British art has always been slightly different from that of mainstream Europe. Perhaps it’s because we’re an island. European painting in the eighteenth century is generally conceived as radiating from Paris. There was a strong move during the course of the 18th century towards the development of a national school – a desire for academies of art where the latent English genius could be nurtured.
French Rococo portraits and decorative mythologies invaded Germany, the Scandinavian countries, and Russia and the French influence was powerful in Rome and Spain but as the French Revolution approached, France, in the person of Jacques Louis David, took over the leadership of the emerging Neoclassical style (which perhaps originated in Rome) and established its primacy killing the age of Rococo and the Baroque.
The two great centres of resistance to Neoclassicalism are generally held to be Britain and Venice. During the 18th and 19th centuries, young members of the British upper classes broadened their education with the Grand Tour of continental Europe. They encountered a sophisticated level of artistic achievement that influenced their tastes as art patrons. To ensure similarly high standards in Britain, the Royal Academy was founded in London in 1769. Its first president was Sir Joshua Reynolds, a brilliant painter as well as an influential teacher and author whose Discourses authoritatively addressed many aesthetic topics—including the preeminence of history painting.
Landscape and romanticism were two key themes of two masters, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. Constable’s true-to-life views of the verdant English countryside emphasized the essential harmony and purity of nature. Turner, on the other hand, was a romantic who expressively dissolved forms in terms of light and atmosphere. With their fresh vision and powerfully original styles, Constable and Turner profoundly influenced the work not only of many subsequent British painters but of countless other American and European artists as well.
The death of court painter Sir Godfrey Kneller in 1723 brought to an end the long dynasty of foreign artists who had dominated English painting for two hundred years. Kneller’s pupils and followers were conventional ‘portrait manufacturers’, whose work had neither life nor charm. It was left to his pupil and son-in-law, William Hogarth, to restore English fine art painting to dignity and honour.
The young artist William Hogarth broke the mould of Britsh art in the 1730s when he began his series of moral fables in paint. Hogarth’s earlier style, although strongly personal, is an English variation on the style of the French Rocco painter Watteau and his contemporaries but Hogarth’s moral fables fit in exactly with that climate of Enlightenment thought which was to produce Diderot and the Encyclopedists. William Hogarth dominates English art in the first half of the century. Scornful of portraiture, he single-handedly created a new genre, the ‘Modern Moral Subject’, and introduced the original practice of paintings and engravings in series, and of telling a visual story.
Hogarth is called a moralist and a genius and is acknowledged as the first great English painter of modern times, but in his own lifetime, he waged a perpetual struggle for recognition and patronage in a society indifferent to native talent. He was the son of a schoolmaster and literary hack and born at Ship Court, Old Bailey in 1697. About 1712 his father apprenticed him to Ellis Gamble, a silversmith in Cranbourne Alley, Leicester Fields, from whom he learned something of the processes of engraving. He took to drawing, it is said because he wished to record the humours of London life as he saw them. He devised a system of drawing from memory so that he could record in the evening the things he had seen during the day. This, he believed, was the only way ‘living art’ could be produced.
In 1733 Hogarth settled in Leicester Fields, where he remained for the rest of his life with the exception of a brief trip to France in 1748. His trip resulted in the picture of “Calais Gate”, now in the National Gallery but while making a sketch of the old gateway Hogarth was arrested on a charge of espionage and, though subsequently released, the incident had the effect of confirming his truculent insularity which finds full expression in this picture.
Towards the end of his life, Hogarth contrived to produce satirical engravings and paintings. He also painted a fairly large number of portraits, and a few pictures in the “grand historical style”, which are not on a level with his other work. Late in life, he published his “Analysis of Beauty”, in which he expressed his own aesthetic ideals, and endeavored to establish a definite canon of taste. In 1757 he received some official recognition in his appointment as serjeant-painter to the king, but he died on 26th October 1764, four years too early to become one of the foundation members of the Royal Academy.
