Cultural history

The Pillars of Hercules is the ancient name given to the mountains that flank the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar (Gibraltar in Europe and Monte Hacho in Africa). It has its origin in Greek mythology. To accomplish his tenth labour, Hercules had to journey to the end of the world. Eurystheus ordered the hero to bring him the Cattle of Geryon. On his way to the island of Erytheia, Hercules had to cross the massive mountain that was once Atlas. Instead of climbing the obstacle, he decided to use his strength to smash it. Hercules split it in half using his indestructible mace or club. By doing so, he connected the Atlantic with the Mediterranean and formed the Strait of Gibraltar.

The Pillars of Hercules is an appropriate name for a public house located in Greek Street. Soho has at various times attracted waves of immigrants. Many of the former grand buildings were split up in multiple dwellings in order to give room to those who could only afford cheap residences. Greek Street is just one reminder of the many people who were forced to make London their new home. The public house was built around 1910, but the original tavern dates back to 1733. The establishment is mentioned in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and the road at the side of the pub through the arch is named Manette Street, after Dr Mannette, one of the characters from the story. From the eighteenth century onwards artists and writers, attracted by the cosmopolitan flavour of the area, flocked into Soho.

One of them was Giacomo Casanova. He stayed in Greek Street during a period in his life that he was beset by money troubles. He had arrived in London on the afternoon of 13 June 1763. It was his first visit to the city, and his first port of call there was Soho. Carlisle House in Soho Square was the home of Teresa Imer, Casanova’s childhood friend and the mother of his ten-year-old daughter, Sophia. The last time Casanova had seen Teresa had been in Holland in the winter of 1758/9 when she had been a penniless singer. In the intervening four years she had turned her life around. Using the pseudonym of Mrs Cornelys she had become London’s leading music impresario. She received him in a cool and distant manner. He would never forgive Teresa afterwards for the off-hand way she treated him.

Whilst in Soho, Casanova became besotted by a young courtesan. French-born Marianne de Charpillon lived in Denmark Street with her Swiss mother and other women who specialized in robbing men of their money. From the moment she met Casanova, she tormented him. No matter what gifts he lavished on her, she refused to have sex with him. Deeply frustrated Casanova resorted to violence, for which Marianne had him arrested. He took his revenge by teaching a parrot to say, ‘Miss Charpillon is more of a whore than her mother’ and putting it on sale at the Royal Exchange in the City. Casanova had never been rejected by any woman in that manner, and the experience damaged his self-confidence as a lover. In Marianne de Charpillon, the seducer had met his nemesis.

Casanova’s presence in London would have an interesting follow-on in the history of publishing in the capital. Modernist poet John Rodker, son of a Jewish immigrant corset-maker from Poland, was one of the ‘Whitechapel Boys’, a group of artists who met together in the pre-war period in the area around Whitechapel Art Gallery. A conscientious objector during the war, he had been on the run before being arrested in April 1917, imprisoned, and then transferred to the Home Office Work Centre at Dartmoor. In 1919 he started the Ovid Press, a private press which lasted about a year. It published T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (the first edition of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley) and portfolios of drawings by Wyndham Lewis and others. That same year Rodker took over from Pound as foreign editor of the New York magazine The Little Review. While working in Paris in 1922 on the second printing of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Rodker met his future mother-in-law, the literary translator Ludmila Savitzky. Together, Rodker and Pound persuaded Savitzky to translate Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man into French where it appeared under the title Dedalus in 1924. Back in London, he established the Casanova Society. Beginning in 1923 the Society issued expensive limited editions of classical literature in newly commissioned translations by Arthur Machen, E. Powys Mathers, and others, including Casanova’s steamy erotic memoirs.

Poet and opium addict Francis Thompson was for many years a London vagrant. There is a story relating the fact that one night in 1888 Thompson, destitute and drunk, had collapsed in the doorway of the Pillars of Hercules where he was rescued by Wilfred Meynell, the man who later would take care of the publication of the poet’s work. The story is likely to be inaccurate, but it typifies Thompson’s life style. From a devout (convert) Catholic background, Francis Thompson was trained as a doctor but never practiced and moved to London instead. He arrived with literary ambitions. In the capital he was reduced to selling matches and newspapers for a living. By this stage, Francis was already a drug addict. His interest in opium seems to have been the result of reading Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater given to him by his mother for his eighteenth birthday. Opium, particularly in the form of laudanum, would have been easily available to Thompson, both in his father’s clinic and in college. It was also legally obtainable from pharmacists. In London he attempted suicide, slept rough under the arches at Charing Cross, lived for a while with a prostitute who gave him lodgings and shared her income with him. Though he never revealed her name, Thompson was later to describe her in his poetry as his saviour. But she disappeared one day and never returned.

In February 1887, Wilfred Meynell, editor of Merry England, a Catholic literary monthly magazine, received some untidy manuscripts, accompanied by the following covering letter:

Dear Sir,

In enclosing the accompanying article for your inspection, I must ask pardon for the soiled state of the manuscript. It is due, not to slovenliness, but to the strange places and circumstances under which it has been written … I enclose a stamped envelope for a reply … regarding your judgement of its worthlessness as quite final … Apologizing very sincerely for my intrusion on your valuable time, I remain, Yours with little hope,

Francis Thompson
Kindly address your rejection to the Charing Cross Post Office.

The parcel included the moving poem ‘The Passion of Mary’. All attempts to trace the author failed, until Thompson noticed that one of his poems had been published in Merry England. Meynell’s hope that the author after publication would reveal himself, proved correct. One day in the spring of 1888, a man in ragged clothes, looking aged and ill, presented himself at his office. It was Francis Thompson. The meeting with husband and wife Meynell marked the beginning of a creative period in Thompson’s life. The Meynells watched over their prodigy. On more than one occasion they arranged for him to time in a monastery as a means to overcome his opium addiction. The first of these extended retreats was at the Norbertine monastery of Storrington in 1889, during which period, Thompson composed his most enduring poem, the autobiographical ‘Hound of Heaven’ that tells of God, who does not abandon, but pursues the most wayward soul. During the last period of his life, he was to produce three volumes of poetry.

More recently, the Pillars of Hercules was favoured by a number of notable figures from the London literary scene, including Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan. Poet and critic Ian Hamilton lived a bohemian life in Soho, his office was an anteroom to the Pillars, his ‘Mermaid’s Tavern’. During the 1970s the Pillars became the ‘outer office and club room’ of the literary magazine The New Review (based next door at no.11) which was edited by Hamilton. The title of a testimonial collection of work Another Round at the Pillars pays tribute to the house where Hamilton was known as the ‘Gaffer’. Until the closure of the magazine, he introduced many young writers and for a while, the New Review group dominated London literature which drew occasional accusations of a ‘literary mafia’. The second collection of literary essays by Clive James, entitled At the Pillars of Hercules, was first published by Faber and Faber in 1979. The title indicates that most of the pieces within it were delivered or written at the tavern. James was most likely not aware of the fact that the title of his collection was not an original one. In fact, the same title had been used over a century previously.

David Urquhart was a Scottish-born diplomat and author who had been educated in France, Switzerland and Spain. In 1827 he joined the Greeks in their War of Independence. He spent many years as a diplomat in Constantinople. In England, he was an outspoken opponent of Lord Palmerston’s foreign policy. The action of England in the Crimean War provoked his indignant protest. To expose the government, he founded the Free Press in 1855 (in 1866 renamed the Diplomatic Review), which numbered Karl Marx among its contributors. However, he is remembered for quite a different achievement: Urquhart introduced the idea of hot-air Turkish baths into Great Britain. Previously, Turkish baths had been associated with prostitution. By the middle of the eighteenth century Soho and Covent Garden were full of seedy lodging houses and an astonishing number of Turkish baths, most of which were brothels. John Fielding, the magistrate, called Covent Garden ‘the great square of Venus’. Urquhart however advocated their medical use in the Pillars of Hercules (1850). Irish physician Richard Barter had started experimenting with water and hot air therapy during the cholera epidemic of 1832. Unlike many early hydropaths (hydrotherapy was once called hydropathy), Barter continually experimented with hot waters, finally opening a luxurious Turkish bath in 1856, modelled on those that had been described by David Urquhart.


O’Connell Street is Dublin’s main thoroughfare. Up till 1924 it was known as Sackville Street, after which the street was renamed in honour of nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell whose statue stands at the lower end of the street, facing the river and O’Connell Bridge.

In 1935 Gogarty published his first prose work, As I Was Going Down Sackville Street  (subtitled ‘A Phantasy in Fact’), a semi-fictional memoir that tells, in reverse chronological order, the story of Gogarty’s Dublin through a series of interconnected anecdotes and characters sketches. Oliver Joseph St John Gogarty was an Irish poet, a nationalist politician (one of the founding members of Sinn Féin in 1905), and a surgeon who served as the inspiration for the character of Buck Mulligan in James Joyce’s Ulysses.


Young Gogarty was a talented cyclist. In 1901, however, he was banned from the tracks for using bad language. Cycling used to be a sport for gentlemen. At Trinity, he developed his interested in literature and poetry, making the acquaintance of W.B. Yeats and George Moore, and forming a friendship with the up-and-coming James Joyce. In the summer of 1904, Gogarty made arrangements to rent the famous Martello Tower in Sandycove with the ambitious plan of housing ‘the Bard’ (i.e. the pennyless James Joyce).


Joyce stayed there briefly before leaving abruptly. Joyce was never convinced about the sincerity of Gogarty’s motives. Gogarty made use of the Martello Tower during the following year as a writing retreat and party venue.  Between 1916 and 1918 Gogarty published three small volumes of poetry and an equal number of plays all performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Most of his output dates from the 1920s and 1930s. In 1924 he published An Offering of Swans followed in1929 by another book of verse, Wild Apples. This was followed in 1933 by Selected Poems.

Gogarty’s name appeared in print as the renegade priest Fr. Oliver Gogarty in George Moore’s 1905 novel The Lake. Dublin remembers this son of the city in another (typical) manner. Designed in late nineteenth century style the Oliver St John Gogarty Bar is located in the heart of Temple Bar.



New Grub Street is a novel by George Gissing published in 1891, which is set in the London literary and journalistic circles of the 1880s.

Until the early nineteenth century, Grub Street was a street close to Moorfields, one of the last pieces of open land in the City of London. After the 1666 Fire of London, refugees from the calamity evacuated to Moorfields and set up temporary camps there. In the early eighteenth century, Moorfields was the site of open-air markets, shows, and auctions. Homes nearby Moorfields were places of the poor, and the area had a reputation for harbouring highwaymen in hiding from the law. The area was notorious for soliciting prostitutes and cruising gay men. Much of Moorfields was built over in 1777, when Finsbury Square was developed; the remainder followed soon after.

Grub Street became famous for its concentration of poor hack writers, aspiring poets, and low-end publishers and booksellers. It was pierced along its length with narrow entrances to alleys and courts, many of which retained the names of early signboards. Its bohemian society was set amidst the neighbourhood’s low-rent apartments, brothels, and coffeehouses. According to Samuel Johnson (who had lived and worked himself on Grub Street early in his career) in his Dictionary the street was inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems – ‘whence any mean production is called grubstreet’. The street name no longer exists, but Grub Street is still used as a pejorative term writings of low literary value. In fact, the name had already disappeared when Gissing published his novel. However, hack-writing certainly persisted. In the novel, the author contrasts the careers of two central characters a pair of writers: Edwin Reardon, a shy but talented novelist with limited commercial prospects; and Jasper Milvain, an ambitious but unscrupulous young journalist with cynical views about the craft and value of writing.


