The Old Bachelor by William Congreve (1693)

BELLMORE: Come, come, leave business to idlers and wisdom to fools; they have need of ’em.  Wit be my faculty, and pleasure my occupation; and let Father Time shake his glass.

In his lengthy reply to the stinging criticisms of the contemporary stage contained in the polemical pamphlet, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage written by the bishop and theologian Jeremy Collier, William Congreve tells us that he wrote his first play, The Old Bachelor, while recovering from ‘a fit of sickness’ aged just 19! It’s an astonishing achievement for one so young.

A few years later, in 1692, young William arrived in London and showed The Old Bachelor to the leading literary figure of the day, John Dryden who, with typical generosity, declared he had never seen such a good first play in his life, but that it needed a bit of work cutting down to length and re-ordering some of the scenes.

Once revised, The Old Bachelor was promptly accepted by the only theatre company then performing in London, the United Company, and opened in March 1693. It was a smash-hit and had an extraordinary run of fourteen nights, which was getting on for a record for a Restoration comedy; some new plays ran for the bare minimum of three nights!

If you think about it, these incredibly short runs tell you everything about the size of the audience for these plays. It was minuscule. Was it even in the thousands? And this puts in context the many prologues and epilogues to the plays. Often the playwright and the actors knew key members of the audience personally, and so were directly addressing known individuals in the prologues and epilogues.

The Old Bachelor‘s success was in part attributed to the skilful performances of veteran performers Thomas Betterton and Anne Bracegirdle in the roles of Heartwell and Araminta, respectively.

I was startled to learn in a footnote that the music for the play was composed by Henry Purcell.

Cast list

I find the cast lists of these plays not only useful, but sometimes amusing – the comic names and descriptions – in their own right:

MEN
Heartwell, a surly old bachelor, pretending to slight women, secretly in love with Silvia
Bellmour, in love with Belinda
Vainlove, capricious in his love; in love with Araminta
Sharper
Sir Joseph Wittol
Captain Bluffe
Fondlewife, a banker
Setter, a pimp
Tribulation Spintext, a Puritan preacher (who never actually appears in the play)
Mr Gavot, musician to Araminta
Servant to Fondlewife.

WOMEN.
Araminta, in love with Vainlove
Belinda, her cousin, an affected lady, in love with Bellmour
Lætitia, wife to Fondlewife
Sylvia, Vainlove’s forsaken mistress
Lucy, maid to Sylvia
Betty, maid to Belinda

It’s all set in London. As I’ve read more of the plays, I’ve realised that Aphra Behn’s setting her most successful play, The Rover, in Italy, is by far the exception not the rule of Restoration comedy. Almost all the comedies are set in the same city and the same time as the audience. They are completely contemporary.

Act 1

Bellmour and Vainlove are two weary rakes. Vainlove likes seducing women but is easily bored and actively dislikes it if they come on to him. He goes to show Bellmour but gives him the wrong one by mistake, it is a letter from Vainlove’s recently spurned lover, Sylvia, reproving him for abandoning her. It then comes out that Bellmour slept with her, apparently in disguise so she didn’t realise who he was! But she sincerely loves Vainlove and he has dumped her.

Next Vainlove gives Bellmour the letter he’d intended to show him, a love letter from Laetitia, the wife of the comic character Fondlewife – he paid her a few polite compliments and now she’s sent him a damn love letter telling him her husband will be out of town on business and to come and see her in disguise. He asks Bellmour to do him a favour and do it for him – but Laetitia’s lovely says Bellmour – yes, but I hate being forced into an affair, complains Vainlove. They discuss getting Vainlove’s tailor, Settler, to provide a disguise for Bellmour. They briefly discuss the feeble character of the husband, Fondlewife, then Vainlove leaves ‘on business’.

Bellmour complains that he is already in love with one woman, has a dozen or so mistresses, and now Vainlove is suggesting he take on his beloved, God it’s an exhausting business, being a libertine! He says this in the form of a soliloquy, alone onstage, at which point enter Sharper, whose role is to provide comic asides, and start with a good line:

SHARPER:  I’m sorry to see this, Ned.  Once a man comes to his soliloquies, I give him for gone.

Enter Heartwell who they both mock for being a grumpy old misanthropist who doesn’t believe in love. Heartwell in turn mocks Bellmour and Vainlove for expending so much energy in the pursuit of women, and has a particularly cynical speech about how, when you’ve finally gone through all this faradiddle in order to get married, your baby will end up looking like half the aristocracy of England because your wife will have been unfaithful with them all. Visitors coo and tickle the baby and say:

‘Ay, the boy takes after his mother’s relations,’ when the devil and she knows ’tis a little compound of the whole body of nobility.

Heartwell leaves ‘on business’ and Bellmour spots two stock comic characters, Sir Joseph Wittol, a foolish knight, and his companion, the cowardly bully, Captain Bluffe, who he points out to Sharper. Bellmour explains that the night before he came across Wittol being set upon by footpads and freed him, though Wittol ran off without identifying his rescuer.

