Dwarfs and Giants

According to Horace Walpole, there was formerly a stone bas-relief over the entrance to London’s Bullhead Court that was the sign of a public house called the King’s Porter and the Dwarf. The sign was dated 1660. It may not seem politically correct nowadays, but dwarfs were immensely popular in early royal and aristocratic circles. The most famous dwarf of the seventeenth century was miniature painter Richard Gibson [called Dwarf Gibson]. In 1677 he accompanied Mary to The Hague on her marriage to Prince William of Orange. Gibson took lodgings in Amsterdam. He emerges from many references in the correspondence of Christiaan Huygens as an active collector and dealer in the art market. Gibson had started his career as a page in the house of an aristocratic lady at Mortlake. There he practiced the art of drawing by copying the works of Peter Lely (who himself drew Gibson’s picture leaning on a bust in 1658). Noticing his talent for drawing, the lady of the estate apprenticed him to Francis Cleyn, under whom he worked at the new Mortlake Tapestry Works (established 1619) until some time in the 1630s, when he entered the service of the Lord Chamberlain Philip Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. There he met Anne Sheppard, his future wife, who was also a member of Pembroke’s household. She also was a dwarf. Anne appears in Anthony van Dyck’s portrait of Mary, Duchess of Richmond, Pembroke’s daughter-in-law, at her first marriage. At the wedding of the two court dwarfs, the King gave the bride away and the Queen presented Anne with a diamond ring. Edmund Waller commemorated the festive occasion with a pleasant poem entitled ‘Of the Marriage of the Dwarfs’, and Sir Peter Lely painted the couple holding hands.

The two persons represented on the sign of the King’s Porter and the Dwarf are William Evans and Jefferey Hudson. The latter was born a dwarf. His father was a butcher employed by the Duke of Buckingham and both parents were of normal stature. By the age of eight, barely eighteen inches in height, his father presented him to the Duchess of Buckingham. She immediately took the dwarf into her service and not long afterwards introduced him to Charles I and Henrietta Maria by having him emerge from a cold baked pie during a feast given in their honour. Soon after, Hudson joined the Queen’s household, adopting her religion and becoming a Roman Catholic. He was known as ‘Lord Minimus’ or the ‘Queen’s Dwarf’. He reportedly became the close companion of her monkey, Pug, with whom he is shown in an Anthony van Dyck portrait of Henrietta Maria. Another portrait, by Dutch-born artist Daniel Mytens, showing Hudson holding the leash of a large dog, alludes to his participation in court hunts. He also danced in several court masques, such as Tom Thumb in Jonson’s Fortunate Isles (1625), a prince from Hell in Chlorida (1631) by the same author, and ‘a little Swiss who played the wag’ in William Davenant’s Salmacida Spolia (1640). Thomas Fuller in the Worthies of England (1662) tells of another appearance in a lost antimasque, in which a massively built porter at the court named William Evans pulled a loaf of bread from one pocket and Hudson, instead of a piece of cheese, from another. Hudson and Evans are pictured together in a print of 1636, along with the legendary Thomas Parr, who was reputedly 152 years old, as the smallest, tallest, and oldest men in the world.

During the first half of the eighteenth century dwarfs and midgets remained very much in vogue with royalty and aristocracy. They often lived in their patrons’ homes. Norfolk-born John Coan, better known as the ‘Norfolk Dwarf’ (he was a midget rather than a dwarf) was first ‘exhibited’ at the Lower Half Moon, Market Place, Norwich, in July 1744. He was aged sixteen and – according to a local newspaper report – was not three foot high. The first evidence of Coan’s move to London is his presentation before Frederick, Prince of Wales, as a guest at a party in Leicester House in January 1751. Much of Coan’s appeal lay in the combined attraction of his very small limbs (he was referred to as the ‘Man in Miniature’) and his precocious personality. He was known for his sharp wit and intelligence. Coan appeared at a number of London fairs and tavern venues. At the age of twenty-three he appeared at the Swan in Smithfield during the Bartholomew fair in 1751 on a show that contained ‘two dwarfs, a remarkable negro, a female one-horned rhinoceros, and a crocodile’. Henry Blacker from Cuckfield, Sussex, was also included in the Swan spectacle. Named ‘The British Giant’, he had travelled to London in 1751 at the age of twenty-seven to launch his career as a touring giant. He gained a large following of admirers. That same year H. Carpenter made an engraving of Blacker, and some years later his full-length portrait was included in James Caulfield’s Portraits, Memoirs, and Characters of Remarkable Persons (published in parts between 1790 and 1795). To witness Coan and Blacker in one show must have been some sight.

Following this performance, Coan featured much more as an individual performer. He appeared in taverns such as the Ship, the Anchor, and the Windmill near Temple Bar and at the famous Star and Garter where Coan’s humorous entertainments over dinner would be followed by Carlo Genovini’s firework displays. The latter was the author of a study on fireworks entitled L’art de composer feux d’artifice which published in Maastricht in 1748. For a short time John Coan kept a house called The Dwarf’s Tavern in Chelsea Fields. Regarded as an oddity, the tavern attracted large numbers of curious customers and even royalty. The reputation of the house was but brief, because its proprietor, the ‘unparalleled’ Coan, died within two years from starting his career as a landlord.