The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cutpurse by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker (1611)

‘Perhaps for my mad going some reprove me:
I please myself and care not else who loves me.’
(Moll Cutpurse, the Roaring Girl)

According to Elizabeth Cook, editor of the New Mermaid edition of The Roaring Girl, Middleton was for centuries dismissed as just another member of the flock of playwrights who swarmed in London between about 1590 and 1630 and who collectively produced over 600 plays of all styles, shapes and sizes.

It was T.S. Eliot’s 1927 essay about Middleton which made a solid claim for him being second only to Shakespeare among the playwrights of the era, not least because he wrote enduring plays in both the major genres, of tragedy (The Changeling and Women Beware Women) and comedy (The Roaring Girl and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside), and which began the 20th century rise of his reputation.

The Roaring Girl stands slightly to one side of Middleton’s comedies, firstly because it was a collaboration (with Thomas Dekker). (It is fascinating to learn that the majority of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays were collaborations, because of the furious demand of theatres which often only staged new plays for a week or two before requiring yet more audience fodder.)

It is also slightly unusual because it is based on contemporary fact, namely the life of Mary Frith, a notorious character of the time, widely known as ‘Moll Cutpurse’, who had gained a reputation for wearing men’s clothes and behaving like a young tough. Contemporary accounts describe her as ‘wearing men’s clothes, appearing on the stage, drinking, swearing, making “immodest and lascivious speeches,” prostitution, pick-pocketing, forgery, and highway robbery’. Frith inspired numerous contemporary accounts, including a chapbook written by John Day titled The Mad Pranks of Merry Moll of the Bankside (1610) and appearing in Nathaniel Field’s Amends for Ladies (1611).

Cast

Moll, the Roaring Girl

The posh men

Sir Alexander Wengrave
Young Sebastian Wengrave, his son – the ‘hero’
Neatfoot, his servant
Gull, his page
Ralph Trapdoor, his spy
Sir Adam Appleton
Sir Davy Dapper
Jack Dapper, spendthrift son to Sir Davy
Sir Guy Fitzallard
(Mary Fitzallard, his daughter, in love with Sebastian Wengrave – the ‘heroine’)
Sir Beauteous Ganymede
Goshawk, a deceiving gallant
Laxton, another deceiving gallant
Greenwit, assistant to Laxton in some scams

Curtilax, a Sergeant
Hanger, his Yeoman (both commissioned by Sir Davy Dapper to arrest his spendthrift son, Jack)

City merchants and their wives

Tiltyard, a Feather-seller
Mistress Tiltyard
Openwork, a Sempster
Mistress Rosamond Openwork – Goshawk tries to seduce her
Hippocrates Gallipot, an Apothecary
Mistress Prudence Gallipot – Laxton tries to seduce her

Act I

Oddly, Moll, the start of the play, doesn’t appear for the entire first act. Maybe one aim was to make her eventual arrival onstage that much more ‘dramatic’. Instead both scenes of act one are set in Sir Alexander Wengrave’s grand house where he is grandly entertaining guests.

Scene 1 is set in the chambers of his son, Sebastian, into which is shown a young woman dressed as a disguise. This is quickly revealed to be Mary Fitzallard who Sebastian is in love with. Why, she asks, has he been ignoring her? Because, he explains, his father is grand and ambitious and is demanding a huge dowry from her parents. But Sebastian has a plan which he now explains: he has not seen Mary for a while because he is pretending to be in love with the notorious man-dressing, roaring girl, Moll Cutpurse. His father will be so worried about that match that he will see marriage to Mary as the preferable alternative.

Scene 2 introduces us to Sebastian’s father, Sir Alexander, who is grandly hosting a party of posh friends who he proceeds to share his sadness that his son is driving him to an early grave by being in love with a ‘man-woman’, Moll Cutpurse. Father and son have a flaring row in front of everything and Sebastian stomps out and the guests leave. At which point a new servant presents himself, one Ralph Trapdoor who has been recommended to Sir Alexander. This is handy. Sir Alexander orders Trapdoor, and to find Moll, inveigle himself into her good books and find some way to destroy her.

Act II

Scene 1: The three shops The gallants who had been Sir Alexander Wengrave’s guests in act 1, are now seen drifting between three London shops, chatting to the shopkeepers, flirting with their wives and ribbing each other. We see  Laxton flirting with Mistress Gallipot of the tobacco shop, borrowing money from her and telling the audience, aside, that he doesn’t like her much but strings her along with promises of a sexual dalliance, meanwhile borrowing money from her to spend on other women.

Finally, enter Moll Cutpurse, chatting and joshing with the shopwomen. Laxton – who has emerged as the randiest and most cynical of the gallants – pesters her to make a date with him and eventually she gives in and agrees to meet him at Gray’s Inn Fields at 3 that afternoon.

Trapdoor then enters, spots Moll, and quickly offers to be her servant, flirts and fawns over her. She’s suspicious but agrees to meet him, also, in Gray’s Inn Fields between 3 and 4. The gallants go off to chase a duck with spaniels on Parlous Pond!

Scene 2: A street Sebastian makes a soliloquy about love during which his father enters, unseen, and spies on him. Sebastian notices this (‘art thou so near?’) and steers his speech round to indicating he is in love with Moll Cutpurse, to his father’s predictable dismay. Moll herself enters, accompanied by a porter carrying a large viol on his back (?) and Sebastian woos her. She is polite but rebuffs him – “I have no humour to marry: I love to lie a’ both sides a’ th’ bed myself” – saying she is chaste and will never marry.

Enter a tailor and there’s some crude joking about him taking her measurements for a pair of breeches, an item of clothing normally worn only by men, which Sir Alexander watches with predictable horror.

Sir Alexander comes forward and rebukes his son, saying that Moll will disgrace him because she is a whore and a thief, throwing in the fact that all the worst women in London are called Moll. Sebastian defends her against these general slurs – ‘Would all Molls were no worse’ and exits.

Sir Alexander is genuinely upset and, on this reading, I began to feel sorry for him. But he resolves to pursue and shame Moll. In a final soliloquy, Sebastian decides that he must share his plan with Moll in hope that she will help him and Mary.

Act III

Scene 1 – Gray’s Inn Fields Laxton is hanging round waiting impatiently for Moll to keep her appointment. When she arrives, dressed as a man, he doesn’t at first recognise her. But when he does, she delivers a brilliantly impassioned speech in defence of women and attacking all lecherous men like Laxton who think that just because she smiles and jests and drinks a toast a woman is hot for sex, whereas she is just being human, and Moll draws her sword and forces him to fight, ferociously wishing Laxton was all men who think like him, so she could punish the entire sex.

LAXTON: Draw upon a woman? Why, what dost mean, Moll?
MOLL: To teach thy base thoughts manners: th’ art one of those
That thinks each woman thy fond, flexible whore
If she but cast a liberal eye upon thee;
Turn back her head, she’s thine, or amongst company,
By chance drink first to thee. Then she’s quite gone;
There’s no means to help her, nay, for a need,
Wilt swear unto thy credulous fellow lechers
That th’ art more in favour with a lady
At first sight than her monkey all her lifetime.
How many of our sex by such as thou
Have their good thoughts paid with a blasted name
That never deserved loosely, or did trip
In path of whoredom beyond cup and lip?

‘Have their good thoughts paid with a blasted name?’ It’s a rousing speech that rings down the ages and is still true. Moll cuts Laxton, he refers to the blood running and needing a surgeon and runs off shocked. — He has demonstrated his lack of manliness, his lack. He lacks stones i.e. testicles.

Enter Trapdoor enters. Moll, still dressed as a man, bumps rudely into him, flicks his face and taunts him to attack her. It’s only when he refuses, that she reveals her identity and he immediately fawns and asks to be her man. She calculatingly agrees, promises to pass on to him her hand-me-downs and they exit off to St Thomas Apostle’s, east of St Paul’s. — Trapdoor also shows himself to be all mouth and no trousers, when he refuses to fight with Moll-as-man.

Scene 2 – Master Gallipot’s house And now to another unmanly man, the nagged ‘apron husband’ Gallipot, whose wife despises him for being weak and feeble. This, we realise, is why she wishes an affair with Laxton (although in act 2 we saw how Laxton, in reality, despises her and only strings her along to extract loans from her).

Laxton has smuggled her a letter in which he blethers her with sweet words before coming to the point that he needs £30. She is just agonising over how to get this for him (and her anxiety about money, pawning some belongings but maybe being found out – in a flash reminded me of Madam Bovary and the horrible mess of debts she gets into 250 years later) when her husband comes in, wondering why she’s left the dinner party they’re hosting for friends.

Gallipot spies his wife reading but as he calls to her (‘Pru’) she tears up the letter and invents a sob story on the spot, saying that she and Laxton were engaged to be married, but he went off to the wars, she heard he was dead, and so she married Gallipot, but now Laxton is back and wants to claim her as his wife. Gallipot is horrified as he loves his wife and has had children by her which us why, when she cunningly suggests buying Laxton off with thirty pounds, he readily agrees.

The dinner party guests come out and comment on Mistress Gallipot’s unhappy appearance with much bawdy and obscene double entendres, some of them guessing that Master Gallipot is having an affair, that’s why she looks so upset. They say their goodbyes.

Whereupon Laxton himself enters, complaining about apothecaries (remember we last saw him being cut and slashed by Moll). In what is presumably a comic scene, Mistress Gallipot quickly conveys the lies she’s told her husband (that she and Laxton were engaged), Laxton picks it up quickly, and they both smile as Master Gallipot begs him to accept £30 to make all right between them. Gallipot goes into his house to organise the money and Laxton genuinely praises her for her quick-witted deceitfulness.

Scene 3 – Holborn Street Sir Alexander with some of his grand friends. Enter Trapdoor who silkily tells him that Sebastian and Moll plan to meet at 3 o’clock in his (Sir Alexander’s) chamber to have sex. So. They will trap the pair. To give a cover to their meetings, he instructs Trapdoor to behave as an angry debtor, and so the spy leaves.