Illustration: The Ladies Waldegrave. Reynolds was particularly skilled at choosing poses and actions which suggested a sitter’s character and which also created a strong composition. Here, three sisters, the daughters of the 2nd Earl Waldegrave, are shown collaboratively working on a piece of needlework. The joint activity links the girls together. On the left, the eldest, Lady Charlotte, holds a skein of silk, which the middle sister, Lady Elizabeth, winds onto a card. On the right, the youngest, Lady Anna, works a tambour frame, using a hook to make lace on a taut net.
Sources: Ellis Waterhouse, Tate Gallery, London National Gallery Scotland.
Using the Present Tense to Write About the Past
Writing about the past in the present tense is hot with publishers but does it work for readers?
In writing and rhetoric, the historical present or narrative present is the employment of the present tense when narrating past events.
Dickens – David Copperfield
Dickens used it to give immediacy: ‘If the funeral had been yesterday, I could not recollect it better. The very air of the best parlour, when I went in at the door, the bright condition of the fire, the shining of the wine in the decanters, the patterns of the glasses and plates, the faint sweet smell of cake, the odour of Miss Murdstone’s dress, and our black clothes. Mr. Chillip is in the room and comes to speak to me.
“And how is Master David?” he says, kindly.
I cannot tell him very well. I give him my hand, which he holds in his.
— Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Chapter IX
More recently, analysts of its use in conversation have argued that it functions by foregrounding events that is, signaling that one event is particularly important than others. Historical novelist Sarah Dunant is one of the ace exponents of this style of writing. She uses the present tense to bring the past to life. The elegance of her prose can be seen in this quote from her latest book, In the Name of the Family, Virago, 2017.
“He leaves for work each day at dawn. In the beginning, she had hoped that her nest-ripe body might tempt him to linger awhile. Florence is rife with stories of married men who use early risings of excuses to visit their mistresses, and he had come with a reputation for enjoying life. That even if that were the case, there’s nothing she can do about it, not least because where ever he is going, this husband of hers has already gone from her long before he gets out of the door.
In fact, Niccolo Machiavelli doesn’t leave the warmth of his marriage bed for any other woman (he can do that easily enough on his way home), but because the days dispatches arrived at the Pallazzo della Signoria early and it is his greatest pleasure as well as his duty to be among the first to read them.
His journey takes him down the street on the south side of the city and across the river Arno via the Ponte Vecchio. A maverick winter snowfall has turned into grimy frost and the ground cracks like small animal bones under his feet. On the bridge, fresh carcasses are being unloaded into the butcher’s shops. Through the open shutters, he catches glimpses of the river, its surface a silvery apricot under the rising sun. A feral dog streaks across his path, going for a goblet of offal near the wheel of a cart. It earns him a kick in the ribs of his daring but his jaws remain firmly clenched over the prize. Scavenging opportunist Niccolo thinks, not without a certain admiration.”
Dunant describes her inspiration in an interview with Meredith K. Ray.
She said, “I became interested in a very simple idea, which was, “What would it have been like to be in the middle of the cauldron [Florence] of the shock of the new that they must have felt when it was happening around them?”
I just kept thinking “Dear God, everywhere you go in this city, it must have been vibrating!” I wondered whether or not it would be possible to write a book that would capture that sense of exploding modernity within the past.
Then of course what happened is when I went back to look at the history, I realized that there had been a quiet but persuasive revolution going on within the discipline. When I was doing history [at Cambridge] . . . people studying [gender and race] had yet to move into doing their post-graduate work and become professors and start producing the literature which was starting to fill in the missing spaces or at least make a gesture towards the colour.
I really often think of [history] as a pointillist painting, which is made up of a thousand dots. It’s just bits of paint, but as you walk away, each one of them gives you more of a sense of internal life and dynamic. I really began to feel that that was true about some of the history that I’d studied: blocks of primary colour, but there was stuff missing and it was very important stuff. It was like, “What was it like to be half the population?”