Act 2 scene 1

Sharper follows Sir Joseph to the location where he was mugged the night before, then pretends to be his mysterious rescuer but says that, alas, he lost a hundred pounds in the affray, and starts trying to dun Sir Joseph for it. This blustering old fool is trying to find a way out, when his sidekick and defender turns up, the swaggering blustering bully Captain Bluffe, and there is a richly comic scene of Sharper egging both men on to silly heights of boasting and braggartry, Bluffe in particular being scandalised that his heroic escapades in the recent wars don’t seem to have been reported in the news gazettes!

Act 2 scene 2

Araminta, in love with Vainlove, squabbles with her cousin Belinda, who affects to despise men –

BELINDA: Oh, you have raved, talked idly, and all in commendation of that filthy, awkward, two-legged creature man.

But is secretly in love with Bellmour. Araminta says Belinda dreamed of Bellmour last night, called out his name and embraced her (Araminta) as if she was him. Stuff and nonsense, cries Belinda, and calls her servant to prepare her things to go out, but at that moment a servant announces that Bellmour and Vainlove are visiting. After some indecision, Belinda decides to stay after all, in order to protect her cousin’s reputation, of course – though her cousin teases her it’s solely to see Bellmour.

Prolonged repartee during which all sides wittily cap each other’s allusions and barbs, with generalised sententiae about love and devotion. Araminta emerges as the quickest-witted of them – all of these plays feature one strong, determined and clever woman. There is a passage of particularly barbed banter between Bellmour who extravagantly paints his devotion and Belinda who scorns him. In fact when he asks her what she can do for her, she says shut up, which leads to a comic sequence where Bellmour continues his conversation in sign language until Belinda is so exasperated she lets him speak again.

Their musician, Mr Gavot, performs a song Araminta has written. This happens in most of the plays. Did Restoration aristocrats write songs this glibly and easily for their lady loves or is it purely a theatrical convention?

Act 3 scene 1

Sylvia is the woman Vainlove has jilted, and Lucy is her maid who, as so often, impertinently tells her boss the true state of affairs, namely that Vainlove will never love her again. Sylvia is consumed with envy for her love rival, Araminta, but Lucy says she has a Plan to fix that – send Vainlove a cloying letter as if from Araminta – a woman’s enthusiasm always puts Vainlove off.

LUCY: Contrive a kind letter as from her, ’twould disgust his nicety, and take away his stomach.

Meanwhile, here comes Heartwell – Lucy encourages Sylvia to make the best of a bad job and hook him. Soon she’ll be old. She needs to get a husband before she can.

Vainlove and Bellmour have tailed Heartwell to Sylvia’s house. They watch as the ageing foo hesitates whether to in or not and commit himself to the snare of womanhood. He does, as Bellmour and Vainlove stifle their mirth. Then Vainlove’s tailor, Setter, arrives: he has prepared a full set of clothes which allow Bellmour to masquerade as the earnest Puritan preacher Spintext.

Bellmour tells Setter to meet him with the costume later and exits. Setter launches into a comically high-minded speech about the relative merits of a manservant and a pimp. Lucy comes upon him and, as so often, a lead male character’s manservant is in love with a lead woman’s maidservant, their working class love affair echoing their betters’ affair but more crudely.

Congreve gives this kind of set scene an extra spin by having Lucy put on a face mask before talking to Setter and, given that his soliloquy was already laughably pretentious, the couple then launch into a parody of highfalutin’ tragedy, complete with what were obviously obscure and archaic words to convey their eminence and lofty sentiments. Lucy extracts from Setter that his master will be in Covent Garden later, then manages to get away without being covered in slobbery kisses.

Wittoll and Bluffe enter. Bluffe is cross that Sir Joseph has given Sharper £100, and works himself up into a fury of vengeance, declaring that if only Sharper were here, he would take his revenge and… at that precise moment Sharper and Bellmour appear onstage and Bluffe performs a comic blustering retreat. Sharper quickly detects how angry they are with him but also what cowards they are – and so takes to kicking Wittoll and beating Bluffe who swears he will have vengeance, but not now, not here, it’s too public and various other excuses.

Sharper and Bellmour exeunt laughing.

Act 3 Scene 2 Silvia’s lodgings

Enter Heartwell, the ageing anti-love exponent, the old bachelor of the title, and Sylvia, Vainlove’s jilted lover. Heartwell has laid on a dance, music and the performance of a song to impress Silvia. He then jangles his purse full of gold coins at her. His wooing of her is done in the higher, more poetic style the play occasionally drops into. Heartwell combines high-flown rhetoric with emotional clumsiness, for example offering to buy Sylvia outright. But when she beings to talk about marriage, he is suddenly very reluctant to marry her – because he thinks marriage is a fool’s estate – suggesting instead that she become his licensed mistress. Which makes Sylvia cry that she doesn’t want to live as a whore and burst into tears.

But when he finally leaves, after grabbing a few kisses, Sylvia turns to the audience and says:

SILVIA:  Ha, ha, ha, an old fox trapped –

Suggesting that everything she said in their scene together, all the sighs and tears, were a ploy, a trap to get him to marry her, to get her hands on his money. (Money is never far from the surface of these plays; they reveal what a major role it plays in human relationships.)

