Last time, in the Doctor’s Dozen segment of the Serendipitous Compendium radio show, John and I discussed the life and work of Eduardo Paolozzi, one of the founders of the British Pop art movement. In this week’s interview, I connected Paolozzi with Pauline Boty, who was also a founding member of the movement.
Boty was a key player in the frenetic Swinging London social scene that drew together painters, writers, artists, film-makers, musicians, leftwing political activists and poets.
Boty’s paintings and collages often demonstrated a joy in self-assured femininity and female sexuality, and expressed overt or implicit criticism of the “man’s world” in which she lived.
During the late 1950s, Boty became friends with other emerging Pop artists, such as David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Peter Phillips and Peter Blake. As well as studying art, she sang, danced, and acted. Her paintings demonstrate her interest in drawing from both high and low popular culture sources.
Boty, Peter Blake, Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips were featured in Ken Russell’s documentary film Pop Goes the Easel broadcast in 1962. Her appearance marked the beginning of her brief acting career.
The popular press picked up on her glamorous actress persona, often undermining her legitimacy as an artist by referring to her physical charms. Scene ran a front-page article in November 1962 that included the following remarks: “Actresses often have tiny brains. Painters often have large beards. Imagine a brainy actress who is also a painter and also a blonde, and you have PAULINE BOTY.”
Next time, we’re crossing over the Atlantic taking us from 1960s London to the beginnings of American Pop art and the multi-talented artist, Larry Rivers.
In Part 3 of the Doctor’s Dozen, John and I discussed the artist Raoul Hausmann, a founding member and leading proponent of the Berlin Dada movement and one of the originator’s of the photomontage technique. This led to the subject of Part 4, Kurt Schwitters who also used photomontage, but developed this to create his famous Merz pictures. He also incorporated American comics into his collages, and as such is often considered to have been the forerunner of British Pop Art. Any consideration of this subject would be incomplete without attention being given to Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, a leading member of Britain’s post-war avant-garde and arguably the father of British Pop Art. So, Paolozzi is the subject of Part 5 of the Doctor’s Dozen.
Pop Art took its name, subject matter and inspiration from popular culture and the artists who developed it were interested in the commercial imagery of advertising and the media, which fuelled the post-war consumer boom. They drew not only their subject matter, but also their materials and techniques from the world of mass production.
Later in America, artists such as Roy Lichtenstein painted huge canvases whose imagery and painting technique imitated cheap comics. Andy Warhol famously chose objects such as Campbell’s soup cans and magazine images of Marilyn Monroe for his subjects, in order to show how the endless replication of images will turn soup cans and superstars into icons, but also into objects of disposable consumption.
British Pop Art had a different tone, reflecting the reality gap that existed between the glamour, affluence and optimism represented by the USA, and the rationing and social hardship experienced in post-war Britain. Paolozzi and his contemporaries parodied the aspirational consumer lifestyle served up in glossy magazines.
Paolozzi was a member of the Independent Group, a loose association of young artists who were interested in the impact of technology, mass production and popular culture on art. His seminal 1947 collage I was a Rich Man’s Plaything is considered the earliest standard bearer representing Pop Art.
In 1952 Paolozzi gave a hugely influential lecture entitled ‘Bunk’ where he demonstrated how people were daily bombarded by an unprecedented array of images. He showed a series of collages in rapid succession that he had created from advertisements, glossy magazines, science journals and comics. Much of material he used he had collected from American servicemen.
The collage ‘Real Gold’ [below] comes from the series shown in the ‘Bunk’ lecture. Paolozzi’s use of collage in the Bunk lecture reflected his interest in the photomontage techniques of Surrealist and Dada art. However, his lecture is often taken as the moment Pop Art in Britain was born.
Another British artist who is forever association with British Pop Art is Pauline Boty. For me, it is Boty’s paintings that came to epitomise the 1960s in ‘Swinging London’, so it is to this artist’s work we will turn for Part 6 of the Doctor’s Dozen.
From Raoul Hausmann, the Dada artist often credited as the founder of photomontage, we link to his friend and sometime colleague, Kurt Schwitters. According to the memoirs of Raoul Hausmann, Schwitters asked to join Berlin Dada either in late 1918 or early 1919.
