The First Bohemians: Love and squalor

There was nothing affected about the lifestyle, if you can call it that, of these bohemians, many of whom were derelicts. There was no need to take your lobster for a walk, as the poet Gérard de Nerval did, or to wear a green carnation like Oscar Wilde.

The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London’s Golden Age
Vic Gatrell
Allen Lane, 512pp, £25

The “first bohemians” were the 146 painters and engravers who at some point in the 18th century had an address within a quartermile of the Covent Garden Piazza in London. These included William Blake, Paul and Thomas Sandby, Isaac Cruikshank, Thomas Rowlandson, Turner, Joshua Reynolds, Canaletto, Hogarth, Fuseli, Gainsborough and James Gillray. Together with the actors and writers who also lived there, this was, Vic Gatrell writes, “a creative community without equal in history”. From the razzledazzle of Covent Garden – a place “dearer to me”, wrote Charles Lamb, who lived above a brazier’s shop on Russell Street, “than any gardens of Alcinous” – came the flowering of Georgian culture.

Gatrell’s definition of a bohemian is pleasingly loose – it includes Sir “Sloshua” Reynolds, after all – and refers to a pleasingly louche society. There was not yet a fully formed bourgeoisie from which bohemia could distance itself. So: “If Covent Garden artists and writers loved, drank and gambled more freely than respectable people later thought seemly – well, 18th-century practice pointed that way.”

There was nothing affected about the lifestyle, if you can call it that, of these bohemians, many of whom were derelicts. There was no need to take your lobster for a walk, as the poet Gérard de Nerval did, or to wear a green carnation like Oscar Wilde. Eighteenth-century manners were eccentric anyway; libertine values were widespread and bawdry was in the bloodstream.

Gentlemen were often indistinguishable in appearance from paupers. Samuel Johnson’s biography of the dilapidated poet and murderer Richard Savage first gave the “bohemian” his feckless identity. Hogarth’s painting and print The Distressed Poet, in which he depicts a writer in his garret pulling at the hair beneath his wig while struggling with a poem called “Poverty”, provided the bohemian archetype.

Figures such as the respected Royal Academician George Dawe embodied the ideal. Known by his friends as “the Grub”, Dawe washed once a week and then, according to Charles Lamb, applied water only to the “inner oval or portrait . . . of his countenance, leaving the unwashed temples to form a natural black frame”.

The first part of this book is about Covent Garden, the streets, theatres, bordellos and back alleys, the babel of accents, the proximity of the artists to one another, the knitting together of their lives. London was small and Covent Garden was a village in which everyone knew everyone else. The second part covers the response of the resident bohemians to the vibrant culture around them, their depictions of the pimps, whores, thieves, shopkeepers, actors, musicians and rakes, plying their trade or otherwise enjoying themselves.

Pleasure, particularly through misbehaviour, is one of Gatrell’s great interests. His last book, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in 18th-Century London, a ripe survey of satirical prints, was generally proclaimed a masterpiece, and in The First Bohemians – also destined to be loaded with prizes –he returns to the “importance”, “necessity” and “truthtelling” of satire, the 18th century’s mental health check.

The First Bohemians is generously, often ingeniously, illustrated and Gatrell’s pithy commentary on the prints and pictures can be scathing; it will be hard to look at some of these images in the same way again. Of Hogarth’s The Enraged Musician, he notes of the milk girl with the bucket on her head: “Though Hogarth never bothered himself with hygienic matters, it’s worth knowing what [she] was selling.” He then refers us to the passage in Tobias Smollett’s Expedition of Humphry Clinker in which milk is described as “frothed with bruised snails . . . spittle, snot, and tobacco quids”.

Like many of the men he describes (there are no women here), Gatrell is terrific company. He praises 18th-century writing for propelling us “niftily to the point” and his own his prose performs the same trick. Not one to pile up his sentences, he keeps his observations simple, his opinions straightforward and his narrative no-nonsense.

Reynolds’s presidential discourses to the Royal Academy, for instance, are “windy appeals to universal truths”; artists were “rough men by and large, and many had the characteristics of poor ones. Stunted growth was common.” (Among the “five-foot men or less” were Hogarth, Samuel Scott, the German-born enamellist Christian Friedrich Zincke, Gawen Hamilton, Richard Cosway and George Vertue.)

Gatrell notes, in an aside, how badly artists of the past drew cats. Rowlandson, the hero of the book, was “a path-breaker who engaged with human subjects and said new things”, who allowed “humble people as much visibility as rich people – even a greater entitlement to happiness”. The author succeeds in his attempt to raise the carnivalesque Rowlandson above the moralising Hogarth, yet he concedes that “at times Rowlandson’s cheeriness is so unremitting that one yearns for other registers”.

The “Gordon riots” in 1780 brought an end to this bohemia; artists now followed the money. The exodus concluded in 1799, when the 24-year-old Turner left the lane where his father worked as a wig-maker for a house at 64 Harley Street, on the other side of the cordon sanitaire between London’s high and low life. By 1816, only ten out of the city’s 480 painters (by Gatrell’s estimation) had an address that referred to Covent Garden – it was now Soho that was boho.

Frances Wilson’s “The Courtesan’s Revenge”, a biography of Harriette Wilson, is published by Faber & Faber (£9.99)

Wages of sin: The Rake at the Rose Tavern (1734) by William Hogarth, from his Rake's Progress series. Image: Bridgeman Art Library

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear