Norma Clarke

London with the Many Sins

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

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Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 512pp £25 order from our bookshop

The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London

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Oxford University Press 368pp £25 order from our bookshop

What Vic Gatrell calls bohemians and what Hannah Greig calls the beau monde rubbed shoulders in London in the 18th century, though you would not think so from these books. Greig’s subjects, the people of fashion and privilege who formed an exclusive elite within the elite, are everything Gatrell hates. Their representative in The First Bohemians is Sir Joshua Reynolds, who painted them and moved in their circles. Gatrell’s focus is Covent Garden in its heyday, after the ‘Quality’ had left. As the area became a centre for writers and artists, so the ‘people of fascination’, as Henry Fielding put it, were driven out. They made their way westward to Hanover Square and beyond, their removal ‘unlamented’ by the theatre folk, musicians and artists who moved in to live and work alongside tradesmen, market people, pickpockets and prostitutes. Hogarth, who was born and lived his whole life in the neighbourhood, typified the new bohemian artist. His quasi-realist style conveyed the vivid life around him in images that challenged the neoclassicism promoted by Reynolds, a hugely successful society portrait painter and, later, the first president of the Royal Academy. The book glosses over the fact that Reynolds was every bit as bohemian as Hogarth, if by that we mean (as Gatrell seems to) a frequenter of Covent Garden’s taverns and bagnios, a heavy drinker and a customer for the sexual services available. On the whole, none of this emerged in Reynolds’s paintings, though the erotic portrait Cupid as a Link Boy gives one plenty to think about. 

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