innumerable places of interest, without having to descend into that ‘world of perpetual solitude, World not world’ that is the underground. So it was with a great deal of interest that I read Vic Gatrell’s The First Bohemians, a sequel to his rumbustious history, City of Laughter, that explored the bawdy, scurrilous and totally disrespectful culture of 18th century London. In The First Bohemians, Gatrell zooms in on the square quarter-mile or so around Covent Garden’s Piazza, 18th century London’s most creative territory. ‘It’s an extraordinary fact’, Gatrell writes, ‘that by far the majority of 18th century painters and engravers, as well as most noted writers, poets, actors and dramatists’,lived in that narrowly-defined territory.
Walking the streets of Covent Garden today, the bright lights, and monied sheen might seem a world away from the dirt and squalor, poverty and criminality of Gatrell’s description of this quarter in the 18th century. Now, as tourists cluster on the pavements and alienated employees hurry past gripping a hurriedly-bought Costa coffee, Eliot’s lines seem more pertinent:
Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
In some respects at least, everything remains the same. In Vic Gatrell’s 18th century evocation this was a place ‘thick with coffee-houses, bordellos, bawds and privileged rakes on the razzle’, dedicated to buying and selling of all kinds of things, cultural or otherwise. The bordellos and bawds may still be here somewhere (how would I know?) but the selling of all things continues. Back then, this was a teeming, disordely quarter where, from Soho and Leicester Square across Covent Garden Piazza to Drury Lane, and down from Long Acre to the Strand, creative types rubbed shoulders with rakes, prostitutes, market people, craftsmen, and shopkeepers in an often brutal world riddled with criminality and poverty, but also bursting with irreverence and exuberant high spirits. Although today’s Covent Garden is a cleaner, more ordered place, theatres and cafes, galleries and bookshops still thrive. But you would not describe this area today as Bohemia.
In its Georgian heyday, though, Covent Garden was the world’s first creative ‘Bohemia’ argues Gatrell, somewhat anachronistically since the term had not yet been coined. (Gatrell reminds the reader that it was only in 1845 that Henri Murger apply the term (previously reserved for gypsies) to the creative demi-monde of Paris. A year later, Thackeray picked up the idea in his novel Vanity Fair, to describe the people of irregular and unconventional habits who populate the story.
A few critics have taken Gatrell to task for using the term inappropriately, since it has come to mean a community of creative inhabitants ‘with an attitude of dissent from prevailing values of middle class society – artistic, political, utilitarian, sexual – usually expressed in life-style and through a medium of the arts’ (to quote one current definition). But Gatrell gets his defence in first, arguing that in 18th century London adopting an alternative lifestyle was not particularly significant:
Common manners were already intrinsically eccentric and libertine by later standards, and bawdry was a common language. So nobody felt it particularly necessary to scandalize the bourgeoisie, because the bourgeoisie was as yet neither fully aware of itself nor as prudish as it became.
There was, therefore, nothing affected about the lifestyle (if you could call it that) of Gatrell’s 18th century bohemians, since they shared the libertine values and enjoyment of bawdry ubiquitous at the time – and Covent Garden was where high and low life types mixed and mingled, though not always viewed the same way in the eyes of the law, as documented in John Gay’s poems and his Beggar’s Opera or by Henry Fielding in his Grub Street Opera:
Great whores in coaches gang,
For their kisses,
Are in Bridewell bang’d;
Whilst in vogue
Lives the great rogue,
Small rogues are by dozens Hang’d.
Or by Isaac Cruickshank in the pair of engravings entitled Dividing the Spoil!! St James and St Giles in which whores dividing the spoils from their pickpocketing are equated with the wealthy women of St James dividing their winnings at the gambling table.
Isaac Cruickshank, Dividing the Spoil!! St James (top) and St Giles
But Gatrell’s case is simply stated: that virtually everything that we associate with Georgian culture – its paintings and engravings; essays, poetry and novels; music and drama – was produced here. In short, Covent Garden was ‘the only unrivalled ‘bohemia’ the English can really boast of, and what it achieved in art, literature and theatre transformed prevailing notions of what these things should be’.
