May 272020

I recently returned from India and one of the main recollections was of the way that if I ventured outside, I was immediately targeted by every taxi driver within half a mile! This scene drawn by Thomas Rowlandson is a reminder that anyone walking near the River Thames crossings 250 years ago would have been assailed in a similar fashion.

Entitled ‘Miseries of London’ it has  the strap-line ‘Entering upon any of the bridges of London or any of the passages leading to the Thames being assailed by a groupe [sic] of watermen holding up their hands and bawling out. Oars Sculls. Sculls. Oars. Oars.’

The watermen were notorious – this was drawn by Rowlandson in 1807 and is shown courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For several hundred years the activities of the watermen (who carry passengers) and lightermen (who carry goods) had been governed by The Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames which was founded in 1514, back in the reign of Henry VIII (the lightermen were allowed to join in 1700). Members must have watched in horror throughout the eighteenth century as more and more bridges were constructed across the Thames – Westminster Bridge opened in 1750, Blackfriars in 1769, Vauxhall Bridge (then known as Regent Bridge) in 1816 and Southwark in 1819. Each new bridge-crossing would have lessened the volume of business for the poor watermen, classic losers in the  changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

So, what happened to all the importuning,wheedling, body-checking, shouting, swearing men who used to gain a living from working the river (and there were 40,000 of them as far back as 1600)? My guess is that they all went to India to look for work driving taxis…

May 232020

A while back I was fortunate enough to buy a Rowlandson print, entitled ‘Giving up the Ghost, or, one too many’. Needless to say my wife hates it and is not inclined to let me  display it on the living room walls. Which is a shame because in these gloomy times, when every single news item dwells on sickness, mortality rates and medics unable to cope, it is good to be cheered up with the thought that illness, death and  doctors have been around for rather a long time. Humour is wherever you choose to find it – in the depiction of death, lurking outside the window, arrow poised, or the chamber pot under the bed, or the doctor happily snoring away in a chair in the corner – or the soon-to-be deceased lying with his toes curled up.

The British Museum site describes the print as being ‘by Thomas Rowlandson, after Richard Newton,’ and dates it as being from 1813. It has this to say:

A dying man, wearing a tattered shirt, lies stretched on a miserable bed under a casement window, through which looks Death, a skeleton holding up an hour-glass and a javelin which he points menacingly at his victim. A fat doctor (left) sits asleep at the bedside (left) while an undertaker’s man, with a coffin on his back, and holding a crêpe-bound mute’s wand, enters from the right as if smelling out death. The doctor wears old-fashioned dress, with powdered wig, and has a huge gold-headed cane. Beside him are the words:
“I purge I bleed I sweat em
Then if they Die I Lets em”

I must admit I knew very little about the practice of having mutes at funerals, or that the sticks they carried were called wands, so I am grateful to the History Extra site for giving this helpful information:

The mute’s job was to stand vigil outside the door of the deceased, then accompany the coffin, wearing dark clothes, looking solemn and usually carrying a long stick (called a wand) covered in black crape.Charles Dickens’s best-known mute is Oliver Twist, employed by the undertaker Sowerberry for children’s funerals. Most, though, were adult males, and were common in several European countries from the 17th century onwards, as ceremonial ‘protectors’ of the deceased. The fashion was probably inspired by the ancient Roman practice of assigning lictors (bodyguards of civic officials) to escort the funerals of prominent citizens.

There are plenty of accounts of mutes in Britain by the 1700s, and by Dickens’s time their attendance at even relatively modest funerals was almost mandatory. They were a key part of the Victorians’ extravagant mourning rituals, which Dickens often savaged as pointlessly, and often ruinously, expensive. In Martin Chuzzlewit, for instance: “Two mutes were at the house-door, looking as mournful as could reasonably be expected of men with such a thriving job in hand.” Mutes died out in the 1880s/90s and were a memory by 1914. Dickens played his part in their demise, as did fashion. Victorian funeral etiquette was complex and constantly changing, as befitted a huge industry, which partly depended on status anxiety for the huge profits Dickens criticised. What did for them most of all, though, was becoming figures of fun – mournful and sober at the funeral, but often drunk shortly afterwards.

Ah well, on that cheerful note I will go back to thinking where I can hang my Rowlandson print without causing a domestic scene….

May 192020

At present I am researching milliner’s shops in the 1780s – an esoteric subject, I appreciate, but one which is fascinating. It is part of my research into the life of an actress who will be featured in my next-book-but-one, on whores, harlots and mistresses who made something of their lives. This particular actress started life as a milliner and I was aware that ‘milliner’ was often a euphemism for ‘whore’.

