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

Author(s): Vic Gatrell


This is the colourful, salacious and sumptuously illustrated story of Covent Garden - the creative heart of Georgian London - from Wolfson Prize-winning author Vic Gatrell. It is shortlisted for the hessell tiltman prize 2014. In the teeming, disordered, and sexually charged square half-mile centred on London's Covent Garden something extraordinary evolved in the eighteenth century. It was the world's first creative 'Bohemia'. The nation's most significant artists, actors, poets, novelists, and dramatists lived here. From Soho and Leicester Square across Covent Garden's Piazza to Drury Lane, and down from Long Acre to the Strand, they rubbed shoulders with rakes, prostitutes, market people, craftsmen, and shopkeepers. It was an often brutal world full of criminality, poverty and feuds, but also of high spirits, and an intimacy that was as culturally creative as any other in history. Virtually everything that we associate with Georgian culture was produced here.


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An irresistible history, fizzing with life -- Philip Pullman Observer BOOKS OF THE YEAR Gatrell's love for this dangerous but brilliant age is matched by his expert knowledge of its culture, both high and low -- Dan Jones Daily Telegraph HISTORIES OF THE YEAR A rich and surprising book ... a sumptuous Christmas treat -- Dominic Sandbrook Sunday Times HISTORY BOOKS OF THE YEAR Could be bought for its illustrations alone -- Francis Wilson Times Literary Supplement BOOKS OF THE YEAR Compelling ... scholarly and bawdy -- Tristram Hunt Mail on Sunday BOOKS OF THE YEAR A gorgeously engrossing book, bracingly sceptical of received pieties ... combines scholarship with originality, colour and imagination to a rare degree ... Boozy, arty and sexually charged, Covent Garden in the mid-1700s surges spectacularly into life in this engrossing history ... As well as recording Covent Garden's buzz and buoyancy, Gatrell aims to alter how we think about 18th-century painting. Our automatic association of it with Reynolds's or Gainsborough's flattering society portraits or with nymph-ridden neoclassical allegories is, he thinks, a mistake, and he quotes approvingly Johnson's declaration that he would rather see a portrait of a dog he knew than all the allegorical paintings in the world. Against Reynolds and his Royal Academicians Gatrell pits the realists, who drew or painted the street life of workaday Londoners ... They provide the most memorable images in Gatrell's book, not just familiar masterpieces such as Hogarth's glowingly wholesome Shrimp Girl, but sketches he has retrieved from obscurity - an exhausted washerwoman slumped in a chair, a ballet dancer lying flat on a table to ease her legs, a carter leaning over the side of his cart to kiss his sweetheart -- John Carey Sunday Times Welcome to Vic Gatrell's London ... [His] brilliant account ... brings it all to life: the site of Dirty Lane where passers-by defecated; the stench of smoke, horses, humans, dead fish and offal; and the sound of "the melodious clank of marrow bone and cleaver" with which the Covent Garden butchers welcomed George I's coronation in 1714 ... Gatrell's scholarly career has been a sustained attempt to recapture Georgian London from Victorian prudery ... In its sweep of visual arts, social history, literary criticism and bawdy culture [The First Bohemians] provides a superb chronicle of a golden age of authentic, urban creativity -- Tristram Hunt Sunday Times Gatrell's book does [his subject] justice in all the right ways. It is beautifully produced - from the sumptuous, almost three-dimensional dust jacket to the more than 200 illustrations sprinkled liberally throughout the text ... The great joy of the book is how effortlessly and continuously his narrative and pictures illuminate one another ... It is a tour de force of social and pictorial history that few living historians could match ... a new kind of deeply social and more democratic history of artistic production ... Ultimately, though it rests on serious scholarship, The First Bohemians is ... a relaxed, confident and triumphantly successful re-creation of a fascinating world of male companionship, drunkenness, poverty, sex and art -- Faramerz Dabhoiwala Guardian Colourful ... entertaining ... Gatrell does a fine job of tracing how the scurrilous behaviour of London's residents often inspired some of the finest works of art and literature ... the richness of detail makes The First Bohemians a pleasure to read ... his enthusiasm feels infectious Economist Gatrell's richly documented (and wonderfully illustrated) study ... [shows] how an unconventional way of looking at the world - vivid, unpretentious and often richly comic - eventually found its way to the heart of our culture, and we are richer for it ... This book is, at its heart, more concerned with the history of art, and what might be called the history of public taste, than with social history. Gatrell deftly sketches the long-running conflict between two different approaches to painting in 18th-century England: the "high" school of the Royal Academicians, with its emphasis on noble history paintings, mythical scenes and grand Italianate landscapes, and the "low" school of Hogarth and his admirers, which drew on the Dutch tradition of portraying ordinary life in vivid domestic detail ... And while the "low" school never won the contest for prestige, it did produce a transformation of taste, teaching the English to take pleasure in local landscapes and the portrayal of simple human pleasures. In what is perhaps the finest section of the book, Gatrell shows how the great comic artist Thomas Rowlandson played a key part in this change -- Noel Malcolm Sunday Telegraph Gatrell argues persuasively that it was their proximity to this mayhem that made the artists and writers in 18th century Covent Garden so vivid and exciting ... [He] proves a dab hand at recreating the blazing furnace of 18th century Covent Garden ... Gatrell is a natural iconoclast -- Craig Brown Mail on Sunday Gatrell is terrific company. He praises 18th-century writing for propelling us 'niftily to the point' and his own his prose performs the same trick ... The First Bohemians is generously, often ingeniously, illustrated and Gatrell's pithy commentary on the prints and pictures can be scathing ... Pleasure, particularly through misbehaviour, is one of Gatrell's great interests. His last book, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in 18th-Century London ... was generally proclaimed a masterpiece, and in The First Bohemians - also destined to be loaded with prizes - he returns to the 'importance', 'necessity' and 'truthtelling' of satire, the 18th century's mental health check -- Francis Wilson New Statesman [A] marvellous book ... exhilarating, richly illustrated and witty Financial Times This is dense, ripely enjoyable social history -- Peter Conrad Observer Gatrell's evocation of taverns, bagnios and alleys is compelling. He has a lovely eye for shadows in paintings and how they indicate time of day; he has a lively eye for sympathies in sketches. Butchers, bawds, rakes, tradesmen, sailors, fruit-sellers, fruit-buyers, tailors, cooks, pie-men, aristocrats, oilmen, coalmen, stay-makers, bookbinders, button-sellers and dozens of others are particularised fleetingly from crowds. Exact topography makes it clear how jostle and juxtaposition brought all sorts of people together. Decent dealings get an occasional look-in; the possibility of clean, calm and sunny moments is conceded. ... for all its zest for sensual assault, [The First Bohemians] engages with the unwashed great in illuminating scholarship -- Clare Brant Times Higher Education

Vic Gatrell's last book, City of Laughter won both the Wolfson Prize for History and the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize; his The Hanging Tree won the Whitfield Prize of the Royal Historical Society. He is a Life Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge.

General Fields

  • : 9780718195830
  • : Penguin Books Ltd
  • : Penguin Books Ltd
  • : May 2014
  • : 198mm X 129mm
  • : United Kingdom
  • : July 2014
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : Vic Gatrell
  • : Paperback
  • : 1
  • : 942.1
  • : 512
  • : Illustrations (black and white, and colour)