The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London's Golden Age by Vic Gatrell

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The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London's Golden Age by Vic Gatrell

Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The artistic community, and its main personalities, from the square half-mile centred on London's Covent Garden during the eighteenth century.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 484 Date: October 2013
Publisher: Allen Lane
ISBN: 9781846146770

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It was in the eighteenth century that an area of London consisting of about half a square mile, from Soho and Leicester Square across Covent Garden’s Piazza to Drury Lane, and down from Long Acre to the Strand, with Covent Garden at the very centre, became what has in modern times been recognised as the world’s first creative ‘bohemia’. This was where the cream of Britain’s significant artists, actors, poets, novelists, and dramatists of the age lived and worked, side by side with the city’s chief market traders, craftsmen, shopkeepers, rakes, pickpockets and prostitutes. One might say that all human life was here.

This book, which portrays the whole entertaining mix so vividly, is divided into two parts. The much shorter first one sets the scene, in a kind of then-and-now about the area, particularly its layout and status as the hub of the old city. Here we have a portrait of the general community, and the status of the people who lived there, the tradesmen and ladies of the night who were generally tolerated if not secretly patronised by many. It also looks in brief at the wealth of artistic creations which sprang from here, from William Hogarth’s ‘The Rake’s Progress’ to Daniel Defoe’s ‘Moll Flanders’. London was in effect a very modern city at the time, having been largely rebuilt after the great fire of 1666.

The longer, second part looks in detail at many of the artists who sprang forth from this community. To an extent Gatrell’s main emphasis is on the painters, from the coarse, often brutal canvases and drawings of Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson and the savage caricatures of James Gillray, to the grander portraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds and the astonishingly varied output of the versatile J.M.W. Turner. He does however also include men of letters such as the diarist James Boswell and the playwright John Gay of ‘Beggar’s Opera’ fame. Also to be found in these pages are some of the relevant societies and organisations, notably the Beefsteaks Dining Club, which included as its members the likes of the Earl of Sandwich, credited with having invented the sandwich in its company, and the radical politician John Wilkes. ‘That devil Wilkes’, we are told, was warned by the Earl that if he did not mend his ways he would die either on the gallows or from the pox, to which he quipped that that depended ‘on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress’.

It was a society and an age which saw the birth of the novel in the writings of Defoe, Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson. Though this literary milestone is something for which the English might arguably take credit, the same cannot be said for painting and the visual arts. At the start of the period there was no native tradition. London printsellers sold many more imported prints than English ones, while the most important artists working in the country, among them Peter Lely, Adriaen Van de Velde, Jean-Baptiste Vanloo and the wood carver Grinling Gibbons, had all come from mainland Europe. Foreigners, it was said, sneered at English painters, and it was thanks to Hogarth, Sir James Thornhill and Thomas Gainsborough that there was a true golden age of art in this country. For Gatrell, however, the most gifted of them all was Rowlandson, whom he calls the most spontaneous of all eighteenth-century artists, the most versatile, the greatest comic artist and one of the greatest draughtsmen this country has ever produced.

In some ways, the author suggests, it was a magical age, full of vitality, high spirits and low life; but it could not last for ever. The end, he suggests, came with the ‘Gordon riots’, a series of protests in 1780 led by the maverick Scottish aristocrat Lord George Gordon as part of a campaign for the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act of two years previously which extended new privileges to Catholics. Ironically, the disturbances which resulted in several hundred deaths also inspired a large number of prints and paintings. Nevertheless it was a fierce conclusion to an often savage era. Turner and the art historian John Ruskin supplied a brief postscript, as related in the last chapter, but otherwise a line is more or less drawn towards the end of the eighteenth century.

In this period London was a dangerous world, full of poverty and crime, but also one which overflowed with joie de vivre. Gatrell has taken a wide-ranging subject and filled it with a huge cast of the famous, the infamous, the creators, the law-breakers, and many more. His text is well complemented by a colour-plate section and almost two hundred black and white pictures.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy London in the 18th century by Jerry White.

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