Sylvia’s servant Lucy enters and says she’s contrived a letter to Vainlove as if from Amarinta which will wreck their love.

Act 4 scene 1

Bellmour dressed up as the Puritan Spintext:

BELLMOUR: I wonder why all our young fellows should glory in an opinion of atheism, when they may be so much more conveniently lewd under the coverlet of religion.

Exits. Enter Fondlewife who, in a soliloquy, reveals he is jealous of his beautiful young wife, Laetitia. Then a scene in which he suspects her of adultery and she, in comic asides, reveals she is frightened he knows her true intent i.e. to be unfaithful with Vainlove, whilst to Fondlewife’s face playing the aggrieved wife. They both use baby talk which makes the scene more funny. Finally, she manages, with umpteen kisses, to pack him off on the overnight journey he’s taking on ‘business’.

It is an important fact that Fondlewife has arranged for a chaplain or preacher to be with her and instruct her while he is away. This is the content of the letter she had sent to Vainlove and which he showed Bellmour right at the start of the play i.e. ‘my husband is going away for the night, come in the disguise of a preacher.’

Vainlove and Sharper. They read the letter they’ve been sent, as from Amarinta, but in fact by Lucy. She has done her work well, correctly predicting that by making Amarinta come on strong, puts Vainlove off her:

VAINLOVE: I hate to be crammed. By heaven, there’s not a woman will give a man the pleasure of a chase: my sport is always balked or cut short. I stumble over the game I would pursue. ’Tis dull and unnatural to have a hare run full in the hounds’ mouth, and would distaste the keenest hunter. I would have overtaken, not have met, my game.

So they plan to meet Amarinta at Covent Garden that evening, but Vainlove will now spurn her. (Sharper thinks he’s a fool.)

Act 4 Scene 2

Bellmour, in disguise as Spintext the preacher, is shown into Mrs Fondlewife i.e. Laetitia’s rooms. No sooner has the servant left before he throws off his disguise and reveals himself to Laetitia who feigns shock and surprise, mainly because she was expecting Vainlove. But the scene is devoted to showing Bellmour’s formidable seduction technique as he slowly wins her round and by the end, by pretending to have a fainting fit, he gets her to agree he can lie on her bed to recover, and they exeunt into her bedroom.

Act 4 scene 3 St James’s Park

Setting for the afternoon rambles of the layabout aristocracy. Enter Belinda and Amarinta. It is much more obvious that Belinda is meant to be pretentious and affected and tells Amarinta how she took it upon herself to correct the manners of a country family up in town for the first time.

They put on masks as Sir Joseph Wittoll and the boasting soldier Captain Bluffe approach and there is some comic banter before the ladies spy Vainlove approaching, and tell the two buffoons to bugger off, although Sir Joseph realises Amarinta is heiress to a vast fortune and tells us in an aside he’d like to marry her.

The point of the scene is for Amarinta and Vainlove to be left alone, so he can act cold and in a roundabout way berate her for the letter she sent him. But since she didn’t send him the letter, she has no idea what is going on and quickly becomes angry, storming off.

Act 4 scene 4 Fondlewife’s house

Bellmour and Laetitia have had sex and emerge from the bedroom to hear Fondlewife’s voice coming up the stairs. Bellmour gathers up the preacher costume and Laetitia bundles him into the bedroom before opening the door to Fondlewife and Sir Joseph.

In this farcical scene, Fondlewife announces that he needs to go into the bedroom to collect the papers he forgot to take for his ‘business’ and Laetitia desperately tries to think up pretexts to stop him, at one point bundling into Sir John when Fondlewife’s back is turned and claiming the old bodger tried to molest her; which Fondlewife believes and pushes Sir John out the door with vivid Biblical imprecations.

But Fondlewife is still determined to enter the bedroom (where Bellmour is hiding) and so Laetitia suddenly has a brainwave and tells her husband the preacher came round and was giving her lessons in piety but had an attack of stomach ache and is lying on the bed. Fondlewife buys this, tiptoes into the bedroom, sees the form of Bellmour on the bed, gets his papers and tiptoes out, telling Laetitia they must get the maid to look after the poor preacher when… he sees the book. A book on the floor. The book Bellmour brought with him. And is it a book of devotion and piety? No. Fondlewife picks it up and realises that it is a French novel, The Innocent Adultery! No priest would carry this. Bellmour is busted!

Angrily, Fondlewife calls for the unknown man to come out of the bedroom, while Laetitia pleads she has no idea who he is or what he was doing there, wretched please which Fondlewife now brusquely dismisses.

But this scene turns into a further demonstration of Bellmour’s mastery as he manages to outface the situation. He comes out of the bedroom and confronts Fondlewife, declaring he is a whoremaster who pinched Spintext’s costume, then pretended to have colic in order to lie on her bed and was about to call her in when Fondlewife appeared – so he never got as far as seducing Laetitia.

Bellmour exudes confidence. Laetitia talks babytalk to Fondlewife. The latter softens. She faints. He believes her. Thus gullible husbands.