His friends, Sir Adam Appleton and Sir Davy Dapper come over to talk to Sir Alexander and the latter reveals that his own son, Jack, is far worse than young Sebastian, he spends a fortune whoring, drinking, and gambling. Sir Davy explains he has decided to teach young Jack a lesson: he will arrange to have Jack arrested, hoping a few days in the Counter (the debtor’s prison) will make him realise the value of money and hard work.

Alexander and Appleton exit, and two officers enter, namely Sergeant Curtilax and Yeoman Hanger. Sir Davy gives them their commission to arrest young Jack and indicates the pub he’s drinking in, just over there, and leaves the pair to capture him.

Just at this moment Moll and Trapdoor stroll up and, spying Curtilax and Hanger in hiding, realise they’re about to arrest someone, Moll decides to save whoever it is. And so when Jack Dapper and his servant Gull emerge from the pub, and just as Curtilax and Hanger move in, Moll and Trapdoor run forward, holding the officers off and telling Jack and Gull to leg it, which they promptly do. Moll’s thoughts: ‘A pox on ’em! Trapdoor, let’s away.’

Act IV

Scene 1 – Sir Alexander’s chamber Sir Alexander and Trapdoor await Moll and Sebastian. Sir Alexander gets Trapdoor to place various valuables around the room, confident that Moll will steal them and, when they bring constables to catch her with them later, it will guarantee she’s thrown into prison, if not executed. They hide.

But instead, Sebastian enters not only with Moll, but with his true love, Mary Fitzallard, dressed as a pageboy. Moll comments wryly as Sebastian kisses Mary, in a boy’s outfit, and then expresses her gratitude to Moll for helping them. Moll observes the valuables laid out as if on purpose to tempt a thief but says that, since she is no thief, they do not tempt her. Instead Sebastian invites her to play on the viola de gamba which she turns out to be skillful on, and accompanies herself singing a couple of songs.

Sir Alexander steps forward and interrupts the playing but it has no great dramatic effect at all. None of the three seem surprised or worried to see him. The conversation carries on, whereby Sebastian appears to have been securing the money – forty shillings – to pay her (I think; I didn’t understand this passage). His father quizzes Moll who claims to be a music teacher and Sir Alex asks her to play the ballad about the witch.

Then Sir Alexander gives his son four ‘angel’s’, being gold coins worth ten shillings each. He has marked them somehow, maybe pierced them. His Cunning Plan is Sebastian will give the marked coins to Moll and, later, Sir Alex will get the constables to arrest her saying they were stolen.

This is act 4 and, for me, absolutely none of this love plot intrigue is working in the slightest. The Roaring Girl feels less engaging than any of the Restoration comedies I read.

Scene 2 – Openwork’s house Two of the merchants’ wives we’ve meant moan about how pathetic their menfolk are. Mistress Openwork laments that Goshawk told her a pack of lies about her husband being in Brentford with a whore, and told her he’d take her there to prove it. It was all lies, as Openwork discovered when she confronted her husband who is now standing in the shop waiting for Goshawk to arrive so he can give him a beating.

For her part, Mistress Gallipot laments that Laxton turned out to be a lying, unmanly deceiver, ‘a lame gelding’. Men get it in the neck in this play. It’s like a feminist manifesto.

This morphs into a long and really unfunny scene. Goshawk now arrives and wants to hurry Mistress Openwork into the boat he’s got waiting but first she insists on bringing Mistress Gallipot with them, which he reluctantly agrees to, then Master Openwork comes up and she furiously accuses him to his face of having an affair with a whore at Brentford. Master Openwork is vehement that this is a lie and then starts demanding who told her this lie and – to cut a really long story short – she admits it was the (now terrified) Goshawk. Enraged, Master Openwork draws his sword and Goshawk piteously begs for forgiveness.

Now, I suppose this is intended as one more proof that sweet-talking gallants are full of ****, but it took pages to get there and I found none of it either funny, or particularly well written. Master Openwork has a little soliloquy opining that the world is a rotten place full of cheats and liars. Well spotted, mate.

In part two of this scene, a young man dressed as a summoner enters and delivers a summons to Master Gallipot. It claims to be a legal document summonsing the Gallipots to court for breach of contract. This has been arranged by Laxton. We learn that after the thirty pounds he was given a few scenes ago, he asked for a further £15. Now Master and Mistress Gallipot threaten the summoner with violence who quickly takes off his wig and reveals himself to be one of the gallants’ associates, Greenwit.

Mistress Gallipot had gone along with the deceit earlier, but now snaps at the size of the sum being extorted. She turns to her husband and confesses everything – that Laxton led her on, but this was all a lie, she was never betrothed to Laxton. Furious, Gallipot now turns to Laxton who is trembling with fear.

With surprising chivalry, Laxton quickly makes up a version of a ‘confession’ which completely exonerates Mistress Gallipot, claiming he set out to seduce her as a challenge, when she claimed to him and his friends that women were virtuous, but she stood solid and unflinchingly loyal to her husband etc etc, and thus Gallipot is mollified and calmed down.

In fact so calmed down that he promptly forgives Laxton and invites him in for a celebration feast (!?).

So, by the end of Act 4, two merchants’ wives – citizens’ wives – have had their virtue assailed by two upper-class ‘gallants’ – Laxton and Goshawk – who both turn out to be lily-livered eunuchs. The women are smarter than the men and their husbands are made of finer stuff, loving and forgiving. And, it feels like half the play is over, as the forgiving merchants invite the foolish gallants in for a feast – something which generally only happens at the very end of a play.

Act V

Scene 1 – A street Enter Jack Dapper, Moll, Sir Beauteous Ganymede and Thomas Long. Moll tells Jack how it was she who saved him from the sergeants and he thanks her. As a sidenote she explains she spotted Trapdoor was a spy and has disposed of him as a player shoves a halfpenny across the board. They are joined by Lord Noland.

At which point Trapdoor enters, like a poor soldier with a patch over one eye, accompanied by a sidekick, Tearcat, all in tatters. They approach Moll and her friends and, at first, pretend to be poor, maimed soldiers from the wars and beg for money. But the account they give of their foreign fighting and travels is so obviously garbled that Moll and her friends realise they are fakes.

Moll tears to eyepatch off Trapdoor’s face – the kind of stylised gesture which is taken to transform someone’s appearance in these plays and suddenly render someone in disguise, recognisable. Then, in a peculiar passage, Trapdoor shows off his skill at using canting terms, and Moll interprets his stream of canting for the benefit of her educated friends (Jack Dapper, Moll, Sir Beauteous Ganymede, Thomas Long, Lord Noland) so much so that they egg the couple on to a canting duel, telling Trapdoor they’ll give him some alms if he performs for them, and this eventually leads into Moll, Trapdoor and Tearcat singing a song entirely in canting language.

Paradoxically, this was one of the few parts of the play I really understood, because the situation – educated, well-off people patronise beggars – is easily graspable, and because the posh people’s dialogue is remarkably and unusually lucid. Thus after Trapdoor uses the term ‘niggling’, Jack says: ‘Nay, teach me what niggling is; I’d fain be niggling’ and a moment later Sir Beauteous comments: ‘This is excellent.’

Trapdoor is paid off and departs. I rather liked him, he was an honest rogue.

Now enters a gallant cutpurse and four or five followers, who threaten to attack our chaps, but brave Moll a) interprets all the cutpurses are saying in their slang and b) outfaces them i.e. intimidates them into abandoning their plan to rob our chaps. They are scared of her and her swaggering reputation. In fact, they truckle to her. Moll declares a particular purse was recently stolen from a man attending the Swan theatre and demands it be returned. The leader of the cutpurses meekly says he’ll see what he can do and they all exit.

The real-life Mary Frith was, apparently, known for righting wrongs and returning stolen purses (sounds a bit too Robin Hood to me) and this encounter prompts the other characters to say how she has been unfairly criticised by society. Now she gives a long speech declaring her innocence of all crimes, saying she merely is acquainted with criminals and knows their cant and tricks solely to help innocent victims. It is a speech in support of all people calumniated by society, not just her but all the women called whores and men called cuckolds who are entirely innocent. People call her Moll Curpurse and blacken her name because she dresses, does and says what she likes – the implication being that people resent and are jealous of her freedom.

MOLL: Good my lord, let not my name condemn me to you or to the world.

If Mary Frith had commissioned this play it could hardly give a more favourable portrait of her!

And so after this long scene of canting and cutpurses leading up to Moll’s second Great Speech, they all head off to the pub.

Scene 2: Sir Alexander’s house The love plot of the play is resolved, namely Sebastian and Mary’s Cunning Plan works. Sir Alexander is still under the misapprehension that Sebastian is madly in love with and planning to marry Moll Cutpurse. He is at home with some of his friends and advisers when a servant comes in to tell them Sebastian and Moll have been seen landing at the Sluice on the Lambeth side of the Thames. But just as they’re planning to go and intercept them, Trapdoor (so we get a bit more Trapdoor) arrives to say the couple have been seen alighting at the Tower i.e. in the opposite direction. Sir Alexander is stung with indecision.

At this moment enters Sir Guy Fitzallard, mother of Mary Fitzallard that Sebastian is in love with. From the start he is aggressively angry towards Sir Alexander, telling him his (Guy’s) daughter wasn’t good enough for him, he blocked his son and Mary’s romance, well much good it’s done him and he hopes he’s happy that his son is now marrying one of the most disreputable women in London, ‘that bold masculine ramp’, Moll Cutpurse. He mocks him, saying he will soon be grandfather to a ‘fine crew of roaring sons and daughters’ who will stock the suburbs with crime.

Well, Sir Guy says – what would tortured Sir Alexander give if he – Sir Guy – could intervene and prevent it happening? He goes on to say, in front of the other nobles present as witnesses, that bets his entire wealth that he can prevent this marriage and, caught up in his enthusiasm, Sir Alexander, accepts the bet, saying he will immediately give Sebastian all those lands he had planned to, if he simply doesn’t marry Moll.

The authors really drag these final scenes out. Enter Moll (dressed as a man) for just a minute or so, just enough time for Alexander to berate her and her to mock him for his greed and short-sightedness, then exits.

So I wasn’t amused but irritated when the authors drag out Alexander’s and our agony even further by having Sebastian enter, accompanied by Sir Guy as if this is the final version of the wedding, and hand in hand with… Moll… wearing a mask. Sir Alexander is delighted his son has married anyone but Moll… but then she takes off her mask and he collapses prostrate that all his plans lie in ashes. God, get on with it!

