Old Parr and the Poetry of Pub Signs

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There are a number of London pubs that carry the sign of Parr’s Head and deservedly so, because Old Parr was a remarkable character. Thomas Parr came to public notice in 1635, when John Taylor, the ‘Water Poet’, published a lively account of his life in a pamphlet entitled The Old, Old, Very Old Man. As the story goes, Parr was born in 1483 at Alberbury near Shrewsbury. He remained a bachelor until he was eighty, when he married Jane Taylor. They had a son and a daughter both of whom died in infancy. At the age of 105 Parr did penance for committing adultery with Katherine Milton. His wife died after they had been married for thirty-two years. Parr remained a widower for a decade and before, at the age of 122, marrying Jane, widow of Anthony Adda, of Guilsfield, Montgomeryshire.

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By 1635 Parr was blind and had one tooth, his beard was neat, his hearing and digestion were good and he slept well. In that year the great collector Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel, visiting his estates in Shropshire, learned of this ‘remarkable piece of antiquity’ and decided to ‘add him to his collection’. He paid for the old man to be brought to London where he was put on show. He had his portrait etched by Dutch artist Cornelius van Dalen and was presented to Charles I. The Van Dalen image was copied for the pub signs using Parr’s name. Unfortunately, he was unable to relate many events of his long lifetime, being more interested in the price of corn, hay, cattle, and sheep. Six weeks after his arrival in London he died suddenly, on 14/5 November 1635. The Royal physician William Harvey, famous for his research in the circulation of blood, conducted an autopsy. Uncritically accepting that Parr had been 152 years of age, Harvey noted that his organs of generation were in a healthy state, this being consistent with the story of his adultery and with his second wife’s report that he had had regular sexual intercourse with her until about twelve years previously. Harvey attributed Parr’s death in part to his sudden exposure to rich food and strong drink after a lifetime’s diet of cheese, buttermilk, and coarse bread. The main cause of death in his opinion was the effect of London’s atmosphere, polluted by people, animals, and the smoke of coal fires, upon someone accustomed to the healthy air of Shropshire. Parr was an early victim of polution.

Parr was buried in Westminster Abbey, where an inscription declared that he had lived through the reigns of ten monarchs. Taylor’s tract went into several editions and a Dutch version was published in 1636. Portraits of Parr were widely reproduced and the story of his longevity entered popular folklore. John Taylor gave Parr’s supposed longevity a moralistic slant: Parr was an emblem of old England, subsisting on a simple diet and hard physical labour, and uncorrupted by metropolitan luxury. Old Parr’s own extremely sound advice for living a long life had been: ‘Keep your head cool by temperance and your feet warm by exercise. Rise early, go soon to bed, and if you want to grow fat keep your eyes open and your mouth shut’. It was almost inevitable that London pubs would adopt Parr’s head as a sign. A record is mentioned of a house in Aldersgate Street that once had the venerable old man as its sign accompanied by these lines which were freely interpreted from the old man’s ‘philosophy’ of life:

Your head cool,
Your feet warm:
But a glass of gin
Would do you no harm.

Parr reflects the poetry of pub signs. The history of such trade signs goes back a long way and constitutes a minor part of English art history. During the reign of Edward III a group of artists formed themselves into a fraternity, but were not incorporated. The work they carried out consisted of the painting or staining of glass, illuminating missals, painting altars and portraits. In the year 1575, they were regularly attacked in their occupations by plasterers and unskilful persons attempting to bring their art into disrepute. Determined to preserve their craft from the intrusion of pretenders, the painters applied to Queen Elizabeth for protection. Elizabeth incorporated them in the year 1582 by the name of The Master, Wardens and Commonalty of the Freemen of the Art and Mystery of Painting, called Painter Stainers within the City of London.