Dunnant’s story proceeds through a succession of tremendous set pieces, including a sea storm, a plague, the delivery of a child and various skirmishes as the pope and his children seek to tighten the “Borgia belt” around Italy. The focus is on the immediacy of the experience in a similar way to Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels. Like Mantel Dunant’s project is a sympathetic presentation. The villains are human beings with families and needs – power being the first among many. Dunant has made the Borgia’s completely her own in this way. How the use of the present tense fits this aim is unclear as it used in all her writing.
Mantel’s prose is sparse and more visceral by comparison;”The blood from the gash on his head – which is his father’s first effort – is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded, but if he squints sideways with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father’s boot is unravelling. The twine has sprung loose from the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.“So now get up!” Walter is roaring down at him, working out where to kick him next. He lifts his head an inch or two, and moves forward, on his belly, trying to do it without exposing his hands, on which Walter enjoys stamping. “What are you an eel?” his parent asks. He trots backwards, and aims another kick.” Woolf Hall, Harper Collins, 2009.
Mantel said, “My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claim.” Perhaps that is why she uses the present tense in her work.
She goes on to say that when we memorialise the dead we are sometimes desperate for the truth or for a comforting illusion. As a nation, we need to reach into the past for foundation myths of our tribe. We find them in past glories and past grievance, but we seldom find them in cold facts. Nations she says are built on wishful versions of their origins: stories in which our ancestors were giants, of one kind or another.
According to Mantel, we live in a world of romance. Once the romance was about aristocratic connections and secret status, the fantasy of being part of an elite. Now the romance is about deprivation, dislocation, about the distance covered between there and here. The facts have less traction, less influence on what we are and what we do, than the self-built fictions.
Novelists she says are interested in driving new ideas but readers are touchingly loyal to the first history they learn. However, if you’re looking for safety and authority, history is the wrong place to look say Mantel. Any worthwhile history is in a constant state of self-questioning, just as any worthwhile fiction is. If the reader asks the writer, “Have you evidence to back your story?” the answer should be yes: but you hope the reader will be wise to the many kinds of evidence there are, and how they can be used.”
Does writing about the past in the present tense work? As much as I admire both writers I shall be sticking to the past tense in my writing with a bit of present tense thrown in for immediacy when required. As a reader, I find it much easier to read and hold onto the story when it’s written that way. Too much present tense, in my opinion, can end up like listening to the audio-description while you’re watching TV even if the prose is elegant.
Julia Herdman’s debut novel ‘Sinclair‘ is available on Amazon worldwide.
Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar, Fürst von Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein otherwise known simply as Metternich was probably the greatest diplomat of the nineteenth century. As well as being a towering intellectual he seems to have been a very physical man, if not on the field of battle then in the bedchamber. In her book, Dorothea Lieven: A Russian Princess in London and Paris, 1785-1857, Judith Lissauer Cromwell describes him as, “witty and charming, above average height, slim and graceful, “the Adonis of the Drawing Room.” A man with, “fair hair, an aquiline nose, a well-shaped mouth, a high forehead, and piercing blue eyes.”
He served as the Austrian Empire’s Foreign Minister from 1809 and Chancellor from 1821 and was responsible for what historians call ‘The Concert of Europe.” This was not a forerunner of the Eurovision Song contest but a concert in the sense of an arrangement of something by mutual agreement or coordination and the thing he was in charge of arranging was the restoration of Europe to its state before the French Revolution after the defeat of Napoleon. He managed what is called ‘The Congress System’ from 1814 until the liberal revolutions of 1848 finally forced his resignation. But it is not his achievements as a statesman or his politics I am interested in today, it is achievements as a husband, lover, and as one of the most prolific love letter writers in history.