Moll delivers a comic speech, telling him how lucky he is to have a roaring girl as a daughter in law, men will fear him, crooks will avoid him, and so on. Sir Guy asks Sir Alexander if he will hold to his bet (all Sir Guy’s estate against half Sir Alexander’s) but Sir Alexander insists – now he’s won the bet (the bet that Guy would be able to prevent the marriage of Sebastian and Moll, and it looks like he’s failed), at which point….

Moll steps aside and Sir Guy introduces the real bride who is, God be praised, Mary Fitzallard after all, ceremonially accompanied by Lord Noland and Sir Beauteous Ganymede, and followed by all the London merchants and their wives, so that all the characters are on stage for the happy finale.

Sir Alexander is in flights of ecstasy and in heroic verse praises his son and gives him half his wealth and lands – as promised – and then his beautiful new daughter-in-law, and they graciously accept. Moll points out that she has done everyone a favour organising this happy outcome and Sebastian says she will be rewarded. Sir Alexander apologises for misjudging her.

Enter Trapdoor (hooray, the only character I really like) who kneels before Moll and abjectly apologises for scheming against her, explaining that he laid out the valuables in Sir Alexander’s chamber, hoping to snare Moll, and that he also gave Moll the four marked gold coins (angels) as part of a scam to have her arrested. Moll is surprised, the onlookers are shocked, Sir Alexander abjectly humiliated, and apologises.

I found Sir Alexander’s explicit and clear statement that he has learned from his experiences not to judge people by their reputations and not to listen to rumour, more effective than the savage punishments which conclude Ben Jonson plays:

Forgive me; now I cast the world’s eyes from me
And look upon thee freely with mine own:
I see the most of many wrongs before thee,
Cast from the jaws of envy and her people,
And nothing foul but that. I’ll never more
Condemn by common voice, for that’s the whore
That deceives man’s opinion, mocks his trust,
Cozens his love, and makes his heart unjust.

Sir Alexander ends the play by saying this happy day will be celebrated every year, and he hopes all who have watched it will go away as pleased as he is.

Thoughts

Not funny

Maybe I read it on an off day, but I didn’t find The Roaring Girl at all funny. It contains scenes which are theoretically humorous, but failed to raise any smile to my lips. It lacks the delightful whimsy of The Shoemaker’s Holiday or, at the other end of the spectrum, the savage farcicality of Ben Jonson and his scheming grotesques.

It inhabits an odd no-man’s-land, in which everyone is a gull or crook of one kind or another but none of them really inspire entertainment. Moll’s speeches about how easily women are calumniated were the only things which really woke me up, that and the character of Trapdoor who I warmed to as the nearest thing to a Jonsonian imp, like Mosca in Volpone.

Overall I felt there was something clever, calculating and rather mechanical about it, and kept returning to T.S. Eliot’s words:

The comedies are long-winded; the fathers are heavy fathers, and rant as heavy fathers should; the sons are wild and wanton sons, and perform all the pranks to be expected of them; the machinery is the usual Elizabethan machinery; Middleton is solicitous to please his audience with what they expect; but there is underneath the same steady impersonal passionless observation of human nature. (Thomas Middleton by T.S. Eliot)

Gender etc

Clearly ‘gender’ is a major theme of the play insofar as Moll is a woman behaving as men are supposed to, and not just men generally, but roistering, swaggering, canting, drinking, fighting men. And the play goes to some lengths to demonstrate how feebly unmasculine just about every other man in the play is, compared to her.

Feminist art and literary critics long ago developed a rhetoric about neglected women artists or authors and female characters who rebel, buck the trend and subvert the patriarchy, which make them all sound the same. They make ‘the patriarchy’ sound as if it was the same thing in 1603 or 2003, and rebel women all sound as if they had the same ‘smash the patriarchy’ mindset as contemporary gender studies professors. In other words, they make the past boring by being so predictably and narrowly ideological about it.

Obviously the figure of Moll is striking but what’s a bit more interesting is the way she was not suppressed by The Patriarchy for wearing men’s clothes and swearing etc. What is hiding in plain sight in the simple existence of this play, is the fact that, far from being in any way suppressed or silenced – as feminists love their heroines from the past to have been – Mary Frith was in fact lionised, widely written about and – in this play at any rate – praised to the heavens, depicted as a moral exemplar, teaching true Christian morality (judge people by their deeds not their reputations).

Feminist critics like to write about Moll ‘subverting gender norms’ and ‘transgressing gender-based rules of clothing and behaviour’ as if it was a thrilling conspiracy which only you and I, paid-up members of the feminist gang, can understand. And yet here she was up on stage in a play written to unstintingly praise her, to the applause of a fee-paying audience, in a play which was widely reprinted through the ages.

In other words, if she was ‘subverting’ anything, that ‘subversion’ was very comfortably accommodated in a best-selling play performed to approving audiences.

In other words, Moll entirely conforms to the deeply entrenched stereotype of the rebel-with-a-heart-of-gold figure which dates from at least Robin Hood through to any number of 20th century ‘rebels’, and which Hollywood has made billions of dollars carefully crafting and presenting to audiences who, for a happy couple of hours, can thrill to the ‘subversive’ exploits of James Dean or Bruce Willis or whoever the rebel-with-a-heart-of-gold figure of the hour happens to be, before going back to their suburban homes and their workaday world.

Yes, the figure of Moll may well ‘transgress’ half a dozen easy-to-list rules of Jacobean England – dresses like a man, swaggers like a man, drinks like a man, familiar with the criminal underworld like a man and this ooh-so-daring audacity gives timid feminist critics multiple orgasms – but at a meta-level I’d have thought it’s pretty obvious that Moll entirely conforms to the enduring stereotype of the naughty boy or naughty girl whose exploits we love sharing for a couple of hours at the theatre or cinema, before the entertainment ends.

In a really deep sense, maybe that’s what entertainment – of all types – actually consists of: whether at the circus or a funfair or the cinema or a theatre – it’s entering into a world of excitement and thrills and kings and queens or cops and robbers or thrilling rides – all of which we pay for because, by definition, they are outwith the reality of our boring everyday lives, shopping, cooking, eating sleeping, and commuting to boring jobs in shops and factories and offices.

So when feminists rhapsodise that Moll ‘subverts’ the social norms of her day, all they’re really saying is that she’s in a play. Macbeth subverts the values of the time by being a king killer. Othello subverts the values of the day by murdering his wife. Volpone subverts the values of the time by being an outrageous crook. All the tricksters in hundreds of these city comedies ‘subvert’ the values of the time by virtue of being crooks and criminals. Is there a play from the period where the lead characters do not subvert one or other ‘social norm’ of the time?

Feminists just valorise and prioritise one among the many, many types of ‘subversion’ which occur in almost all these plays, because it is the one dearest to their heart, the only issue which counts for them, the issue of gender, the ‘issue’ which justifies their existence.

But, not being feminists, we are not constrained and blinded by their ideology, and so can read everything they have to say, assimilate it, take it on board, add it to our perspective, but still see that the play contains many other non-gender ideas and themes and images, as did the society of its day.

One of the most obvious is the language of crime…

Canting

Canting was one of the contemporary words used to describe the prolific growth of slang and argot used by thieves and cozeners. There was a very rich literature describing these, even at the time. Indeed, whenever there was a periodic outbreak of plague, such as in 1603 and the theatres went into lockdown, writers like Dekker and Middleton switched to writing satirical or descriptive pamphlets about London life, mostly concentrating on lowlife and criminals.

Dekker wrote a number of pamphlets about contemporary events, but his ones focusing on criminals or ‘cony-catchers’ include The Belman of London (1608), Lanthorne and Candle-light, Villainies Discovered by Candlelight, and English Villainies and he gives an often-quoted definition of ‘canting’:

‘It was necessary that a people, so fast increasing and so daily practicing new and strange villainies, should borrow to themselves a speech which, so near as thy could, none but themselves could understand; and for that cause was this language, which some call pedlar’s French, invented…. This word canting seems to be derived from the Latin verb canto, which signifies in English to sing, or to make a sound with words, that’s to say, speak. And very aptly may canting take his derivation a cantando, from singing, because amongst these beggarly consorts that can play upon no better instruments, the language of canting is a kind of music, and he that in such assemblies can cant best is counted the best musician…’
(Lanthorn and Candlelight by Thomas Dekker)

Anyway, the point is that this play is stuffed with canting terms and street argot, so much so that not only does the Mermaid edition feature notes at the bottom of each page explaining key words, but also (and unusually) a seven-page appendix devoted to canting terms. Highlights include:

  • darkmans = the night
  • lightmans = the day
  • shells = money
  • stamps = legs
  • curbers = thieves who hook goods out of open windows using a long stick with a hook at the end
  • cheats = the gallows
  • bing = to go
  • nip a bung = steal a purse
  • Rom-ville = London

And Act 5 scene 1 is a festival of canting – it contains the canting exchanges between Moll and Trapdoor-as-beggar, who drops entirely into canting terms to impress and/or confuse his educated interlocutors.

TRAPDOOR: My doxy? I have, by the salomon, a doxy that carries a kinchin mort in her slate at her back, besides my dell and my dainty wild dell, with all whom I’ll tumble this next darkmans in the strommel, and drink ben, and eat a fat gruntling cheat, a cackling cheat, and a quacking cheat.

Before Moll, Trapdoor and Tearcat then deliver a canting song! The footnotes again say that one of the best explanations of the profession or trade of cutpurse is again given by Dekker, who provided a neat explanation of key roles and terms, in this clip from The Bellman of London:

He that cuts the purse is called the nip.
He that is half with him is the snap, or the cloyer.
The knife is called a cuttle-bung.
He that picks the pocket is called a foist.
He that faceth the man is the stale.
The taking of the purse is called drawing.
The spying of this villain is called smoking or boiling.
The purse is the bung.
The money the shells.
The act doing is called striking.

You can look up these and numerous other obscure terms in the online version of the play, linked to below.