Act 5 scene 1 The street

Bellmour meets up with Setter and tells him the disguise worked a treat. Then they both see Heartwell arriving at Silvia’s house. Setter exits and Bellmour chats up Lucy, Silvia’s maid, with a kiss (seems like she’s one his many conquests) and some money, and asks her to keep up the pretence that he is a preacher, so he can marry the silly couple.

Enter Vainlove, Sharper and Setter. Setter tells them that the letter which upset Vainlove, the letter pretending to come from Amarinta, was in fact concocted by vengeful Silvia. This clears the way for Vainlove to be back in love with Amarinta!

The final scenes get confusing. Bellmour in the guise of the preacher falsely marries Heartwell and Silvia, then takes her aside, reveals his true identity and promises he will find her a better husband. He pops back into the street and tells Setter and Sharper to keep their eyes peeled for a replacement husband then exits. At this point Sir John and Captain Bluffe come along.

Setter and Sharper then have a whole series of machinations, some of which happen in whispers, or offstage, in some of which they pretend information to dupe Sir John and the Captain, and also Heartwell who Sharper appears to torment by dragging him towards his own house, promising him a fine young wench who’s up for a shag… until Heartwell realises it’s the wife he’s just married that Sharper is talking about. I got lost in the maze. I read this passage a couple of times and still didn’t understand the ins and outs. Partly because they don’t clearly state what they’re planning to do, they disappear into corners to mutter with the people they’re gulling…the schemes they’re cooking up only become clear as they emerge in the final scene.

In the penultimate passage, Bellmour and Belinda, Vainlove and Amarinta, are invited to Heartwell’s house. Somehow Sharper has got Silvia out of the house and conspired to convince Heartwell that his wife of half an hour is already off whoring. The four leads tease Heartwell about his stupidity in marrying and his cuckolded state: Belinda in particular emerges as sharp tongued and witty.

As Eric Rump points out in his introduction to the Penguin edition, this tormenting of Heartwell amounts to bullying and triggers him to give a speech which echoes Shylock’s in The Merchant of Venice:

HEARTWELL: How have I deserved this of you? any of ye?  Sir, have I impaired the honour of your house, promised your sister marriage, and whored her?  Wherein have I injured you?  Did I bring a physician to your father when he lay expiring, and endeavour to prolong his life, and you one and twenty?  Madam, have I had an opportunity with you and baulked it?  Did you ever offer me the favour that I refused it?

At moments like this does the comedy topple into something much more serious, into something momentarily closer to tragedy? Is it that much more serious precisely because it emerges from comedy, rather than one of the era’s over-wrought tragedies?

Eric Rump points out that the role of Heartwell – the Old Bachelor of the title – was taken by Thomas Betterton, the ‘Laurence Olivier of his day’, who also played tragic leads and so would have given the role more depth and seriousness than a purely comic actor. However you judge the effect, it is extremely impressive of Congreve to have touched this deeper nerve when he was barely into his twenties.

Anyway, our boys and girls goad Heartwell into declaring he will do anything to be rid of his married state, which is what they’re conspiring for all along – and we, the audience, know that he is not in fact married at all, since the ceremony was carried out by Bellmour in disguise.

On the last three pages the elaborate scam is revealed. Sharper and Settle have married Sir John and Captain Bluffe to two women they thought were Amarinta and Belinda – except they aren’t. The real Amarinta and Belinda now take their masks off to reveal themselves – to the two braggart soldiers’ shock and surprise – and when they turn to the women they have married – they reveal themselves as Silvia and Lucy.

SIR JOHN: Pray, madam, who are you?  For I find you and I are like to be better acquainted.
SILVIA: The worst of me is, that I am your wife—

So Lucy is married to Captain Bluffe – who announces he will no more to the wars – Silvia is married to the insufferable Sir John, but does at least acquire a title. And Heartwell breathes a huge sigh of relief to realise he isn’t married after all.

And Bellmour – with the abrupt reversal in attitude for which these plays are notorious – declares he is happy to acquire the fetters of marriage with acid-tongued Belinda. It only remains for Vainlove to marry Amarinta and all the loose ends are tied up but Bellmour notices Vainlove, given his contrary psychology, showing signs of reluctance to marry her and so announces that he and Belinda will get married first the next morning, to set an example to Vainlove and Araminta.

Then there’s the traditional music and dancing.


Animal imagery

There’s a lot of animal imagery. Vainlove is referred to as an ass, Bellmour an ape and a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Heartwell an old fox, Sir John a lion, women as hares to be hunted or partridges to be covered, cuckolded men are like stags with horns. The references add colourful imagery to the endless truisms about love and marriage and adultery.

Maybe they link to Belinda’s comment about ‘filthy, awkward, two-legged creature man’, but I don’t see that there’s anything very deep going on here. All the Restoration comedies are based on a worldview which sees human beings as amoral animals devoted to quenching animal drives, lust being topmost, but also drunkenness and gluttony, and using their God-given minds not to seek a devout and spiritual life, but to concoct fantastically complicated schemes for their own debauchery.

SIR JOSEPH: Nay, Gad, I’ll pick up; I’m resolved to make a night on’t… Adslidikins, bully, we’ll wallow in wine and women. Why, this same Madeira wine has made me as light as a grasshopper.