The term ‘milliner’ extended to far more than making hats and  originally described the range of accessories and fashion items sold by travelling salesmen  from Milan. By 1747 the The London Tradesman could  describe a milliner as a retailer who would ‘furnish everything to the ladies that can contribute to set off their beauty, increase their vanity or render them ridiculous’. They worked alongside others in the fashion industry: the haberdasher supplied the fabrics, the mantua-maker made up the gowns, the stay maker made the stays and the milliner brought everything together and actually made  things fashionable. If you wanted to be a la mode, you went to the milliner. It was the milliner who supplied the sashes and ribbons, the ruffles and other accessories. It was the milliner who dealt in tippits, gloves, muffs – and exotic headwear.

But working in a milliner’s shop was not without its moral dangers: the same article in The London Tradesman stated that ‘the vast resort of young Beaus and rakes to millinery shops exposes young Creatures to many Temptations, and insensibly debauches their Morals before they are capable of Vice’. It went on to warn that ‘Nine out of ten young Creatures that are obligated to serve in these shops are ruined and undone: Take a Survey of all common Women of the Town, who take their Walks between Charing-Cross and Fleet-Ditch and, I am persuaded, more than half of them have been bred milliners, have been debauched in their Houses, and are obliged to throw themselves upon the Town for want of Bread, after they have left them. Whether it is owing to the Milliners, or to the Nature of the business, or to whatever cause is owing, the Facts are clear, and the Misfortunes attending the Apprenticeship so manifest…it ought to be the last shift a young Creature is driven to.’

So I was particularly keen to locate a print I came across a few years ago, published by Carington Bowles in 1782. I found it again on the Lewis Walpole Library site at Yale University and it is entitled ‘A Morning Frolic, or the Milliners Shop’. A differently coloured version can also be found on the British Museum site which describes the scene as follows:

Interior of a milliner’s shop, the counter running across the print, behind it are three milliners, dressed in the fashion of the day with elaborately frilled muslin caps on their high-dressed hair. Two fashionably dressed men are on the near side of the counter, intent on a flirtation. One, wearing riding-dress, sits on the edge of the counter, his legs dangling, while he leans on his elbow and looks over his right shoulder towards a pretty young woman who is sewing, seated in profile to the right. The other visitor (right) lounges against the counter as he hands a “Masquerade Ticket” to a young milliner. The third milliner stands; she is sewing at one of the elaborately frilled muslin head-dresses of the day.
The print shows the arrangement of a shop at this period. The shop-window is partly visible on the left, with wares for sale suspended across it on cords. On the wall is an oval mirror in a carved frame, while on the right shelves fill a recess in the wall and support boxes, inscribed “Feathers, Love Coxcomb, Mode”. An arched-top coffer, such as milliners in street scenes are depicted as carrying, stands open on the counter, a piece of lace hanging from it. On the near side of the counter is a tall circular stool for customers. In the foreground is a Pomeranian dog. 1782

The mezzotint was hand-coloured and is based on a water-colour by the artist Robert Digby. At that stage Carington Bowles was a well-known map-printer who also produced etchings from his shop described as being a ‘Map & Print Warehouse, No.69 in St. Pauls Church Yard, London’. I rather like the idea of the pair of rakish young gentlemen debating what to do with their morning, and deciding to go and chat up the young milliners in the shop round the corner. Armed with a ticket to a masquerade, perhaps at Ranelagh Gardens, they would have thought that they were onto a sure thing – one of the girls was bound to leap at the invitation. And everyone knew  what went on in the dark recesses and quiet alleyways at Ranelagh….

May 142020

A trio of prints from the Metropolitan Museum by good old Thomas Rowlandson, all on the topic of luxury.

First up: one published in 1780 showing a clearly unimpressed servant dragging along a contraption rather like a gouty chair, into which a corpulent gentleman has been wedged, holding up either a sunshade (or, less likely, an umbrella). Luxury for one: hard work for the other.

Next up, one from 1786 with the same title, showing the delights of a pair of young lovers, cocooned within the curtains of their bed, being brought sustenance by a young maid.

And thirdly, a print entitled ‘French luxury, or repos a la francais’ – not dated, but published after 1800. The British Museum have a copy of the same print, which they describe as “a young woman asleep in an abandoned posture on a crooked and makeshift bed in a shabby room, hugging to her body and between her bare legs a large shapeless object (a cushion?), and grasping the leg of an upturned chair with her right hand; at right, a dog at the foot of the bed and a cat on a cushioned stool by the door, also sleeping.”

I rather suspect an underlying dig at the French by Rowlandson – the young lady is missing a male companion, and has beaten the bolster into a man-substitute, while her hand fondles the phallus-shaped hardness of the char leg…. Or do I just have a filthy mind?

May 062020

We live in an era where we take it for granted that photographs lie – where models routinely photo-shop their bikini shots to enhance their boobs, narrow their waist and  lengthen their legs. It is cheating – but it is commonplace.

