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.

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

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)