Metternich had three wives, obviously not all at the same time although one suspects he might have managed that if he had had the opportunity he rarely had only one bed to go to at a time. With his first wife, Princess Eleonore von Kaunitz (m. 1795–1825) he had 10 children, with his second wife, Baroness Antoinette Leykam (m. 1827–29) he had one child; and with his third wife, Countess Melanie Zichy-Ferraris (m. 1831–54) he had another five. You would think that was more than enough for any man but Metternich did not stop there. He managed to squeeze in another child with his mistress Katharina Bagration. Princess Marie-Clementine, was born on 29 September 1810 in Vienna and to save face was promptly adopted into the Bagration family in Russia.
At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 Metternich had two mistresses in tow. His long-standing mistress the widow Katharina Bagration and his new love interest the Duchess of Sagan.
Both women ran pro-Russian, anti-Napoleonic salons in the city mainly financed by the Tsar and in the case of Bagration by her besotted but estranged husband until he died from his wounds at the battle of Borodino in 1812. Bagration was known as le bel ange nu “the beautiful nude angel” because she wore low cut dresses with bare shoulders, and la chatte blanche “the white cat” for her white Indian muslin dresses that clung seductively to her body and her wily intelligence. Her influence on the politicians and statesmen who frequented her salon was significant and Napoleon is said to have considered her a formidable opponent.
But by 1815 Bagration’s charms were becoming less beguiling to Metternich. The new woman in his life, Katharina Friederike Wilhelmine Benigna, Princess of Courland, Duchess of Sagan (1781-1839) a German noblewoman from what is today part of Latvia was taking over his affections and attention.
There was intense rivalry between the women who were living in separate wings of the Palm Palace in Vienna in 1815, both the paid guests and informers of Tsar Alexander. This state of affairs was a complication even the greatest diplomat in Europe found hard to manage. “What a detestable complication your residence is in Vienna,” he wrote Sagan but he was not going to give up Sagan. He had been infatuated with her since 1813 and besides she was useful. Over the years he had built up a network of female informants or ‘spies’ who had been his lovers like Caroline Bonaparte, now Queen of Naples and Laure Junot the wife of the French General and Bagration and Sagan would be no different in the end.
Sagan had been perusing Metternich since 1804 when the ambitious young widow’s family moved to Berlin so that she inveigle herself into his affections but he did not fall under her spell then so she remarried only to divorce her new husband a year later saying, “I am ruining myself with husbands.” When their affair began it was intense and Sagan demanded that Metternich divorce his wife and marry her if he wanted to continue. Her demands were brushed aside but the affair continued. While he was in her thrall he wrote Sagan over 600 letters. The letters which were read by the Austrian Secret Police who rightly suspected Sagan of being a Russian spy at the time were lost and remained hidden until 1949. Reading the letters more than 100 years later it is easy to see that Sagan mimicked her lover’s prose, they reflected his opinions back to him, confirmed his conceits and his image as peacemaker and conqueror. In short, she pandered to his enormous ego and he loved it and her much to the Tsar’s delight. In the summer of 1814, the pair fell out. She wrote, “Everything has so completely changed between us that it is not at all astonishing that our thoughts and our sentiments agree on anything. I am beginning to believe that we never really known each other. We were both perusing a phantom.” The break up was acrimonious with Metternich saying as he took to the baths at Baden that they were, ” to arm his skin,” against her.”
Three years later, Metternich began another affair with Princess Dorothea von Lieven (1785 – 1857). Dorothea was a Baltic German noblewoman and wife of Prince Khristofor Andreyevich Lieven, Russian ambassador to London from 1812 to 1834. It seems Metternich had a penchant for aristocratic women from the Baltic, she was the third in succession of Baltic lovers. Cromwell describes Dorothea as a “tall and slender woman, distinguished rather than beautiful, with a strikingly proud bearing.