Schwitters (1887-1948) was a German artist who worked in several genres and media, including Dadaism, Constructivism, Surrealism, poetry, sound, painting, sculpture, graphic design, typography, and what came to be known as installation art.
He is most famous for his collages, called Merz Pictures. Merz has been called ‘Psychological Collage’. Most of the works attempt to make coherent aesthetic sense of the world around Schwitters, using fragments of found objects. Whilst these works were usually collages incorporating found objects, such as bus tickets, old wire and fragments of newsprint, Merz also included artists’ periodicals, sculptures and sound poems. These fragments often make witty allusions to current events.
Alongside his collages, Schwitters also dramatically altered the interiors of a number of spaces throughout his life. The most famous was the Merzbau, the transformation of six (or possibly more) rooms of the family house in Hanover, Waldhausenstrasse 5. The artist fled Nazi Germany to Norway in early 1937.
Following the Nazi invasion of Norway, Schwitters was amongst a number of German citizens who were interned by the Norwegian authorities at Vågan Folk High School in Kabelvåg on the Lofoten Islands, Following his release, Schwitters fled to Leith, Scotland with his son and daughter-in-law. He was moved between various internment camps in Scotland and England before arriving on 17 July 1940 in the Isle of Man.
At least in the early days of the camp’s existence, there was a shortage of art supplies which meant that the internees had to be resourceful to obtain the materials they needed: they would mix brick dust with sardine oil for paint, dig up clay when out on walks for sculpture, and rip up the lino floors to make cuttings which they then pressed through the clothes mangle to make linocut prints. Schwitters’ Merz extension of this included making sculptures in porridge. Schwitters was finally released on 21 November 1941.
After obtaining his freedom Schwitters moved to London, hoping to make good on the contacts that he had built up over his period of internment.
Schwitters eventually moved to the Lake District permanently in June 1945. During his time in Ambleside, the artist created a sequence of proto-pop pictures, after the encouragement from a friend in America who sent him letters describing life in the emerging consumer society, wrapped in the pages of comics.
From these works, we can clearly see Schwitters as the pioneer of Pop Art, his work prefiguring the early work of many artists, including the prolific Eduardo Paolozzi, who will the subject of the next installment of the Doctor’s Dozen. Here’s a taster:
The third link in the Doctor’s Dozen is the Austrian artist and writer, Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971).
Hausmann’s main connection with the previous subject, George Grosz, is that he was also a leader of the Berlin Dada movement. Hausmann’s experimental photographic collages, sound poetry and institutional critiques would have a profound influence on the European Avant-Garde in the aftermath of the First World War.
As a young man, Hausmann was interested in the goals of the emerging Expressionist movement in Germany. In 1917 he was introduced to Dadaist thinking and ideas by contemporary literature such as the magazine ‘Cabaret Voltaire’. From 1918 the first Dadaist soirées, in which Hausmann and Grosz participated, took place and Hausmann went on to develop his characteristic photomontage process and printed his first ‘poster poems’ and phonetic poems.
Hausmann’s extramarital romance with the renowned Dada artist Hannah Höch resulted in an explosive artistic future. It was during their location to the Baltic Sea that the idea of photomontage inspired the artists which he used to vent out his Dadaist claims.
The most well known work by Hausmann, ‘Mechanical Head’ [above] is the only extant assemblage. The notion of head is driven by the fact that everything rests within the mind and every outcome is a result of what lies within. However, the artist discards this notion and tries to pull out the reverse aspect by simply pointing out that whatever sticks to the head defines the thought process and he explains this literally by sticking the materials onto the head. It is the materiality or objectivity of the world that defines the thoughts rather than the thoughts residing within the head.
The photomontage became the technique most associated with Berlin Dada, used extensively by Hausmann and Grosz and others, and would prove a crucial influence on the German artist Kurt Schwitters.
Schwitters became a close friend of Hausmann and so he is the next subject for the Doctor’s Dozen. Stay tuned!
There’s an extraordinary exhibition at Hauser & Wirth London (until 28 July 2018) dedicated to the German photographer August Sander. Titled Men Without Masks, the display features an extensive selection of portraits made between 1910 and 1931 representing the socio-economic landscape in the years leading up to and through the Weimar Republic.