Related links

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky (1996)

Mark Kishlansky (1948 – 2015) was an American historian of seventeenth-century British politics. He was the Frank Baird, Jr. Professor of History at Harvard University, editor of the Journal of British Studies from 1984 to 1991, and editor-in-chief of History Compass from 2003 to 2009.

Kishlansky wrote half a dozen or so books and lots of articles about Stuart Britain and so was invited to write Volume Six of the Penguin History of England covering that period, under the general editorship of historian David Cannadine.

I think of the history of Britain in the 17th century as consisting of four parts:

  1. The first two Stuarts (Kings James I & Charles I) 1603 – 1642
  2. The Civil Wars and Protectorate (Oliver Cromwell) 1642 – 1660
  3. The Restoration (Kings Charles II & James II) 1660 – 1688
  4. The Glorious Revolution and Whig monarchs (William & Mary, then Queen Anne) 1688 – 1714

Although obviously you can go by monarch:

  1. James I (1603-25)
  2. Charles I (1625-42)
  3. Wars of the three kingdoms (1637-53)
  4. Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (1653-1660)
  5. Charles II (1660-1685)
  6. James II and the Glorious Revolution (1685-88)
  7. William & Mary (1688-1702)

I appreciate that this is an English perspective, and Kishlansky is the first to acknowledge his history tends to focus on England, by far the largest and most powerful of the three kingdoms of Britain. The histories of Scotland and Ireland over the same period shadowed the English timeline but – obviously – had significant events, personnel and continuities of their own. From the start Kishlansky acknowledges he doesn’t have space to give these separate histories the space they deserve.

Why is the history of seventeenth century Britain so attractive and exciting?

The seventeenth century has a good claim to being the most important, the most interesting and maybe the most exciting century in English history because of the sweeping changes that affected every level of society. In 1600 England was still a late-medieval society; in 1700 it was an early modern society and in many ways the most advanced country on earth.

Social changes

  • business the modern business world was created, with the founding of the Bank of England and Lloyds insurance, cheques, banknotes and milled coins were invented; the Stock Exchange was founded and the National Debt, a financial device which allowed the British government to raise large sums for wars and colonial settlement; excise and land taxes provided reliable sources of revenue for the government
  • empire the British Empire was defined with the growth of colonies in North America and India
  • feudal forms of government withered and medieval practices such as torture and the demonisation of witchcraft and heresy died out
  • media newspapers were invented and went from weekly to daily editions
  • new consumer products domestic consumption was transformed by the arrival of new products including tobacco, sugar, rum, gin, port, champagne, tea, coffee and Cheddar cheese
  • the scientific revolution biology, chemistry and physics trace their origins to discoveries made in the 1600s – Francis Bacon laid the intellectual foundations for the scientific method; William Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood; Robert Boyle posited the existence of chemical elements, invented perfected the air pump and created the first vacuum; Isaac Newton discovered his laws of thermodynamics, the composition of light, the laws of gravity; William Napier invented logarithms; William Oughtred invented the multiplication sign in maths; Edmund Halley identified the comet which bears his name, Robert Hooke invented the microscope, the quadrant, and the marine barometer; the Royal College of Physicians published the first pharmacopeia listing the properties of drugs; Peter Chamberlen invented the forceps; the Royal Society (for the sciences) was founded in 1660
  • sport the first cricket and gold clubs were founded; Izaak Walton codified knowledge about fishing in The Compleat Angler; Charles II inaugurated yacht racing at Cowes and Queen Anne founded Royal Ascot
  • architecture Inigo Jones, Sir Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanbrugh created wonderful stately homes and public buildings e.g. Jones laid out the Covent Garden piazza which remains an attraction in London to this day and Wren designed the new St Paul’s cathedral which became a symbol of London
  • philosophy the political upheavals produced two masterworks of political philosophy, the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, which are still studied and applied in a way most previous philosophy isn’t
  • non conformists despite repeated attempts to ban them, Puritan sects who refused to ‘conform’ to the Restoration settlement of the Church of England were grudgingly accepted and went on to become a permanent and fertile element of British society – the Quakers, Baptists and Presbyterians

Political upheaval

At the centre of the century sits the great 20-year upheaval, the civil wars or British wars or Great Rebellion or the Wars of Three Kingdoms, fought between the armies of parliament and the armies of King Charles I, with significant interventions by armies of Scotland and Ireland, which eventually led to the execution of the king, the abolition of the House of Lords and the disestablishment of the Church of England – achievements which still form a core of the radical agenda to this day. These revolutionary changes were- followed by a series of constitutional experiments under the aegis of the military dictator Oliver Cromwell, which radicalised and politicised an entire generation.

Soon after Cromwell’s death in 1658, his regime began to collapse and elements of it arranged for the Restoration of King Charles II, who returned but under a new, more constitutional monarchy, restrained by laws and conventions guaranteeing the liberties of British subjects and well aware of the mistakes which led to the overthrow of his father.

But none of this stopped his overtly Roman Catholic brother, who succeeded him as James II in 1685, making a string of mistakes which collectively alienated the Protestant grandees of the land who conspired to overthrow him and replace him with the reliably Protestant Prince William of Orange. James was forced to flee, William was invited to become King of England and to rule according to a new, clearly defined constitution or Bill of Rights, which guaranteed all kinds of liberties including of speech and assembly.

All of these upheavals meant that by 1700 England had the most advanced, liberal and open society in Europe, maybe in the world, had experimented with a wide variety of political reforms and constitutions, and developed one which seemed most practical and workable – which was to become the envy of liberals in neighbouring France, and the basis of the more thoroughly worked-out Constitution devised by the founders of the American republic in the 1780s.

Studying the 17th century combines the intellectual excitement of watching these constitutional and political developments unfold, alongside the more visceral excitement of following the dramatic twists and turns in the long civil wars – and then following the slow-burning problems which led to the second great upheaval, the overthrow of James II. There is tremendous pleasure to be had from getting to know the lead characters in both stories and understanding their motives and psychologies.

Key features of 17th century England

The first two chapters of Mark Kishlansky’s book set out the social and political situation in Britain in 1600. These include:

Britain was a comprehensively patriarchal society. The king ruled the country and his word meant life or death. Le Roy le veult – the King wishes it – was the medieval French phrase still used to ratify statutes into law. The monarch made all political, legal, administrative and religious appointments – lords, ministers, bishops, judges and magistrates owed their position to him. In every locality, knights of the shires, justices of the peace administered the king’s laws. The peerage was very finely gradated and jealously policed. Status was everything.

And this hierarchy was echoed in families which were run by the male head of the household who had complete power over his wife and children, a patriarchal household structure endorsed by the examples in the Bible. Women might have as many as 9 pregnancies, of which 6 went to term and three died in infancy, with a further three children dying in infancy.

The family was primarily a unit of production, with all family members down to small children having specified tasks in the often backbreaking toil involved in agricultural work, caring for livestock, foraging for edibles in woods and fields, producing clothes and shoes. Hard physical labour was the unavoidable lot of almost the entire population.

Marriages were a vital way of passing on land and thus wealth, as well as family names and lineages. Most marriages were arranged to achieve these ends. The top responsibility of both spouses were the rights and responsibilities of marriage i.e. a wife obeyed her husband and a husband cherished and supported his wife. It was thought that ‘love’ would grow as a result of carrying out these duties, but wasn’t a necessary component.

Geography 80% of the population in 1600 worked on the land. Britain can be divided into two geographical zones:

1. The North and West The uplands of the north-west, including Scotland and Wales, whose thin soils encouraged livestock supplemented by a thin diet of oats and barley. Settlements here were scattered and people arranged themselves by kin, in Scotland by clans. Lords owned vast estates and preserved an old-fashioned medieval idea of hospitality and patronage.

Poor harvests had a catastrophic impact. A run of bad harvests in the 1690s led to mass emigration from Scotland to America, and also to the closer ‘plantations’ in Ulster.

It was at this point that Scottish Presbyterians became the majority community in the province. Whereas in the 1660s, they made up some 20% of Ulster’s population… by 1720 they were an absolute majority in Ulster, with up to 50,000 having arrived during the period 1690-1710. (Wikipedia)

2. The south and east of Britain was more densely populated, with villages and towns instead of scattered homesteads. Agriculture was more diverse and productive. Where you have more people – in towns and cities – ties of kinship become weaker and people assess each other less by ‘family’ than by achievements, social standing and wealth.

The North prided itself on its older, more traditional values. The South prided itself on being more productive and competitive.

Population The population of England rose from 4 million in 1600 to 5 million in 1700. There were maybe 600 ‘towns’ with populations of around 1,000. Big provincial capitals like Norwich, Exeter or Bristol (with pops from 10,000 to 30,000) were exceptions.

London was unlike anywhere else in Britain, with a population of 200,000 in 1600 growing to around 600,000 by 1700. It was home to the Court, government with its Houses of Lords and Commons, all the main law courts, and the financial and mercantile hub of the nation (Royal Exchange, Royal Mint, later the Bank of England and Stock Exchange). The centre of publishing and the new science, literature, the arts and theatre. By 1700 London was the largest city in the Western world. Edinburgh, the second largest city in Britain, had a paltry 40,000 population.

Inflation Rising population led to a squeeze on food since agricultural production couldn’t keep pace. This resulted in continuous inflation with foodstuffs becoming more expensive throughout the century, which reduced living standards in the countryside and contributed to periods of near famine. On the other hand, the gentry who managed to hang onto or increase their landholdings saw an unprecedented rise in their income. The rise of this class led to the development of local and regional markets and to the marketisation of agriculture. Those who did well spent lavishly, building manors and grand houses, cutting a fine figure in their coaches, sending the sons to university or the army, educating their daughters in order to attract wealthy husbands.

Vagrancy The change in working patterns on the land, plus the rising population, led to a big increase in vagrancy, which the authorities tackled with varying degrees of savagery, including branding on the face with a V for Vagrant. Contemporary theorists blamed overpopulation for poverty, vagrancy and rising crime. One solution was to encourage the excess population to settle plantations in sparsely populated Ireland or emigrate to New England. There were moral panics about rising alcoholism, and sex outside marriage.