Dorothea was not an instant success in London and was considered cold and snobbish by London Society. She had a long and elegant neck that earned her the nickname, “the swan” and by those who disliked her, “the giraffe. But her reputation did not bother her she was not after friendship she was after power much like her predecessors Sagan and Bagration and she used her intelligence, charisma, and social skills to make herself a leader of London’s politically infused society. She cultivated friendships with the foremost diplomats of the day. Not only did she become Metternich’s lover she was also reputed to have had an affair with Lord Palmerston, although there is no firm proof of this and she was a close friend of Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, and Lord Grey.
Her hard work paid off and she became a leader of London society; invitations to her home were the most sought after. She was the first foreigner to be elected a patroness of Almack’s, London’s most exclusive social club, where she introduced the scandalous dance, the waltz to England when Tsar Alexander came to London in 1818. It was during that visit the two great lovers first met. They took an instant dislike to one another. She thought he was cold and intimidating and far too self- important. He dismissed her as just a pretty woman travelling in the Tsar’s wake and treated her with complete indifference.
However, at a party hosted by the Dutch Ambassador on 22nd October at Aix-La-Chappelle that year, they found themselves sitting next to each other and she played him for all he was worth drawing him out with questions on his favourite subject; Napoleon; and by indulging his ego and listening to his every word she won him over. The next day she found herself alone in a carriage with the Prince and as they chatted, they found that they had much in common. They were both disappointed in the people they were married to, they hated getting up early in the morning, they liked the same paintings, the same novels, and literature, the same style of furniture – in fact, they were kindred spirits. A few days later, their notorious liaison began with Dorothea concealing her identity by wearing a long cloak and veil in order to enter the Prince’s apartment incognito.
In Metternich Dorothea had found her equal, he was a man she could love wholeheartedly, who could satisfy her physically, emotionally and intellectually. She wrote, “Good God! My love, I know how to rejoice in so few things, do you understand what makes me feel true happiness, it is you, only you! My Clement, if you cease to love me what will become of me? … My dear friend promise to love me as much as I love you; our lives are pledged in this promise.”
In Dorothea Metternich had met the woman of his dreams, she could match his intellect and his passion. She could speak and write in four languages and her wit and intelligence were as sharp as his. He wrote, “My happiness today is you. Your soul is full of common sense your heart is full of warmth … You are as a woman what I am as a man.” “Why are your letters so like mine? Why do you write to me almost the same words I have written to you, and you have the air of knowing them whilst my letter is still in my room? Will such perfect identity of our beings be so complete that the same thought only finds the same expression in each of us, when a word, a single phrase will succeed in expressing what we feel? …. I could write volumes, I could repeat to you a hundred times in one page that I love you.”
Their heated, clandestine, affair soon succumbed to the requirements state. They continued their liaison mainly in letters continuing their physical relationship whenever their paths crossed. Metternich described writing to Dorothea as like speaking to her, or chatting to her as if she were in the room with him because she was ‘in him.’ “You are my last thought before I go to sleep at night and first thought when I awaken,” he wrote.
The pair were tortured by their affair not only because of their separation but also because they both knew that they were married to others and that they could never be together. Dorothea was well aware of Metternich’s reputation with women and called his fidelity to her into question on occasion. In the early years of the affair he chastised her for such thoughts but of course the inevitable happened and she broke off their relationship in 1826 when she found out that he traded her in for a younger woman.
Towards the end of her life, Dorothea burned Metternich’s letters afraid that their intimacy would shock her family and ruin their reputations but she copied sections of his letters into her notebook. In one letter, that survived because it was copied by the French Secret Service, Dorothea writes about a dream she had when she was staying at Lord and Lady Jersey’s house one summer evening. She wrote; “We spoke a great deal, and for fear we would be heard, you took me on your lap so that you could speak to me more quietly; my dear Clement, I heard your heart beating, I felt it under my hand so strongly that I woke up, and it was my own heart reacting to yours. Mr. God, my love, how it still beats at this moment …. will my dream ever become a reality?”
