Archive for December, 2012

In chronological order of publication, my top three:

London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing by Jerry White.
Having covered London in the 19th and 20th Centuries in earlier works, this is Professor White’s masterpiece. Over a decade in the making, published back in March and not yet reviewed by me, I’m ashamed to say. I probably wouldn’t know where to start: loved it.

The Day Parliament Burned Down by Caroline Shenton
Reviewed by me here.

Mr Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly
Reviewed by me here.

One finished, don’t miss the other two which are still running. My top three.

Royal River at the National Maritime Museum

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men at the Museum of London
until 14 April 2013

The Lost Prince at the National Portrait Gallery
until 13 January 2013, treat as urgent!

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mr foote's other leg by ian kelly

So wrote Lord Byron, a man born some 11 years after the demise of Samuel Foote. Foote was possibly the most famous man in London in the mid 18C, yet all but forgotten today. He was an author, impersonator, actor, comedian and playwright in an age of polymaths. Johnson, Garrick, Fielding, Boswell and Reynolds were among his many admirers. Yet none attended his funeral in 1777 and Byron’s is the funny man’s only literary epitaph.

Mr Foote’s Other Leg may read like a work of fiction, but it is the true story of one of London’s big personalities at the dawn of celebrity.  At the risk of spoilers, Foote’s story includes fratricide and a hanging; debtors’ prison; coffee houses; bigamy; kings and aristocrats; an amputation; a court case; and theatre, always theatre.

Like many of his successful conteporaries such as Reynolds, Johnson and Garrick, Foote was a provincial, in his case a Cornishman. Short and plain of face, his talents were impersonation, satire and wit, all highly prized and appreciated among London’s oh-so-clever coffee-house intelligensia.

This meticulously researched book tells his story, the tale of an unstoppable trajectory to fame, which from the rock-bottom of the debtor’s prison is almost Whittington-esque. London’s theatre-goers loved him, flocking every summer season to his Little Theatre in the Haymarket. A guilty conscience on the part of the Duke of York saw Foote’s establishment gain a royal patent, raising it up to the Theatre Royal we know today. Yet in the end, our hero’s fortunes took a rapid dive into scandal and ignominy.

A remarkable story, then. The added value, though, for the curious historian, is what Kelly weaves in. He tells us about the 18C London Theatre (plus Dublin for good measure); we learn all about the phenomenal rise and culture of London coffee shops, one in particular: The Bedford, which was the favourite hang-out of thesps, impresarios, agents, etc; we are then turned into experts on the latest amputation techniques as practised by London’s leading surgeons. Although he didn’t actually conduct the amputation, it won’t surprise you to discover that John Hunter was one of  Foote’s physicians, and a personal friend.

On top of all this, I picked up things I did not know on the criminal courts, contemporary newspapers and much else. For Kelly doesn’t do “mention in passing”; every interesting stone in the narrative, he lifts up and takes a good look, then shares his findings with you; hence he succeeds in whetting one’s appetite for myriad other topics, leaving you a bit daunted, yet excited and wanting more. This is what raises this book above the extraordinary: Mr Foote’s Other Leg is a wonderful work of history and if you’re quick you’ll probably be able to treat yourself for Christmas.


Mr Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly (462pp) is published by Picador. Cover price is £18.99 but available for around £11.

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Yesterday we passed the 10,000 Twitter followers mark. I’m not entirely sure what this means in practice, but it’s a nice, round, big-sounding number and I’m very grateful to almost each and every one, for there must be some ne’er-do-wells, scoundrels and bots in that number.

No matter, time for a celebratory gesture, and it’s this. From now until midnight tomorrow, Saturday, you can join London Historians at a big discount: £19 for Individual (usually £39), and £25 for Joint (usually £49).


Our webmaster is  not around at the moment, I had to program this myself. So I’d really appreciate it you use it and join the happy band that is London Historians. You’ll be very welcome.

What will happen next is that we’ll send you December Members’ Newsletter (articles by Mike Rendell and Russ Willey, and a competition to with this book), and I’m ordering the last batch of new Members’ cards first thing Monday so you can have yours by Christmas.

Join us today!


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chinese_girlApart from a successful exhibition at Harrods in 1961, Vladimir Tretchikoff (1913 – 2006) has little to do with London or its history. But this Russian painter did produce what has become possibly the best-selling poster of all time, The Chinese Girl (1952), aka the “Blue Lady”. The original painting of it can be seen in the foyer of Bonhams auctioneers right now. It will be auctioned in March.

Tretchikoff is known mainly for his cheesy paintings, very much looked down on by the art establishment and Western intelligentsia, though he is enjoying a sort of ironical cult status of late. I remember my parents’ friends having prints of his Dying Swan or the cut rose and water droplets on the stair. Reproductions like these sold in their tens of millions during the 20th Century, particularly in the Far East – and Tretchikoff cried all the way to the bank.

I made a special detour last week to Bonhams to see the Chinese Girl in the flesh. I don’t know where original Tretchikoffs lurk, but it felt good to see one. The estimate is £300,000 – 500,000. I bet it goes for more.

25 January: Ah, the Beeb have caught up.

Update: The painting fetched £982,050, the winning bid coming from a businessman based in South Africa, meaning that the painting will in a sense be returning home.

Update II: There’s a lovely postscript to this story about the model, who still lives in Cape Town, here.

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