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The First Bohemians:

Life and Art in London's Golden Age

by Vic Gatrell

Vic Gatrell's new book is an experiment in graphic time travel. With the aid of maps, diagrams and 200 pictures, he transports us to London's Covent Garden as it was in the mid-1700s. Centring on Inigo Jones's piazza, rimmed with stately arcades and busy with the racket of a fruit and veg market, it was bounded to the east by the maze of courts and alleys around Drury Lane and to the west by Soho. Within this square quarter mile, Gatrell calculates, lived the majority of 18th-century British painters and engravers, as well as all the best-known writers, poets, actors and dramatists.

London's chief theatres were sited in the same packed enclave, and it was thick with gin shops, brothels, coffee houses, print-sellers and bookshops, among them Thomas Davis's where Dr Johnson first met James Boswell. Chippendale set up a workshop there, Wedgwood had a porcelain showroom, and (the kind of piquant oddity Gatrell has an eye for), two elderly French ladies took up residence there and spent their days chewing paper for papier-mache makers.

Gatrell claims it was the first bohemia, though no one used that word to designate an arty quarter until the next century. Like later bohemias it was libertine, boozy and cosmopolitan, with a high percentage of French, German, Dutch and Italian residents. Canaletto lodged with a cabinet-maker in Silver Street, Mozart with a barber off St Martin's Lane, Haydn in Soho. Freethinkers and deists abounded, and when Voltaire came to England in 1727 he took digs with a wig-maker in Maiden Lane.

Covent Garden's theatrical and literary goings-on would need books of their own, Gatrell reckons - and on this showing I hope he finds time to write them. But his focus here is on the artists and the subsidiary trades they attracted. The brothels supplied cheap models, as well as catering for the art community's sometimes specialised sexual tastes. Engravers were needed to bring the painters' work to a wider market, and for many that was how their careers began. William Blake, a hosier's son, started as an apprentice engraver in Drury Lane, becoming interested in painting while hanging around the area's auction rooms.

Drapery painting was an established profession. Often the drapery painter did nine-tenths of the portrait, sometimes throwing in the hands for free, though the big name who painted the face got the credit. Artists' colour-shops were another necessity and Gatrell, who seems to have a map of Covent Garden's vanished byways imprinted on his brain, tells us where the colourists plied their trade, which artists they lived near and what they charged for an ounce of ultramarine or a bladder of blue- black. In 1766, the colourist William Reeves invented the Moist Watercolour Paint-Cake, which saved artists having to grind and mix their own pigments - a breakthrough that, Gatrell notes, accounts for the profusion of amateur watercolourists in the later 18th century.

As well as recording Covent Garden's buzz and buoyancy, Gatrell aims to alter how we think about 18th-century painting. Our automatic association of it with Reynolds's or Gainsborough's flattering society portraits or with nymph-ridden neoclassical allegories is, he thinks, a mistake, and he quotes approvingly Johnson's declaration that he would rather see a portrait of a dog he knew than all the allegorical paintings in the world. Against Reynolds and his Royal Academicians Gatrell pits the realists, who drew or painted the street life of workaday Londoners.

Some of these, such as Hogarth and Rowlandson, are already famous; some, such as Paul Sandby and Samuel Scott deserve to be; and some, such as Charles Reuben Ryley, the deformed son of a trooper in the Horse Guards, who scratched a living from book illustration and died young, are scarcely remembered. But they provide the most memorable images in Gatrell's book, not just familiar masterpieces such as Hogarth's glowingly wholesome Shrimp Girl, but sketches he has retrieved from obscurity - an exhausted ­washerwoman slumped in a chair, a ballet dancer lying flat on a table to ease her legs, a carter leaning over the side of his cart to kiss his sweetheart.

With Hogarth, especially, Gatrell brings out how the artwork was embedded in actual people and events. Hogarth was particularly fond of a low coffee-house in the piazza owned by Tom and Moll King. Tom gave out that he was an old Etonian (and was, Gatrell has checked), and under his eye, artists, market people and chimney sweeps rubbed shoulders in what was really just a market shed, with courtiers in full fig. One day Hogarth was there, watching two prostitutes quarrel, when one of them spat a stream of gin, with bullet-like precision, into the other's face. He instantly made a sketch of it, and included it as a detail in Plate 3 of his Rake's Progress, entitled The Orgy at the Rose Tavern.

Covent Garden artists and engravers did not, Gatrell stresses, have the social polish and pampered backgrounds that sometimes go with being bohemian nowadays. Almost all of them came from working-class families, and they were coarse-grained types with rough manners. Hogarth could scarcely write a literate sentence. Turner never lost his Cockney accent, and ended up living in squalor with his Margate landlady. The Victorian critic John Ruskin was horrified when he came across pornographic drawings ("pudenda of women - utterly inexcusable") among Turner's papers after his death. But pornography, along with whoring and drinking, was, Gatrell finds, a commonplace component of the raucous male lifestyle the Covent Gardeners favoured.

He acknowledges that living conditions in Covent Garden were squalid. Vice and crime flourished. Feral children haunted the back alleys. But he pleads that squalor is normal in human existence and that the inhabitants were generally roistering, jolly folk, who exemplified cheery plebeian vitality despite all inconveniences.

This seems questionable. Being forced into prostitution at the age of 12, or having to walk barefoot through raw sewage, cannot really have made anyone jolly, and the frenzy of pillage and destruction that erupted in 1780 suggests that jollity was not universal among London's poor. These were the so-called Gordon Riots that lasted a week, with mobs tearing down houses and setting light to prisons. The reprisals were fearful. The militia charged the rioters with bayonets, killing some 700, and 62 were condemned to death.

However, if Gatrell takes a rosier view of Covent Garden than some might, that is a small blemish. The First Bohemians is a gorgeously engrossing book, bracingly sceptical of received pieties, and it combines scholarship with originality, colour and imagination to a rare degree.

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