Metternich occupied her imagination from 1818 to the beginning of 1826. By the end she was disillusioned; references to him in letters written after that date, are cold and spiteful and it seems that time did not heal her broken heart. She had nothing good to say about him or his third wife when she saw him in Brighton in 1849 describing him as “slow and tedious” and his wife as “stout and well-mannered.” By then she was the wife in all but name of the French politician Guizot and living in Paris. It was said that even though she was a widow by then she refused to marry Guizot as she would have to give up her title of ‘Serene Highness’ something the proud and regal woman was never going to do. Like her former lover, she was ancien regime through and through.
Dorothea Lieven died peacefully at her home, 2 rue Saint-Florentin, Paris, aged 71, on 27 January 1857, with Guizot and Paul Lieven, one of her two surviving sons, beside her. She was buried, according to her wish, at the Lieven family estate, Mežotne (near Jelgava) next to her two young sons who had died in St. Petersburg. She is a recurring minor figure in many historical novels about the period, notably those of Georgette Heyer. Heyer generally portrays her as a haughty, formidable, and unapproachable leader of society, but in The Grand Sophy she is described as “clever and amusing”, and there is a passing reference in that book to her role in political intrigues.
Metternich died in Vienna two years later on 11 June 1859, aged 86. He was the last great figure of his generation; almost everyone of note in Vienna came to pay tribute at his funeral but in the foreign press his death went virtually unnoticed. Of course ‘the coachman of Europe’ is the topic of much historical discourse. His reactionary political views held sway in Europe for the best part of 35 years and his love affairs were a source of fascination and intrigue throughout the courts of Europe.
Dorothea Lieven: A Russian Princess in London and Paris, 1785-1857 By Judith Lissauer Cromwell
The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics After Napoleon By Brian E. Vick
1815: The Roads to Waterloo By Gregor Dallas
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42 Also available on:
Amazon New Zealand
Amazon South Africa
Also on Smashwords
The landscaped park was a British style which would influence gardens throughout Europe from the 18th century onwards.
The style at a glance:
- Informal layout designed as a classical Arcadia
- Lakes created to reflect the landscape as well as for recreation
- Cascades add drama and animation to the scene
- Temples, grottoes and follies doubled up as tea rooms, and viewing towers
- Clumps and shelter belts to provide shelter and privacy to the park
- Shrubberies planted with the newly introduced exotics from abroad
- The Ha-ha, an invisible boundary to keep livestock away from the house
- Circuit walks taking you on a tour around the park
It drew inspiration from paintings of landscapes by Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. The new style that became known as the English garden was invented by landscape designers William Kent and Charles Bridgeman, working for wealthy patrons, including Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham, Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, and banker Henry Hoare; men who had large country estates, were members of the anti-royalist Whig Party, had classical educations, were patrons of the arts, and had taken the Grand Tour to Italy, where they had seen the Roman ruins and Italian landscapes they reproduced in their gardens.
William Kent (1685–1748) was an architect, painter and furniture designer who introduced Palladian style architecture to England. Kent’s inspiration came from Palladio’s buildings in the Veneto and the landscapes and ruins around Rome—he lived in Italy from 1709 to 1719, and brought back many drawings of antique architecture and landscapes. His gardens were designed to complement the Palladian architecture of the houses he built. Charles Bridgeman (1690–1738) was the son of a gardener and an experienced horticulturist, who became the Royal Gardener for Queen Anne and Prince George of Denmark, responsible for tending and redesigning the royal gardens at Windsor, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court, St. James’s Park and Hyde Park. He collaborated with Kent on several major gardens, providing the botanical expertise which allowed Kent to realise his architectural visions.
