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Friday, October 24, 2014

The First Bohemians by Vic Gatrell

William Hogarth's The Rake's Progress: HE ENDS UP INSANE WITH SYPHILLIS!

The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London's Golden Age
by Vic Gatrell
Penguin Publishing
October 3, 2013

  I'd imagine there is a rather limited audience for popular history type books about 18th century London, but the fact that The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London's Golden Age is out on Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin, speaks to Gatrell as both a prestige historian with cross-over potential and someone who writes history books that non-historians might care to read.
William Hogarth: The Harlot's Progress

  Here, the project seems to have been inspired for the increased availability of free digital versions of works by artists like Hogarth and Rowlandson, and indeed, The First Bohemians is as interesting for it's pictures and illustrations as it is for the text.  Although I understand the choice that was made for the title by the publisher, this book could just as easily and accurately been titled, 'The Artistic Community in 18th Century Covent Garden.
William Hogarth
  Covent Garden is of course the still in existence, but hugely changed neighborhood that lies north of "the Strand" and east of Leicester Square in 2014 London.  In the 18th century, this neighborhood was a dense melting pot, with a surfeit of bars, whores and artists. While the glorification of Bohemian type neighborhoods is common today, the Artists discussed in this volume have long awaited proper recognition. Perhaps their biggest crime was belonging to the relatively bawdy sensibility of the 18th century and therefore being out of touch with the more straight laced, refined sensibility of both the Victorian and Early Modern period.

  The severely White and Male dominated nature of the culture of this period counted against the 18th century Covent Garden art scene in the later part of the 20th century, and perhaps even accounts for a relative lack of attention to these Artists even as other "low" forms of visual art, like packaging, advertising and comics have been elevated via academic discourse.  To the extent that a book about a time and place (Covent Guardian in the 18th century,) the "main characters are the visual artists William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson.  Of the two, Hogarth remains familiar as one of the main representatives of 18th century English culture (and a great deal easier to 'read' than 800 page novels) while Rowlandson has only recently been rediscovered.

   Both Hogarth and Rowlandson gained their fortune creating original prints that were mass produced and sold at reasonable prices.   They were a key component of 18th century culture, which had yet to become fully literate. Both were known for their realism and attention to detail, even as they gained stature as satirists of contemporary mores. Gatrell is careful to situate Hogarth and Rowlandson which was, again, very heavy on drinking to excess and whoring.

  Certainly a must for anyone seeking a serious understanding of 18th century artistic culture in England- whether visual or written, and it's important to understand how the visual hugely influenced the written, and was referred to by the more remembered novels of the period.

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