Puritans Leading the charge to control immoral behaviour were the Puritans, a negative word applied to a range of people who believed that the Church of England needed to be further reformed in order to reach the state of purity achieved by Calvinists on the continent. Their aims included:

  • abolition of the 26 bishops (who were appointed by the king) and their replacement by Elders elected by congregations
  • reforms of theology and practice – getting rid of images, candles, carvings etc inside churches, getting rid of elaborate ceremonies, bells and incense and other ‘Roman’ superstitions
  • reducing the number of sacraments to the only two practiced by Jesus in the New Testament
  • adult baptism replacing infant baptism

Banning Closely connected was the impulse to crack down on all ungodly behaviour e.g. alcohol (close pubs), immorality (close theatres), licentiousness (ban most books except the Bible), lewd behaviour (force women to wear modest outfits, keep their eyes on the ground), ban festivals, ban Christmas, and so on.

Trans-shipping The key driver of Britain’s economic wealth was shipping and more precisely trans-shipping – where goods were brought in from one source before being transhipped on elsewhere. The size of Britain’s merchant fleet more than tripled and the sized of the cargo ships increased tenfold. London’s wealth was based on the trans-shipping trade.

The end of consensus politics

The second of Kishlansky’s introductory chapters describes in detail the political and administrative system in early 17th century Britain. It is fascinating about a) the complexity of the system b) its highly personal orientation about the person the monarch. It’s far too complicated to summarise here but a few key themes emerge:

Consensus Decisions at every level were reached by consensus. To give an example, when a new Parliament was called by the king, the justices of the peace in a county met at a session where, usually, two candidates put themselves forward and the assembled JPs discussed and chose one. Only very rarely were they forced back on the expedient of consulting local householders i.e. actually having a vote on the matter.

Kishlansky explains how this principle of consensus applied in lots of other areas of administration and politics, for example in discussions in Parliament about acts proposed by the king and which needed to be agreed by both Commons and Lords.

He then goes on to launch what is – for me at any rate – a new and massive idea: that the entire 17th century can be seen as the slow and very painful progression from a political model of consensus to an adversarial model.

The entire sequence of civil war, dictatorship, restoration and overthrow can be interpreted as a series of attempts to reach a consensus by excluding your opponents. King Charles prorogued Parliament to get his way, then tried to arrest its leading members. Cromwell, notoriously, was forced to continually remodel and eventually handpick a Parliament which would agree to do his bidding. After the Restoration Charles II tried to exclude both Catholics and non-conforming Protestants from the body politic, imposing an oath of allegiance in order to preserve the model of consensus sought by his grandfather and father.

the point is that all these attempts to purify the body politic in order to achieve consensus failed.

The advent of William of Orange and the Bill of Rights in 1689 can be seen as not so much defining liberties and freedoms but as finally accepting the new reality, that political consensus was no longer possible and only a well-managed adversarial system could work in a modern mixed society.

Religion What made consensus increasingly impossible? Religion. The reformation of Roman Catholicism which began in 1517, and continued throughout the 16th century meant that, by the 1620s, British society was no longer one culturally and religiously unified community, but included irreducible minorities of Catholics and new-style Calvinist Puritans. Both sides in what became the civil wars tried to preserve the old-fashioned consensus by excluding what they saw as disruptive elements who prevented consensus agreements being reached i.e. the Royalists tried to exclude the Parliamentarians, the Parliamentarians tried to exclude the Royalists, both of them tried to exclude Catholics, the Puritans once in power tried to exclude the Anglicans and so on.

But the consensus model was based on the notion that, deep down, all participants shared the same religious, cultural and social values. Once they had ceased to do that the model was doomed.

Seen from this point of view the entire history of the 17th century was the slow, bloody, and very reluctant acceptance that the old model was dead and that an entirely new model was required in which political elites simply had to accept the long-term existence of sincere and loyal but completely different opinions from their own.

Political parties It is no accident that it was after the Glorious Revolution that the seeds of what became political parties first began to emerge. Under the consensus model they weren’t needed; grandees and royal ministers and so on managed affairs so that most of them agreed or acquiesced on the big decisions. Political parties only become necessary or possible once it had become widely accepted that consensus was no longer possible and that one side or another in a debate over policy would simply lose and would have to put up with losing.

So Kishlansky’s long and fascinating introduction leads up to this insight – that the succession of rebellions and civil wars across the three kingdoms, the instability of the Restoration and then the overthrow of James II were all necessary to utterly and finally discredit the old late-medieval notion of political decision-making by consensus, and to usher in the new world of political decision-making by votes, by parties, by lobbying, by organising, by arguing and taking your arguments to a broader political nation i.e. the electorate.

In large part the English Revolution resulted from the inability of the consensual political system to accommodate principled dissension. (p.63)

At a deep level, the adoption of democracy means the abandonment of attempts to repress a society into agreement. On this view, the core meaning of democracy isn’t the paraphernalia about voting, that’s secondary. In its essence democracy means accepting other people’s right to disagree, sincerely and deeply, with what you hold to be profoundly true. Crafting a system which allows people to think differently and speak differently and live differently, without fear or intimidation.


Related links

British Baroque: Power and Illusion @ Tate Britain

British Baroque: Power and Illusion covers art and architecture (and gardens and sculpture and oddities and gimmicks) from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the death of Queen Anne in 1714. The big word in the title is Baroque but it’s a problematic term and by the end of the exhibition I was left wondering, in my non-scholarly way, whether any of the art on display here actually qualifies for the description ‘Baroque’.

The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio (c.1674) The Royal Collection / HM Queen Elizabeth II

1. Dates

Traditionally, in art h istory, the term Baroque denotes Power – Religious and Royal Power. Baroque art and architecture are big, heavy and imposing.

The Baroque is one of the major Periods of Western Art, preceded by the Renaissance and Mannerism and followed by the Rococo. The dates usually given are:

  • Early Renaissance 1400-1495
  • High Renaissance 1495-1520
  • Mannerism 1520-1600
  • the Baroque 1600-1740
  • Rococo 1730s-1760s
  • Neo-Classicism 1760-1830

The convention is to date the Baroque from the early 1600s, at least in Italy and on the Continent. It is a striking decision by the curators to delay it as late as 1660 for this exhibition, though you can see why – England was always slow to adopt developments in continental art and architecture.

Some outliers and pioneers may have been introducing ‘baroque’ styles into the English court in the 1620s and 1630s (the designer and architect Inigo Jones is often mentioned), but then all artistic and architectural endeavour was suspended during the great cataclysm of the British civil wars, which lasted:

  • from the rebellion in Scotland in 1637
  • through the civil wars in England (1642-48)
  • the execution of King Charles I in 1649
  • continued wars in Scotland and Ireland into the early 1650s
  • the rule of Oliver Cromwell from 1653 till his death in 1658
  • the collapse of the Parliamentarian regime in 1658-59
  • to the triumphant restoration of Charles II in 1660

Quite obviously the commissioning of royal art and architecture was put on hold for the whole of this war-torn and then republican period.

So starting the exhibition in 1660 with the restoration of Charles II provides a neat, clean starting point to a period which was distinctive in music (Purcell), literature (Dryden, Restoration Comedy) and philosophy (John Locke), as well as architecture (Christopher Wren) and art (Peter Lely) – the subjects specifically covered in this exhibition.

Plus – England was always late. Stuck up here on the remote periphery of Europe, England was late to experience all the trends which originated in the Mediterranean heartland. Thus Renaissance art and literature was flourishing in Italy in the 1400s but we date ‘our’ Renaissance period from the 1530s or later. Literature students tend to equate it with the reign of Queen Elizabeth which started in 1558, getting on for 150 years after the Renaissance started in Italy, by which time the Italians had been all the way through the Renaissance, High Renaissance and Mannerism. During the 18th century the motor for artistic innovation moved to France and stayed there until, arguably, the First World War, maybe beyond.

Anyway, for centuries the Europeans were waaaay ahead of us Brits. Mind you, we had something they didn’t have, which was an empire to set up and run.

2. The term ‘Baroque’

Its origin is obscure. It seems to derive from the Portuguese barocco meaning, ‘irregular pearl or stone’, i.e. a technical term in jewellery for a kind of pearl which was not perfectly round: for a pearl which was ugly and misshapen.

It seems that early uses of the term ‘baroque’ were all negative and used to criticise unnecessary complication and ugliness which were creeping into art. The word was never used by the artists or architects actually working during the ‘Baroque’ period; it wasn’t a self-conscious movement like Cubism.

Baroque is a term which was imposed a long time later, by late-eighteenth century or nineteenth century historians who, looking back, needed terms to assign to all the ‘period’s they wanted to divide art history into.

The Annunciation by Benedetto Gennari (1686) The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida

3. The origins of the Baroque in the Counter-Reformation

Articles about the Baroque all point to its origins in the Councils of Trent, the organisational centre of the Counter-Reformation.

In 1517 the monk Martin Luther had nailed his theses about theology to the door of his local church (in fact a traditional way to announce a theological debate). Luther called for a revolution in all aspects of European Catholicism, sweeping away scores of central dogmas and traditions and ceremonies which he regarded as later additions, corrupt folklore and legends and superstitions and inventions which had been grafted onto what was originally the pure and spartan teachings of Jesus as recorded in the four gospels.

Many German princes and north European kings took Luther’s teachings as an opportunity to throw off the shackles of Catholic rule from Italy, and within a generation a host of independent ‘Protestant’ churches and states had been established across northern Europe, not least in England where Henry VIII rejected rule of his church from Italy by an Italian pope and declared himself head of a newly-styled Church of England.

One aspect of the Protestant revolt had been aesthetic. In rejecting the cults of saints and relics – the excessive worship of Mary Mother of God and a host of other Catholic traditions – the really revolutionary Protestants (who came to be nicknamed the Puritans, in England) cleaned out their churches, smashing statues, defacing medieval paintings, burning wooden rood screens and so on in an orgy of iconoclasm.

Result: by the 1550s or so European Christianity existed in two forms, a stripped-down, militantly white-walled protestant form held in bit white undecorated halls – and a defiantly gold candelabra-ed, smells and bells Catholicism performed in churches crammed with statues of saints and the crucified Christ and a blue-robed Mary.

