Hogarth and the harlots of Covent Garden were many things, but they weren't 'bohemians'

Vic Gatrell's The First Bohemians is a chaotic work — but it's good on coffee

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

The First Bohemians Vic Gatrell

Allen Lane, pp.484, £25, ISBN: 9781846146770

It was Hazlitt who said of Hogarth that his pictures ‘breathe a certain close, greasy, tavern air’, and the same could be said of this book. It describes the fermenting stews of 18th-century Covent Garden, and the pungent work of the artists who lived and worked among them, Hog- arth and Thomas Rowlandson in particular. You could read it as a baggy prequel to Vic Gatrell’s marvellous, Wolfson Prize-
winning study of post-1780 caricaturists, City of Laughter.

The ‘ring of antique courts and alleys that laid siege to the Piazza’ of Covent Garden covered no more than a quarter of a square mile of London but, according to Gatrell, they brewed up a uniquely rich artistic culture. Renaissance Florence, Amsterdam, the Quartier Latin, Greenwich Village: none apparently ‘generated such culturally engaged lifestyles or such opportunities for talent and innovation’. Or indeed such opportunities for the turbulent mixing of artists, aristocrats and prostitutes.

Gatrell calls this churning social mash-tun the ‘First Bohemia’. The term jars horribly. The Bohemian ideal represented a peculiarly self-conscious, romanticising rejection of later 19th-century polite values. Even leaving aside the wilful anachronism, Covent Garden’s denizens were anything but self-conscious: they were too roistering for that. They were anything but romantic, being noted rather for their cruel wit and sexual opportunism. Above all, they did not subvert a prevailing politesse. Everyone was at it, from aristocrats to the harlots they patronised.

So why has Gatrell slapped on the title? His protagonists are at least artists, and poor. And they were dissipated — some sensationally so. He tells stories of John Hamilton Mortimer, who never recovered from eating a wine glass in a drinking bout, and Isaac Cruikshank, whose competitive session sent him into a coma. The ‘feckless, reckless and profligate’ genre painter George Morland died at the age of 42, having written his own epitaph (‘here lies a drunken dog’) along with a daily drinking list that began with Hollands gin and rum and milk ‘before breakfast’, and culminated with punch, porter, ale, opium and water, port, more gin and ‘rum on going to bed’.

Artists could be criminals as well as drunks. Robert Dighton of Charing Cross, a ‘designer of amiably risqué dolls’, paid for his six illegitimate children by stealing Rembrandt prints from the British Museum, while Gatrell’s admirable research into 146 obscure Covent Garden artists and engravers has turned up two who were actually hanged.

I wonder if the ‘Bohemia’ label is there to conceal an underlying lack of purpose. It’s a chaotic book, which may be appropriate to the period, but feels like a missed opportunity. If this is an account of 18th-century Covent Garden, it is fatally undermined by the exclusion of writers and thinkers; Gatrell himself observes how closely men like Fielding and Hogarth were linked. The Enlightenment is mentioned only in passing, as when Gatrell observes that Voltaire lodged in Maiden Lane.

Harlots get a whole chapter, by contrast. Admittedly, they are luridly interesting, but the balance is odd, and the treatment hackneyed. Gatrell gives us a bit of Boswell swiving, and a quotation from the well-known Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies concerning Miss M, ‘about 23, good-natured and said to be thoroughly experienced in the whole art and mysterie of Venus’s tactics’. There’s an account of cures for the pox, and a miniature biography of Fanny Murray, who was ‘seduced’, aged 12, by the Duke of Marlborough’s grandson (I think Gatrell means ‘raped’), but later triumphed as the mistress of John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich — he who ‘probably’ invented his eponymous snack in the roistering company of the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks. Gatrell quotes a French tourist of 1725 as saying that English men ‘prefer wine and gaming to women, in which they are the more blameable, because the women are much better than the wine in England’. Perhaps this is why he focuses so much on the women.

Gatrell is good on coffee, however. He rightly accuses historians of excessive solemnity about Enlightenment coffee-houses, tracing how intimately linked they were to seraglios and bagnios and infamous dives such as Tom King’s, which was ‘a Shrine of Love, familiar known / To ev’ry Rake and Fille de joye in Town’. ‘Town’ simply meant Covent Garden.

Solemnity, in fact, is the main object of attack. Once you get past the period stink in the first half, you come to a handful of polemical essays by a serious art historian. Gatrell would doubtless agree with Samuel Johnson, who said, ‘I had rather see the portrait of a dog that I know than all the allegorical paintings they can show me in the world.’ He attacks the self-mythologising of classical or academic artists such as Joshua Reynolds, and praises instead a ‘here-and-now realism’.

Hogarth, argues Gatrell, led a new taste for the real that flourished in spite of the oppressive Royal Academy. Gatrell traces the Dutch influence on English realism, and resurrects neglected painters in the emergent tradition (and not just ones who died of drink), notably John Collett and Paul Sandby. The illustrations are superb (though the habit of putting them on the following page from the reference is irritating).

Above all, Gatrell traces a major shift from Hogarth’s ‘cold, astringent and funereal ingredient’ (as Baudelaire saw it) towards Rowlandson’s more exhilarating, delighted spirit. Rowlandson, claims Gatrell, was not only ‘the greatest comic artist Britain has produced’, and the ‘finest draughtsman’, but was ‘in the vanguard’ of a ‘great movement’ towards a ‘genial informality’ that counts ‘among Georgian culture’s greatest innovations’.

He makes a good case for Rowlandson, and it’s an exciting thesis, but there are still problems. In his determination to attack Reynolds’s classical universalism, and to embrace Covent Garden life as enthusiastically as his protagonists, Gatrell seems at times to equate real life with low life. There are many kinds of reality. He also imagines that a scatological ‘farts-and-bums exuberance’ is a distinctively English kind of comedy, to which one can only answer: Boccaccio? Rabelais?

The 1780 Gordon Riots bring things to a close. The disturbances helped drive aristocrats west from ‘the town’, and artists followed their patrons. Academic neo-classicism and ‘reportorial realism’ 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 but not Bohemian, not ever Bohemian spirit — went flat.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20, Tel: 08430 600033.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments