Eighteen years ago I was putting the finishing touches to a post-graduate thesis on bohemianism and literature. My argument was that bohemianism — voluntary, youthful poverty, and a life devoted to the arts and intoxication — was recurrent. First seen in Paris in the 1830s, it re-emerged in London in the 1890s, internationally in the 1920s (the Jazz Age), and then on an enormous scale in the 1960s with the hippies, the first pan-global, non-Marxist, radical youth movement.
Now, with record youth unemployment in the West, it’s surely all set to appear again. But in The First Bohemians Gatrell is concerned instead with origins, arguing that 18th-century London, in particular the area around Covent Garden, saw the world’s first example of the phenomenon.
The claim, however, is little more than an excuse for a catchy title. Gatrell is really an art historian, and he’s conducted an enormously detailed investigation into the Covent Garden area of the period, a district you could — and still can — walk across in ten minutes. An awesome appendix lists 146 artists and engravers, plus some print-shop owners who lived in the area, with their addresses, dates, and fathers’ occupations where known (thus giving an idea of their social origins). His specialty is satirical prints, and he must have seen most specimens of this art that still exist.
One slight problem is that he’s already published one highly-successful book on the subject — City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (2007). This contained innumerable anecdotes and illustrations showing the ribald and licentious goings-on of a tolerant age (tolerant, at least, in this small area of London). Was there really enough material not included there to make this second book?
By Vic Gatrell
The reason Gatrell has managed his sequel so triumphantly is that whereas in 2007 he had to photograph each print himself, this time he’s had access to the roughly 2,000,000 items the British Library has put online, and that anyone can copy without payment.
Covent Garden was an area of prostitutes as well as artists — the latter drew and painted the former, while the former entertained the latter in no uncertain manner. They all caroused together in the taverns, coffee-houses and bath-houses, and fought for seats in the intensely fashionable theaters. There was plenty of poverty and plenty of licentiousness. At least two artists were hanged, even the novelist Henry Fielding — later a magistrate — couldn’t evade two weeks behind bars for debt, and the great landscape and portrait painter Thomas Gainsborough narrowly escaped dying from gonorrhea.
Inevitably, as Gatrell admits, writers and the theater get short measure — his knowledge of visual art is simply too extensive, and what he has to say about it too fascinating. There are chapters on Hogarth, Rowlandson and Turner — the last, who died in 1851, admittedly rather late for the author’s timeframe. But Turner was born in Covent Garden, and Gatrell clearly couldn’t resist the opportunity to include him.
Hogarth is at the heart of the book – a man who consistently looked low-life in the face, but whose personal tastes seem to have been unusually abstemious. As for Rowlandson — “a Dickens without sentimentality or sexual reticence” — Gatrell himself, apparently, contributed to the modern restoration of his reputation. He calls him the most prolific English eroticist whose work has survived. Most of these artists in fact made erotic prints. Until recently they’ve tended to be kept out of printed books, though not this one.