There’s no punishing or shaming
Certain people out of gaming;
’Tis among the plagues that ravage
Countries civilized and savage,
In its blind, impartial rage
Sparing neither sex nor age.
Henry Luttrell, 1827
Crockford House (Cantos II)

Gambling is the wagering of a stake on a competitive event with the intent of winning money. Typically, the outcome of a bet is known within a short period. Chinese culture has been the home of gambling, but games like craps, baccarat, roulette and black jack all originated in Europe. In addition to these games betting took place on a variety of spectator sports such as dog-fighting, bear-baiting, cock-fighting, boxing, and even cricket.

Speculation is often associated with gambling although there is a significant difference. Gambling is investing money in a short term game of chance with a high probability of losing the stake. Speculators take a longer term view based upon on an assessment of risk. However, there have been numerous occasions in economic history when speculative ventures turned out to be little more than mindless gambling. The story of the tulip has been told many times. Complementing the craze for curiosities, tulips were displayed in Wunderkammers. Each rare flower was exhibited like a work of art. The tulip became an object of wild speculation until the market crashed in late 1637. That collapse did not spell an end to the flower mania.

In the early eighteenth century another craze manifested itself, this time for hyacinths. They, too, reached astronomical prices on the open market. In 1720 Het groote tafereel der dwaasheid (The Great Scene of Folly) was published in Amsterdam. This folio volume is a collection of seventy-six engraved satirical prints and literary pieces which all concern the so-called South-Sea Bubble, the boom and subsequent crash of the stock market in that year, hitting France, England (Isaac Newton lost £20,000 in the crash), and the Netherlands. Each particular issue of Het groote tafereel is unique, cobbled together on demand by an unknown Amsterdam printer. It is astonishing that this publication was compiled and released in the few months following the financial collapse in September. Interestingly, the collection also includes a deck of playing cards. In England in particular there had been a tradition of publishing packs of specially illustrated cards to commemorate the reign of monarchs or specific events and sceneries.

In 1672, London mapmaker Robert Morden created a pack of playing cards with an image of the fifty-two counties (the exact number of cards in a pack) of England and Wales. The earliest politically motivated pack was produced in 1679 to commemorate the (fictitious) Popish Plot. In 1688, the Glorious Revolution was celebrated in a deck of cards containing reminders of James’s cruel reign, such as the murder of the Earl of Essex and the hanging of Protestant rebels. The tradition of issuing topical cards is maintained to this very day.

After being introduced into Europe by Arabs, playing cards have been around since the 1370s. The anonymous Master of the Playing Cards was active as an artist in the Rhineland from the 1430s to the 1450s. He is the first recognizable personality in the history of engraving. Over a hundred of his works have been recorded. They include a set of playing cards in five suits, copper-engraved and uncoloured, from which he takes his name. They were most likely intended as models for use in workshops. Playing cards such as these served as repositories for design motifs to be used by other artists. Craftsmen throughout the medieval period worked from sketch-book models which were copied time after time, so that images spread from master to pupil. The designs were inspired by written texts. Plants from the herbal, beasts from the bestiary, birds and insects from the Books of Hours, created a semiotic language based upon the everyday world of popular belief and proverbial wisdom. The same figures recur into the border decorations and miniature illustrations of manuscripts or printed books from the same period.

Spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds were taken from French decks of cards and did not emerge until later. They represented the four perceived classes in society, i.e. nobility, clergy, merchants, and peasants. Cards were used for games and gambling. They also provided a new way of telling fortunes. Prohibitions of card playing and denunciations by preachers demonstrate that the passion for the game was widespread. It was a pastime that attracted card sharps and gamblers. Cheating at cards has been delightfully depicted in paintings by Caravaccio, Gerard van Honthorst, Hendrick ter Brugghen, Georges de La Tour, and others. In our own time, several films have been inspired by the same subject.

The game of cards and its players has been a recurrent theme in the history of painting. From the works attributed (with reservations) to Lucas van Leyden in the sixteenth, to that of Rombouts, Teniers, Terborch or Jan Steen in the seventeenth, to Dumesnier and Chardin in the eighteenth, to Meissonier and Millais in the nineteenth, to Cézanne’s series of card playing Provence peasants of the early 1890s, to paintings by Theo van Doesburg and Ferdinand Léger in the twentieth century (to mention but a few masters of their art), they were all intrigued by the same topic. From the outset, artists have been fascinated by gaming, gambling and cheating.

In the course of the sixteenth century English inns had begun to serve one meal a day at a common table at a fixed time and price. The meal was called the ordinary and the eating places generally began to be named ordinaries. During the seventeenth century many of these ordinaries were turned into fashionable clubs and gambling resorts. Of Locket’s ordinary at Spring Gardens, Westminster, no representation has been preserved. Adam Locket, the founder of the house, lived until about 1688, and was succeeded by his son Edward who was at the head of affairs until 1702. During that period, Locket’s was the resort of the ‘smart set’.

One of the regulars in Locket’s was wealthy dramatist and diplomat George Etherege. In 1660, young George composed his comedy The Comical Revenge or Love in a Tub. The success of this play was enormous. After a long silence, he wrote the 1676 play The Man of Mode or Sir Fopling Flutter, arguably the most sophisticated comedy of manners written in English. The play had the additional attraction of satirizing known London characters. Fopling Flutter was a portrait of Beau Hewit, in Dorimant the public recognized the Earl of Rochester, and in Medley the author drew an image of himself (or maybe fellow playwright Charles Sedley). Etherege remained a regular customer at Locket’s. His passion for gambling was well known. In his ‘Song on Basset’ he celebrated a card game that had been introduced to England in 1677. Apparently the game (bassetta) had been invented by a noble Venetian, who was punished with exile for the contrivance. In France, the game was prohibited by Louis XIV in 1691. It continued being played in England where in a relatively short period of time it impoverished many families. Having learned basset at the London house of Hortense Mancini, Duchesse Mazarin, French mistress of Charles II, Etherege became one of its victims. Gambling deprived him of his fortune. He stopped writing and went in search of a rich widow.

Various forms of gambling were a feature of eighteenth century London life. Gambling gained wider popularity during the last two decades of the century, especially with the arrival of French émigrés fleeing the Revolution. It was given additional impetus with the cessation of hostilities in Europe in 1815. The heart of London’s gambling was St James’s Street in the West End. By the late 1820s the street was the site of four leading gentlemen’s clubs, White’s, Brooks’s, Boodle’s and Crockford’s, where gambling was pursued in varying degrees. William Crockford was the son of an East End fishmonger. By the mid-1820s, he obtained the lease to a building on the west side of the street, where he set up a so-called gambling ‘hell’. After acquiring the leases to three adjacent buildings, he razed all four and set about building a palatial gentlemen’s club devoted to gambling. It was dubbed ‘Pandemonium’, the name invented by John Milton at the end of the first book of Paradise Lost (1667) for the capital of Hell that was built by the fallen angels at the suggestion of Mammon.

Crockford’s opened in January 1828. Architect Benjamin Wyatt had modeled the club’s neoclassical design on the palace of Versailles. The cost of construction and furnishings was phenomenal. Membership to the club was limited. Among its members were the Duke of Wellington, the acknowledged leader of English society, as well as a host of other aristocrats such as Lord Alvanley, Bentinck, and Chesterfield. There were distinguished foreigners like the Count d’Orsay, Prince Paul Esterhazy, Prince Lieven, Louis Napoleon and Talleyrand; and fashionable authors such as Edward Bulwer, Benjamin Disraeli, and Theodore Hook. Vast sums of money followed the fall of the dice or the facing of a card. The house was in name operated by a management committee, but in reality the show was run by Crockford alone. With his Cockney accent and corpulent appearance, he presented himself as a humble servant to his privileged clientele. He retired in 1840, an extremely rich man.

During the Georgian, Regency and Victorian periods, gambling was endemic among the English upper classes. Beau Brummel and the Count d’Orsay had to flee to France when their gambling debts got too high. Young Charles James Fox, the future politician, would stay up for days gambling, drinking coffee to stay awake. At one point Fox’s father, Lord Holland, paid off almost £140,000 in gambling debts which freed Fox to go off and make new ones. Lord Byron’s daughter Ada, Countess of Lovelace, tried to use her mathematical talent to devise a system that would enable her to beat the odds at horseracing. She piled up large debts.

Members of the Royal family were also involved in gambling. Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, got caught in a gambling brawl known as the Royal Baccarat Scandal. On 8 September 1890, the Prince spent the evening at Tranby Croft, the county estate of shipbuilder Sir Arthur Wilson. The guests played baccarat, an illegal gambling game which was a favourite of Edward. Present at the table was Scottish landowner and soldier Sir William Gordon-Cumming, who was accused of cheating. Attempts to keep the affair a secret failed. Sir William sued his accusers in civil court for defamation. The Prince of Wales was called as a witness and had to acknowledge his participation in an illegal game. William lost the case, was dismissed from the army, and withdrew from high society. Edward changed his behaviour, abandoned baccarat, and played whist instead.

In the early days, members of Venetian high society met to gamble in so-called ‘casini’ (small dwellings). These houses attracted other activities, from dodgy business dealings and political intrigue to prostitution. The word casino became synonymous with crime and vice. Forced to act, the authorities produced the shrewd idea that gambling could provide additional income to the state. The first known gambling house was the Ridotto, established in 1638 in order to allow controlled gambling during the carnival season in Venice.

Blaise Pascal created a perpetual motion machine in 1655. The spinning wheel entered European history. In its present form, the game of roulette (‘small wheel’) was played in Paris since 1796 in the Palais Royal. In his 1801 novel La Roulette, ou le Jour (1801) Jacques Lablée provided a description of the wheel. Napoleon legalized casinos in 1806 after which the game spread widely. Casinos were patronized by the European aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Traditionally, there has been a close connection between spa towns and gambling. In fact, the Spa casino in Belgium (La Redoute Spa) dates from as early as 1762. In England, spa cities such as Bath and Tunbridge Wells were places where the rich went for treatment, entertainment and gambling. In 1824, Friedrich Weinbrenner designed his neo-classical Kurhaus in Baden-Baden. By the mid-nineteenth century this city, situated on the foothills of the Black Forest, enjoyed the reputation of being Europe’s gambling capital. In 1837, public gambling was prohibited in France and casinos were declared illegal. Then a great idea was put forward in Monaco. The principality was in serious financial difficulty when François Blanc suggested the building of a casino. It proved a masterstroke. Monte Carlo became a Mecca for the Europe’s big spending elite.

Many authors were addicted to gambling. Writing was a means to settle debts and play again. Oliver Goldsmith was addicted to the game and perennially in debt. As a hack writer for London publishers he produced a massive output to keep himself afloat. William Makepeace Thackeray was educated at Trinity College. However, he became hooked on gambling and left Cambridge in 1830 without a degree and heavily in debt. Novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gave ample space to the figure of the gambler, but there is a clear difference in approach. The romance of gambling, a celebration of the ‘lucky break’, is a central topic in the novels of Richardson, Smollett, Fielding, Edgeworth, or Austen. Nineteenth century European fiction, as illustrated by Marcel Emants’s novella Monaco (1878), emphasized the curse of Monte Carlo, and highlighted the ruinous effects of gambling. The novelist was interested in the psychology of addiction and the pathological behaviour of the gambler.

If an element of light-hearted romance remained, then it was associated with crime and fraud. The most notable example is that of Charles Deville Wells, son of the poet Charles Jeremiah Wells, a man to whom John Keats had addressed a sonnet in June 1816. Charles was a fraudster and gambler. In July 1891 he travelled to Monte Carlo with £4,000 that was stolen from investors in a bogus invention. In an eleven-hour session Wells ‘broke the bank’, winning a million francs. In April 1892, Fred Gilbert wrote the song ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’ which was made popular by music hall star Charles Coborn. This pleasant song was a favourite of James Joyce’s and is mentioned in Ulysses. Significantly, Edvard Munch created his first roulette painting in that same year 1892 (followed by another painting on the same theme in 1903).