Gatrell begins by exploring the character of the area through maps and contemporary descriptions, guiding us through its streets and alleyways, noting the stench, filth and noise that assailed the senses in every direction: from the narrow, sewage-drenched Strand, along Drury Lane lined with rotting houses that often fell down overnight, and into long-gone alleys and courts, the names of which – Dirty Lane, Dunghill Mews – suggest reasons for their extinction. He quotes John Gay, who wrote long, descriptive poems about these streets:
O! may thy Virtue guard thee through the Roads
Of Drury’s mazy Courts, and dark Abodes,
The Harlots guileful Paths, who nightly stand,
Where Katherine-street descends into the Strand.
Say, vagrant Muse, their Wiles and subtil Arts,
To lure the Strangers unsuspecting Hearts
In his biography, Dickens, Peter Ackroyd wrote that ‘If a late twentieth-century person were suddenly to find himself in a tavern or house of the period, he would be literally sick – sick with the smells, sick with the food, sick with the atmosphere around him’. While Dickens himself offered this vignette of Covent Garden:
Strewed with decayed cabbage-leaves, broken haybands. . . men are shouting, carts backing, horses neighing, boys fighting, basket-women talking, piemen expatiating on the excellence of their pastry, and donkeys braying.
In a short section, ‘Covent Garden Now’, Gatrell helps the modern reader get their bearings, but observes that only patches of the original architecture have survived fires, demolitions and modernization:
Drury Lane’s once labyrinthine back alleys and courtyards, the so-called ‘Hundreds of Drury’, thick with poor people, thieves, harlots, and actors and actresses down on their luck, have been rebuilt and sanitized. The Strand itself is now unrecognisably wider and busier than the bottlenecked lane that had been the smartest shopping street in eighteenth century London. At that time had you walked a few hundred yards south of the Strand you would have sloshed into the mud of the Thames, since the modern Embankment didn’t exist then. Newspapers often reported people who sank in the mud to their doom.
But Gatrell points us toward some things which have survived: the actor-manager Garrick’s house, a bookshop, now a coffee bar, where Johnson and Boswell first met, and the theatre in Drury Lane. He invites us to imagine ‘streets full of sedan-chairs, carts, carriages and horses, the clatter increased by the harsh accents of unwashed people, by market women straw-hatted and in the capacious skirts of those days, and by grimy children shouting’, and evocatively quotes the historian GM Trevelyan:
On this earth, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow.
William Hogarth, The Enraged Musician, 1741
Gatrell piles on the local colour, drawing our attention to the details of Hogarth’s The Enraged Musician, set in St Martin’s Lane, which evokes ‘the din of ballad-singers, paviors, dustmen, knife-grinders, hautboy-players, bell-ringers, courting rooftop cats, barking dogs, chimney-sweeps and children’. He conjures a vivid sense of the stench, filth and noise, and the disorder generated by the activities of press gangs,rakes, aristocratic hooligans (here Gatrell can’t resist a comparison with the Bullingdon Club’s ‘mobsters of recent fame’), rowdy election hustings and marches on which contingents of butchers armed with meat cleavers and marrow bones would create an infernal din. The racket on the streets was even more disorientating as a result of the various accents and languages encountered there – a result of waves of immigrants settling in the area, from Huguenots fleeing persecution in France, to Dutch settlers, Irish migrants, and country men and women from far-flung rural communities.
Gatrell quotes this passage from Little Dorrit, in which Dickens brilliantly encapsulates the various characters of Covent Garden:
Courtly ideas of Covent Garden, as a place with famous coffee-houses, where gentlemen wearing gold-laced coats and swords had quarrelled and fought duels; costly ideas of Covent Garden, as a place where there were flowers in winter at guineas a-piece, pine-apples at guineas a pound, and peas at guineas a pint; picturesque ideas of Covent Garden, as a place where there was a mighty theatre, showing wonderful and beautiful sights to richly-dressed ladies and gentlemen, and which was for ever far beyond the reach of poor Fanny or poor uncle; desolate ideas of Covent Garden, as having all those arches in it, where the miserable children in rags among whom she had just now passed, like young rats, slunk and hid, fed on offal, huddled together for warmth, and were hunted about (look to the rats young and old, all ye Barnacles, for before God they are eating away our foundations, and will bring the roofs on our heads!); teeming ideas of Covent Garden, as a place of past and present mystery, romance, abundance, want, beauty, ugliness, fair country gardens, and foul street gutters; all confused together.
Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin, Bird Eye View of Covent Garden, 1811
The small area around the ‘piazza’ of Covent Garden Market was home to an extraordinary concentration of artists. In an appendix, Gatrell lists 146 of them, including Blake, Canaletto, Gainsborough, Gillray, Hogarth, Lawrence, Reynolds, Romney and Zoffany. Then, as now, this area was theatre land, teeming with playwrights, actors and actresses. Nightlife was also well catered for, with coffee houses, clubs and taverns, as well as the more louche tastes satisfied by battalions of prostitutes.
William Hogarth, The Orgie at the Rose Tavern, 1735
Gatrell maps in great detail the networks which meant that the artistic denizens of Covent Garden encountered each other, often on a daily basis, in shops, theatres, taverns and coffee houses – or in each other’s homes. Painters and engravers rubbed shoulders with picture-framers and paintshops. The best colour-shops were located in St Martins Lane. Between 1778 and 1830, John Middleton’s colour-shop stood very conveniently next door to Slaughter’s coffee-house. Middleton’s customers included Reynolds, Gainsborough, Constable and Turner. While a boy in his father’s wig-making shop in Maiden Lane, Turner must often have visited William Ward’s shop at 66 Chandos Street, barely a dozen yards away.
George Scharf, Allen’s Colour Shop, St Martin’s Lane, 1829
Then there was the market itself. Gatrell tells how an informal market for flowers, fruits and herbs located since 1656 against the garden wall of Bedford House on the south side of the Piazza was forced to move when, in 1705, the wall was demolished. The market moved to the centre of the Piazza, dealing a fatal blow to the reputation of the square as a high-status residential area. It was depicted by Spanish immigrant Balthazar Nebot in 1737 (below) and, some 80 years later, by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin in their Bird Eye View of Covent Garden (above). Hogarth, who was born in Bartholomew Close, off Smithfield Market just over a mile from the Piazza, showed his delight in the energy and vitality of the country girls who brought produce to the market at dawn in his painting of The Shrimp Girl.
William Hogarth, The Shrimp Girl, 1740
Not everyone shared such a rosy impression of the market traders’ hard lives. Louis-Philippe Boitard sketched an exhausted washerwoman, her eyes cast down, her hands folded in her lap, and with a wicker basket containing a large bundle strapped to her back, while in Tobias Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker one character describes:
A dirty barrow-bunter in the street, cleaning her dusty fruit with her own spittle; and, who knows but some fine lady of St James’s parish might admit into her delicate mouth those very cherries, which had been rolled and moistened between the filthy, and perhaps, ulcerated chops of a St Giles’s huckster – I need not dwell uopon the pallid, contaminated mash, which they call strawberries; soiled and tossed by greasy paws through twenty baskets crusted with dirt.
Louis-Philippe Boitard, A Washerwoman, c1733-63
These were, indeed, hard lives. Gatrell notes that one specialism of the market ‘entailed gathering from rural ditches, springs and hedges at earliest dawn the herbs and medicines for which there was a constant demand in town’. These included water-cresses, dandelions, scurvy-grass, nettles, bitter-sweet, cough-grass, feverfew and hedge mustard. With packs full, these women had often trudged fifteen miles to get to market as early as they could. In the afternoon they would trudge back to sleep in barns for the night. One contemporary spoke of the women, ‘their faces and arms … sunburnt and freckled [living] to a great age, notwithstanding their constant wet and heavy burthens, which are always earned on the loins’.
Balthazar Nebot, Covent Garden Market, 1737
In the second part of his book, Gatrell moves on from a portrait of the streets of 18th century Covent Garden’s streets to profiling the area’s creative inhabitants. Since his main interest lies in the art world, he makes only passing reference to the novelists, dramatists and essayists of the period. It’s the rejection by these artists of the pretensions of classicism, as well as their lives of debauchery, which, according to Gatrell, qualifies them as bohemians.
