Thu, Nov 14, 2013 - Page 11 News List

Book review: The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London’s Golden Age

In humorous detail, Vic Gatrell recreates the scurrilous lives of the world’s first “bohemians”

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Some artists are kept on the sidelines. Blake, for example, isn’t really suited to the author’s focus on low-life drawing, and Gillray’s distortions of reality are clearly not Gatrell’s cup of tea. Both as a result get just a few pages.

There are many rich jokes here. The actor Edmund Kean’s mother “divided her time between acting and prostitution,” while the Duke of Norfolk “never washed if he could help it” and “got clean only when he took a girl or girls to a bagnio [bathhouse] or when his servants hosed him down when he was drunk, which luckily was often.” A contemporary called Turner’s landscapes “Pictures of nothing, and very like” (i.e. a good likeness).

The era, Gatrell believes, effectively ended with the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780. The army was brought in and 25 rioters were hanged within a month, several of them young boys. The radical Charles James Fox still maintained, however, that he’d rather be ruled by a mob than by a standing-army.

Literature could well have featured more prominently. England’s first novel, Defoe’s Moll Flanders, detailed the life of a whore, and both Richardson and Fielding, Defoe’s great successors, put an examination of sexual appetite close to the heart of their most famous novels. It took Victorian puritanism to excise this interest from popular reading, leading the topic to flourish in clandestine pornography such as the mysteriously anonymous gay novel Teleny.

Today Covent Garden is, according to Gatrell, a meretricious tourist-trap, while Leicester Square — just beyond Covent Garden, but where the enormously successful portrait painter Reynolds once had his mansion — is “a sorry mess.” He also gives it as his opinion that few modern artists depict the lives of the poor in the way their 18th-century predecessors did.

The First Bohemians is a deeply fascinating account. There can be few historians who know as much as Gatrell about who painted the clothing, the hands, and the landscape backgrounds of English 18th-century portraits, leaving just the face to be done by the accredited artist, or about who copied which satirical drawing from whom and sold it in which print-shop. Such matters are often the subject of cold academic study, but Gatrell fortunately combines his historical expertise with a zest for colorful (and especially erotic) detail, and the result is a magnificent book that’s very hard indeed to put down.

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