George Moore’s Esther Waters (1894) was one of the more controversial novels of its day for its depiction of a single mother struggling to survive prejudice. Stylistically in the tradition of French Naturalism, the author supplies a vivid, at times polemical, image of Victorian sub-culture. The novel is set against a background of horse racing and the frenetic atmosphere of gambling and drinking that surrounds it. Moore exposes the hypocrisy of those who condemn the poor for their vices and profit from their addictions. Moore knew racing well. His father had a stable of race horses in Ireland and in his teenage years young George was a keen gambler who studied the racing-calendar, the stud-books, the latest betting, etc. In spite of Moore’s detailed knowledge of the game and its technically correct representation, his novel was received as a vitriolic attack on gambling. The Russian novel of the nineteenth century also portrays countless gamblers and losers. In his younger days, Leo Tolstoy was addicted to gambling. At sixteen he had entered Kazan University to study Oriental languages and later took up law. He dropped out before completing his courses and spent his time in Moscow and St Petersburg where he got caught up in high society, enjoying nights in ballrooms and at gambling tables. In 1851, after clocking up enormous gambling debts that would take him years to pay off, Tolstoy accompanied his elder brother to the Caucasus. He joined the army and spent almost three years in a Cossack village where he began writing in preparation of his first short novel Childhood. Fyodor Dostoevsky was another notorious player. His novella The Gambler is the most famous and influential gambling story in literary history. It reflects the author’s personal addiction to roulette. He completed the novella under a strict deadline to pay off gambling debts. In it, Dostoevsky analyzes the psychological make-up of the gambler and suggests that his countrymen have a particular affinity for gambling.

The association between Russia and gambling was reinforced by the emergence of Russian roulette. The earliest use of the term appears in ‘Russian Roulette’, a short story by Swiss author Georges Arthur Surdez that was published in the January 1937 issue of Collier’s Magazine. Was there a historical precedent for this story? Did soldiers play Russian roulette? Czarist officers were notorious for their dissolute behaviour. They drank heavily, fought duels, gambled, and shirked their duties. But there is no evidence that they engaged in this sinister game. The only reference to anything like Russian roulette can be found in the 1840 novel A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. After an evening of playing cards, officers debate whether fate is preordained. A gambling-addicted Serbian lieutenant challenges his companions to a bet. Pointing a pistol to his head he pulls the trigger. Nothing happens. He then points the weapon into the air and pulls the trigger again. It fires. He collects his winnings. Later that evening the same lieutenant is murdered by a drunken Cossack. Had it not been for its rolling alliteration, Russian roulette may well have gone into history as Lermontov’s roulette.

The dietetics of literature is an open field of research, but the link between writing and cooking has been made by various authors, past and present. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued more than once that mind and nutrition are inextricably connected. Creativity is a matter of stomach. In Ecce homo he relates the consumption of food directly to intellectual development, not just of the individual, but of a nation as a whole. He blames poor cookery for the mental sloppiness of his German countrymen. Soup before the meal (known as ‘alla tedesca’ in early Venetian cooking books); an addiction to meat; vegetables cooked with fat and flower; the degeneration of pastries into paperweights; the bestial drinking habits – all that, Nietzsche argues, reinforces the notion that the nation’s thinking took its origin in disordered intestines. The philosopher is just as critical about the English kitchen. A diet of beef and pasties constitute to him a ‘return to nature’, that is to say, to cannibalism. Intellectually, to Nietzsche, the most inspiring kitchen is that of Piedmont, an area famously known for its ‘risotto al tartufo’, fine cheeses, and excellent wines such as Barbera and Barolo.



To the booklover Holbrook Jackson’s Anatomy of Bibliomania remains indispensable reading. With great learning and wit, the author comments on why we read, where we take our books, and what happens to us when we get lost in literature. Part nine of the study is dedicated to ‘bibliophagi’ or book-eaters. The miracle of books is one of nourishment. Literature is a banquet. Books are food served out for distinguishing palates. Bibliophiles are gastronomes and epicures. They taste, chew, masticate, nibble, devour, gorge, and cram. They are subject to appetite and repletion. They may also be subject to over-eating. Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary and Croatia, built one of the largest libraries in Europe (second only to the Vatican Library). To some observers he was but a mere glutton of books with an indiscriminate appetite. Books are good wines. Readers relish their literary vintages. In his 1750 pamphlet ‘A New Project for the Destruction of Printing and Bookselling; for the Benefit of the Learned World’ (published anonymously), John Swift put forward the bold proposal for the liquefaction of literature. He advised to barrel and bottle books, thus making them more accessible and easier to consume. A cellar of books would be more invitingly absorbable than a library. Scottish poet Francis Bennoch summarized the experience of drinking books in the opening lines of his poem ‘My books’ which is included in his 1877 collection of Poems, Lyrics, Songs, and Sonnets: ‘I love my books as drinkers love their wine; / The more I drink, the more they seem divine’.



Book historians and bibliophiles have made ample use of gastronomic metaphors to indicate the delight of reading. One early example has survived in a rather spectacular form. Queen Elizabeth was particularly keen on her copy of Laurence Thomson’s 1582 version of the New Testament (printed by Christopher Barker: the book is held in the Bodleian, Oxford), which she bound in a covering of her own make with various motto’s. The words in her own handwriting are written on the fly-leaf of the volume: ‘I walke manie times into the pleasant fieldes of the Holye Scriptures, where I plucke up in the goodlie greene herbes of sentences by pruning, eate them by reading, chawe them up musing, and laie them up at length in the hie seate of memorie by gathering them together; that so hauing tasted thy sweeteness I may the lesse perceave the bitterness of this miserable life’. The gastronomic metaphors collected and presented by Holbrook Jackson all refer to the consumption and digesting of foodstuff, not to the preparation of the dish. He is concerned with the reading and collecting of books, not with the process of creating them. The critic stays at the table without inspecting the kitchen. There is however a close affinity between cooking and creating.

Horace Walpole, youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister, was an odd character. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he became MP for Callington (Cornwall) in 1743, held the seat for thirteen years, but never set foot in the place. A confirmed bachelor, he drew about him a circle of cultured ‘dear friends’, a semi-erotic camaraderie of sensitive aesthetes. His biographers have described Walpole as an effeminate, asexual, or passively homosexual character. As an author, he is remembered for his Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto and for his extensive correspondence which is of significant political and social interest (a handbook of contemporary gossip). Literary critics such as Isaac D’Israeli and William Hazlitt rejected Walpole’s work as that of a frivolous dilettante, an image that survived well into the twentieth century. Historian and critic Thomas Babbington Macaulay was admired as a brilliant prose stylist in his day. He applied an intriguing gastronomic metaphor in reference to Walpole’s literary output.

Strasbourg pies or paté de foie gras are expensive pasties for which the city of that name was once famous. They are prepared from the livers of geese, which have been tied down for three or four weeks to prevent them from moving. During that period the animals are forced to eat fattening food. In an extraordinary review of Walpole’s two volumes of letters to Sir Horace Mann, British Envoy at the Court of Tuscany, published in the Edinburgh Review (October 1833), Macaulay compared the processing of the Strasbourg pie to the chemistry of the creative process. He describes Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, as the most eccentric, the most artificial, the most fastidious, and the most capricious of men. His mind is a bundle of whims and affectations; his features are covered by mask within mask making the real man invisible. The overall critical evaluation of Walpole’s writing is expressed in the following manner: ‘His writings, it is true, rank as high among the delicacies of intellectual epicures as the Strasburg pies among the dishes described in the Almanach des Gourmands. But, as the pâté-de-foie-gras owes its excellence to the diseases of the wretched animal that furnishes it, and would be good for nothing if it were not made of livers preternaturally swollen; so, none but an unhealthy and disorganized mind could have produced such literary luxuries as the works of Walpole’.

Historically, food has been part of the never-ending exchange of insults between Britain and France. The surname of John Bull is reminiscent of the English fondness for beef. This is reflected in the French nickname for English people, ‘les rosbifs’. Jean Crapaud is an English jocose name given to a Frenchman. The word ‘crapaud’ is French for a toad (rather than frog). It is a reference to the ancient heraldic device of the kings of France, consisting of ‘three toads erect, saltant’. Yet, frogs, froggies, and frog-eaters have all become terms associated with the French. The Bull – Crapaud antagonism incorporates a variety of elements of patriotic hostility such as English robustness versus French refinement, ruddy health versus decadence, beef versus frog, beer versus wine and, after 1815, Wellington versus Napoleon. According to Macaulay, Walpole’s writings rank as high among the delicacies of intellectual epicures as Strasburg pies. Pâté-de-foie-gras owes its fine taste to the unnaturally swollen liver of the poor animal that furnishes it. Similarly, only an unhealthy and disorganized mind would be capable of producing such stylistic niceties as those of Walpole. It is impossible to guess which of the author’s ‘literary luxuries’ justifies such a comparison, but critical analysis allows for two different interpretations. The metaphor either supplies an illuminating insight into the chemistry of the creative process itself, or, alternatively, it is a playful ploy of restating what is an old stereotype. If the suggestion is correct that Walpole’s style of writing is the product of an unhealthy or unstable mind, then by implication every imaginative work of art may be judged similarly. In the interpretation of Macaulay the creative artist is an unhappy goose. A plateful of pre-Freud – but with a different flavouring. The alternative reading however is the more likely one. The luxurious refinement of the author’s writing is like that of a French gastronomic delicacy – tasty maybe, but unhealthy and decadent. In that sense, Macaulay has contributed an amusing metaphor to the good old tradition of Anglo-French gastronomic ding-dong.


For the medieval student, rhetoric, along with grammar and logic, was part of the trivium – the three rocks of education. Rhetoric was special because, more than logic and grammar, it required invention, spontaneity, and creativity. Renaissance teaching methods emerged from the rediscovery of the classical tradition, and especially of Aristotle who had defined rhetoric as the ability to use all possible means of persuasion to good effect. An able orator could be put on the spot and deliver an argument that would sway an audience regardless of time or situation. Improvisation demands an oratorical flexibility that comes from complete linguistic mastery.

One of Erasmus’s early pupils in Paris was William Blount, fourth Baron Mountjoy, diplomat, scholar and patron of learning. In the summer of 1499 William returned to England and invited Erasmus to accompany him for an extended stay. His financial situation was precarious and he accepted Mountjoy’s invitation. In England, he experienced a spell of luxury on a rural estate, a novel experience for a man who had always lived a life of poverty. He was received as the guest of a nobleman and a published author of Latin poems. His prospects however remained minimal. Mountjoy offered him a small pension for life but no other rewards for his work came his way. During the summer he decided to return to the Continent, but his journey was delayed. He travelled to Oxford where he listened to John Colet lecturing on the ‘Epistle to the Romans’. The latter interpreted the New Testament as a literary text rather than as a bundle of scholastic propositions. Colet tried to persuade him to teach at Oxford and lecture on the Old Testament. Erasmus declined. He considered it impossible to carry out competent exegesis solely on the basis of the Latin translation. Learning Greek was his priority. Oxford could not offer him that opportunity and in January 1500 he returned to France. There was only one active teacher of Greek at Paris, a Byzantine exile, but Erasmus considered him expensive and incompetent. He taught himself the language by patiently translating Greek books into Latin. By late 1502 he claimed that he was able to read and write the language. When the plague drove him from Paris, he moved to Louvain. He kept himself alive by teaching private pupils.