This is the nub of Gatrell’s account: the conflict between two different approaches to painting in 18th-century England, with a growing army of realist painters and engravers rejecting the pretensions of the ‘high art’ approved of by the elite Royal Academicians, led by such men as Joshua Reynolds who looked down upon any art which did not place emphasis on noble historical scenes, myth and allegory or grand Italianate landscapes in the classical style. Opposed to the Academicians were those who adhered to a ‘low’ school whose work catered to a growing market for representations of real life – men such as William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson and Isaac Cruikshank, who drew on the Dutch tradition of portraying ordinary life in vivid domestic detail.
The greatest rivalry was the one that simmered between Britain’s two most famous artists – William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds – who, for the main part of the 1760s were near neighbours, living on opposite sides of then-fashionable Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square). What separated them was more than a few yards of lawns and flower beds, but something deep and fundamental: ‘questions of temperament, background, and artistic principle’. He quotes John Forster, Dickens’s biographer, writing in an 1848 study of Oliver Goldsmith:
‘Study the great works of the great masters for ever,’ said Reynolds. ‘There is only one school,’ cried Hogarth, ‘and that is kept by Nature.’ What was uttered on one side of Leicester Square was pretty sure to be contradicted on the other.
Reynolds poured scorn and sarcasm on Hogarth in these words delivered to the Academy in 1770:
The painters who have applied themselves more particularly to low and vulgar characters, and who express with precision the various shades of passion, as they are exhibited by vulgar minds (such as we see in the works of Hogarth), deserve great praise; but as their genius has been employed on low and confined subjects, the praise which we give them must be as limited as its object.
In Thomas Bowles’ 1753 engraving of Leicester Square, Hogarth’s house can be seen on the right, beneath the square doorway surmounted by the model of Van Dyck’s head. Reynold’s house was the much grander number 47 on the opposite western side.
Thomas Bowles, A View of Leicester Square, 1753
Gatrell argues that there existed a growing demand among ‘middle and middling people’ for images of their own real world. These were people who were less likely to share the preferences of a well-travelled elite for images in the classical mode. Making only the briefest reference to the Enlightenment, Gatrell suggests that this growing audience of ‘professional people, mercantile folk and the higher craftsmen’ were ‘pragmatists always and inventors and entrepreneurs often, and well versed in the New Science’s empiricism’. The Enlightenment ‘favoured argued and proven truths’ and in image-making this produced a naturalistic ethos that fused ‘observational, informative and aesthetic qualities’.
Johann Zoffany, John Cuff and his Assistant, 1772
A striking example of this new realist direction is Johan Zoffany’s portrait of John Cuff, optical lens-maker to George III, who commissioned the painting. It’s very much in the tradition of Flemish realism, ‘an honest and rare image of a skilled London craftsman at work’. Gatrell quotes one art historian’s view that ‘it caught exactly ‘the awkwardness of tortoise-skinned, leather-aproned mechanics; the absurd clatter of incomprehensible pots, pans, tools and widgets; the daylight from a single window planting a droplet of light on each coarse but lovingly-rendered surface’. The painting – and the reaction to it – testifies to Gatrell’s thesis, since it was dismissed by Horace Walpole as ‘extremely natural, but the characters too common in nature’, while Reynolds was provoked to dismiss Dutch painters and those who aped them as ‘tolerable only as subjects of parody’.
Zoffany, who lived in the Piazza in the 1760s and painted David Garrick in his stage roles, was an immigrant, the son of a cabinet-maker and architect at a German court. He also has the distinction of being the first – and quite likely the last – British painter to have eaten another human being. Zoffany went to India in the 1780s and made a fortune painting Anglo-Indian society. On his way back ,as William Dalrymple recounts in his book White Mughals, his ship was wrecked in the Andaman Islands. ‘Lots having been drawn among the starving survivors, a young sailor was duly eaten’.
Londoners were developing an insatiable appetite for ‘here and now realism’, writes Gatrell. It’s easy to forget how starved of imagery people were back then: most Londoners were unused to any images other than signboards, broadside woodcuts and those in printshop windows. Just as crowds would gather outside the printshops to see the latest prints, so they gathered to gaze at the finer new signboards. Gatrell recounts that when he was very small Dickens was taken to see the Percy family lion that proudly topped Northumberland House at Charing Cross, and never forgot how wonderful it was. I wonder what happened to the lion when the house was pulled down?