In light of the Protestant attacks, the Catholic authorities called a series of congresses at Trent (Trento in northern Italy) to thrash out just what they did agree on, in order to redefine every element of Catholic theology and practice, to create a new, stronger, more centralised ideology. Reacting against what had become known as the Protestant Reformation, this fightback became known as the Counter-Reformation.

Among a host of new theological and administrative rules emerged a belief that Catholic churches, Catholic aesthetics, should defy the know-nothing, philistine, iconoclastic, whitewash-everything Protestants and build their churches on an even more elaborate scale.

Catholic architecture should be enormous, characterised by domes soaring into heaven and festooned with flocks of angels and risen Christs flying over the heads of the congregation. Every nook should be full of florid statues of saints in the agony of their martyrdoms, and the authorities encouraged a style where every fold of their robes and cloaks became more and more elaborate, intricate and charged with emotion.

Italian Catholicism deliberately set out to be as flamboyant, as big, as majestic and as over-awing as could be achieved in buildings, statuary and painting. This is the key impulse behind the new heavy, elaborate, contorted and highly emotional style which later ages were to term the Baroque.

Examples of the Baroque: from top left: The interior of the church of Santa Maria, Rome; The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio; The Trevi Fountain in Rome, designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi and completed by Giuseppe Pannini in 1732.

4. Royal Power

Not surprisingly, kings liked this style. ‘Big, imposing, overpowering, yep that’s me’ was the thought of rulers all over Europe, who proceeded to commission artists and architects to copy this new, super-solid, massive and imposing architectural and artistic style in their realms, from Poland to the Palace of Westminster.

It’s important to remember that, although he rarely features in histories of the civil war and Republic, Charles II was very much alive during all the events and where was he living? In the French court of Louis XIV (in fact the extended reign of Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King more than matches the entire period covered in this exhibition, he reigned from 1645 to 1715.)

Thus Charles didn’t just return in triumph to the palace of Westminster and resume all the rights and accoutrements of a king of England; he returned:

  • with his head full of European theories about the Divine Right of Kings
  • with the example of Louis XIV firmly in his mind about how to be such a king
  • and with his imagination packed with the architectural and artistic achievements of the French courtly builders and painters

It was under Louis XIV in the 1680s that the Palace of Versailles was redesigned and rebuilt to become the largest and grandest royal palace in Europe. Charles had watched his French peer think and plan on the grandest scale.

The British Baroque

So that’s a brief background to the ascent of the supposed Baroque style in Britain. But was it really Baroque? Here’s one of the thousands of definitions you can find on the internet:

The Baroque style is characterized by exaggerated motion and clear detail used to produce drama, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, and music. Baroque iconography was direct, obvious, and dramatic, intending to appeal above all to the senses and the emotions.

If the Baroque is anything it is dramatic, operatic and exuberant, grand gestures in enormous buildings, huge and heavy marble statues, imposing porticos. Histrionic is a good word.

But after a few sort-of grand paintings in the first room (such as The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio at the top of this review), the exhibition leads into a room of court beauties, a handful of Charles II’s many mistresses – and ‘grand’, ‘dramatic’ and ‘exuberant’ are not really the words which describe these paintings at all.

Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, probably Charles Fitzroy, as the Virgin and Child by Peter Lely (c.1664). National Portrait Gallery, London

There’s a nice pillar in this painting and, to those in the know about painterly symbolism, the Duchess of Villiers is wearing the bright red and blue traditionally associated in Renaissance painting with the Virgin Mary, but… It’s not really ‘grand’, ‘melodramatic’ or ‘histrionic’, is it? In fact Barbara’s snub nose, poky little mouth and bulbous eyes are more homely than grand and intimidating.

The seed of doubt whether the term ‘baroque’ really applies to the British art and architecture of the period is sown early and crops up throughout the rest of the exhibition.

The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio at the top of this review is certainly an elaborate allegorical composition and contains a neat pyramid of tumbling sea nymphs and sea goddesses and so on, but the figure the whole composition leads you to… Charles II’s black moustachioed face of an old debauchee… to me it completely lacks awe or grandeur or dignity.

To me Charles looks a bit of a twerp, as if his face has been photoshopped onto a foreign fantasia.

There’s a moment in the room devoted to architecture where we learn about the murals the painter Sir James Thornhill was commissioned to create to decorate the dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent new St Paul’s Cathedral. They are a series of large murals depicting scenes from the life of St Paul, so far so good. But then we learn that he rendered them in black and white in order to be restrained and dignified and to suit the Protestant atmosphere of what was, in effect, the world’s first Protestant cathedral.

Restrained? That’s like saying we’re going to an all-night Brazilian samba party and we’re going to drink lemonade and dance the waltz.

It is completely against the spirit of the Baroque. The baroque is drama and opera and huge flights of angels soaring up into vast church domes. But that isn’t the English spirit at all. The English spirit then as now is faaar more sensible and restrained and undemonstrative.

A glaring indicator of this was the simple lack of religious imagery throughout the show. Of the exhibition’s ten rooms, only one is devoted to religious imagery and that one is virtually empty. The only interesting thing in it is a wonderful carved wooden cover for a font by Grinling Gibbons which is all Italianate grapes and leaves, with a few winged putti holding up the swags, but there’s nothing particularly Christian about it. Certainly none of the agony and ecstasy and religious melodrama of the Italian Baroque. There are no bleeding saints rolling their eyes to heaven.

Font cover from All Hallows by the Tower church, London, by Grinling Gibbons, carefully avoiding all religious imagery whatsoever

Instead, what comes over is the way British and foreign painters domesticated the brash, grand, outdoors Italian Baroque for a culture which is far more indoors, domestic and family-orientated.

The Children of John Taylor of Bifrons Park by John Closterman (1696) National Portrait Gallery, London

There’s as much, in fact I think there’s more in the exhibition about the late 17th century fashion for trompe l-oeil optical illusions in paint as there is for Christian imagery. We just didn’t go in for the melodrama, the agony in the garden, the upturned eyes of adoring angels and the flurried cloaks of muscular saints.

A quick review

Here’s a quick overview of the ten rooms and my highlights:

Room 1 – Restoration

Artists who returned with King Charles and became associated with his reign included Peter Lely, the King’s Principal Painter; Samuel Cooper, his official miniaturist; and the mural painter, Antonio Verrio.

Miniaturist? Yes there are a number of miniature portraits of Charles and leading courtiers. Couldn’t help thinking that the entire concept of a miniature is the exact opposite of the Baroque spirit which is to be as big and imposing as possible.

Room 2 – The Restoration Court

Contains classy but surprisingly restrained full-length portraits of half a dozen of Charles’s mistresses and assorted courtiers, including John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the rudest poet in English, one of whose poems begins:

Much wine had passed, with grave discourse
Of who fucks who, and who does worse
(Such as you usually do hear
From those that diet at the Bear),
When I, who still take care to see
Drunkenness relieved by lechery,
Went out into St. James’s Park
To cool my head and fire my heart.
But though St. James has th’ honor on ‘t,
‘Tis consecrate to prick and cunt…

What is really striking about these portraits is nothing to do with Power and Magnificence, and everything to do with the extremely stylised depictions of their faces. They all look the same. All the women have the same rounded faces, long noses, white skin relieved by heavily rouged cheeks and, above all, the same rather bulbous eyes, the overlids and underlids of the eyes deliberately shadowed to create a sense of an unhealthy prominence of the eyeball.

Two Ladies of the Lake Family by Sir Peter Lely (c.1660) Tate

Room 3 – The religious interior

As I’ve mentioned, a thin collection. Some surviving paintings and wall paintings from the Catholic chapels in London, at St James’s Palace and Somerset House, where the Catholic consorts Catherine of Braganza (Charles’s wife) and Mary of Modena (James II’s wife) enjoyed freedom of worship, providing a focal point for the Catholic community.

But this was a very small, constrained part of English life or architecture.

Room 4 – Illusion and Deception

Much more fun, much more interesting, and much more English, is this room full of fashionable trompe l-oeil optical illusions. Highlights include a series of paintings by Edward Collier of items apparently pinned to a real wooden board or held in place by tape, which appear astonishingly lifelike and three-dimensional.

There’s an elaborate peepshow by Samuel van Hoogstraten: you look through a little pinhole to the side and see what looks like a realistic interior of a house with rooms giving off in front of you and to the side. There’s Chatsworth’s famous violin painted as if hanging on the back of a door, and the hyper-real flower paintings of Simon Verelst which looked so real that they fooled the diarist Samuel Pepys.

A Vase of Flowers by Simon Verelst (1669)

Room 5 – Wren and Baroque architecture

Here, in the magnificent churches designed by Christopher Wren and his student Nicholas Hawksmoor, with the Queens House and other buildings built at Greenwich and plans to rebuild Whitehall Palace after it burned down, and the country houses designed by the later John Vanbrugh, you approach something like the continental Baroque in scale and ambition.

But as the story of Sir James Thornhill’s murals indicates, it is a European style which has been restrained, watered down and made sensible.

Room 6 – Country mansions and courtly gardens

How Hampton Court was remodelled to be more like Versailles and so was William III’s grand Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn in the Netherlands. Diagrams and paintings of Chatsworth and Bleinheim, the grandest of grand English country houses.

Paintings of huge, geometric, symmetric formal gardens.

Room 7 – Painted interiors

This was maybe my favourite room. It contains a photo of the vast and sumptuous mural on the ceiling of the dining room at Old Greenwich Palace, and is lined by preparatory paintings of other vast mythological murals by the likes of Antonio Verrio and Louis Chéron and Sir James Thornhill.

Apparently, it was the arrival of seasoned muralist Verrio in England in 1672 which sparked a new fashion for grandiose murals, and it’s in these (essentially private) murals – vast compositions awash with Greek mythical or allegorical figures  that you get closest to thinking the English had a Baroque period or style.

Lower Hall ceiling of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich by Sir James Thornhill

But what I really liked was the preparatory sketches for these works. The exhibition includes huge sketchbooks in which Thornhill sketched out his initial designs and compositions for various murals. For me, these rough sketches often had more energy, vim and dynamism that the finished works.

In particular, the human shapes and faces, although left as rough outlines, somehow, have more character and vibrancy than the smooth finished oil paintings, in many of which Thornhill has had to defer to the peculiar contemporary style of restoration faces, with their rounded features and bulging eyes.