By the end of 1504 Erasmus returned to Paris to present Jodocus Badius with the finished manuscript of Lorenzo Valla’s In Novum Testamentum ex diversorum utriusque linguae codicum collatione adnotationes (‘Annotations on the New Testament’). This work had been Valla’s most impressive application of his knowledge of ancient Greek. He had observed stylistic defects in the Latin Bible, the Vulgate, and sought to remedy these by referring to the Greek original. He insisted that New Testament scholarship must refer to the Greek text. What he eventually produced was a set of notes on specific passages where unclear phrases or apparent errors could be remedied by looking at the Greek. This pioneering effort attracted little attention until 1504, when Erasmus found a manuscript of the Annotations in a monastery near Louvain. He published it the following year, an important step in the development of his own biblical scholarship and proof of the massive progress he had made in mastering Greek. Shortly afterwards Lord Mountjoy invited him again to England, and this second visit was more successful. He was introduced to William Warham and other prominent dignitaries. Warham, Lord Chancellor of England and Archbishop of Canterbury, became Erasmus’s most generous patron and ‘sacred anchor’. Both men were associated with the paradigm shift of the so-called Northern Renaissance. Warham’s academic background and his travels on the Continent inspired him to support the study of Greek and encourage the revival of classical learning. His money and political support acted as a force enabling Erasmus to get his work on the New Testament published which, in turn, facilitated the biblical scholarship of the Reformation. Froben’s Basel edition of Erasmus’s Jerome was dedicated to William Warham. The dynamics of their collaboration acted as a catalyst for religious change in England.


Erasmus travelled to Venice to negotiate with Aldus Manutius for a new edition of his Adagia (dedicated to Mountjoy). On the death of Henry VII, Lord Mountjoy wrote to Erasmus in Italy pleading with him to return to England, painting the prospect of a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’. Together with Warham he sent the scholar £10 to cover the cost of the journey. At first Erasmus was hesitant. The level of Italian scholarship may have disappointed him, but he had made many friends in Aldus’s circle. Moreover, his reception had been flattering, especially in Rome. But remaining in Rome would be a sell-out since he would never enjoy the intellectual freedom he demanded. Reluctantly he decided to travel northwards and reached London in the autumn of 1511. Staying at Thomas More’s house in Bucklersbury he wrote his satirical masterpiece Moriae encomium. Erasmus, moreover, had been working on a treatise on Latin composition entitled De duplici copia verborum ac rerum (On the twofold abundance of expressions and ideas), a project that had been the intermittent labour of more than twelve years in Paris, Italy, and England. On this, his third visit to England, Erasmus once again paid a visit to John Colet, the son of a City mercer and twice Lord Mayor of London. After early schooling in London, Colet had moved to Oxford, where he spent some twenty years as a scholar. He received priestly orders in 1498 and left Oxford six years later to become Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. There, in 1509, he began preparations for the founding of St Paul’s School, adapted to receive 153 poor boys (the number of fishes taken by Peter in the miraculous draught). Only those children were admitted who could say their catechism, and read and write competently. As he put down in the school’s statutes, ‘My intent is by this school specially to increase knowledge and worshipping of God and our Lord Jesus Christ and good Christian life and manners in the children’.


The meeting of Erasmus and Colet was a fruitful one. The latter requested Erasmus to finish De duplici for use in this newly founded school in St Paul’s churchyard. This treatise, often referred to as ‘the copia’, was designed to help the young student in acquiring an elegant style of expression and to provide abundant examples of how to say the same thing in various ways. In the words of Erasmus himself: ‘no artist will better compress speech to conciseness than he who has skill to enrich the same with as varied an embellishment as possible’. The book quickly became the standard work on rhetorical dilation, adopted by virtually every school in England as well as by many schools on the Continent. It went through well over a hundred editions in the sixteenth century alone. Learning to Erasmus had to have a social meaning. He was an educationalist, not a stuffy or retiring scholar. Rather than withdrawing in a study or library, reaching the outside world was him aim. Like every great teacher and reformer, he wanted to communicate with the young. What better method than writing an elegant and entertaining schoolbook? The publication constituted the concluding part of a set of educational writings of which De ratione studii, a basic grammar, forms the foundation. The Colloquia is a student reader; the Adagia a dictionary of examples; and the De copia a comprehensive rhetoric, setting out the rules for applying the grammar and vocabulary the student had acquired during the course of his linguistic journey. The purpose of Erasmus’s treatise was to provide students with a repertoire of linguistic expression. One of his teaching methods was to take a simple phrase and invent as many variations as possible. In chapter thirty-three of the ‘copia’ the author offers an example by demonstrating 195 different and inventive ways of saying ‘Your letter pleased me greatly’. Linguistic invention was the keyword. To Erasmus, playing with language is the root of creativity. In the age of email we do not bother any more. Progress, as Johan Huizinga would argue, stifles playfulness. It is hardly surprising that the author of Homo ludens also wrote a biography of the mind behind In Praise of Folly, praising Erasmus for the fact that ‘he radiates the spirit of play from his whole being!’


Erasmus, More and Colet – it was an extraordinary meeting of minds in that same year. Colet and More had both joined the Mercers’ Company in 1509 and were close friends (Colet was More’s confessor). Both had studied at Oxford and both were interested in teaching. Thomas More was a proponent of sound education, and not just for boys. His daughter, known by her married name of Margaret Roper, was a qualified scholar in Latin, Greek and theology. More significantly, she was one of the first women in England to appear in print. More and Colet were important figures in England at the times. These men lived in an age of perpetual change and continuous conflict. The range of new discoveries and intellectual challenges had an inevitable impact on the position of the Catholic Church: Savonarola was executed for condemning corruption in the Church in 1498; Luther’s ninety-five theses appeared in 1517, at about the same time as Zwingli became the driving force behind Protestantism in Switzerland. A key element in the growing ferment for change was the advent of printing. It is no coincidence that Geneva became a centre for religious change as well as printing.


In England, the crucial event was the Tyndale Bible of 1526 which drew on both Greek and Hebrew sources. Colet himself began to translate parts of the New Testament from the Greek, which he read from the pulpit at St Paul’s Cross to crowds that were estimated to number 20,000. This brought him into conflict with his the established church. There was even some concern that he could be charged with heresy. This threat however may have been triggered by his unpopular reforms to the running of the Cathedral. Erasmus described Colet as a quick-tempered man with a fertile mind who was suspicious of undue pomp. Always dressed in plain black, he mistrusted religious institutions and conventional piety, and was intolerant of pilgrimage and the cult of relics as it was widely practised. Thomas More, in the meantime, had to cope with wider responsibilities. As Chancellor, he relentlessly pursued those who were responsible for the clandestine distribution of Tyndale’s Bible. His stubborn opposition to change in the Church may seem paradoxical in the light of the enlightened views he expounded in Utopia, where freedom of conscience is accepted and tolerated. His overriding concern however was the threat of further religious conflict and, as a consequence, the social instability for which too many citizens on the Continent had paid dearly. Defending the status quo meant a vote for peace.


Erasmus’s ‘copia’ was first printed in Paris by Jodocus Badius in July 1512 (prefaced by a gracious letter to John Colet) along with several other minor works although pirated copies were already in circulation. The latter, sometimes called Badius Ascensius from his birthplace Asse (Flemish Brabant), was a pioneering printer and a fine classical scholar. He moved to Paris in 1503 where his house came to be known as the ‘Prelum Ascensianum’. He specialized in annotated editions of Roman classical texts for the student market, and also Latin works by contemporary humanist writers. He was himself the author of numerous studies, amongst which a life of Thomas à Kempis, and a satire on female follies, entitled Navicula stultarum mulierum. It is hardly surprising that both towering figures, Erasmus and Badius, were attracted to one another. During the first three decades of the sixteenth century Badius produced an extraordinary number of titles (775 editions are listed in Renouard’s Imprimeurs & libraires parisiens du XVIe siècle). He frequently worked in partnership with Jean Petit, who was by far the most important wholesale bookseller/publisher of this period.

Soon the ‘copia’ was reprinted all over the place. An elegant edition was produced by Matthias Schürer in Strasbourg in October 1516, the title-page of which is printed within a superb historiated woodcut border showing two jesters, architectural columns, and two putti holding a shield with the initials ‘M. S’. This edition contains Erasmus’ long letter to the Alsatian humanist Jakob Wimpfeling, dated 21 September 1514, in which he relates his previous journey to Basel, mentioning all the humanist scholars he had met from Alsace and Basel. Erasmus had first become acquainted with Wimpheling in August 1514 when he stopped in Strasbourg on his way to Basel, and was officially and warmly welcomed by the members of the recently founded literary society. The work concludes with three poems by Erasmus addressed to Sebastian Brant, Joannes Sapidus and Thomas Didimus, together with the latter’s reply. With the University of Louvain increasingly overrun with Dominicans and Franciscans who were united in their enmity to classical learning, Erasmus finally decided to seek a more congenial home in Switzerland. He settled permanently at Basel in November 1521, in the capacity of general editor and literary adviser of Froben’s press. Froben was delighted. His mastery of printing combined with Erasmus’s editorial skill turned the Basel press to the most important house in Europe at the time. As a consequence, the collaboration with Jodocus Badius came to an end.


It may well have been that Colet intended Erasmus to be the first High Master of his new school. Erasmus, both intellectually and physically, was too restless a mover – the eternal refugee – to settle into a job that would clip his wings. It did not harm their friendship. Colet was an outspoken critic of the powerful Church of his day. He made the Mercer’s Company trustees to the School, rather than the Church or Oxford or Cambridge University, because he found – interestingly – ‘less corruption’ among married men of business. The Worshipful Company of Mercers was the premier Livery Company of the City of London, the first of the so-called ‘Great Twelve City Livery Companies’. Its earliest extant charter dates from 1394. The Company’s aim was to act as a trade association for merchants, especially for exporters of wool and importers of velvet, silk and other fabrics. By the sixteenth century many members of the Company had lost any connection with the original trade. Colet’s school was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, and was rebuilt by the Mercers’ Company in 1670. Among famous Mercers were such figures as John Dee, Thomas Gresham and Robert Baden-Powell. The most notable of them in this context was England’s pioneering printer, diplomat, writer and merchant – William Caxton himself.

In 1596 Richard Mulcaster was appointed headmaster of St Paul’s. Previously, he had been the first headteacher of the Merchant Taylors’ School in London. He was a gifted educator and a good scholar in Latin and Greek. Many of his pupils made distinguished careers, the poet Edmund Spenser the most famous of those. His two books on education, Positions Concerning the Training up of Children (1581) and The First Part of the Elementarie (1582) are sections of an unfinished analysis of the educational system of his time. In the development of English schooling, Mulcaster represents a midpoint between Erasmus and John Locke. Whilst developing his pedagogy, he was in close contact with the Flemish/Dutch community in London (with Emmanuel van Meteren in particular) and with correspondents such as Ortelius and Dousa in Antwerp and Leiden. The word school (scole) itself was derived from the Dutch. The contemporary discussion about the use of the vernacular in education which took place in the Low Countries may have encouraged him to write his books in English. He defended this decision in these terms: ‘I love Rome, but London better, I favour Italie, but England more, I honour the Latin, but I worship the English’. Like Erasmus, he thought corporal punishment in education unnecessary and pernicious, but competitive sports and physical exercise were part of his educational thinking. His description in Positions of ‘footeball’ as a refereed team sport is the earliest reference to the game stating that football has positive educational value as it promotes health and strength. For this particular passage he is considered the father of modern football.


rinus michels

Mulcaster did not create Total Football. That was left to Rinus Michels, another Dutchman. The latter was a master of his own game, elected coach of the century by FIFA in 1999, a man who raised the muddy and rather mundane game of soccer to the level of pure imagination and poetry in motion. The sporting metaphor appears regularly in the aesthetic writings of eighteenth century Classicists when referring to artistic rivalry on an individual level. To them, the creative process was an exciting race between able and skilled competitors. Michels proved that the fundamentals of team sport and creativity are also comparable in the exhibition of silky skills and vanguard tactics, and in the precious interplay of individual initiative and collective effort – or, in literary terms, tradition.

Cocktails and laughter – but what comes after?
Noel Coward – On with the Dance (1925)

The roaring twenties were a decade of excess and an overflow of creative energy. Novels by Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald captured the mood. Jazz took the world by storm and silent movies dominated the big screen. The 1920s changed London’s West End by transforming its nightlife. By the end of the decade, generally referred to as the Jazz Age, over fifty licensed night clubs were operating in and around London, many patronized by upper class socialites. This post-war generation, themselves too young to have experienced the nightmare of the trenches, was an eclectic set of young people with more money than sense. Known as the Bright Young People, these aristocrats, middle class money makers, and bohemian artists lived a hedonistic and alcoholic life, furnishing the press with a flow of scandalous snippets of a so-called youth culture. Their parties were renowned and attracted interest and indignation from the side of press and public. Gossip columns flourished as never before in papers and periodicals, foreshadowing the celebrity culture of today. Some members of that crowd, Anthony Powell, Nancy Mitford, Cecil Beaton, John Betjeman and others, later became household names.

The quest for pleasure came at a price. Like elsewhere in Europe, despair about the Old Continent’s political and economic future was hidden behind a façade of fast living, frivolous partying, and ‘stylized’ debauchery. This was a tormented and aimless generation, brought up in the shadow of a war for which Europe had suffered so greatly. Their progress through the painful 1930s, when times were hard and another war hung over the horizon, often led to drink, drugs and alienation. The atmosphere was captured in 1929 by Evelyn Waugh’s fictional account of the 1920s in Vile Bodies. Photographer Cecil Beaton has left a visual history of this social phenomenon. Having learned the professional craft of photography at the fashionable London studio of Paul Tanqueray, he was employed by Vogue in 1927 and subsequently set up his own studio. One of his first clients was Stephen Tennant. This young aristocrat and lover of the poet Siegfried Sassoon whose brother had been killed in the war, enjoyed a notorious reputation for his decadent lifestyle (he claimed to have spent most of his life in bed). Beaton’s photographs of Tennant and his circle are considered some of the best representations of the Bright Young People of the later twenties.

One of the significant aspects of the 1920s in London was the explosion of unlicensed clubs that operated on the fringes of the criminal underworld. However determined the police were to crack down on out-of-hours drinking, youngsters were determined to get round the law. This they did through so-called bottle parties which were organized by a ‘host’ and were held on private premises. The host was expected to provide live music, an elegant dancefloor (the Charleston was the craze of the age), impeccable waiters and sophisticated surroundings. The venues rarely opened before midnight and closed in the early morning. Queen of the bottle party was ‘Ma Meyrick’, an Irish immigrant who became a celebrity for her ingenuity in evading the licensing laws. Kate Evelyn Nason was born in August 1875 at no. 24 Cambridge Terrace, Dun Laoghaire (then: Kingstown), a privileged seaside suburb of Dublin. Within a year her father, a prosperous Protestant medic, died. Her mother re-married a Lancashire clergy man. At the age of seven her mother died as well. Kate returned to Ireland as an orphan and lived with her grandmother in a house called Fairyland, where she was educated by governesses. About 1890 she attended Alexandra College, South Dublin, which is a prestigious private school established in 1866 educating girls in a ‘Church of Ireland ethos’. From an early age, Kate set out to prove her independent mind. She claimed to have been the first woman to ride a bicycle in Dublin. In December 1899, she married Ferdinand Richard Holmes Merrick, a Dublin physician and specialist in nerve diseases. They adopted the gentrified name-spelling of Meyrick. After moving to England, Ferdinand practised medicine at Southsea before moving to Basingstoke.

By 1909 Kate Meyrick was ten years married, mother of three daughters and three sons, and bored with respectability and family life. About 1912, she left with her children, drifting for a year from one seaside town to another before returning to her husband. During the war she took lessons in hypnotism and practised suggestive therapeutics on shell-shocked and nerve patients who had been sent back from the battlefields. At the end of the Great War however the marriage finally collapsed. In 1919 Kate moved to London where she managed and part-owned Dalton’s Club in Leicester Square. The club had the dubious reputation of a pick-up place for the lost and the louche. London was full of desperate young men who had recently returned from the battle fields. It was a disillusioned generation of soldiers, haunted by memories of death and destruction, unable to find work and rebuild their shattered lives, and searching for whatever form of escape they could find from the new burdens of isolated life in the urban wilderness. For the price of a couple of quid Kate’s girls would offer them sympathy, shelter and sex. Under the licensing laws of this period, closing-up time was at ten, but Ma Meyrick disregarded such prudish austerities with Irish bravado. Accordingly the police raided her place. When she appeared in court on vice charges, she insisted that the West End was a hotbed of lawlessness and that her girls were bringing comfort to the ‘terribly disfigured boys’ who had returned from the war. In spite of her social mission, Kate was fined for keeping disorderly premises, and the club closed shortly afterwards.

In 1921, she opened her own night club, named the 43, at no. 43 Gerrard Street, Soho, the house where John Dryden had lived since 1687 and died in 1700. The 43 became a fashionable jazz night club. Amongst its members in the mid-1920s were artists like Augustus John and Jacob Epstein and writers such as Joseph Conrad and J.B. Priestley. In 1922 American violinist and bandleader Paul Specht formed a ‘Sweet Music’ band with Charlie Kunz as leader, and succeeded in obtaining a sixteen week booking at the Trocadero in Piccadilly. Although influenced by jazz giants from Duke Ellington to Louis Armstrong, the sound of the sweet band was in many ways an outgrowth from the big city society orchestra of the 1910s. The early sweet bands paved the way for the Glenn Miller Orchestra. When the engagement ended, Charlie Kunz stayed on and formed his first British band which debuted with providing musical accompinament for the diners at the sumptuous Lyons Popular Café, Piccadilly, which offered seating for 2,000 customers. His success was such that Kate booked the band to perform in the 43 where he experienced, in his own words, ‘some exciting times’. It was the beginning of a splendid career in Britain. In 1933, he started a one year residency at Casani’s Club, run by former dance champion Santos Casani. It was while appearing at Casani’s that Charlie started his BBC broadcasts, bringing him fame with a much larger audience. A newcomer, Vera Lynn, was his vocalist at the club. She made her very first record and broadcast with Charlie. Eventually, Kunz became a popular piano soloist and Vera won the war for Britain.

Initially Kate Meyrick kept within the law, but then began supplying alcohol in defiance of the Licensing Act of 1921 which limited opening hours to eight hours a day with afternoon closing, and just five hours on a Sunday. Alcohol was not the only problem to the authorities. Outrageous American actress Tallulah Bankhead, a legend in her own time, often performed in London during the 1920s and frequented the 43 Club. She and Kate were one of a kind. Possessed of a relentless energy, Tallulah smoked over one hundred cigarettes per day, drank gin and bourbon like water, and carried with her a suitcase full of drugs to either help her sleep or keep her wide awake. It was rumoured that she was engaged in numerous affairs with both men and women. Her salty language and outrageous behaviour were considered shocking by many of her contemporaries. She was addicted to cocaine. Club 43 was said to be the centre of drug dealing in London’s West End. The venue was raided on numerous occasions, but drug dealers were relatively safe because of a hidden escape route leading into nearby Newport Place. The first raid on the premises took place in February 1922. In 1924 Conservative Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks (known as Jix) set out to suppress London night clubs with a puritanical zeal. The authorities distrusted the clubs’ undermining of social barriers. Regulars of the 43 included politicians, officers of distinguished regiments, members of the peerage, and rich young City magnates. They mingled not only with dancers, prostitutes, and dodgy businessmen, but also with criminals and delinquents. The upper classes had to be protected from their own weaknesses. The 43, which Evelyn Waugh depicted as the ‘Old Hundredth’ (also the name of a well known hymn tune) in his 1934 novel A Handful of Dust, was raided by the police in July and once again in November 1924. Ma Meyrick was sentenced to six months for selling liquor without a licence. Her clients, including the King of Romania and the Crown Prince of Sweden, protested against her imprisonment.

In addition to the 43, Kate owned other clubs, notably the Silver Slipper in Regent Street, a venue where the walls were painted with Italian scenes and the dancefloor was made from glass (raided on Christmas Eve 1927), and the Manhattan in Denman Street (raided in May 1928), together with an interest in the Folies Bergères in Newman Street. In 1926 her celebrity was enhanced when her second daughter, Dorothy Evelyn, married Edward Russell, 26th Baron de Clifford. The latter was an enthusiastic follower of Oswald Moseley being described by Time magazine as an ‘ardent British Fascist’. He had frequently spoken in the House urging that driving laws be tightened and more strictly upheld (his father had been killed in a road accident). In 1935, in a notorious case, he was acquitted for the manslaughter of Douglas George Hopkins caused by driving his Lancia sports car on the wrong side of the road. This was to be the last trial held in the House of Lords, since the right of peers to be tried by their peers for felonies was abolished in 1948. After that, Russell made no more speeches in the House of Lords for nearly forty years. Two years later, another Meyrick daughter, Mary Ethel Isobel, was married to George Harley Hay-Drummond, 14th Earl of Kinnoull in the Scottish peerage. Success was sweet to Ma Meyrick, but the bliss did not last.

Kate Meyrick’s nemesis was Sergeant George Goddard of the Metropolitan Police. He had led the first raid on the 43 in February 1922. In November 1928 Goddard was found to have accrued over £12,000 which was a substantial sum of money considering a policeman’s wage. He had been taking £100 a week from Ma Meyrick in protection money, with other little earners on the side. This time Ma Meyrick was hit with fifteen months imprisonment for bribery and corruption. Financially, the raids had a desastrous effect and the value of her holdings plummeted. Once released from prison, she resumed business, but the Metropolitan Police by now were far more efficient and ruthless in throttling London night life. Kate was back inside for six months in late 1930 and again in mid-1931. Poor conditions at Holloway prison weakened her health and she died in 1933 of broncho-pneumonia. Shortly before her death she composed her memoirs entitled Secrets of the 43 (1933). The book was banned. Maybe the title was too suggestive. Although her story is innocuous by contemporary standards, it shows a number of then prominent people in a very poor light. Censorship was a means of protecting members of one’s own class.

On Black Tuesday, 29 October 1929, stock prices on Wall Street collapsed. The subsequent great slump in Europe was rooted in the economic consequences of World War I, the most devastating war in terms of human losses and material damage ever fought. This destruction was further magnified by the insistence of London and Paris on crippling reparations to be paid by a defeated and humiliated Germany – in spite of Keynes’s warnings about the dangers of such policy. European economic stagnation proved catastrophic. Kate Meyrick’s dramatic career in many ways encapsulates this dark episode of European history. She was the product of her age, a feminist who rejected traditional concepts of the family and became an intrepid entrepreneur who challenged the cosy status quo of a male dominated London bureaucracy by flouting all the rules imposed upon her. Her phenomenal success as a businesswoman and club owner coincided with the roaring excesses of the 1920s. The social spectacle could and did not continue. By 1931, England was in deep financial crisis. Kate was in prison, ill, and approaching the end of her life. She died at the early age of fifty-seven. By then, the bright lights of London had dimmed and darkened. The Blitz would follow.