Canaletto, The Strand front of Northumberland House, 1752 (lion at centre)
The rise of the artists of real life coincided with the birth of the novel, an art form that was very firmly rooted in reality. Defoe, Fielding and Smollett were equally dismissive of ‘high-blown classical whimsy’, and reality, truth and nature became the novelists’ watchword: ‘Everything is copied from the book of nature’, Henry Fielding wrote of his own work, ‘and scarce a character or action produced which I have not taken from my own observations and experience’. Artists who shared the same Enlightenment inclination were averse to fantasy and allegory. Samuel Johnson famously remarked, ‘I had rather see the portrait of a dog that I know than all the allegorical paintings they can show me in the world.’
These artists tipped their cap to the art of the everyday that had typified the work of 17th century painters from the Low Countries such as Adriaen Brouwer, Teniers, and Jan Steen – not forgetting Rembrandt. All of them produced etchings of beggars and street people; as Gatrell crisply puts it:
Rembrandt’s beggars peed and defecated, while Tenier’s, Brouwer’s and Steen’s peasants roistered in taverns, lifted women’s skirts, urinated in fireplaces or onto tavern floors, and cuddled with or sat drunken girls on their laps.
Adriaen Brouwer, Interior of a Tavern, c 1630
This sort of thing didn’t go down well with the 18th century aesthetes. Horace Walpole lamented:
When they attempt humour, it is by making a drunkard vomit. They take evacuations for jokes, and when they make us sick, they think they make us laugh.
But realism in art fascinates viewers more than myth, reckons Gatrell, exploring the impact not only of the Low Countries realist tradition, but also of foreign-born artists and printmakers who settled in Covent Garden. That impact was considerable, he argues, with artists and engravers born in France, Germany or the Low Countries making up around a third of those in or around Covent Garden in the first three-quarters of the 18th century, and helping to revitalise English art.
John Raphael Smith, Rowlandson, c 1795
What is most memorable and rewarding in The First Bohemians, is Gatrell’s detailing of the networks that bound together the artists and engravers of Covent Garden, networks that were centred on taverns and coffee houses, shops and studios. Oil painters and engravers, poets, dramatists and novelists, printsellers and caricaturists all met and mingled via a web of connection and influence.
A figure central to the Covent Garden networks was the engraver, pastel artist and printseller John Raphael Smith who had a shop just off the Piazza and commissioned engravings from the likes of George Morland, Henry Fuseli and Thomas Rowlandson (the book reproduces Smith’s characterful portrait of his close friend, Rowlandson, done in pencil, chalk and ink around 1795). At his shop, Smith employed over thirty print-makers, apprentices and pupils, among them the young William Blake, while JMW Turner worked for him as a watercolourist in the early 1790s.
William Hoare, Christian Frederick Zincke, 1752
This artist’s world provided a refuge from all that was prudish, polite and godly. It wasn’t populated by society artists such as Reynolds, but by workaday painters and engravers who made a living – though, in most cases probably not a generous one – as the market for their work expanded. William Hoare made a rare, informal drawing of one such man, the German enamellist Christian Friedrich Zincke, at work after poor eyesight had forced his retirement as the Prince of Wales’ cabinet-maker.
Hogarth, The Distressed Poet, 1737
These networks were ‘well-lubricated’ and Gatrell takes great pleasure in recounting the frequent excesses of the men (and they were, invariably men) who enjoyed each other’s company (and the company of women) in tavern and coffee-house (or, in the case of Smith, his ‘high-quality wine cellar). For instance, Samuel Johnson recorded the bohemian and feckless life of the Grub Street poet, Richard Savage in these terms:
It was the constant practice of Mr. Savage to enter a tavern with any company that proposed it, drink the most expensive wines with great profusion, and when the reckoning was demanded to be without money.
He would then pass his nights, Johnson continued:
In mean houses, which are set open at night to any casual wanderers, sometimes in cellars, among the riot and filth of the meanest and most profligate of the rabble; and sometimes, when he had not money to support even the expences of these receptacles, walked about the streets till he was weary, and lay down in the summer upon a bulk, or in the winter, with his associates in poverty, among the ashes of a glass-house.