Quite often, reading these plays, you can sympathise with Bishop Collier and his characterisation of the plays as deliberately encouraging lust, avarice, greed, gluttony, jealousy, anger and sometimes violence.

VAINLOVE: Why did you not find me out, to tell me this before, sot?
SETTER: Sir, I was pimping for Mr. Bellmour.
SHARP: You were well employed.

More noticeable is Congreve’s way with extended metaphors, or with a metaphor which allows him to bring in colourful imagery. Thus at the very opening Bellmour has a little speech which in four clauses contains four images from the game of bowls:

BELLMOUR: Business is the rub of life, perverts our aim, casts off the bias, and leaves us wide and short of the intended mark.

This is so contrived I wonder if the actor paused and waited for a ripple of applause from the audience at the author’s cleverness.

At the start of Act Five, Bellmour bumps into Setter who asks him how things went in the plot to have sex with Laetitia, and both of them jokily use an extended naval metaphor to describe the result:

SETTER: Joy of your return, sir. Have you made a good voyage? or have you brought your own lading back?
BELLMOUR: No, I have brought nothing but ballast back – made a delicious voyage, Setter; and might have rode at anchor in the port till this time, but the enemy surprised us – I would unrig.

So Bellmour has unloaded his cargo.

Misandry

Woke modern critics attack the Restoration comedies for their misogyny e.g. Sharper describing Araminta as:

a delicious melon, pure and consenting ripe, and only waits thy cutting up.

But it seems to me that all the characters, regardless of gender, age or class, manipulate and denigrate each other on the basis of an utterly heartless and cynical worldview. And for every dismissive generalisation the men make about women, the women make one about men, and the aristocrats make about their servants, and the servants make about their stupid masters.

  • BELINDA:  Oh, you have raved, talked idly, and all in commendation of that filthy, awkward, two-legged creature man.
  • LUCY: Man was by nature woman’s cully made:
  • HEARTWELL: Lying, child, is indeed the art of love, and men are generally masters in it
  • ARAMINTA to VAINLOVE: Thou hadst all the treachery and malice of thy sex

The plays may contain umpteen libels against women, but the biggest indictment is how the men talk and behave and Belinda has a vivid little speech about how, in the end, disappointing men are, after all the impressive wooing, once you actually marry them.

BELINDA:Thou art so troublesome a lover, there’s hopes thou’lt make a more than ordinary quiet husband.
BELLMOUR: Is that a maxim among ye?
BELINDA: Yes: you fluttering men of the mode have made marriage a mere French dish… You are so curious in the preparation, that is, your courtship, one would think you meant a noble entertainment – but when we come to feed, ’tis all froth, and poor, but in show.  Nay, often, only remains, which have been I know not how many times warmed for other company, and at last served up cold to the wife.

The exhausted libertine

I think it’s Dorimant in The Man of Mode that critics point out sounds tired – or is it Belvile in The Rover? The point is that many of the plays start with the leading male character sounding exhausted.

Now, the critics I read appear to take this at face value as an indictment of the libertine lifestyle as a whole, as if the plays are observational documentaries. But something in Bellmour’s final words in this play made me realise there’s a simpler and less moralising interpretation.

Structurally, all the plays end with the lead characters marrying and many critics have pointed out the complete lack of psychological verisimilitude involved in witty, cynical characters who’ve spent four acts slagging off marriage as an institution for stubborn fools – suddenly decide marriage is a wonderful state and enter into it with boundless enthusiasm.

Seen from this perspective, the trope of the tired libertine makes more sense. It stands to reason that, in preparation for this last act about-face, hints should be dropped right from the start that the lead libertine is actually quite tired of his life of endless seduction and is, in fact, teetering on the brink of abandoning it.

And therefore that the male lead’s expression of these thoughts and feelings have little or no moral or psychological content, but are a structural necessity of the form, as formulaic as most other aspects of the plays.

In fact, almost all these Restoration comedies can be reinterpreted as the final acts in the libertine’s long career. They’re all plays about Life Changes and Conversions.


Related links

Reviews of other Restoration plays

Only Human by Martin Parr @ the National Portrait Gallery

Born in 1952 in Epsom, Martin Parr has become one of Britain’s most celebrated and successful photographers. He has achieved this by:

  1. being extremely prolific, having taken thousands of tip-top photographs which he has packaged into numerous books and projects and exhibitions (he has published more than one hundred books, exhibited internationally, was President of the highly respected Magnum photo agency from 2013–17, and recently established the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, dedicated to collecting and exhibiting work by British and Irish photographers)
  2. being an extremely good talker – the exhibition features an eight-minute-long video interview in which Parr confidently, affably and articulately explains his work (can’t find this on YouTube but if you search you’ll find plenty of examples of him being interviewed and chatting away like a favourite uncle)
  3. having established a style, a niche, a unique selling point and brand, namely large, colour photos of ordinary British people in crushingly ordinary, unposed situations, captured in a blunt, unvarnished, warts-and-all style
Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Massive colour prints

In fact, leafing through the many books on sale in the shop, you realise that his early work, for example shooting chapelgoers in Yorkshire, consisted of relatively small, black-and-white prints. It’s only in the past ten years or so that switching to digital cameras has allowed Parr to make much bigger images, with digital clarity and colour.

