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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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