George Morland, painted by his father, Henry Robert Morland in 1779
The most vivid character in Gatrell’s cast is the talented painter George Morland, who wished his epitaph to read, ‘Here lies a drunken dog,’. Morland was the reverse of ‘polite’; he hated aristocrats a nd studied neither art nor books. One contemporary wrote that his favoured companions were ‘ostlers, potboys and horse jockeys, moneylenders and pawnbrokers, punks and pugilists, abandoned women and gipsies’. Gillray dismissed him as ‘a painter of pigs’, but he was prolific, and one of the most successful artists of his day. Indeed, Gatrell reckons that today ‘hardly a public or private collection in England’ lacks one or more of his works.
George Morland, The Pigsty,1793
Morland’s success enabled him to live a life of almost unbroken inebriation He once scribbled a list of the drinks he had consumed in one typical day. It takes up nearly a whole page of Gatrell’s book. Towards the end, before his death aged only 42 in 1804 in a debtor’s sponging-house (a place of temporary confinement for debtors), he was said to have often been drunk for days together, and to have slept on the floor in a helpless condition. Yet he still produced an enormous quantity of good work. For his brother alone, he painted nearly 200 pictures in the last four years of his life, and he probably painted as many more for other dealers during the same period. His terms were usually four guineas a day and his drink.
Morland’s house was ‘infested with guinea pigs, tame rabbits, and dogs of various breeds’, and in his parlour he kept a donkey. Shortly before his miserable death, Morland painted a portrait of himself working on a rural landscape, surrounded by his pet dogs, while his man Gibbs fries sausages on the fire. In his last years, Morland rarely left this attic room, where he cooked and ate off a chair, surrounded by ‘dogs of various kinds, pigeons flying, and pigs running about’.
George Morland, The Artist in His Studio and His Man Gibbs, 1802
George Morland is perhaps Gatrell’s most extravagent example of bohemian debauchery, but there is also John Hamilton Mortimer, who never recovered from eating a wine glass in a drinking bout, and Isaac Cruikshank, the caricaturist, who accepted a challenge to a drinking match and succumbed to an irreversible coma, dying at the age of 48.
Thomas Rowlandson, The Chamber of Genius, 1812
Rowlandson, along with Hogarth and Turner gets a chapter to himself. Gatrell claims that Rowlandson was not only ‘the greatest comic artist Britain has produced’, and the finest draughtsman of his time, and credits him with being in the vanguard of a significant shift towards a ‘genial informality’ that counts as one of the greatest innovations of Georgian culture. Rowlandson’s pictures of workaday happiness heralded a new representation of London life, less concerned with scenes of dilapidation and degradation, but instead cultivating ‘a gratified sense of belonging to a benign as well as a great city’ – of urban enjoyment and delight.
This had much to do with the growing market power of modestly prospering middling Londoners, and improvements in material conditions. To some extent at least, the city felt safer and manners were softening , as public horrors were curtailed (the heads of those who had been executed were no longer impaled on Temple Bar, and public hangings, though they continued, were not carried out on the streets where the crimes of the condemned had been committed, but only outside Newgate. It was Samuel Johnson who famously celebrated the ‘happiness of London’ that was ‘not to be conceived but by those who have been in it’, concluding with a flourish: ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford’.
Thomas Rowlandson, Madame Rose resting after rehearsal of a new ballet
By way of illustration, Gatrell quotes a wonderful passage from a letter written to William Wordsworth by Charles Lamb in 1801 whenhe was living penuriously in a court off Fleet Street:
Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don’t much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments, as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead nature. The Lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street, the innumerable trades, tradesmen and customers, coaches, waggons, playhouses, 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, – all these things work themselves into my mind and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much Life.
For Gatrell, it is Rowlandson above all others who led the field in celebrating this new urban joyousness: his Covent Garden vignettes are Lambs words visualized in ink and watercolour:
Thomas Rowlandson, Buy my moss roses dainty sweet briar, 1811
A scene in Covent Garden, the church on the left. A pretty flower-girl, her basket on her arm, holds a nosegay in each hand, inviting a Persian, dressed in long furred gown, high hat and slippers, to buy. Behind on the left a flower-seller sits beside her basket, while a hawker with a basket walks by.