In 1883, after ten years of brewing beer, Heineken was awarded the diplôme d’honneur at the colonial exhibition. To this very day, the brewery uses the label on its beer bottles. The ‘Internationale Koloniale en Uitvoerhandel Tentoonstelling’ or ‘Exposition Universelle Coloniale et d’Exportation Générale’ (International Colonial and Export Exhibition) was held in Amsterdam. The event lasted from May to October and drew over a million visitors. It was the first exhibition of its kind, with twenty-eight different nations presenting pavilions of colonial trade and wealth. The idea had been put to the city authorities by the French entrepreneur Édouard Agostini. Amsterdam had something unique to offer: a profitable colonial empire which for many had a dream-like fascination.

At the 1878 World Exhibition in Paris the art treasures of the Dutch East Indies had been at the centre of the attention. The organizers decided to focus on colonial trade, and ignore industrial activity. To the city of Amsterdam the exhibition meant a milestone in its recent history, marking a remarkable socio-economic and cultural revival. Location of the exhibition was at what is now known as Museumplein (Museum Square), then an area of unused land behind the Rijskmuseum which was still under construction. Economically, the exhibition was an overwhelming success. A number of hotels were expanded or newly built in order to profit from the large number of visitors, including Americain, the Doelen, and Krasnapolsky, all of them nowadays iconic landmarks in the city. The rebuilding of the Krasnapolsky which included the glass-roofed Wintertuin (winter garden) lounge and electric lightning was a real tourist attraction. The front gate to the Vondelpark is a present-day reminder of the 1883 exhibition.

The main building was designed by French architect Paul Fouquiau in a ‘Moorish’ style. In front of the Dutch pavilion stood on one side a statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen who, as Governor-General, had played a forceful part in the submission of the Indonesian archipelago, and on the other an Atjeh monument. At the colonial pavilion visitors passed through a tobacco shed, a Javanese compound with a pagoda, the crossed a bridge made of bamboo, and they could touch a nutmeg tree. In the concert-room they listened to native music. There was a Javanese village (kampung) which was inhabited by real ‘natives’. Surinam was represented as well. When the Dutch arrived there in 1581, the country was inhabited by many distinct indigenous groups. The colonial conflicts with the English were settled in 1667 when present-day Surinam was acquired from the English, in the exchange for what is now New York City. Dutch control of the Guiana coast caused the indigenous groups to retreat into the interior to avoid extinction. Colonial policy included practices like transporting a selection of indigenous people of Suriname to the 1883 International Colonial and Export Exhibition in Amsterdam and displaying them in human zoos.

From a cultural point of view, these exhibitions made considerable impact and brought a renewed impulse towards cosmopolitanism. The 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, for example, also presented a model kampong which demonstrated all aspects of communal village life from agricultural practices to religion and entertainment. Javanese gamelan music created a sensation among European musicians. Here was a sophisticated and powerful music that was totally outside the western interpretation of what this art should entail. Claude Debussy, then a young composer at the beginning of an illustrious career, was completely bowled over when he first experienced the tonality of a gamelan orchestra. Scientifically, however, the colonial approach was uncanny. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scientists were so fascinated by race that thousands of indigenous people from all over the world were put on display in human zoos in pseudo-scientific demonstrations of ‘racial difference’. Human zoos – also called negro villages or villages nègres (both the 1878 and the 1889 Parisian World Fairs presented a ‘village nègre’) – were public exhibits of humans in a ‘natural’ or primitive state.

The displays emphasized the cultural differences between European and non-European peoples. Africans, Asians, indigenous people were caged and displayed in a makeshift natural habitat. These human displays were hugely popular and attracted large crowds at various exhibitions. Human zoos were steeped in racism and superiority feelings. The exhibits were perceived as the races that had been left behind in the evolution of man. Following the 1898 Spanish-American War, the United States acquired the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. At the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair, the organizers exhibited tribal cultures from the Philippines and other territories in what they considered a ‘parade’ of evolutionary progress. The Philippine exhibit was massive and showcased full-size replicas of indigenous living quarters erected to visualize the inherent backwardness of the Philippine people. The purpose was to highlight the ‘civilizing’ influence of American rule.

The exhibition of people became a more cruel practice once the idea of the human zoo was taken up as a form of entertainment. George Burcher Gale, for example, former officer in the Royal Navy, was originally a minor London actor of small parts in minor theatres. In 1831 he toured America. On his return, he brought back six Native Americans with their chief, Ma Caust. They were exhibited at the London Victoria Theatre until their popularity declined. One can only guess what happened to them afterwards. Gale himself ended his career as a balloonist making over a hundred, often spectacular (night ascents with firework), flights in his lifetime. He was an alcoholic balloonist for that matter. His final flight, made seated on a horse standing on an open platform, was successfully completed. However, bystanders inadvertently let go of the balloon restraining lines after the horse was released. As the balloon started to rise, Gale held onto the guide rope and eventually fell to his death. According to reports he had been drinking.

Human zoos had been preceded by and ran parallel with freak shows. The exhibition of medical freaks and monstrosities was an essential component of travelling exhibitions in Europe. The most popular attractions were oddities with special talents, who could do supposedly normal things despite their disabilities. Printed collections of curious and abnormal medical cases were popular and sold well. Stephano Polito was born at Moltrasio on Lake Como in Italy. He changed his forename to Stephen on becoming a naturalized Englishman. In his early career Polito specialized in the exhibition of ‘exotic’ human beings. At the 1790 Bartholomew Fair he showed ‘three most wonderful Wild-Born Human Beings … found in a remote valley, adjoining the Alps’. These ‘monstrous craws’, as they were called by showmen, were in fact people afflicted with goitre or the swelling of the thyroid gland which causes a lump to develop in the throat. The lump will move up and down when swallowing. The illness formed the basis of several similar other exhibitions at the time. Freak shows, however, are not identical to human zoos. The freak show on the whole displayed unfortunate people from our own culture, they were ‘monsters’ – but European monsters. The human zoo introduced a new and sensational aspect to the curious mind, that of barbarity. This interest in indigenous races had a history at least as long as colonialism, ever since Columbus brought indigenous Americans from his voyages in the New World to the Spanish court. During the Renaissance, the Medici family developed a famous menagerie in the Vatican. In the sixteenth century, Cardinal Hippolytus Medici had a collection of people of different races as well as exotic animals. He is reported as having a troup of so-called Barbarians, speaking over twenty languages; there were also Moors, Tartars, Indians, Turks and Africans in his collection.

The word barbarian dates back to ancient Greece when it was used to refer to less civilized peoples. In his Politico, Aristotle suggested a dichotomy of Greeks and non-Greeks. The latter, named the ‘barbaroi’, were those who lived outside the polis. They lacked culture and government as they were ruled by passions and instincts. The word was applied in a similar manner by authors of Roman times. After the discovery of the New World the term was gradually replaced by that of savage. In English, the word savage appears around 1300 and was derived from the French term ‘sauvage’, meaning wild, undomesticated, or untamed (of animals and places). The Latin origin is ‘salvaticus’ or inhabitant of the woods. While the ancient use of barbarian had a strictly European context in relation to a higher or lower stage of civilization, the new application of savage was geographical and colonial, pointing to the untamed nature of indigenous peoples of remote continents. In book 18 of L’esprit des lois (1758) Montesquieu would be the first to make the suggestion that culture evolves from the simple to the complex, and that all societies pass through three stages of development: from savagery through barbarism to civilization. Before that, there was a subtle change in interpretation of ‘savage’ life which had considerable implications for the development of European socio-cultural criticism. Diderot’s imaginary supplement to the voyage of Bougainville has been interpreted as a utopian text. Inspired by the latter’s idyllic depiction of Thahiti as an earthly paradise, Diderot stressed the seductive virtues of simple island life. His sexually uninhibited Tahitians represent the pure natural life free of the constraints of modern civilization. Their contentment contrasts with European corruption. This reading makes the author an ally of Rousseau, singing the praises of natural man and condemning the follies of civilization. Primitivism in philosophical terms is an outlook on human affairs that sees history as a decline from an erstwhile condition of excellence (chronological primitivism) or holds that salvation lies in a return to the simple life (cultural primitivism). The first interpretation suggests that man was better off in earlier day; the second that primitive tribal life offers conditions that are better than those of civilized existence.

There are two contrasting opinions about the natural state of man. One view conceives of primitive life as a golden age of plenty, innocence, and happiness. It is as civilized life should be, but purged of its vices. The other theory projects primitive life as a subhuman existence of struggle and hardship. Civilized life stripped of its virtues. The contrast has been described as ‘soft’ versus ‘hard’ primitivism. The interest in savage life was not just the passion of the anthropologist. The noble savage was, particularly in French literature and philosophy, both an idealized and a polemical figure. The nineteenth century created the ideal of the ‘uomo universale’ in an age of specialism and divisiveness; the eighteenth century projected the free spirit of the noble savage as an antidote for the intolerant absolutism of European religion and politics. In France, the noble savage became an effective weapon in the battle against the ancien régime. The savage had been the victim of European greed and violence. Were many people in European society not suffering a similar fate under various repressive regimes? The construct of the noble savage became an integral part of early European socio-cultural criticism. The distinction between the ‘Noble Savage’ and the ‘Not so Noble Savage’ is also a European projection of theories of the nature of man and the kind of government society needs. It is Hobbes versus Shaftesbury, Joseph de Maîstre versus Rousseau. It is the view of human beings as basically selfish creatures who tend to act on evil impulses and who are in need of strong, controlling government versus Rousseau’s social contract, which is founded on the general will as the political authority. The phrase ‘Noble Savage’ was introduced into English by Dryden in 1672.

In eighteenth-century social thought hunting and gathering societies such as the American Indians or horticulturalists such as the Pacific Islanders have, from opposing angles, been pictured as a complete contrast to European civilization. As a result a double image appeared. On the one hand, these societies were depicted as primitive, stagnant, and cruel. The savage needed to be educated and European intervention was justified and beneficial. On the other hand, there emerged a nostalgic image of the savage living in a natural state, free from the social and sexual restraints of civilization. Savage society preserved what had been lost in the developing process of European civilization. Intervention was fundamentally wrong and colonization had proved to be disastrous. Until the age of imperialism the two images were inseparable in European thought. Who then was this ‘savage’? In the various accounts he may be the North American Indian, the Inca, the Hottentot, the Greenlander, the inhabitant of one of the islands of Polynesia – in short, he was one of those primitive souls who were not European. Rousseau published his second Discourse in 1755. A Hottentot-vignette decorated the title page of his essay. To the author, the Hottentot represents the savage uncontaminated by civilization whose senses surpass those of cultured European. Such imagology made an impact. For a while, the Hottentot was presented as the ‘noble savage’ which intrigued the European mind of the later eighteenth century. Published anonymously in 1787, Franz Heinrich Bispink’s Briefe eines Hottentotten über die gesittete Welt attempts to give a critical assessment of European civilized life from an African perspective. Yet, the image of the ‘ignoble savage’ was never far removed. When looking for a dramatic terminology to describe the pandemonium of the French Revolution, the fictitious Hottentot seemed to fit the bill. In his elegy ‘Das Neue’ (1793), Klopstock coins the phrase ‘a hottentotade for the feast of the sansculottes’ in comparing revolutionary events in France to the imagined savagery of the Hottentot. In Balzac’s La peau de chagrin (1831) the use of the word Hottentot signifies ignorance and stupidity.