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There were four sorts of painting which were properly acknowledged as trades, namely house, ship, sign and coach painting. For many years sign painting remained the roughest of work, but the skills involved became gradually more refined. Harp Alley, running from Shoe Lane to Farringdon Street, was for many years the centre for the production of signs and sign-irons (the carved grapes or gilded sugar-loaves that served as pendants). In a time when every shop in the streets of London had its sign, a Dutchman named Van der Trout opened a manufactory of these pictorial advertisements in Harp Alley. He had left Holland with William the Third, and was the first artist who settled in the area from where the majority of the Fleet Street signs were executed. It used to be one of the principal amusements of William Hogarth to visit the sign-painters shops in Harp Alley for the purpose of introducing some of those original subjects into his pictures. It was widely believed that sign and coach painting offered aspiring artists an effective training in their craft as well as an education in their art. In contrast to this sort of empirical training, academies of art focused on drawing and on questions of aesthetics.

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The importance of training in the vernacular language of art is exemplified in the careers of a number of academic artists. Royal academician Charles Carton was in early life a coach and sign painter as was Robert Smirke who served his time under a herald painter of the name of Bromley. Peter Monamy was apprenticed to a house painter on London Bridge and John Baker, another Royal academician, was known for decorating coach panels with borders and wreaths of flowers. Richard Wilson is said to have painted the Three Loggerheads for an inn in North Wales, and from this sign the village of Loggerhead nearby would take its name. Samuel Wale painted a Falstaff and a full length Shakespeare. Sporting painter of Dutch descent John Frederick Herring had started his career as a sign painter. Amongst the signs he produced was that of the Flying Dutchman tavern at Cottage Green, Camberwell, and the Stag, Coach and Horses and the White Lion in Doncaster (where he created his notable series of St Leger winners, the famous classic horse race at Doncaster). George Morland painted several signs. He is credited with the Goat in Boots sign, an alehouse that once was located on the Fulham Road and for that of the White Lion at Paddington. For Morland painting signs was a way of settling bills. In one instance he charged a fee of ‘unlimited gin’. Thanks to these and other artists we have become familiar with the poetry of pub signs. They deserve are gratitude.

There are an endless number of ‘jolly’ characters among the names of taverns and pubs. The sign indicates laughter, joviality, happiness and intoxication. Formerly the word also implied the meaning of healthy and well-developed. Something could be described as good, but more forcefully as jolly good. A wide range of public houses therefore contain this element. It is most frequently linked to a profession or trade, The Jolly Blacksmith, The Jolly Brewer, The Jolly Butcher, The Jolly Farmer, Fisherman, Potter, Shepherd, Tanner, Weaver, Woodman, etc. A jolly was also a sailor’s nickname for a marine (a militia man was known as a ‘tame jolly’). One expects to encounter a public house with the name of the Jolly Sailor exclusively in the harbour and sea side towns of the country. That is not the case. Even suburbia welcomes its sailors. During a 1906 auction in Norwich an interesting signboard was sold for the price of twelve guineas. It was the sign of the Jolly Sailor which formerly hung outside a Yarmouth public house known by that name. This sign depicts a jovial mariner wearing a red cap and a short blue jacket, standing on the shore and pointing seaward to his beloved ship close at land. Its creator was ‘Old Crome’.

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John Crome was one of the principal artists of the Norwich School. Founded in 1803 in Norwich, this was the first provincial art movement in Britain. Artists were inspired by the natural beauty of the local landscape and the work of seventeenth century Dutch masters. Also known as ‘Old Cromer’ (his son John Berney Crome also became a well-known landscape painter), he had been apprenticed to Francis Whisler, who was a house, coach and sign painter. There is an interesting alcoholic parallel here with Dutch landscape painter Meindert Hobbema. In 1668, the year of his marriage, the latter took on the position of wine gauger (a measurer of the amount of wine in the vats of vintners on which they were taxed) with the Amsterdam customs and excise, producing very few pictures thereafter. He spent most of his life in a poor district of the city and was never able to make a living out of his art. Yet, he would become one of the most sought-after Dutch artists in England, both among collectors and landscapists such as Gainsborough. Today, his work is outstandingly well represented in English collections. John Crome was known as the ‘English Hobbema’ just as Edinburgh-born Patrick Nasmyth enjoyed the reputation of a ‘Scottish Hobbema’. On his deathbed, Crome’s last recorded words were:

O, Hobbema, my dear Hobbema, how I have loved you!

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