Don’t tell Lady B, but I’ve been cheating on the Ballroom with other time periods.
I zoomed way ahead of our timeline to spend some time in World War I England and 1920s Kenya for The Ashford Affair (coming out April 9th!) before coming back to 1805 for a bit for my latest Pink book.
Right now, I’m hanging out smack in the middle of those, in 1849 London, dipping into both high culture and low, looking into how people entertained themselves in London in the mid-19th century. You can tell a lot about a society by its leisure activities.
The book I’m currently writing (working title: The Victorian Book) revolves around the early days of the Preraphaelite movement so my first stop, on the high culture junket, was the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1849, where the Preraphaelites launched their revolutionary new style. John Everett Millais exhibited his Lorenzo and Isabella (above) and William Holman Hunt showed his epic painting Rienzi, about the Roman folk hero.
(Dante Gabriel Rossetti was not represented there. He had infuriated his Preraph buddies by breaking ranks and showing his Girlhood of Mary Virgin, shown below, at the Free Exhibition in Hyde Park instead.)
What really fascinated me, though, was just how madly popular this exhibition was. The Queen got first crack, on the Thursday, followed by the Private View on the Friday, attended by anyone who was anyone in London Society– one of “the” events of the Season. Once the private showings were done, the exhibition officially opened the first Monday in May.
To give you an idea of the popularity of this show, you’d have to compare it to opening day of Skyfall or a new Harry Potter movie: in 1849, over a six week span, over 100,000 people attended the exhibition, paying their admission fee, and, if they had the tin, another shilling for the exhibition catalog, which listed all the paintings, their hanging spots, and, in many cases, explanations and snippets of poetry.
I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of the 1849 exhibition catalog, the exact same one my heroine would have held in her (gloved) hands. Here’s what it looked like:
Just to give you an idea of how crowded the Exhbition would be, here’s a picture of the 1883 Private View, below. Just picture the ladies in there wearing the far wider skirts of 1849, and you’ll have an idea of how jammed– and warm!– it would have been in there in 1849!
Although I’m looking at a later period, Lady B would also have been acquainted with the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. It began in the 1760s, and, as the Royal Academy literature puts it: “At that time an art show was still a novelty in England and this densely packed, higgledy-piggledy parade was among the great spectacles of Georgian and Regency London.” Over 60,000 attended the first exhibition in 1769 and the numbers went up from there, with record crowds in the early 1820s. The odds are high that Lady B and her lorgnette would have paid a call to the Exhibition at its then home, Somerset House.
The exhibition did some moving around. My early Victorian heroine would have seen the show in its later location in a wing of the National Gallery; the show settled in its current home at Burlington House in 1867.
But I also promised you some low culture, didn’t I?
Just a few streets away from the Royal Academy exhibition, you could find a form of entertainment called a “penny gaff”– a cheap, theatrical performance in the back room of a pub, aimed at servants and errand boys. According to contemporary accounts, there was generally little more than a platform and a piano, with a pit for the cheap seats and a rough gallery of benches above, where, interestingly, the men and the women were segregated by sex, women on one side and men on the other– a surprising delicacy for an entertainment that was reputed to be vulgar in the extreme, with bawdy jokes, dance routines, and short, theatrical sketches focusing on topics like “Highwaymen We Have Known and Loved” (okay, I made up that title, but, yes, famous highwaymen were a popular topic) and particularly sensational murders.
The heyday of the penny gaff was from the 1830s to 70s, but you find some interesting echoes of earlier time periods. While the murderers might be more current, the highwaymen tended to be eighteenth century figures, like the notorious Jack Sheppard. Then there’s my personal favorite: in an account of a gaff from 1851, the viewer reports that the highlight of the program was a sketch featuring the routing of Napoleon!
As you can imagine, the critics took a dim view of these entertainments, calling them sodden gin dens and an incitement to crime and loose morals with their glamorization of villainy.
One of the things I found most fascinating about these penny gaffs? The primary viewership reputedly consisted of (lower class) women under the age of twenty. And this at an era where, among the middle class, the whole idea of women as sheltered little flowers was really getting going….
It provides an intriguing contrast, doesn’t it?
Of the two events, which would you rather attend: the Royal Academy Exhibition or the penny gaff?