The Swan Circle

A story of Georgian networking

Footprints on the cheese: a strange tale of theft from 1770

18th Century Digressions, Family History, The Swan Circle No Comments »

It was on a late winter's night in 1770, when Edward Wild a former lodger, broke into the warehouse belonging to his old landlord and stole some produce. He must have carefully considered his chances of being caught and based any decision to burgle the old man on his knowledge of the property, its layout and the family routine. He knew that the warehouse was separate from the dwelling and relied on the assumption that the family, asleep in their beds when he struck at midnight on 10th February, would not hear a thing.

But his former landlord was a canny, suspicious old devil and had kept his eye on Wild for quite awhile. The merchant's name was Francis Stevens and his was my 4x great, grandfather; he had lived through much of the 1730s through to the 1760s at Mayfair and at Piccadilly before moving to New Brentford in the late 1760s. The family house and warehouses were probably nearer to the old village of Hanwell where the family had a long association, than they were to Brentford.

Francis provided an account of the theft and its aftermath on the witness stand of the Old Bailey:

'I missed some cheeses; there being a great quantity, I cannot tell how many were missing. My servant seeing mark of feet upon some coals, told me of it I went into the cellar, and saw it myself; they led to the hole where the jack-weight went down. I went into my warehouse above, and saw marks of feet on some cheeses. The prisoner Wild had lived with me about two months, and had been gone but the Sunday before. I suspected him. I ordered the watchman, if he saw any body about there, to secure them. On the Monday, the watchman called me up before twelve at night, and told me, he had got one of them. He had got a boy. I examined him if he was not concerned with Wild? He said, No, he never was; but he had told him, he could get up a hole and get things; and he had received some nutmegs from him. Then I went with the watchman to the woman's house at the bar, where Wild lived, and called him to get up; he was some time before he did. When I charged him, he cryed, and desired to speak with me backwards. He then told me he had taken a cheese. Soon after he said he had taken two, and that they were in that house. We found one in the cellar cut in two, and about three pounds of it gone. The man of the house declared his innocence; he went up stairs to his wife. The other cheese was found in his bed-room, but I was not by at the time.'

  Elizabeth Boyce, wife of the 'man of the house' was charged with receiving stolen goods, but was acquitted. Edward Wild was found guilty and sentenced to transportation, probably to either Virginia or Jamaica.

The two cheeses were valued at 10 s.

Johan Zoffany: Society Observed

18th Century Digressions, Entertainment & Culture No Comments »


Mr Foote in the character of Major Sturgeon

Mr Foote in the character of Major Sturgeon by Johan Zoffany


Last week I visited the Johan Zoffany: Society Observed exhibition at the Royal Academy. It was unseasonable weather, the tube was hot and clammy and huge crowds had gathered in the Royal Academy courtyard to queue for the David Hockney exhibition. I sent a text home, 'It's murder here,' I wrote and for a second I regretted booking my ticket, but the moment I was surrounded by Zoffany's work the red mist disappeared and I was enveloped by the calm of the artist's world: the realm of artifice and celebrity.
   I admit that I was more interested in Zoffany's theatrical paintings and intrigued by his representations of 18th century theatre. In one room, stood a cabinet filled with large mezzotints, the like of which I had not seen before; these were prints of John Beard amongst others in full theatrical regalia. Zoffany's detailed work was so stunning I almost wept.
   Further along was the painting of Thomas King as Touchstone in As you like it and Garrick in The Farmer's Return, but some of the most memorable representations has to be that of Samuel Foote in The Devil upon Two Sticks and in the character of Major Sturgeon. Ironically, Foote lost his lower leg in a riding accident and thereafter had a wooden leg and carried a stick; observing that there were few roles for actors with wooden legs and sticks, he proceeded to write a number of plays with roles for actors with wooden legs who carried sticks!
   For those of us interested in 18th century manners, the Major Sturgeon painting shows one character's ungainly attempt at trying to stand like a gentleman in ridiculously oversized boots, however there is more to this painting than what appears at first glance. I am not an art historian, but I had two observations that I saw repeated over and over again in many of Zoffany's theatrical works. First, the actors in character can be removed from the painting and become separate entities or paintings in their own right and second, we are supposed to be looking at a stage set, but are we?
   Zoffany's painting of The Clandestine Marriage shows that the artist was more concerned with composition and style rather than staying true to the original theatrical setting and so most observers believe it to be a paean to Watteau. It seems apparent that Zoffany was trying to articulate what must have been the somewhat new idea of theatrical celebrity: in separating the actor from the painting – the subject normally standing in elaborately dramatic pose – they become a self-contained study that could easily be reproduced in print for the masses to idolise.
   The poses were snapshots in time and under the normal conventions the artist would take a few lines from a production and recreate that moment exactly;  this surely would have been a souvenir for those who had the great fortune to see Garrick as Macbeth or as Sir John Brute in The Provok'd Wife?

'The Tribuna of the Uffizi, 1772-7' The Provok'd Wife with Garrick










The Tribuna of the Uffizi and The Provok'd Wife


 Zoffany always seemed to have the eye of the observer in mind and more fool the observer if they missed something. The painting of The Tribuna of the Uffizi was painted for Queen Charlotte and depicts a room crammed with people and various works of art. The Tribuna was not altogether like this of course, but Zoffany wanted to convey the particular artworks on show for the Queen and other patrons who were unlikely to visit the Uffizi themselves. In the bottom right corner of the painting is an easel with an erection, a phallas like projection pointing towards the foot of one of the patrons – I wonder if Charlotte spotted that! In the background of The Provok'd Wife with David Garrick, the careful observer might spot the area around the Covent Garden theatre which of course was the rival theatre to Garrick's Drury Lane.
   However, it was Zoffany's own walk-on parts or painting cameos that are fun to spot. He, of course was not the first artist to paint himself into his own paintings, many had trodden that path before, but it was his unnerving quality to place himself in situations where he had never been that makes him seem like some 18th century Hitchcock. There was no silhouette, just a rather fey head popping up from behind a canvas as in The Tribuna of the Uffizi or sitting on the edge of a scene looking back at us watching him. Why do I get the feeling there was a separateness about him equal to the distinctness of his subjects?
   His self portraits had that Rembrandt quality that was emulated by all those that followed the Master  – of course there is a hint of haunted tragedy on the face, but there nearly always is in self-portraits. Towards the end of his life he suffered from dementia and retired to Strand-on-the-Green, Kew, he died in 1810 and was buried in St Anne's churchyard, Kew.
   I visted his tomb a year or so ago, it is impressive and stands distinct from many of the others. I am sure he would have been happy about that.

The Tomb of Johann Zoffany


Johan Zoffany: Society Observed at the Royal Academy 10th March – 10 June 2012



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