Book review - The First Bohemians

Hallie Rubenhold is enthralled by a tour of 18th-century Covent Garden and the creative set who made it their home

The First Bohemians
Author: Vic Gatrell
Publisher: Allen Lane
Reviewed by: Hallie Rubenhold
Price (RRP): £25

Anyone who has ever admired a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, read a novel by Henry Fielding, laughed at an engraving by Hogarth or attended a play by Sheridan may not have appreciated what all of these creators held in common: Covent Garden. In the 18th century, nowhere rivalled this location for its concentration of artists, writers, actors, musicians and dancers, all of whom lived, worked and played within a quarter mile of the piazza. This was London’s ideas exchange, where the century’s ‘bohemians’ made ‘culture’ for the entire English-speaking world.

This argument lies at the heart of Vic Gatrell’s new book about Georgian art and the London environment from which it sprang. While identifying Covent Garden as the century’s creative forge is not a new idea, it’s one that has never received due attention. Gatrell does this exceedingly well. So, while we are given the usual introduction to Georgian London via a tour of its ramshackle dens, coffee houses and taverns, the author does so with an ultimate destination in mind: he wants us to experience the place that the artistic community called home. It is only once we’ve had our pockets picked and our sleeves tugged by harlots that we are well-versed enough in Covent Garden life to truly see through the eyes of those who depicted it.

In many ways this is an ensemble biography, in which setting plays as much of a role as the characters who inhabited it. Its narrative meanders like the alleys that it describes, dipping in and out of various life stories in order to illustrate larger historical points. At times we are offered lengthy histories of figures including Rowlandson and Hogarth, whose searing observations we most often associate with the 18th century. At others, we’re introduced to lesser-known figures such as George Morland, whose drunken, debt-ridden existence was a far cry from the saccharine scenes of country life that he chose to paint.

Gatrell is a tour guide par excellence, entertaining with personal detail while bringing in the broader topics that dominate the study of “the great age of British painting”. An understanding of the opposition between ‘real life’ painting and the neoclassical is played out in the rivalry between artists, while “the rise of the rule of polite society” is discussed in terms of the harrowing Gordon riots and their impact on London life.

This engrossing read is enhanced by Gatrell’s selection of rarely seen illustrations. The works of little-known artists and engravers such as Matthew Darley and John Collet provide fresh insight into scenes of London ‘low life’, as do Rowlandson’s impromptu sketches. Few disciplines dovetail so well together as art history and social history, and yet it is rare for a book to marry them as equals, interweaving historical context and imagery in even measures. Not only has Gatrell accomplished this with aplomb, but he’s created a compelling, informative read to boot. The result is masterful.

Hallie Rubenhold is the author of The Covent Garden Ladies (Transworld Digital, 2012)

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