The Swan Circle

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The end of an era: George III’s Jubilee at Kew

Entertainment & Culture, Family History, Society and Politics, The Swan Circle, West Family 1750-1800 2 Comments »

Kew Green in 1810


Kew Green in 1810

It was 1809 and the patriarch was dead. Henry West was long gone and with him the little empire he had built at Kew was dying; the old Swan Tavern on the Brentford Ait had been surrendered by his wife in 1793 to Thomas Samuel Maycock and from him to Elizabeth Legh and her descendants; until finally Robert Hunter irritated occupant of the house opposite, made a complaint to the City of London about the noise. The island, he said 'was a great Nuisance to this parish and Neighbourhood on both sides of the river…,' it lured, enticed and encouraged the worst type of behaviour drawing debauched individuals to the 'House of Entertainment, which has long been a Harbour for Men and women of the worst description, where riotous and indecent scenes were often exhibited during the Summer months on Sundays'.
   Whilst under the proprietorship of the West family, the Swan Tavern had dazzled George IV and he had used it to plot his seduction of Mary Robinson, but by 1800 his father's court had drifted away to Windsor and old King George III paid his last visit to Kew in 1806. He did not return to this fond place of memories for his jubilee, but the remaining members of the West family including my great, great, great grandparents Henry and Henrietta would have joined in the celebrations on Kew Green:

   "The morning was ushered in by the firing of cannon, and the ringing of bells. The board of Artificers walked in procession to Church at ten o'clock. After divine service, Messrs. George and Henry Warren [local landowners and probably relatives of Henry West’s chum Thomas Howlet Warren] entertained 100 persons with roast beef, plum-pudding. &c. in a spacious marquee, erected for the purpose, upon Kew Green. Porter, ale, and punch, were likewise plentifully distributed. On his Majesty's health being drank, 50 pieces of cannon were discharged. In the evening, the whole town was illuminated. A grand gothic arch was erected, from the centre of which the British Star was suspended, and underneath a striking likeness of his Majesty, with the motto of "Virtue, Honour, and Glory." The whole of the trees around the green were illuminated by variegated lamps, in radiant arches, wreaths, and columns, and the evening concluded with a rustic dance, and fire-works".

Surely even a fogyish stick-in-the-mud like Robert Hunter would not have objected to such a celebration on his doorstep.

MJ Holman


An account of the celebration of the jubilee, on the 25th October, 1809; being the forty-ninth anniversary of the reign of George the third, collected and publ. by a lady, the wife of a naval officer
Kew Past, David Blomfield

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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