Thomas Rowlandson, Pray remember the blind, 1801
A scene under the Piazzas, Covent Garden. A blind man advances, shouting, his stick and hat held out, towards two young women, one of whom drops a coin in the hat. On his chest is a placard: ‘Poor Blind Man’. Behind, a foppish officer helps a lady from a coach.
Thomas Rowlandson, Here’s Your Potatoes, four full pound for two pence, 1811
A plump woman wheels a barrow laden with potatoes and scales. Behind her stands a woman with a large basket on her head while a man walks past with a pole from which ducks are suspended. All cry their wares.
Rev MW Peters, The Gamesters, 1786
Rowlandson was born in 1757, the son of a cloth merchant who had been declared bankrupt when he was two, with the result that young Thomas and his sister were left in the guardianship of their prosperous silk-weaver uncle and aunt in Spitalfields, while their parents returned to their native Yorkshire. When she was widowed, his French Huguenot aunt ensured that Thomas received a good education and supported his artistic training and foreign travel. He quickly established himself as a successful artist whose work was in great demand. One banker bought more than 500 of his drawings. Gatrell describes him thus:
In Soho and Covent Garden, and with forays westwards into St James’s, Rowlandson strutted as a fashionable young dog about town. Good-looking, if portly, affable, educated, and lubricated by his aunt’s money, he was a pleasure-seeker, sensualist and flirt.
And an inveterate gambler, winning and losing large sums without emotion. The Gamesters, a mezzotint after a painting by his friend, the Rev MW Peters, shows Rowlandson (right) cheating a young aristocrat at cards with an accomplice’s help. While in Smithfield Sharpers, Rowlandson depicts himself (second from left) beating a young country lad at cards, surrounded by shady-looking tavern companions and helped by the broken mirror on the right.
Thomas Rowlandson, Smithfield Sharpers, 1787
From the 1790s, his images reflect a deepening interest in the life of people in streets or taverns. He began to depict the whole range of urban pleasures – from masquerades and pleasure gardens to theatres and fairgrounds. Having mixed a decade earlier with aristocrats and Academicians, now he avoided them, and they ignored him in return. From now on he published large numbers of prints on his own account, as well as turning to book illustration. His watercoloured drawings became increasingly popular, and he was now, in Gatrell’s estimation, ‘achieving masterly drawings, caricatures and etchings that were alive with dynamic and swirling lines and rich colours’. Gatrell regards the aquatints for The English Dance of Death as being his masterpiece. Riffing on an old English genre in which skeletons dance with the living, Rowlandson depicted Death admitted into the heart of life. In The Recruiting Party, Rowlandson depicts the eager recruit leaving for the war. While his family and sweetheart express concern and reticence, he is ready to join the marching army, encouraged by the rakish figure of Death who already wears the colours. ‘I enlist you’, says the skeleton in the caption, ‘and you’ll soon be found, one of my regiment under ground.’
Thomas Rowlandson, The Recruiting Party from The English Dance of Death, 1816
Rowlandson was, suggests Gatrell, a Dickens before his time – but one without sentimentality or sexual reticence. By way of evidence, he adduces the wonderfully comic scene of Sympathy, in which two ladies have descended from their coach, and stand in the road, urinating. The footman stands in back view, also ‘laying the dust’, as are the pair of horses and a dog. The coachman on his box, turning his back to the party in the road, imitates their example. A signpost points ‘To Broadwater’.
Thomas Rowlandson, Sympathy, or a Family on a Journey Laying the Dust, 1785
Actually, Dickens couldn’t bear Rowlandson, a reflection of how, with changing attitudes and manners, Rowlandson’s reputation fell after his death in 1827.
In a chapter devoted to the Gordon Riots of 2 to 7 June 1780, Gatrell argues that the anti-Catholic riots (featured in Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge) ‘changed all manner of assumptions in London’. The propertied classes, deeply shaken by the violence and destruction of property during the disturbances, moved west, from ‘the town’, and artists followed their patrons. In art, academic neo-classicism and the realism of men such as Rowlandson both began to make way for the Gothic sublime. Manners shifted too. ‘The quest for urban civility redoubled, and tolerance of the low diminished.’ Covent Garden’s effervescent spirit – its rude, rambunctious, brilliant Bohemian spirit – went flat.