These photographs are mesmerizing, but beyond the masterful portraiture are the subjects themselves. Who are these people? Several individuals caught my eye, such as these two in a photograph titled Bohemians:
This is a portrait of Will Bongard and Gottfried Brockmann who were associated with the Cologne Dada movement and the group of artists known as the Cologne Progressives. There are also portraits of the artists Franz Wilhelm Seiwert and Heinrich Hoerle who were also part of this group:
Intrigued by Sander’s photographic portraits of these four charismatic-looking men, I set about tracking down some examples of their artworks such as this painting by Hoerle:
Or this by Seiwert:
Finally, here’s a work by Brockmann:
The Cologne Progressives, founded by Gerd Arntz along with Hoerle and Seiwert, related their attitude to art to their political activism and their involvement in the the Radical Workers’ Movement. As the German sculptor Wieland Schmied has explained, they ‘sought to combine constructivism and objectivity, geometry and object, the general and the particular, avant-garde conviction and political engagement’. They are credited as being the originators of Figurative Constructivism.
Gerd Arntz’s work provides a contrast to that of his colleagues. Here’s his Between Bridges for example:
I’d like to look more closely at these artists and their works. In the meantime, here’s a selection:
In the second installment of the Doctor’s Dozen on the Serendipitous Compendium I discuss with John the work of the German Expressionist artist, George Grosz (1893-1959).
Apart from sharing the same Christian name with Bellows who featured in the previous broadcast, Grosz was also an artist who highlighted horrors of war in his art. For Grosz, the teeming city was an apocalyptic place where human problems were concentrated into a confined space governed by individual and collective lunacy.
George Grosz achieved early recognition for his biting portrayals of Weimar-era Berlin, satirising the culture’s hypocrisy, military platitudes and wealthy businessmen, as in ‘Berlin Street’ (1931) from the Metropolitan’s collection [see below]. As the Met’s caption states: ‘Grosz depicts several menacing denizens of Berlin against the backdrop of the modern metropolis, a hellish place animated by greed, cruelty, and ghoulish lust. A beggar, one of the two million crippled World War I veterans who roamed the streets of Berlin, sits on the lower left and holds up his hat to a woman, whose garish attire and crude make-up suggest that she is most likely a prostitute’.
As the artist stated, “The devil knows why it should be so, but once you look more closely, people and things begin to look threadbare, ugly and often pointlessly ambiguous”. Grosz loathed what he described as “the masses” – and trusted to his own “observation, which always confirmed that the human masses are a pitiful mob, an easily influenced herd of cattle that like nothing better than to choose their own butchers”. He targeted not only “the pillars of society” – politicians, lawyers, military and ecclesiastical leaders – but the bourgeoisie in general. He saw the entire class as a decadent mire which nurtured the power of the ambitious.
In 1917 Grosz founded the Berlin wing of the Dada movement. Dada was the artistic expression of the critique of the political and social state of affairs – the Dadaists instinctive mission was to smash the Germans’ cultural identity. Responses to the new art form, such as the Dada Show in 1920 in which Grosz participated, ranged from shock to ‘sheer nonsense’. From the ceiling of the gallery, a stuffed soldier dressed in field grey hung suspended, wearing officer’s epaulettes and with a pig mask under his cap.
Grosz’s drawings were tartly critical of society and in 1921 he was prosecuted for defamation of the army; in 1924 for offences against public morality; and in 1928 for blasphemy. Hated by the Nazis, 285 of Grosz’s works were removed from German collections – one place he was very well represented was in the 1937 show of Degenerative Art.
George Grosz left Berlin in 1932 to settle in New York, and in 1938 he was stripped of his German citizenship and became an American citizen. In the American years, the artist retreated somewhat from his former positions and his analyses took on a generalised apocalyptic tone. Becoming resigned to it, he eventually turned to landscape painting. He returned to the rubble of Berlin to live in 1959, but just 5 weeks later he was found dead after a night out drinking.
One of the best known styles associated with the Dada movement is the technique of collage or montage, which originated in Cubism and was used by a number of German artists, including the Austrian Raoul Hausmann. Connected to Grosz in this series by being, like Grosz, one of the key figures in Berlin Dada, Hausmann’s experimental photographic collages, sound poetry and institutional critiques would have a profound influence on the European Avant- Garde in the aftermath of the First World War.
His art remains fresh and astonishingly powerful today, and it is to the work of this extraordinary artist and writer that I will be discussing the third installment of the Doctor’s Dozen.
In the early years of the 19th century, the British romantic artist William Blake painted a very strange and brownish picture he called The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan. For many years art historians have pored over Blake’s work for secret symbols, hidden messages and coded narratives, but this one seems quite straightforward so long as we have the title to guide us through the oddness of the image. The painting’s central character is a golden haired, haloed man who is naked save for a pair of skimpy pants. Despite his state of undress, he is poised heroically as he controls with apparent ease some sort of serpentine, scaly monster. Trapped within this monster’s muscly coils are various naked figures in a selection of helpless poses, some inverted, as they desperately wrestle to free themselves. At the bottom of this circular composition of writhing snake and disorientated bodies lie two figures, one white slumped and one black huddled, both apparently exhausted from the struggle. All around flames lick out as if this some hellish detail taken from The Last Judgement. What can all this have to do with Admiral Lord Nelson?
To uncover the meaning behind Blake’s nightmarish vision we need to turn to history and consider what it was that made Nelson so famous. His two momentous achievements were the British victory over the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and the defeat of the French and Spanish navies at the Battle of Trafalgar, fought off Cape Trafalgar on the Spanish coast, during which he was killed in 1805. These victories set the scene for what would be a century of British naval supremacy, ultimately underpinning the expansion of Empire. Those are the two main attributes that are conjured up by the idea – the cult of Nelson – naval power and imperialism. So was this Blake’s tribute to Nelson? He certainly worked on the painting for about four years from around the time of Nelson’s death. Meanwhile other leading artists such as John Flaxman and Benjamin West were producing much more sober and monumental pieces to feed the outpouring of national pride in – and grief over the loss of Nelson, the naval hero.
But what Blake has done, as we might expect Blake to do, is to subvert the very idea of these catalytic events, synthesising a personification of the impact of them via Nelson himself. What Blake is saying here is that, at the very least, this extreme hero worship is all highly questionable. So if this isn’t a tribute to a war hero, it an attack on the flabby thinking that implies imperialism is necessarily a good thing. But even if Blake’s commentary is barbed, he still holds Nelson and turn-of-the-century Britain in considerable esteem.
In Blake’s painting we know that the all-but-naked figure is Nelson. There he stands, nonchalantly heroic, holding what, on closer inspection, turns out to be a representation of a thunderbolt. Multi-tasking Nelson also finds time to direct a serpent-like creature, which we know by the title is intended to represent the Old Testament sea monster, Leviathan, here shown wrapping itself around its apparent victims. When Blake showed his painting in a private exhibition in London in 1809, alongside its companion Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth (c.1805), it was number 1, and the accompanying description explained that it is the sea creature that: ‘…in whose wreathings are infolded the Nations of the Earth’.
We can guess that Blake is probably making reference to those nations with which Britain was at war, but they might also be her colonies, here shown caught in a sinister maritime Empire represented by the giant sea snake. Blake most probably would have condemned such an Empire. With this painting and its pendant featuring Pitt, Blake is showing the two leaders as bringers of apocalyptic war, even if Blake appreciated that the campaign against Napoleon was just and righteous. As I have described, Blake’s Nelson stands over the huddled figure of a manacled black man, presumably a slave and highlighting the role of the Royal Navy in suppressing the slave trade after it was made illegal in the British Empire in 1807. It has been suggested that Bake may have seen the modern British Empire as enacting a divine plan for the world, making way for the millennium through acts of regenerative destruction (see F. David Peat (2007) Pathways of Chance [Pari Publishing], p. 127). Here then, Nelson guides a pathway through the chaos of the modern world by controlling a writhing sea monster symbolising an all powerful Britain as it flexes its maritime muscle.