What I find interesting is how, 250 years ago, artists and engravers were just as willing to  come up with phoney images to enhance their products. Take this image on the left, which appears on the Rijkmuseum site. It shows the courtesan/actress Anne Elliott, and it appeared in 1769 when it was described as being  ‘after the portrait artist Tilly Kettle and engraved by James Watson’. It didn’t sell, presumably because no-one was really interested in Anne Elliott given that she died in that same year. So the copper plate used in the engraving was sold, the face tweaked slightly, and then re-titled as ‘Miss Nancy Parsons’. It is shown on the right and appears courtesy of the Isaac and Ede site here.

Nancy was the infamous courtesan who had shacked up with the Duke of  Grafton, acting prime minister. The Duke was happy to parade Nancy on his arm when he went to the opera, or to the races at Newmarket, and she even hosted the equivalent of  dinner parties at number 10 Downing Street, in other words at his official residence.

People assumed, when Grafton’s wife had a very public affair with the Earl of Upper Ossory and had his child, and the Duke and Duchess went their separate ways and divorced, that the Duke would marry Nancy. But no, he amazed everyone by  giving Nancy the heave-ho and instead married the far more respectable Elizabeth Wrottesley. But don’t feel too sorry for Nancy, because one of the reasons why the Duke decided to end their relationship was because she was busy having an affair with the randy John Sackville, third Duke of Dorset.

All of which made Nancy a figure very much in the public eye. The press tended to show that Nancy had a raw deal, believing that Nancy was being passed over unfairly. Typical was the caricature entitled The Political Wedding, an extract of which is shown above, with the Duke exchanging wedding vows with Elizabeth, with whom he went on to live happily for 40 years and bring up no fewer than twelve children.

And here, to the left side of the caricature, is the disconsolate figure of Nancy Parsons, weeping while uttering the words: “I retire on a pension of £300 p.a. to make way for Miss Wr—y.”

Getting back to the Anne Elliott engraving, passed off as being Nancy. It  demonstrates the way that engravings were churned out in bulk – as long as an image sold, who cared if it was accurate? To add to the parody, this time it was described as being ‘by Housman after Renold’ – a spoof on  the engraver Richard Houston after Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Courtesans were the fashion icons of their day and before photography brought their features into the public domain, it was a case of ‘anything goes’. The face was altered, prettified and tidied up, but the setting, with the sitter playing the role of Juno, the peacocks to one side, the elaborate dress – they were left unaltered.

Nancy Parsons in Turkish costume, by George Willison, courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

The Reynolds portrait of Nancy, shown courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum











Nancy Parsons  had her portrait painted by the Scottish artist George Willison, as well as by Joshua Reynolds. Both show her in exotic Turkish costume. There was also a third portrait, by Thomas Gainsborough, but sadly that got stolen in a robbery at the Park Lane home of the collector Charles Wertheimer back in 1907 and has never been seen since. So, just in case any of you have this picture hiding at the bottom of a pile in a rear cupboard, this is a reminder of what the Gainsborough looked like:

At the time, when the robbery was reported in The Sphere of 16 February 1907, the Gainsborough was valued at £15,000 – two and a half times the value of the Reynolds portrait of the Honourable Mrs Charles Yorke stolen at the same time. But then, I have only ever rated a Reynolds as being worth a fraction of a Gainsborough ….

Nancy Parsons is on my mind at present because I am researching her for my forthcoming book ‘Whores, Harlots and Mistresses – the fashionistas of the 18th Century.’ Ideas of beauty have altered over the centuries, but you can’t take it away from Nancy: she sure used what nature had given her.  Energetically. She moved on from Lord Grafton and ended up married to Viscount Maynard. Her husband was an old goat who happily let her introduce a 19-year-old into their household, and they lived as a threesome in Italy for a number of years. A case of eating your gelato and having it….

May 022020

A short follow-up to my blog relating to my last book (Trailblazing Georgians). I see that this month’s issue of Jane Austen’s Regency World contains a review of the book. In case you haven’t heard of the ‘JARW’,  it comes out six times a year, is in full colour, and is a satisfyingly sumptuous publication. It doesn’t confine itself to stories about Jane Austen, although there is much there to please aficianados of all things Austen. It also has articles relating to the Regency era, as well as puzzles, quizzes, background information – and, of course, interesting and perspicacious book reviews!  Anyone interested in finding out more should enquire via or write to The Editor at 3 Traquair Park East, Edinburgh, EH12 7AP.

The review reads:

Just for the record, I did not include female achievements in this particular book – because they received a separate showcase in Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era

Ah well, back to writing my next book, featuring the elite harlots who strutted their stuff across fashionable London 250 years ago. It is all about the women who earned the sobriquet of ‘Toast of the Town’, and who influenced  what women wore in a way which is hard to imagine nowadays. The ‘Fanny Murray cock’, (so called because it was worn at a jaunty angle) the ‘Perdita  chemise’ and  the ‘Robinson hat’ (both named after Mary Robinson) – all will get a look-in for what I hope will be my final outing into print, some time in 2022, as ‘Whores, Harlots and Mistresses‘. But then again, it may be called something entirely different by the time I finish writing it …!