The emergence of social Darwinism, and by implication of scientific racism, swept away any notion of the noble savage and led to establishment of human zoos. Exhibitions of exotic populations became common in the 1870s in the midst of the imperialist ambitions and pride. In September 1906 William Hornaday, Director of the New York Bronx Zoo, exhibited a Congolese pygmy Ota Benga in a cage with chimpanzees, and subsequently with Dohong, an orangutan. The scientific purpose was to show the ‘missing link between man (white) and ape. The exhibition triggered protests, but the public loved it. Non-Western life was considered an animal park. The social Darwinist was a human zookeeper.

Socio-cultural criticism has been a crucial aspect of modernist movements in art and literature. From Romanticism onwards, the artist, like the rejected Rousseau, increasingly assumed an attitude of hostility towards the bourgeoisie (of which, of course, he himself was a son). The atmosphere of mutual mistrust deepened as the century progressed. The writer on the one hand depicted the bourgeois as a malicious fool or an idiot (le père Ubu is the ultimate caricature in a tradition going back as far as Balzac’s César Birotteau), the bourgeois on the other took revenge by calling the artist to court and make him pay for his ‘immoralities’. Reading through some of the proceedings of the cases against Baudelaire, Flaubert, Wilde, Kuprin, Lawrence and others, one notices, paradoxically, not so much a disinterest in literature on the side of the bourgeois, but rather an over-estimation of the might of words. Hence, the relentless crusades of moralist critics against – what they considered – the degeneracy and irresponsibility of the modernist mind. Objecting to much of contemporary art, they argued that vicious doctrines vitiate the mind of the young, ‘dirty’ pictures befoul their imagination, explicit books deprave their character. Goethe had no hesitation in stressing that the young can read without risk, but those moralists disagreed. They warned parents to be on their guard against the dangerous influence books and pictures exercise on their children.

A critical attitude towards contemporary society can be distinguished ever since modernism became a battle-cry in art and literature. However, with one notable exception (as we shall see), the identification or at least: the association of contemporaneity in art with political commitment belongs to the later stages of the Age of Modernism. In fact, nineteenth century artists – and painters in particular – had to deal first and foremost with the practical problems of creating a truly contemporary art, one that confronted the concrete experiences and appearances of their own times with an appropriate imagery. The issue of portraying modern man gave rise to an intriguing literary and artistic discussion during the 1860s which preceded the idea of modernism.

In his essay Le peintre de la vie moderne (1863), Baudelaire made a conscious effort to define the notion of modernity in art. His interpretation was a polemical one as he opposed the academic theory of an absolute ideal of beauty. Baudelaire describes beauty as consisting of two indispensable elements: there is the eternal, invariable element whose quality is difficult to determine; and there is a circumstantial element which is, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions. Baudelaire points to the work of Constantin Guys as an example. The distinctive feature of the latter’s work should be qualified as modern. The artist seeks to extract the eternal from the transitory by distilling the element of beauty which contemporary life contains. By modernity Baudelaire meant the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable. This fugitive element may be hard to grasp, but without it art would inevitably fumble into the abyss of an abstract beauty. One cannot substitute the costume of one’s own age for another.

It is worthwhile to follow Baudelaire’s line of reasoning (ideas, incidently, that were earlier developed in his descriptions of the Salons of 1846 and 1859). The general tendency among contemporary artists – he argues – is to portray their subjects in the dress of the past. They use costumes of the Renaissance, just as David employed those of Rome. The latter, however, by choosing subjects which were specifically Greek or Roman, had no alternative but to dress them in antique garb, whereas the painters of the second half of the nineteenth century, though selecting subjects of a more general nature, persisted in depicting them in the costume of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance or the Orient. The underlying principle of Baudelaire’s interpretation is that every age has own glance and gesture. In other words, every epoch has its own distinguishable physiognomy. It is the duty of every artist to translate that particular physiognomy in his own terms. By the time Baudelaire published his essay on Constantin Guys, the topics of modernity and contemporaneity in art were widely discussed. This discussion took place after the so-called bataille réaliste had lost its original impact. The catchword realism was replaced by modernism. Baudelaire’s essay Le peintre de la vie moderne dealt with a topical issue. It was the most explicit statement on modernism up to that moment. Central to Baudelaire’s argument is the perceived inabiblity of artists to portray contemporary people in the costume of the day. This criticism is more fundamental than it may appear at first glance. The historic resonance of the word costume holds the key to a deeper understanding.

Italian poet Giambattista Marino is above all remembered for his long mythological poem Adone (20 cantos, 45,000 words). The time and setting of this work are purely classical. Allusions to the Classics are to be found on almost every page. And yet, Marino took delight in describing the splendours of court life in his own time. This gives Adone its remarkable character as a poem. It reflects a combination of the grace of the ‘golden’ world of Greece and the magnificance of the contemporary Baroque ambience. How did the poet solve the problem of representation? In 1624 Marino addressed a letter to Girolamo Petri in which – discussing his poem – he described the solution he had found for that problem: ‘Io pretendo di saper le regole piú che non sanno tutti i pedanti insieme, ma la vera regola … è saper rompere le regole a tempo e luogo, accomodandosi al costume corrente ed al gusto del secolo’. It is important, in other words, to know when and how to break the rules of time and place and adjust them to suit the costume and taste of the age. A similar use of the word ‘costume’ can be traced in French writing. Fénelon, in 1714, argued that the painter who would ignore ‘ce qu’on nomme il costume ne peint rien avec vérité’. And Abbé Du Bos, in 1719, paid tribute to Poussin for applying the rules of what the Italians called costume. What exactly does the term connote? The word costume in Italian stands for custom and usage, as well as for garment and dress. It implies custom and costume, coûtume and costume. The costume of time, in other words, refers to habits, thought and garment. It encompasses local colour and physiognomy of the time. The word in its full richness of meaning can still be found in Carlyle’s Past and Present (1843), when the author refers to costume as ‘not of garments alone, but of thought, word, action, outlook and position’. Nietzsche in Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (1878) used the word Zeitkostüm very much in the same manner.

In the discussion on modernism and the modernity of art during the 1860s this notion of costume re-appeared, but the meaning of the concept was seemingly narrowed down to the issue of contemporary garment. The matter was discussed (1862/3) in Alexander Herzen’s correspondence with Turgenev. Contemporary art – according to the former – had won the freedom to depict anything, setting upon even the most ordinary subjects the imprint of beauty. The stumbling-block to the artist, however, was the petit bourgeois mentality of the times. Or, as Herzen puts it, the artist who brilliantly portrays a man naked or covered in rags, is driven to despair when facing the bourgeois in his swallow-tail coat. Hence, the extravagance of casting a Roman toga upon Robert Peel (in 1852, neo-classicist Welsh sculptor John Gibson had represented the politician in that manner). During the second half of the century the argument about costume raged throughout Europe amongst observers of contemporary society. The age, more than ever before, had become time-conscious. The never-ending controversy on progress or decadence, the complaints about the increased pace of life and change, the demand for the contemporaneity of art – they are all aspects of this acute awareness of time and place in history. The socio-cultural criticism that accompanied the discussion on dress, form and colour, indicates that the notion of costume had retained much of the meaning given by Marino to the term. In France, this discussion would take an intriguing, black twist.

In 1863 Manet exhibited his painting Le bain – now famously known as Le déjeuner sur l’herbe – in the Salon des Réfusés. The work created a storm of critical abuse. The picture of two fully dressed men appearing in the company of the naked female bather was considered indecent and in bad taste (although the lady in question was Manet’s favourite model Victorine Meurend, the men were his younger brother and brother-in-law). Public hostility not only helped to make Manet a hero in the eyes of younger painters, it also brought together in his support the group from which the Impressionists would emerge. According to his friend Antonin Proust, Manet conceived the idea of the painting whilst observing two women bathing at Argenteuil. His ambition was to re-do Giorgione’s Fête champêtre (Louvre) with contemporary figures. In order to merge the Classical inspiration with a modern setting, Manet was confronted with a very similar problem of representation as Marino had faced some centuries earlier. It is not so much the ‘classical’ nude that would have caught (and often: insensed) the eyes of Manet’s contemporaries, but the men dressed in their dark costumes.

Some critics have interpreted the painting as a practical joke, a young man’s attempt to shock the public and reap the benefits from a ‘succès à scandale’. That is incorrect. The date 1863 is significant: the painting was created at a moment in which the discussion on modernity and costume in artistic circles was the issue of the day. Manet put in paint what many predecessors had phrased in words: his work reflects the recurrent criticism on l’habit noir, the funereal costume, so typical of male garment of that period. The argument itself dates back to the 1830s and may well have been introduced into French thinking by that keen observer of his time, Honoré de Balzac, who in his Complaintes satiriques sur les moeurs du temps présent (a series of newspaper articles that appeared between February and April 1830) wrote that ‘we are all dressed in black like so many people in mourning’. Our time, Gérard de Nerval wrote in 1836, is a serious one, an age dressed in black, as if it mourns the preceding century. Black dress, according to Alfred de Musset (1836), was a sombre indication of the loss of all ilusions in society and De Goncourt in his diary (22 April 1857) suggested that in the history of the world only the nineteenth century had reason to dress in black, ‘à vivre en deuil’. Chesneau (1862) thought the blackness of garments suitable to an age which was both hyper-active and solemn. Taine (1866) hated the blackness of costume in his age and regretted the loss of lively colours, so full of symbolic meaning, which characterized his beloved Renaissance. Society, those critics agreed, had lost its capacity for light-heartedness and play. Civilization, in becoming more complex and abstract, had grown morbid. It dressed in black.*

In this context, Baudelaire’s contribution is the most relevant (and best-known). To his description of the Salon of 1846, the poet added a final section on the ‘heroism of modern life’, a plea, in other words, for the modernism of art. He ridiculed those artists who tried to poeticize contemporary subjects with a Greek cloak and posed a number of questions. Has not the contemporary black outfit its own beauty? Is not black the appropriate colour for a time of general suffering and mourning? The dress-coat and the frock-coat possess their political beauty, which is the expression of universal equality; and their poetic beauty, which is the expression of the public soul. We are each of us – he concludes – celebrating some funeral. Baudelaire not just set a poetic, but also a physical example to his contemporaries. He dressed in black from head to toe, from his silk hat, to his long, straight coat, to his stiff cravats, all the way down to his polished shoes. Even his linen was black.

Baudelaire seems to have taken delight in turning the argument about l’habit noir on its head. Instead of rejecting the garment of the age, he insisted that it was the duty of the painter to distil from it the element of beauty it contains. In spite of the ironic undertone of the essay, Baudelaire challenged the painter to keep his eyes vexed on the present. He emphasized that the true artist would be able to create colour in spite of the black coat and grey background – in doing so, he challenged painters of his generation to prove that very point. Moreover, Baudelaire argued, the themes of painting were as abundant as they had ever been. Depicting the nude, in her bed, in the bath, or in an anatomy theatre, had lost nothing of its impact in spite of a rich tradition. The section on modernity in Le peintre de la vie moderne is largely a re-statement of the Salon-piece of 1846. The dual element in Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, that is to say: contemporary male costume end the nude in classical pose, is a reference to Baudelaire’s interpretation of contemporaneity in art. Manet’s picture is a statement on modernity, a manifesto in paint.

Baudelaire’s attempts (1846, 1859, 1862) to define the idea of modernism in concrete terms, have been influential on later developments in literature and art. The debate about the costume of the age was an issue that concerned painters primarily. It was above all a practical problem they had to solve. This explains that most explicit statements on the modernity of art in those years are related to painting. Baudelaire, however, was not the first writer to link the notion of ‘costume of the age’ to the ideal of contemporaneity in art. He was preceded by a German poet and critic who, in 1831, had settled in Paris, with the ambition of interpreting the French to the Germans and the Germans to the French. Heinrich Heine made a remarkable impact on French literary and artistic circles. He found admirers in younger contemporaries as Baudelaire and Banville who, drawing on his thought and art, helped to direct and sustain an interest in Heine on the part of their symbolist followers (Mallarmé, Verlaine, Laforgue and others).

