London defined by what made it laugh

Times Staff Writer

IN the hands of historians, humor is no laughing matter.

South African-born Vic Gatrell is one of Britain’s leading historians, and in “City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London” he uses more than 300 satiric prints -- most of them in color and from the British Museum’s collection -- to build a portrait of what then was the world’s most vibrant and important city. It also was the historical moment in which what we now call the Age of Reason was giving way to the forces that would produce our modern world.

It was, in other words, what we conveniently call “a pivotal era,” though the mechanical image suggests an inevitability at war with the contingent, even antic, quality of real history.

Gatrell is too fine a historian and too close and scrupulous a reader of his source material ever to succumb to the cheap image. In fact, it’s precisely his avid embrace of complexity that leads him to examine late Georgian London through a graphic window smudged with implication. Between 1770 and 1830, as many as 20,000 satiric engraved prints were produced and sold through the city’s bookstores, often in editions running into the hundreds. Most of the purchasers were members of the upper classes -- the prince of Wales was both a particular target and an enthusiastic collector -- but the prints were displayed in shop windows and widely passed around and discussed in taverns and coffeehouses, where a growing middle class congregated. About half the surviving images have political themes; the rest are unnervingly frank and -- in that other sense -- graphic depictions of sex and bodily functions rendered in as Rabelaisian -- and often mean-spirited -- a fashion as mere ink can communicate.

As Gatrell describes them, “most commented on current gossip and scandal manners, fashions and sexual relations with more or less acerbity. Some were joke-sheets rather than satires properly speaking -- genially relishing life’s comedies, the pleasures and vexations of London living, or the quiddities of personality, fashion, sex or class. Others were darker, crueler and more cynical images -- malicious, misanthropic or misogynistic.”

Thus, chapters have such titles as “Lady Worsley’s Bottom,” “The Libertine’s Last Fling,” “Bums, Farts and Other Transgressions” and “What Could Women Bear” (hint, hint: Fashionable 18th century gowns exposed the breasts).


It’s precisely the offense these images gave -- and still give -- to what has come to be regarded as propriety that caused so evocative a visual archive to be neglected. “Just as Joshua Reynolds’s ‘Discourses’ dismissed [William] Hogarth for addressing ‘low subjects,’ ” Gatrell points out, “so a century later John Ruskin’s ‘Modern Painters,’ having applauded George Cruikshank’s ‘influence over the popular mind’ and ‘stern understanding of the nature of evil,’ still thought his work beneath any ‘more dignified, or even more intrinsically meritorious, branch of art.’ Artistic hierarchies remain jealously defended, and comic or satirical art is still generally excluded from them.... To say that pictures form a point of peculiar friction and discomfort across a broad range of intellectual inquiry is to put it mildly.”

Gatrell is fearless of such boundaries. His previous book, “The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868,” was a much praised exploration of how people of that period experienced public executions and of what they meant to them. As ceremonies of public humiliation, foreshadowing our own era’s tabloids and culture of celebrity, the more savage of these 18th century prints are not all that dissimilar from a public execution. (Those attacking Horatio Nelson’s mistress, Lady Hamilton, are particularly brutal, as are those directed at the duke of Queensbury, a notorious and rather ridiculous libertine. Politicians, like William Pitt the Younger, often resorted to bribery to dissuade engravers from further satires.)

American understanding

This latest book of Gatrell’s drew enthusiastic reviews when it was published in Britain two months ago. American readers may find it slightly more difficult going, though ultimately rewarding. There are two reasons for this:

One has to do with the humor itself. As the author writes in his introduction, “This book is about the stories, jokes and satirical exposures that later Georgian English people found funny. It is about the rise and fall of a great tradition of ridicule and of the satirical and humorous prints that sustained it. It focuses not on the polished wit upon which the politer people prided themselves, but on their malicious, sardonic and satirical humor: a peculiarly English humor.”

We all know what that means.

The other reason has to do with the peculiarly American attitude concerning people of the late 18th century. That’s the era in which both the reality and myth of this nation’s creation is essentially situated. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution are, in many ways, supreme expressions of the Age of Reason’s dispassionate humanity -- its high tradition, if you will. Reverence for them is what our people have instead of an established church. For Americans, the Georgian sensibility is always suggestive of the productively high-minded and of a refined and civil elegance.

The fact that high and low coexisted in the minds and behaviors of actual Georgians is a bit of a leap for us. So too is an appreciation of these engravings, which are at once an expression of an extraordinarily refined visual facility and a ribald, often vicious temperament. The city that produced them -- and whose life is the real subject of Gatrell’s book -- is similarly exotic terrain. Late Georgian London was a teeming and vibrant place, home to 10% of the country’s people, ground zero for its aristocratic politics and its striving, though still fragile, middle class.

William Blake prowled its alleys and found oppressive alienation: “In every cry of every man / In every infant’s cry of fear / In every voice, in every ban, / The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.”

James Boswell, on the other hand, strolled its streets and observed a place in which every man “may in some degree be whatever character they choose to be.”

It was the same place, of course, the same mixture of high and low, the same blend of want and opportunity. It was our world struggling to be born, and Gatrell has given us a vibrant album of its strange snapshots.