Thornhill’s sketches are fun, mad profusions of tumbling cartoon characters. This one shows a grand mythological scene which was clearly designed to cover the wall of a staircase (hence the 45 degree angle at the bottom left): at the bottom-right Venus is being born from the waves; watched from the left by Neptune King of the oceans holding his triton; and above her a frothing scramble of other gods and goddesses.

A Ceiling and Wall Decoration (circa 1715-25) by Sir James Thornhill

Room 8 – Beauty

A striking and inventive piece of curating in which the Tate has taken seven of eight massive, full-length portrait paintings of English society beauties and made an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the kind of grand drawing room they would have adorned. They’re selections from two series of paintings:

  • The Hampton Court Beauties, a set of eight full-length portraits, commissioned by Mary II in 1690–1
  • The Petworth Beauties, commissioned by the 6th Duke and Duchess of Somerset for their country mansion Petworth House

In a way, though, the real star of the room is the huge heavy wood furniture, adorned with gold clasps and legs modelled from what appear to pregnant black woman (!?) and which bear a set of massive Chinese vases. There are candelabra on the walls and one can only wish the curators had had the courage of their convictions and turned the gallery’s electric lights off and installed replica candles so we really could have seen what paintings like this would have looked like in the flickering candlelight of the 1690s.

Room 9 – Triumph and glory

Critics could easily complain that the exhibition doesn’t really describe or explain the complicated and momentous political events of the years 1660 to 1700, which saw not just the restoration of Charles II, but:

  • Charles’s death in 1685 and the succession of his brother, as King James II.
  • The rebellion of Charles’s eldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, who raised an army in the West Country, before being crushed by James’s army.
  • The so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 when James announced that he was going to raise his son by his second wife, Mary of Modena, a Catholic i.e. ensuring that the next in line to the English throne would definitely be a Catholic. At this point a cabal of leading aristocrats decided to overthrown James and invited William Prince of Orange (a state in the Low Country) to come and be King of Britain, using the fig leaf that William was the son of James’s dead sister, and also that his wife Mary was the eldest daughter of James II, the king she helped to overthrow.
  • Having secured the throne in England, William went on to defeat the Irish at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689, a defeat/victory which is commemorated to this day in Northern Ireland.
  • And the creation of the Bill of Rights and other constitutional devices which ensured the supremacy of Parliament and other legal rights which made Britain one of the most advanced and liberated nations on earth.

But then this is an art exhibition and not a history lesson.

The advent of William as King not only overthrew the House of Stuart but created two broad political parties among the political elite – those who remained true to the old Stuart line and came to be known as Tories, and those who moved to ingratiate themselves with the polemically Protestant new rule of this progressive king and came to be known as Whigs.

And it also drew Britain deep into European politics. We gained not only a new king but a new web of complex international alliances and enmities which this king brought with him, not least total opposition to the king of France’s ambitions for European hegemony.

And thus this room has paintings of William and various of his generals, in warlike pose, astride horses, in martial postures. The thing is… most of them are a bit rubbish. Here is a painting of Charles I on a horse by the genius Sir Anthony van Dyke back in the 1630s.

Charles I with M. de St Antoine by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1633)

Now here is a painting of King William III, portrayed as the victor of one of his innumerable endless wars, by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

William III on horseback with allegorical figures by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1701)

The van Dyck has genuine grace and dignity and regality. The Kneller has many good effects, but it’s just nowhere nearly as good as the van Dyck. And there’s something about those high wigs for men which is just… ludicrous. And whereas Charles is accompanied by a real retainer the chocolate box angels and putti flying above William are laughable.

(To be precise, the allegorical figures in the Kneller painting are: Neptune in shadow on the far left; Ceres and Flora [goddesses of fertility and crops] the two women on the right; Astrae [Justice] and Mercury [messenger of the gods] flying overhead.)

Room 10 – The Age of Politics

The constitutional and legal reforms which accompanied the Glorious Revolution which ushered in a new age. Formerly a king appointed a lead minister whose job it was to draw up policy and steer legislation through a mostly passive parliament until, that is, the increasing dissension which led up to the civil war.

Now it was agreed in law that parliamentary elections would be held every three years, and this ushered in a new era where groups and cabals of aristocrats came together to press for their own interests. It was the birth of parliamentary parties. And also the birth of an early form of journalism as magazines arose to cater to the taste for reading about the ever-more complex political intriguing and jockeying which was going on in and around Parliament, such as the original Spectator magazine, founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in 1711.

Thus it is that the final room contains portraits of leading lights of the is new world of intrigue, clubs and parties. There is a massive and unflattering portrait of Queen Anne (reigned 1702 to 1714) along with portraits of the members of the various clubs which had their origins at this time, including Kneller’s portraits of members of the Whig Kit-Cat Club, and this fine body of podgy, bewigged men – the leading figures in the Whig Junto as depicted by John James Baker.

The Whig Junto by John James Baker (1710) Tate

Conclusion

If you watch the Antiques Roadshow or flick through popular history, nobody refers to an English ‘baroque’ period – the eras and styles they refer to are the Restoration, or Queen Anne, or Georgian periods and styles (the Georgian began at Queen Anne’s death in 1714).

And the exhibition skimps on the enormous importance of the political events of the time, and skates very thinly over the momentous philosophical and scientific revolutions of the period – Newton discovering the laws of the universe and the nature of light, the Royal Society founded in 1660 and sponsoring all kinds of breakthrough in engineering, hydraulics, dynamics, the circulation of the blood and so on.

But then it’s an exhibition of art and architecture not a history lesson. And one of the most interesting lessons I took from it was how very unBaroque a lot of the art of this period was. In sharp contrast with the European Baroque, it was dedicatedly Protestant, unreligiose, unshowy, undramatic and often very tame and domestic in feel.

In fact walking slowly back through all ten rooms I came to the conclusion that in the entire exhibition there was only one real Baroque pieces, an enormous, fearfully heavy marble bust of Charles II made by the French-born, Genoa-based sculptor Honoré Pelle in 1684.

This, it struck me, was grand – large, imposing, showed its subject in a moment of movement, dramatised by the extraordinary realism of the cloak of fabric flying around his shoulders. This, for me, was by far the most convincing and successful Baroque work of art in the exhibition.

Charles II by Honoré Pelle (1684) Victoria and Albert Museum

Promotional video

Curators

  • Tabitha Barber, Curator, British Art 1550-1750, Tate Britain
  • David Taylor, Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, National Trust
  • Tim Batchelor, Assistant Curator, British Art 1550-1750, Tate Britain

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

John Opie @ Tate Britain

Tate Britain is labyrinthine enough to have half a dozen side rooms and spaces where it mounts small (and sometimes not so small) ‘spotlight’ exhibitions, focusing on a particular topic or artist.

In a modest room off the main atrium, little more than a glorified corridor, Tate Britain is hosting a small but beautifully formed exhibition about the painting and cultural environment of the late-eighteenth century English painter, John Opie (1761 – 1807).

The Cornish Wonder

Opie’s success is surprising because of his background. In the late eighteenth century artists generally came from artistic families, or from educated, middle-class homes where their interest in such a risky career could be indulged.

In contrast, Opie was born at St Agnes, near Truro in Cornwall, the son of a mine carpenter. Although he did attend school, he was probably largely self-educated. A wealthy local couple later reported that he visited the library in their house and ‘read every book in it’. But Opie’s father opposed his intellectual and artistic interests, and trained him as a carpenter.

Opie’s life was transformed when he encountered the poet and art critic, Dr John Wolcot, who brought Opie to London and launched him on his career. Wolcot became the painter’s manager, taking a cut of his earnings and helped him gain fame as a sort of self-taught genius. Opie’s dramatic style and mastery of light and shade that prompted comparisons with the most admired Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio, and earned him the reputation of ‘the Cornish wonder’.

Portrait of the Artist by John Opie (c.1790)

The common people

When Opie first came to London, much was made of his humble origins. The Peasant’s Family is a good example of his dignified images of ordinary people. One critic wrote:

Could people in vulgar life [the working-class] afford to pay for pictures, Opie would be their man.

Little is known of the early history of this painting. There is no documentation to prove without doubt that Opie painted it, but it has always been accepted as by him.

The Peasant’s Family by John Opie (c.1783-5)

Portraits

Opie produced portraits and subject paintings of striking originality and realism. Although little-known today, his work created a sensation in exhibitions during his lifetime. Opie was working at a time when fame was becoming an increasingly important part of artistic success. Artists jostled to grab public attention, painting more flamboyant and dramatic pictures.

We do not know the identity of the woman in this painting who is depicted as the heroine of Shakespeare’s tragedy Troilus and Cressida, but she is probably a celebrity or actress who contemporary viewers would have recognised.

Portrait of a Lady in the Character of Cressida by John Opie (1800)

Radicals

Mary Wollstonecraft was a ground-breaking feminist. This portrait shows her looking directly towards us, temporarily distracted from her studies. Such a pose would more typically be used for a male sitter. Women would normally be presented as more passive, often gazing away from the viewer like Cressida above.

The painting dates to around the time she published A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). This argued against the idea that women were naturally inferior to men and emphasised the importance of education.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie ( c.1790-1)

The intellectual milieu

In fact Opie was part of the leading radical circles of the day. After the French Revolution broke out in 1789 and then Britain went to war with revolutionary France in 1793, radical beliefs of any sort became dangerous, but Opie was part of a liberal metropolitan circle which included Wollstonecraft, her philosopher husband William Godwin and the ‘sensation’ painter Henry Fuseli.

Aside from the portraits, one of the most interesting exhibits here is an elaborate anti-radical cartoon by the famous Georgian caricaturist James Gillray. It depicts sequences from a long anti-revolutionary poem by George Canning.

The caricature warns of post-apocalyptic world where evil has triumphed, where the president of the French Directory (Revelliere-Lepeaux) is being installed at St Paul’s Cathedral as the head of a new religion named ‘theophilanthropy’, and where the Leviathan arrives accompanied (and ridden) by an extensive retinue of triumphant British followers waving their revolutionary bonnets rouges.