Heine’s first commission in Paris was to write an account of the Salon of 1831 for Cotta’s Morgenblatt. Having selected a number of paintings from the approximately 3,000 contributions to the Salon (a staggering figure), Heine did not deal with technical details in his assessment of the paintings. Instead, he concentrated on their subject matter. From the very beginning, he added an element of political pamphleteering to his aesthetics. Heine, of Jewish background and himself a victim of oppression in the quest for political and religious freedom, was at that time impressed by the teachings of Saint-Simon whose social philosophy was becoming somewhat of a vogue during the early 1830s. Moreover, contemporary political events in France had urged a number of artists to depict topical themes. The Salon of 1831 not only displayed portraits of Talleyrand and of Camille Desmoulins, but also forty scenes from the July Revolution, including Delacroix’s imposing Liberté guidant le peuple. The exhibition itself offered a challenge to a writer as engagé as Heine was, to comment upon political events and situations. To him, the paintings of the Salon of 1831 reflected, much more so than those of previous epochs, the life and tendencies of the time. The dominant aspect of the spirit of the age according to Heine was the ever-increasing drive for individual freedom. He recognized that aspiration in a number of paintings. Contemporaneity in art, at least in Heine’s interpretation, implied a clear political stance.

In his commentary, Heine declared the death of Classicist ideals. Its principles – he argued – were rooted in an outworn ancient regime. Artists had to re-think those principles and direct their attention towards the present. The artist could no longer ignore the challenge of contemporaneity, even if there were many problems to overcome. The problem of costume was one of the issues singled out by the critic. How could an artist succeed in portraying modern man in his ugly dress? Why did so many artists persist in turning to the past for their subject-matter? This is Heine’s final analysis of the situation he observed: ‘When the arts, after a long slumber, woke up again in our age, painters were in some considerable trouble over subjects worthy of depicting. In most European countries, even in the Catholic ones, the preference for biblical or mythological themes had subsided. However, our contemporary costume is far too mundane to inspire paintings set in the present and depicting ordinary life. Our modern garment is so pathetic that the painter can only make use of it in the form of parody’. The lack of contemporary style in costume was the reason that so many painters escaped into the past searching for inspiration. He pointed the finger at a German school of painters who continuously depicted ‘die heutigsten Menschen mit dem heutigsten Gefühlen’ (present day people with present day emotions) in the costume of the Middle Ages. It was this very contradiction, according to Heine, which formed an obstacle to artistic progression. Art can be nothing but the visionary reflection of one’s own time. It was at the Salon of 1831 that he recognized a new tendency towards contemporaneity in painting, an art that would be a true reflection of the spirit of the time. To Heine, the struggle for the modern idea was fought by French artists in particular.

To the French themselves, however, the modern idea in the 1830s was purely a literary matter and intrinsically connected to the clash between Romanticism and Classicism. Heine’s approach was certainly unusual at the time. As we have seen, the issues of costume and garment were raised already in those years by, for example, Honoré de Balzac, but in relating costume to the task of the painter to grasp the spirit of the age, Heine emphasized an issue that would become a topic of debate some three decades later. When Baudelaire re-defined the concept of modernity in art, impressive as his exposition may be, the very core of his argument had already been formulated by Heinrich Heine in his description of the Salon of 1831. It further reinforces the assertion that Heine has been a major influence on the development of French poetics/aesthetics in the middle and later years of the nineteenth century.


*For these, and other citations on this subject, see: Jaap Harskamp, The Anatomy of Despondency: Socio-Cultural Criticism 1789-1939, (Leiden / Boston: Brill, 2011).

Gore House was a London Georgian mansion built in the 1750s on the road that is now called Kensington Gore. In its original design, the house had a centrally placed porch with a balcony, and two flanking bays to its garden front. It was decorated by Robert Adam, the Scottish-born neoclassical architect and designer whose ‘Adam style’ was extremely fashionable. In 1808 the house, then in some state of neglect, was taken by social reformer William Wilberforce and his family. During his occupancy, which lasted until 1821, Wilberforce used to receive many politicians and fellow philanthropists here. The abolition of West Indian slavery was commenced in Gore House. Some fifteen years later the house became famous for its lively literary salons. By then it was the home of the Countess of Blessington and Count D’Orsay. The couple had moved there in 1836. They built an additional wing to the house which destroyed its original symmetry. The library created by Lady Blessington extended through the full depth of the mansion. It was designed as the social focus of the house.

Marguerite, Countess of Blessington was a wealthy and beautiful woman. Whilst staying in Genoa she met Byron on a number of occasions. These encounters formed the inspiration for her most famous book Conversations with Lord Byron. She remained on the Continent until Blessington’s death in May 1829. Some time previously the couple had been joined by Paris-born artist Alfred Guillaume Gabriel, Count D’Orsay, who in 1827 had married Lady Harriet Gardiner, Lord Blessington’s only daughter by a former wife. She was only fifteen at the time and, inevitably, the marriage soon ended in a separation. D’Orsay accompanied ‘gorgeous’ Marguerite to England and lived with her until her death. Gore House became a centre of attraction to all those distinguished in literature, learning, art, science and fashion. Count d’Orsay was a Bonapartist, and Louis Napoleon (the future Emperor Napoleon III) was a regular guest. D’Orsay’s artistic faculty as a painter and sculptor endeared him to many friends. More than 125 profile sketches were published by Mitchell of Bond Street of which nearly all of the sitters were celebrities of one kind or another. Today, over sixty of his pencil and chalk portraits are held in the National Portrait Gallery. Gambling was D’Orsay’s downfall. As the debts mounted, he could no longer avoid his creditors and in 1849 he fled to France. The furniture and decorations of the house were sold in a spectacular public auction. The sale by Phillips auction house, which was held at Gore House from 7 to 22 May 1849, attracted an estimated 20,000 visitors to the mansion. The catalogue consisted of 109 pages and included 85 paintings, 100 drawings, 74 miniatures, 107 prints, over 700 books, and some 1,150 objets d’art. Lady Blessington herself had joined the D’Orsay in Paris. She died within a month after the auction of their effects.

The next tenant of Gore House was no less flamboyant. In December 1850 Alexis Soyer took a lease of the mansion. He would become the most famous chef in Victorian London. Soyer was raised in Meaux-en-Brie on the Marne (famous for its cheese), and later moved to Paris. He was working in the kitchen of the Foreign Office when the 1830 Revolution broke out. The building was attacked by angry insurgents. Trying to escape, two of Soyer’s colleagues were shot before his eyes. He escaped through his presence of mind. Loudly singing La Marseillaise and La Parisienne he was cheered by the bloodthirsty mob and subsequently made his way to England. Having worked for various British notables, Soyer became chef de cuisine at the Reform Club in 1837 where he instituted many innovations in the kitchens of this exclusive gentleman’s club. These became so famous that they were opened for conducted tours. When Queen Victoria was crowned on 28 June 1838, he prepared a breakfast for 2,000 people at the Reform Club.

Soyer considered himself as an artist. He cultivated a Byron-like appearance and throughout his life he dressed as a Romantic dandy. Even in the kitchen he eschewed the conventional chef’s outfit. He made every effort to keep himself in the public eye. He was a regular correspondent to London newspapers and wrote a number of books on food and cookery. Antonin Carême had been the first French chef of international stature. Yet, in the best-known portrait of him, the Auguste Blanchard engraving after Charles August Steuben’s painting, there are no chef’s toque or any other culinary attributes to be seen. He is portrayed as a Romantic genius. Across the nineteenth century, both at home and abroad, French chefs achieved unprecedented prestige. However, they were rarely depicted as cooks. Rather, the various portraits and frontispieces constructing their public image show them as literary men. They are presented in a reflective pose, surrounded with paraphernalia of the writer: pen, paper, and books. Under the Ancien Régime, chefs were seen as subservient figures. This image survived into the post-Revolutionary period. In order to be seen as artists in their own right, chefs like Carême and Auguste Escoffier would style themselves as men of letters. It was a matter of ‘cooking the books’ maybe.

Soyer’s writings were widely distributed and offered an opportunity for self-promotion. His first book entitled Délassements culinaires (1845) features a ballet (!), ‘La Fille de l’Orage’, dedicated to his beloved Italian ballerina Fanny Cerrito. The slim volume also includes gastronomic essays – like the recipe for ‘La Crème de la Grande Bretagne’, which was probably written to flatter British society ladies. In spite of his eccentricity and his flirtation with the upper classes, there is another side to this complicated personality. During the Irish Potato famine in April 1847, Soyer invented a soup kitchen and was asked by the Government to go to Ireland to implement his idea. His ‘famine soup’ was served to thousands of the Dublin poor for free. Whilst in Ireland he wrote Soyer’s Charitable Cookery and gave the proceeds of the book to various charities. In 1847 he published a booklet entitled The Poor Man’s Regenerator (1847), a compendium of useful advice, from each copy of which he donated a penny to the poor. An extended version appeared in 1854 as Shilling Cookery for the People (1854). In contrast to his more ‘literary’, rather snobbish and stale works, his writing ‘for the people’ went down well and became a great publishing success. During the Crimean War, Soyer joined the troops to advice on army cooking. Dismayed by newspaper accounts of starving British troops, he volunteered his expertise. During a two-year stay he reformed the British Army’s kitchens as well as its inefficient ways of provisioning them. Together with Florence Nightingale Soyer reorganized the provisioning of army hospitals. When Soyer returned to London, he published an account of his adventures in the Crimea, entitled Soyer’s Culinary Campaign (1857).

Soyer resigned from the Reform Club in May 1850. The next year, he opened his Gastronomic Symposium of All Nations at Gore House to cater for visitors of the Great Exhibition. The organizers had approached Soyer as a possible contractor for the catering arrangements at the Crystal Palace. However, there were so many restrictions imposed upon the consumption of food and drink inside the Hall, that Soyer withdrew his participation. Instead, he tried to profit from the excitement of the event himself. The Symposium turned out to be the most flamboyant restaurant ever seen in London. Each room was decked to some extravaganza theme such as the ‘Grotte des Neiges Éternelles’ and the ‘Chambre Ardante d’Apollo’. An enormous outdoor table on an Italian-style veranda, the Banqueting Bridge of Doge’s Terrace, was created for those who liked dining al fresco. Soyer’s Symposium, with its diverse attractions, entertainers, hot-air balloons, fireworks, and other visual effects, was both restaurant and theme park. It turned out to be a carnival of styles from all centuries and all nations where the antique was mingled with the modern, and the medieval combined with contemporary science. Gore House was transformed into a restaurant-circus. Soyer hoped to entertain and feed 5,000 people daily, but the dream did not succeed. After three months he closed the ambitious project down having lost a substantial amount of money.

In his life, Soyer tried to out-Byron Byron. His public figure was at once endearing and ridiculous; a champion of the common people and a snob trying to cement his reputation as chef and creator in upper class circles; a dandy and performer; an elitist with an eye for mass markets. He was, in short, the godfather of the present-day chef. Apart from his culinary reputation, Soyer has left a linguistic legacy. The word recipe was introduced in the early 1580s and derived from the Latin recipere which means ‘to take’. In those early days the word was written by physicians at the head of prescriptions (and survives in the pharmacist’s abbreviation Rx). In the meaning of instructions for preparing food the word was first recorded in 1743. However, it was not until the mid nineteenth century that the term acquired the status as we now know it. The first O.E.D. citation that relates to food recipes is taken from Soyer’s The Panthopheon: or History of Food and its Preparation published in 1853.


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