Kent created one of the first true English landscape gardens at Chiswick House for Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington. The first gardens that he laid out between 1724 and 1733 had many formal elements of a Garden à la française, including alleys forming a trident and canals, but they also featured something novel: a picturesque recreation of an Ionic temple set in a theatre of trees. Between 1733 and 1736, he redesigned the garden, adding lawns sloping down to the edge of the river and a small cascade. For the first time the form of a garden was inspired not by architecture, but by an idealised version of nature.
Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, (1730–1738), was an even more radical departure from the formal French garden. In the early 18th century, Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham, had commissioned Charles Bridgeman to design a formal garden, with architectural decorations by John Vanbrugh. Bridgeman’s design included an octagonal lake and a Rotunda (1720–21) designed by Vanbrugh Stowe is frequently used as a setting for TV dramas and films. Here are just a few scenes filmed at Stowe Park:
Illustrations: Ryan O’Neal in Barry Lyndon (1975), Keira Knightly in Pride and Prejudice (2005),
Film director, Amma-Asante and Star Gugu Mbatha-Raw filming Belle (2013).
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29 Also available on:
Amazon New Zealand
Amazon South Africa
When I think of May Day I think either of Maypoles, Morris Dancing and the Jack in the Green or the old Soviet military processions in Red Square.
The origins of May Day stretch back into the mists of time. In the late Middle Ages people in England started to dance around a Maypole (a pole with no ribbons) as a celebration of Spring and to encourage fertility in the soil and people. This was banned by the Puritans but came back with the Restoration in 1660 and has remained with us ever since – the Victorians added the ribbons.
By the seventeenth century England was on the long march to modernity and urban living and London was well on the way to being the first great modern city in the world so May Day in London had nothing to do with May Poles or flowers. It was one of a number of days of the year; Shrove Tuesday, Ascension Day, Midsummer and St Bartholomew’s Day; when disorder reigned. Between 1603 and 1642 Shrove Tuesday riots involved apprentice boys attacking brothels, bawdy houses and playhouses to reduce temptation during Lent! In the same period there were eight May Day riots. The attacks on bawdy houses seem to peter out after the Restoration and the nature of May Day and other celebration days changes again.
In the late seventeenth century there is evidence of what are called ‘ridings’ in London and other towns. In a ‘riding’ those who are viewed to have transgressed the sexual morality of the day were harangued in the street by the mod who beat their pots and pans and shouted at the tops of their voices in what was called ‘rough music.’ In June 1664 a woman appeared before a magistrate in Middlesex accused of following a woman down the street shouting, ‘whore, whore’ and clapping her hands. She was joined by others and soon there was a riot. On May Day those who were deemed to have offended their community were spat on, had dirt and stones thrown at them as well as the contents of chamber pots. In London the haranguing husbands who had beaten or cheated on their wives was particularly popular as was terrorising brothel keepers and the mothers of illegitimate children.
Historian Charles Pythian-Adams has argued that during the eighteenth century May Day celebrations in London were transformed. The population of the city was becoming socially segregated with the rich withdrawing from popular or plebeian activities, but this notion leaves out the growing urban middle class and the effects of growing religious non-conformity. As the eighteenth century progressed so did social separation (both class and gender) but it was not exclusively the elites separating themselves from the poor, the middle class were able to buy their way into urban elite culture, they may not have had a box at the theatre but they could have a seat in the stalls; and as for the poor they separated into those who chose the strictures of religious non-conformity (no pagan rituals) over the perceived laxity of the established church were certain pagan rituals were accepted. This new urban culture was not conducive to what we think of as May Day traditions and its celebration or marking lapsed until it was re-invented and sanitised by the Victorians who gave us children holding ribbons and dancing round the May Pole in the Board School yard.
Source: The Eighteenth-Century Town: A Reader in English Urban History 1688-1820, By Peter Borsay, Routledge 2013
Illustration: Country Dances round a Maypole (decorative painting for a supper-box at Vauxhall Gardens, London), Francis Hayman (1708–1776), Victoria and Albert Museum.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29 Also available on:
Amazon New Zealand
Amazon South Africa