And it is hosts of these massive, colour prints of hundreds of images of the great British public, caught in casual moments, going about a wide range of odd, quirky and endearing activities, or just being ugly, fat, old, and scruffy – which make up the show.

Nice, France, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Humorous presentation

The exhibition fills the 14 or so rooms of the National Portrait Gallery’s main downstairs gallery space but the first thing to note is how Parr and the curators have made every effort to jazz it up in a humorous if rather downbeat way typical of the man and his love-hate relationship with the fabulous crapness of ordinary, everyday British culture. Thus:

Parr has always been interested in dancing, all kinds of dancing, and the big room devoted to shots of dancers – from punk to Goth, from gay pride to traditional Scottish dancing, to ballroom dancing to mosh pits at a metal concert – the room in which all these are hung is dominated by a slow-turning mirror ball projecting spangly facets on the walls and across the photos.

In the room devoted to beach life one entire wall is completely covered with a vast panorama of a beach absolutely packed with sunbathers in Argentina.

Installation view of the huge photo of Grandé Beach, Mar Del Plata, Argentina, 2014. Note the jokey deckchairs in front.

The Martin Parr café

Half way through the exhibition, the Portrait Gallery has turned a whole room into the Martin Parr café, not a stylish French joint with expresso machine, but a down at heel, fly-blown transport caff, with formica tables and those glass cases by the till which display a range of knackered looking Brandenburg cakes.

You really can buy tea and cakes here (two teas and two pieces of cake for a tenner), or a pint of the ‘Only Human’ craft beer which has been created for the show, read a copy of the exhibition catalogue left on each table, or stare at the cheap TV in the corner which is showing a video of the Pet Shop Boys busking at various locations around London (which Parr himself directed), or just sit and chat.

Buy now while stocks last

The gallery shop has similarly had a complete makeover to look like a cluttered, low-budget emporium festooned with big yellow and red placards proclaiming ‘Pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap’, and ‘Special offer’, ‘Special sale price’, and they have deliberately created the tackiest merchandise they can imagine, including Martin Parr sandals, deckchairs, tea towels, as well as the usual fridge magnets, lapel badges and loads of books by this most prolific of photographers.

Parraphernalia

The first room, before you’ve even handed over your ticket, is jokily titled Parraphernalia:

As Parr’s fame has grown, interest in the commercialisation of his images, name and likeness has grown exponentially. Parr approaches these opportunities with the same creativity he applies to his photography. Early in his career, Parr experimented with alternative methods for presenting his photographs, such as transferring pictures onto ceramic plates and other everyday objects.

Thus you’ll find a wall festooned with t-shirts, pyjamas, tote bags, mugs, posters, plates and so on each covered with a characteristic Parr image.

Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich, the Black Country, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Fotoescultura

Then there’s a room of fotoescultura. What is fotoescultura? I hear you ask. Well:

In 2009, Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide introduced Parr to Bruno Eslava, an eighty-four year old Mexican folk artist, who was one of the last remaining practitioners of the art of fotoescultura (photo sculpture). Hand-carved in wood, and incorporating a photograph transferred onto shaped tin, fotoesculturas are traditionally used to showcase prized portrait photographs in the home, frequently, but not always, of deceased loved ones. Parr commissioned Eslava to produce a series of these playful and affectionate objects to draw attention to the disappearing art of fotoescultura in Mexico.

These take up a wall covered with little ledges on which perch odd-shaped wood carvings with various photos of Parr himself on them.

Installation view of fotoesculturas at Only Human by Martin Parr. Photo by the author

Oneness

And right next to these was a big screen showing the recent set of idents for BBC 1. I had no idea that Parr was involved in making these – although if you read the credit roll at the end you realise the whole thing was researched, produced and directed by quite a huge cast of TV professionals. Presumably he came up with the basic idea and researched the organisations.

In 2016, BBC Creative commissioned Parr to create a series of idents for BBC One – short films between programmes that identify the broadcaster – on the subject of British ‘oneness’. He subsequently travelled throughout England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales photographing volunteer organisations and sport and hobby clubs, which he felt exemplified this quality. Parr’s evolving portrait of modern Britain shows people united by shared interests and passions, and reflects the diversity of communities living in the UK today.

For each subject, both a 30-second film and a still photograph were made. The films were all produced in the same format: participants start by being engaged in their activity seemingly unaware of the camera, pause briefly to face the camera, then return to the activity as if nothing ever happened.

You can watch them on Parr’s website.

