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Review: Two Last Nights! Show Business in Georgian Britain.
Foundling Museum. 20 September 2019 – 5 January 2020

title250Having made a spirited recovery in the late Stuart period following the Restoration and into early Georgian times, public entertainment venues in London remained few. This all changed as the 18C progressed and more of the population found themselves better off and with more leisure time. Pursuits that were mainly the domain of the well-off spread to the growing middle class. Simultaneously, forms of entertainment became more diverse, notably the emergence of pleasure gardens such as Vauxhall, Ranelagh, Bagnigge Wells and others.

This is the subject of a new exhibition at the Foundling Museum. While the growth of the entertainment industry was nationwide, the fountainhead was inevitably London. This show examines primarily the business of public entertainment rather than the forms on offer, although we get a bit of that too. So we are primarily looking at the theatres themselves, the marketing, the consumes, the fashions and – most entertainingly – how the theatre-goers were perceived, and also satirised.

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Miss Rattle dressing for the Pantheon, 1770s.

Entering the exhibition we are first met with marketing materials mainly in the form of printed handbills. all are in the distinct period multi-typeface, centre-ranged, capital-heavy form of the time. Nonetheless, competition was stiff and it’s quite sophisticated stuff from which the title of this show derives.

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Handbill for Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.

Most of the ephemera on display relates to tickets. Except in the cheapest of cheap seats in the pit or the ‘pidgeon holes’ (crammed sections in the Gods with heavily constricted views), theatre-going remained quite pricy and I think this is reflected in the beauty of the engraved tickets which often featured the architecture of the theatre and other classical forms. Some even bore wax seals. They could be anything from modern post card size almost up to A4 in some cases.

But for me, the most fun part was relating to the audience. Hogarth’s famous Laughing Audience is here, of course, but there are many more along the same lines including the best of Rowlandson – one in particular which makes the point that country audiences in rough and ready theatres enjoy themselves far more than the stiffy, sniffy city types. It is a point which one might care to refute knowing the reputation of a typical London audience which – as is shown in several pictures – is separated from the players literally with a rows of metal spikes.

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Comedy in the Country, Tragedy in London. By Rowlandson.

I would have liked to have seen something on two forms of public entertainment which were invented in this period: Satire, as presented by Samuel Foote (1720 – 1777) at his own patent theatre in the Haymarket; and Astley’s Circus, as presented by Philip Astley (1742 – 1814). Both were almost instantly successful and the latter in particular begat imitators which have continued down to today.

Print, satire, entertainment, fashion. All flourished in the Georgian period, and all are bought together here in this exhibition in a most pleasing way.


The entry to Two Last Nights! is free with your Foundling Museum ticket which is £13.20 for adults. National Art Fund members get into the museum entirely free of charge. 

 

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Guest post by LH Member David Brown. Book review of the recently-published Palaces of Pleasure by Lee Jackson. 

PoPPalaces of Pleasure is the most recent book written by Lee Jackson, who is well-known to London history enthusiasts for the Dictionary of Victorian London website, and for his previous book Dirty Old London (Yale, 2014, our review here), a good history of sanitation in London. The subtitle of the book “From Music Halls to the Seaside to Football, How the Victorians Invented Mass Entertainment” lays out the ambition of the author to cover a broad range of entertainments.

The volume provides a very enjoyable read, showing how people in the 1800s spent their free time.

After an introduction, the first three chapters look at how the public house transformed into Gin Palaces, covering the evolution of club and music rooms, and in turn creating the Music Halls. Further chapters investigate dancing rooms, academies and the brief flowering of dancing casinos. Chapters on pleasure gardens and exhibitions are included. Two final chapters cover the seaside and the emergence of football as an entertainment. The conclusion brings together many of the themes and explains why there was such an extraordinary growth in mass entertainment in the Victorian period.

Throughout, the book takes a look at the entrepreneurs that emerged, and how they had to navigate the perils of newspaper sensationalism, the impact of legislation, the temperance movement and the role of the magistrate in shaping the entertainment world. One theme is how the pleasures of the everyday man were seen as threatening and in need of suppression and regulation, whilst the pleasures of the aristocrats and the well-off rarely rated the same view. While in the early period these activities were mainly male, another theme in the book explores how women were perceived, challenges some of the myths around prostitution, and demonstrates how everyday Victorian women increasingly took part in leisure activities.

The author ranges widely, and although most of the places talked about are in London, he also contrasts examples from outside London and particularly in the North of England to show broader trends. Some of the chapters include good case studies (like Samuel Thompson’s wine and spirits business on Holborn Hill and Charles Morton’s famous Canterbury Hall).

Each chapter has a detailed set of end notes. The author uses a wide range of sources (particularly strong on the press), and provides a good bibliography and index. I’d have liked to see more pictures and ideally in the sections of the book that they relate to- here the illustrations included are limited in quantity (26, mostly half page, bound together in the centre of the book).

This is a book that could benefit every London Historian who is interested in 19th Century London. It’s full of anecdotes and facts that will delight the reader. Thoroughly recommended.


Palaces of Pleasure, From Music Halls to the Seaside to Football, How the Victorians Invented Mass Entertainment (320 pp, hardback) by Lee Jackson is published by Yale University Press with a cover price of £15.99.

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del200I was surprised and saddened to hear only yesterday that Derek ‘Del’ Mandel, aka the Cockney Minstrel, had passed away earlier this year on St George’s Day.

As many readers know, our monthly meet-up pub is the historic Hoop and Grapes in Farringdon Street. Every year, early November, after the Lord Mayor’s Show, Del would turn up and lead a proper cockney-style singalong, in his pearly king garb. He’d start fairly low key with both well-known and obscure standards as well as soldier ballads. Before each song he explained the story behind it, so we all got educated into the bargain.

Del’s set was immense, typically lasting well over three hours. Indeed, Springsteen-esque. He invested heart and soul and his audience responded lustily. As we punters became more refreshed, our voices became louder and louder. By the end of the afternoon, I swear the tiles on the roof were rattling.

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Thank-you Del, wherever you are. We’ll never forget you.


Del will be remembered in a special sesh at the Hoop and Grapes after the Lord Mayor’s Show this year, 10 November.

Here is a clip of Del doing the Barrow Boy Song, on 11 November 2016.

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