Gatrell adds one final chapter, called ‘Turner, Ruskin and Covent Garden: An Aftermath’. It’s an antidote to Mike Leigh’s meretricious portrayal of Turner and his relationship with Ruskin in Mr Turner, a film I disliked so much when I saw it in November that I couldn’t bring myself to write about it. Gatrell rightly stresses that Ruskin was a great champion of Turner, who – in his Modern Painters – asserted that no artist had observed the natural and material world as closely as Turner. His landscapes had achieved a truth that past masters had never matched – ‘ a truth of impression as well as form, – of thought as well as of matter’.
But Gatrell is mainly concerned here with the symbolic significance of the shock that Ruskin received when, as executor to Turner’s will and sorting through the tens of thousands of sketches, watercolours and oils that Turner had bequeathed to the nation, he discovered sketches of the pudenda of women that must, he believed, have been ‘drawn under a certain condition of insanity’. What the story about Turner’s rude pictures – and Ruskin’s appalled response to them – exposes, writes Gatrell:
Is the distance between the relaxed sexual manners of the eighteenth century and the prudishness of the nineteenth. For if Ruskin was horrified by Turner’s sexual laxity … most artists working during Turner’s younger years would have thought his delinquencies both sensible and manly. Turner is unlikely to have felt guilty about them, either.
Gatrell notes that Turner was born in the same year that, according to the Oxford Dictionary, the word ‘respectability’ was first coined. It ‘anticipated the puritan pieties that later curbed many of the nation’s primal pleasures.
Born in 1775 in 21 Maiden Lane, south of the Piazza, the son of a barber cum-wigmaker and an increasingly deranged mother whom he later committed to an asylum, a descendant of butchers, saddlers and fishmongers, and a speaker of cockney, he grew up in the most louche and vibrant part of London, and consorted in that proto-bohemian world with artists across whose lips the word ‘respectability’ never passed.
John Wykeham Archer, JMW Turner’s birthplace in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, 1852
Unlike Rowlandson, though, Turner had ‘no real interest in the doings of humanity’, says Gatrell, arguing that in one sense at least, Turner’s Covent garden boyhood did leave its mark on his work – ‘even if that influence turned on his reaction against the denatured city. On the other hand, Covent Garden provided the people and the networks that Turner learned from. And there’s more:
His driven ambition and competitiveness, his use of his art for self-advancement, his determination to climb in the Academy, his deference to monied patrons … his parsimony and his need to accumulate property, his taciturnity, inarticulacy, vanity, coarse speech and manners, and slovenly dress housekeeping. At least some of these unlovely qualities were determined by the pinched, unpolished, and self-interested but aspirational mindsets of the Covent Garden middling people among whom he matured. Even his interest in the erotic was probably acquired from his early associations with the likes of Morland and Rowlandson in John Raphael Smith’s workshop.
Turner left Maiden Lane for Harley Street in 1799, a move that Gatrell sees as consummating the great artistic exodus from Covent Garden that the Gordon Riots had accelerated. By 1816 only ten out of some 480 London painters had an address in Covent Garden.
But, says Gatrell, he brought Covent Garden’s low manners with him to respectable Harley Street. Shortly after his death The Times described his house as being grimed in soot, dark with dirt and foul with cobwebs. It looked like ‘a place in which some great crime had been committed’.
The great pictures were displayed in utter dereliction, so many holes in the roof and windows that umbrellas were recommended indoors. … In this sordid den were all the thirty thousand proofs of engravings rotting and mouldering, uncared for by any one but the cats.
Gatrell ends The First Bohemians with the memorable image of this tribe of cats ‘that lived and defecated among, or on, his piles of pictures, prints and drawings’.
The First Bohemians is a wonderfully entertaining and informative book, with numerous well-chosen illustrations. But Penguin have served Gatrell very poorly in the illustrated edition which, unlike the sumptuous paperback edition of his earlier study, City of Laughter, is of very poor quality: the cover design is dreadful, dominated by execrable white paint lettering , while the images have been reproduced very poorly, especially those printed in muddy monochrome. Gatrell’s publisher have done his excellent history a disservice.
- City of Laughter: bawdy and scurrilous 18th century London
- More of Rowlandson’s Lower Orders: great selection of Rowlandson’s images of the street life of London