Full list of rooms and themes

The rooms are divided by theme, namely:

  • Parraphernalia (bric a brac covered with Parr images)
  • Fotoesculturas & Autoportraits (fotoesculturas explained above; autoportraits are self portraits in the styles of other cultures, from Turkey, Thailand, the Soviet Union etc)
  • Oneness (the BBC One idents)
  • Celebrity (photos of famous people e.g. Vivienne Westwood, Grayson Perry)
  • Grand Slam (he likes photographing the crowds at tennis tournaments)
  • Everybody Dance Now (people dancing, from Goth mosh pits to Scottish Ceilidhs)
  • Beside the Seaside (he’s visited every major seaside resort in the UK photographing the fat and pasty British at play)
  • Ordinary Portraits
  • British Abroad (pasty-faced ex-pats in Africa)
  • A Day at the Races (pasty-faced, tackily-dressed Brits at the races)
  • Interview (eight-minute video interview)
  • Café (complete with Martin Parr beer)
  • Britain in the time of Brexit (for which he went to Leave-voting areas and photographed tattooed chavs and their pit bull terriers)
  • The Establishment (quaint ceremonies of the City of London, Oxbridge students, Her Majesty the Queen)

The Queen visiting the Livery Hall of the Drapers’ Livery Company for their 650th Anniversary, the City of London, London, England, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Identity

Regular readers of this blog will know that, although I welcome the weird and wonderful in art (and music and literature) – in fact, on the whole, I am more disposed to 20th and 21st century art than to classical (Renaissance to Victorian) art – nonetheless I am powerfully allergic to a lot of modern art curation, commentary and scholarly artspeak.

This is because I find it so limiting. Whereas the world is big and wide and weird, full of seven and a half billion squabbling, squealing, shagging, dying, fighting, working human beings – artspeak tends to reduce all artworks to the same three or four monotonously similar ‘issues’, namely:

  • gender (meaning all women are oppressed)
  • diversity (meaning all blacks and Muslims are oppressed)
  • same-sex desire (the polite, ladylike way of saying gay and lesbian sex: of course, all lesbians and gays and trans people are oppressed)
  • imperialism and colonialism (all colonial peoples and imperial subjects were oppressed)
  • and – sigh – identity (all the old, traditional categories of identity are being interrogated, questioned and transgressed)

It’s rare than any exhibition of a modern artist manages not to get trapped and wrapped, cribbed, cabined and confined, prepackaged and predigested, into one or other of these tidy, limiting and deadly dull categories.

Many modern artists go along with this handful of ‘ideas’ for the simple reason that they were educated at the same art schools as the art curators, and that this simple bundle of ideas appears to be all they were taught about the world.

About accounting, agriculture, applied mathematics, aquatic sciences, astronomy & planetary science, biochemistry, biology, business & commercial law, business management, chemistry, communication technologies, computing & IT, and a hundred and one other weird and wonderful subjects which the inhabitants of this crowded planet spend their time practicing and studying, they appear to know nothing.

No. Gender, diversity and identity appear to be the only ideas modern art is capable of ‘addressing’ and ‘interrogating’.

Unfortunately, Parr plays right into the hands of curators like this. Because he has spent so many years travelling round Britain photographing people in classic ‘British’ activities (pottering in allotments, dancing, at the beach, at sports tournaments or drinking at street parties), many of them with Union Jacks hanging in the background or round their necks – Parr’s entire oeuvre can, without so much as flexing a brain cell, be described as ‘an investigation into British identity in the age of Brexit’ or ‘an analysis of British identity in the era of multiculturalism’.

And the tired visitor consumes these exhausted truisms and clichés without missing a beat, without breaking a sweat, without the flicker of an idea troubling their minds. For example, see how this photo of bhangra dancers ‘raises questions of British identity.’

Bhangra dancers, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2017, commissioned by BBC One. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

The introduction and wall labels certainly don’t hold back:

This exhibition of new work, made in the UK and around the world, is a collection of individual portraits and Parr’s picture of our times. It is about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raises complex questions around both national and self-identity.

The portraits used were drawn from Parr’s Autoportraits series, also on view in this gallery. By transforming these pictures into shrine-like objects, Parr pokes fun at his own identity. At the
same time, he raises questions about the nature of photography, identity and memory.

Parr’s Autoportraits reflect his long-standing interest in travel and tourism, and highlight a rarely acknowledged niche in professional photography. As Parr moves from one absurd situation to the next, his pictures echo the ideals and aesthetics of the countries through which he moves, while inviting questions. If all photographs are illusions, can any portrait convey a sense of true identity?

Parr shows that our identities are revealed in part by how we spend our leisure time – the sports we watch, the players or teams we support, the way we celebrate victories or commiserate defeat.

These pictures might be called ‘environmental portraits’, images in which the identities of person and place intertwine. Do the clothes we wear, the groups we join, the careers we choose, or the hobbies we enthusiastically pursue, express our personality? Or is the converse true – does our participation in such things shape and define us?

The way we play, celebrate and enjoy our leisure time can reveal a lot about our identities. Questions of social status often sneak into the frame. Whether a glorious opportunity to put on your top hat and tails, or simply an excuse to have a flutter on the horses, this ‘sport of kings’ brings together people from many different walks of life.

The 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union is not only one of the biggest socio-political events of our time, it is also a curious manifestation of British identity. Politicians on both sides of the debate used the referendum to debate immigration and its impact on British society and culture. At times, this degenerated into a nationalistic argument for resisting change, rejecting the European way of doing things and returning to a more purely ‘British’ culture, however that might be defined.