NEW MORALITY, or, The promis’d Installment of the High Priest of the THEOPHILANTHROPES, with the Homage of Leviathan and his Suite by James Gillray (1798)

As intended, it’s fun reading the elaborate caption under the cartoon and trying to identify the contemporary political and intellectual figures who are being so thoroughly lampooned. And the wall label tells us that Opie in fact painted many of these ridiculed radicals – including Charles James Fox, John Nichols, Lord Moira and Samuel Whitbread, the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Stanhope, the scientist Joseph Priestley and the radical John Horne Tooke.

The ‘cornucopia of ignorance’ which the acolytes are emptying before the altar contains works by Mary Wollstonecroft, the playwright Thomas Holcroft, and the novelist Charlotte Smith, all of whom had sat for Opie.

Amelia Opie

And he married someone from this progressive world – the liberal novelist and poet Amelia Alderson.

Amelia Opie by John Opie (1798)

Amelia was the daughter of a successful physician. She was already gaining notice as a writer with strong liberal and radical sympathies when she met John around 1796. He probably painted this wonderfully feeling portrait in 1798, the year of their marriage. As Amelia Opie she went on to achieve success as a novelist, poet and political activist, especially against the slave trade.

Early death

Despite his unconventional manners and his resolutely working class origins (his father in law was revolted by his table manners; even his wife admitted his studio was like a ‘pigsty’), John carved a career for himself in London’s fast-moving and competitive art market. He had just been made Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy when he died suddenly, at the early age of 45. For the rest of her life, Amelia did much to promote his memory and achievement.

Thoughts

This is a charming, funny and interesting little display. There must be hundreds of similarly obscure and forgotten British painters who would benefit from the same care and attention.


Related links

  • John Opie continues at Tate Britain until 23 February 2020 and it is FREE

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Anno’s Journey: The World of Anno Mitsumasa @ Japan House

Anno Mitsumasa was born in 1926, meaning he turned 93 this year. For over fifty years he has been drawing and painting book illustrations, for hundreds of books, many of them for children, with the result that generations of Japanese have grown up familiar with his images from an early age, which is the reason he has become ‘one of Japan’s most beloved and prolific artists’.

The Japan House in High Street Kensington is a pleasure to visit at any time, to enjoy the minimalist layout and carefully chosen artifacts in the ground floor boutique. It’s currently hosting a small but beautifully curated exhibition of works by Anno Mitsumasa, the first ever display of Anno’s work in the UK.

The exhibition includes 87 artworks by Anno in a variety of media from watercolours and Japanese-style paintings (Nihonga), to powder pigment (ganryō) on silk, and black papercuts. Althoughhe’s illustrated hundreds, and himself written scores, of books, for the purpose of the exhibition the works have been gathered into six or seven categories.

Learning letters

The show includes examples from the early learning alphabet books Anno created, in which he illustrated the Japanese hiragana syllabary, books such as Anna’s Alphabet (1974) and The A-E-I-O-U Book (1976).

J from Anno’s Alphabet, An Adventure in Imagination by Mitsumasa Anno (1974)

Mysterious World

His first picture book was Mysterious Pictures published in 1968. It is hugely indebted to the work of optical illusionist M.C. Escher, whose work Anno came across on a trip to Europe. It prompted Anno to create his own impossible ascending staircases and upside-down scenes, Escher subject matter, but in Anno’s characteristic stick-men style. He continued this thread with teasing optical illusion pictures printed between 1969 and 1980 in the Japanese magazine Mathematical Science. Thus, if you look closely at the J in the illustration above, you’ll see it has an Escher twist.

Fushigi na E © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Anno Art Museum

Anno’s Journey

Anno broke through to the big time with his 1977 book, in Japanese A Picture Book of Travels, translated into English as Anno’s Journey.

Unlike the books mentioned so far, Anno’s Journey consists of immensely detailed pictures of natural scenes which are not simplified for children or laughs. Each picture shows a small figure journeying through the cultural and literary landscapes of a country in Europe, based on Anno’s own extensive journeys through Europe, noting the folklore, history and art of each country. He had been a Europhile since boyhood and in 1964 undertook a 40-day journey across the continent, which provided him with the imagery for the books.

The original was so successful that it sparked eight sequels, each focusing on a specific country – Anno’s Britain, Anno’s USA, Anno’s Italy and so on. The exhibition goes heavy on Anno’s Britain (1981) with as many as twenty prints from this one book. What they have in common is:

  • the image is thronged with minutely rendered detail
  • the subjects are an odd, uncanny mixture of actual places – famous landmarks such as the White Cliffs of Dover, Stonehenge, Big Ben – but reimagined among much older, non-existent historical buildings e.g. St Paul’s cathedral not surrounded by modern developments but by thatched cottages and Tudor beam houses

St. Paul’s Cathedral from Anno’s Britain © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Anno Art Museum

You could make much of this anachronistic reimagining (note the horse-drawn omnibus at the top right of this picture, and all the pictures of rural England are full of thatched cottages and half the inhabitants are wearing the kinds of frocks and bonnets which go back to the Civil War era), but what is perhaps most obvious is the simple imaginative freedom Anno feels. He is a tourist in what, to him, is a strange land, full of unreadable images and symbols, on a journey of discovery: why should anything make sense? Why should he make sense?

Papercuts

During the 1970s Anno produced a series of works using Japanese papercutting techniques. These are as different from the Journey books as can be imagined because they work with large and bold images, as opposed to the many tiny figures which pack out the Journey pictures.

He used the technique to illustrate a suite of Japanese folk tales, made designs for a pack of card games, and adapted the Hans Christian Andersen story The Little Match Girl in 1976.

The papercut technique brings out the basic elements of storytelling without words, reminiscent of the kami-shibai or ‘paper theatre’ format which would have been familiar to Anno from street entertainments before the war.

Scene 12 from The Old Man Who Made Trees Blossom by Anno Mitsumasa © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Anno Art Museum

The monochrome effect of black and white, and the starkness of the angular outlines, are all hugely at odds with the joyfully coloured, and minutely detailed, and often rather sensual curves and flourishes of his other work – reminding the viewer just how varied and imaginative his output has been.

The Tale of the Heike Picture Book

For me the highlight of the exhibition was a series of illustrations Anno made to the classic Japanese literary masterpiece, The Tale of the Heike. This is an epic account of the struggle between the Taira clan and Minamoto clan for control of Japan in the Genpei War (1180–1185). The text was compiled sometime prior to 1330, and is huge: it runs to over 700 pages in the Penguin classic translation, and is packed with conspiracies and battles, interspersed with diplomacy and – my favourite scenes – nights of wine and love.

The Exiling of the Ministers of State from ‘The Tale of the Heike Picture Book’ © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Anno Art Museum

Several things set these wonderful images apart from the rest of the work here. One is the medium: they are made from powder paint painted onto fine silk, an incredibly difficult medium to master.

And possibly related to this is the use of washes of colour. In the image above, notice all the tones of grey and greyish brown which he has used to create the atmosphere of dusk and moonrise, and also to convey the sandy quality of dried summer grass at the bottom left.

Anno’s illustrations originally appeared one at a time in the monthly magazine named Books, and there is a grand total of 79 of them, produced over seven years. The ten or so examples on display here are, for me, head and shoulders above everything else.

Partly because they are for adults, unlike almost everything else.

Partly because they deal with war, and so have highly dramatic scenes of ranks of samurai warriors on horseback charging each other, as well as tumbling over cliffs or (apparently) charging into rivers. Much action and movement!

But mostly for their sheer beauty. They are beautiful. The composition, the colouring, and the immense subtlety of the colour washes, make them by turns exciting, dramatic, or mysterious and evocative.

In and Around the Capital

There’s a selection from a series of watercolours Anno did depicting scenes from Kyoto, capital of Japan until the mid-19th century. These are bright watercolours which he produced for the Sankei Shimbun newspaper between 2011 and 2016, skilful and bright and featuring some wonderful landscapes all done in a very loose and relaxed style but, for me, paling in comparison with the works on silk.

Hōrin-ji, Arashiyama from Views In and Around The Capital © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Mori no naka no ie, Anno Mitsumasa Art Museum, Wakuden

Children of the Past

Most recently Anno has reverted to memories of his childhood with a series depicting idyllic memories of his childhood growing up in the small rural town of Tsuwano in Shimane Prefecture. There are scenes of children learning at school or playing in the countryside, all done in a deliberately naive, child-like style, and accompanied by text written as if a diary entry by his boyhood self.

Memories of Tsuwano by Anno Mitsumasa (2001) © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Anno Art Museum

These were sweet and lovely if you warm to the children’s book thread in Anno’s work. But I’m afraid my heart was totally lost to The Tale of the Heike Picture Book, and, having seen those pictures, nothing else here matched their intense and adult beauty.

Reading cove

The exhibition space at Japan House is one big white room downstairs. For this show they’ve had the simple but effective idea of converting the central part of the room into a reading area, carpeting it with soft black carpet, separating it off with black partitions, and strewing it with surprisingly comfortable white cushions. And placing racks of thirty or so of Anno’s books across the floor, a profusion of books and titles and images which, more than the wall labels, confirm how prodigiously prolific he has been.

I took full advantage of this comfy area to nab the only copy of The Tale of the Heike Picture Book and work very slowly through it, savouring all the illustrations. A couple of families were there with very small children and a baby. This reading nook provided a safe space to sit down with toddlers and show them the pictures, or encourage them to make up stories linking the often textless illustrations.

The reading space at the centre of Anno’s Journey: The World of Anno Mitsumasa at Japan House

The film

Downstairs at Japan House, opposite the gallery space, is a lecture hall-cum-small movie theatre. Alongside the exhibition, they’re showing an extended documentary film about Anno, with sub-titles chronicling his career, with lots of wonderful rostrum shots of his illustrations, and with interview snippets with the great man himself.

The merch

As you might expect, the shop upstairs is stocking a selection of Anno’s books (though not, I was disappointed to see, The Tale of the Heike Picture Book – the copy I looked at downstairs had a Japanese text: I wonder if it’s available in an English translation) – along with some funky Anno Mitsumasa stationery, playing cards and other merch.

This is a delightful way to spend a couple of peaceful, meditative and civilised hours. And it’s completely FREE.


Related links

Other exhibitions at Japan House

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