But for me, somehow, the more this ‘issue’ of identity is mentioned, the more meaningless it becomes. Repeating a word over and over again doesn’t give it depth. As various philosophers and writers have pointed out, it tends to have the opposite effect and empty it of all meaning.

The commentary claims that Parr’s photographs are ‘about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raise complex questions around both national and self-identity.’

But do they? Do they really? Is a photo of some ordinary people standing at random on a beach ‘raising complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Or a photo of Grayson Perry, or Vivienne Westwood, or five black women sitting on the pavement at the Notting Hill carnival, or two blokes who work in a chain factory, or a couple of fisherman on a Cornish quayside, or toned and gorgeous men dancing at a gay nightclub, or a bunch of students at an Oxford party, or a photo of the Lady Mayoress of London, or of a bloke bending down to roll a bowls ball.

The Perry Family – daughter Florence, Philippa and Grayson, London, England, 2012. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Does this photo ‘raise complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

I just didn’t think see it. So there’s a lot of black people at the Notting Hill carnival, so Indians like dancing to bhangra music, so posh people go to private schools, so Parliament and the City of London still have loads of quaint ceremonies where people dress up in silly costumes.

And so Parr takes wonderfully off-kilter, unflattering and informal photos of all these things. But I don’t think his photos raise any questions at all. They just record things.

Take his photos of the British at the seaside, an extremely threadbare, hoary old cliché of a subject which has been covered by socially -minded photographers since at least the 1930s. Parr’s photos record the fact that British seaside resorts are often seedy, depressing places, the sea is freezing cold, it’s windy and sometimes rainy, and to compensate for the general air of failure, people wear silly hats, buy candy floss, and eat revolting Mr Whippy ice creams.

None of this raises any ‘complex questions’ at all. It seems to me to state the bleedin’ obvious.

Same goes for the last room in the show which ‘addresses’ ‘the Establishment’ and ‘interrogates’ notions of ‘privilege’ by taking photos of Oxford students, public school children and the Queen.

In all seriousness, can you think of a more tired and predictable, boring and clapped-out, old subject? Kids who go to private school are privileged? Oxford is full of braying public school toffs? As any kind of sociological ‘analysis’ or even journalistic statement, isn’t this the acme of obviousness?

Magdelene Ball, Cambridge, England, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

In other words, although curators and critics and Parr himself try to inject ‘questions’ and ‘issues’ into his photos, I think they’re barking up the wrong tree.

Photographic beauty

And by doing so they also divert attention from any appreciation of the formal qualities of his photographs, Parr’s skill at capturing candid moments, his uncanny ability to create a composition out of nothing, the strange balances and symmetries which emerge in ordinary workaday life without anyone trying. The oddity of the everyday, the odd beauty of the everyday, the everyday beauty of oddness.

Preparing lobster pots, Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall, England, 2018. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

I don’t think Parr’s work has anything to do with ‘issues of Britishness’ and ‘questions of identity’. This kind of talk may be the kind of thing which gets publishers and art galleries excited, and lead to photo projects, commissions and exhibitions. In other words, which makes money.

But the actual pictures are about something else entirely. What makes (most of) them special is not their ‘incisive sociological analysis’ but their wonderfully skilful visual qualities. Their photographic qualities. The works here demonstrate Parr’s astonishing ability to capture, again and again, a particular kind of everyday surrealism. They are something to do with the banality of life which he pushes so far into Banality that they come back out the other end as the genuinely weird and strange.

He manages a consistent capturing of the routine oddity of loads of stuff which is going on around us, but which we rarely notice.

The British are ugly

Lastly, and most obvious of all – Parr shows how ugly, scruffy, pimply, fat, tattooed, tasteless and badly dressed the British are. This is probably the most striking and consistent aspect of Parr’s photos: the repeated evidence showing what a sorry sight we Brits present to the world.

It’s not just the parade of tattooed, Union Jack-draped chavs in the ‘Brexit’ room. Just as ugly are the posh geeks he photographed at Oxford or the grinning berks and their spotty partners he snapped at the Highland dances. By far the most blindingly obvious feature of Parr’s photographic oeuvre is how staggeringly ugly, badly dressed and graceless the British mostly are.

His subjects’ sheer lumpen plainness is emphasised by Parr’s:

  • deliberate use of raw, unflattering colour
  • the lack of any filters or post-production softening of the images
  • and the everyday activities and settings he seeks out

And the consistently raw bluntness of his photos makes you realise how highly posed, polished and post-produced to plastic perfection almost are all the other images we see around us are – from adverts to film stills, posters and billboards, and the thousands of shiny images of smiling perfection we consume on the internet every day.

Compared to all those digitally-enhanced images, Parr has for some time now made his name by producing glaringly unvarnished, untouched-up, unimproved images, showing the British reflections of themselves in all their ghastly, grisly grottiness.

New Model Army playing the Spa Pavilion at the Whitby Goth Weekend, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

But this is a genuinely transgressive thought – something which the polite and respectable curators – who prefer to expatiate at length on the socially acceptable themes of identity and gender and race – dare not mention.

This is the truth that dare not speak its name and which Martin Parr’s photographs ram home time after time. We Brits look awful.

Video

Video review of the exhibition by Visiting London Guide.


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