If Blake’s Nelson really is paving the way for the millennium, what if we now turn our attention to another artwork representing the actual turn of the millennium nearly two hundred years later? It is Quantum Cloud (1999) by Anthony Gormley. Gormley’s sculpture stands on the south bank of the river Thames adjacent to the Millennium Dome on the North Greenwich peninsula. Famous for his work The Angel of the North (1998) near Gateshead in Tyne and Wear, Quantum Cloud is actually a third taller at 30 metres. At the time of its unveiling it was the tallest sculpture in the United Kingdom. Constructed from tetrahedral units made from 1.5 metre long sections of steel, the pieces were arranged using a computer model with a random walk algorithm starting from points on the surface of an enlarged figure based on Gormley’s body that forms a residual outline at the centre of the sculpture. In designing Quantum Cloud, Gormley was influenced by Basil Hiley, quantum physicist (and long-time colleague of David Bohm). The idea for Quantum Cloud came from Hiley’s thoughts on pre-space as a mathematical structure underlying space-time and matter, and his comment that “algebra is the relationship of relationships”. The comment was made during a conversation between Gormley, Hiley and writer David Peat at a 1999 London gathering of artists and scientists, organized by Peat. This is all very interesting, but above and beyond the quantum physics, what do we as the audience see in this work? Most people encounter it for the first time when exploring the Millennium Dome (O2) venue, or using the cable car that crosses the Thames nearby and provides a bird’s-eye view of Gormley’s sculpture. To my mind, Gormley’s Millennium Man is just as much trapped inside the neo-modern metallic cloud of his time as Blake’s idea of Nelson, encircled by the writhing leviathan.
Sections of this entry are informed either directly or indirectly by the David Blayney Brown’s entry on Blake published in the exhibition catalogue Artist and Empire [Tate, 2015].
Not far from the banks of the Thames opposite my studio at Bow Creek is what is arguably the finest, best-preserved and most ambitious Jacobean mansion in London: Charlton House, and yet it attracts very little in the way of interest. The house was built between 1607 and 1612 with the then fashionable red brick with stone dressing construction and characteristic ‘E’-plan layout for Sir Adam Newton, Dean of Durham and tutor to Prince Henry, the son and heir of James I, and older brother of the future Charles I. Henry, Prince of Wales, died of typhoid fever (or was it poisoning?) at the age of 18. The diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) lived nearby and he knew both Newton’s son, Sir Henry Newton, and the house which he recorded as being built for Prince Henry.
Evidence suggests that the architect responsible for the house was one of the
first professional English architects, Sir John Thorpe, who had served as Clerk of Works at the Palace of Placentia in nearby Greenwich. Sculptor John Wenlock Rollins’ made a statue of John Thorpe – you can find him gazing down from his niche on the external façade of the Victoria & Albert Museum above the hubbub
on Cromwell Road.
Around Charlton House itself, hidden in nooks and crannies are clues to its illustrious heritage: the Prince of Wales’ feathers above a door, the royal monogram ‘JR’ for James I somewhere else, and the royal Stuart coat of arms and the Garter and Prince of Wales’ motto , Ich Dien – ‘I serve’, in the east bay. Even more intriguing, in the grounds of Charlton House one can choose to take an architecturally interesting pee in a converted orangery which has been optimistically attributed to the greatest 17th-century architect, Inigo Jones himself. Why Jones was put in charge of designing a summer house here is unclear, but what is there for all to see is a mulberry tree, the oldest of its species, this one planted in 1608 at the behest of none other than James I himself.
All fascinating stuff, but besides its proximity to it, what has any of this have to do with the river Thames? Well, I’ll tell you. In 1877 an extension by way of a new wing was added to Charlton House – rather controversially given its incongruous style – by the Victorian architect Richard Norman Shaw.
This architect’s legacy is huge, as he was indirectly responsible for the design of a ubiquitous variety of suburban housing in England with which many of us are only too familiar. Shaw came up with the design by drawing on ‘Queen Anne style’ and adapting it to a modern, open-plan approach, which he prototyped at place called Grim’s Dyck in Harrow, a house once visited by a bemused John Betjeman in his famous documentary Metro-land.
This house was built for the enormously successful Victorian artist Frederick Goodall, but it would later became the home of W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), who died in the garden lake in an attempt to rescue a drowning girl.
Overseeing this tragic incident from an island in the lake stood a statue of Charles II by the 17th-century sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber.
This statue of Charles II was once the centrepiece of a fountain erected in Soho Square in 1681, each corner surmounted by a statue of a river god allegorising the rivers Thames, Severn, Humber and
Tyne. Over the preceding two centuries the fountain had fallen into disrepair, but in 1875 it was removed during alterations to Soho Square by Thomas Blackwell of Crosse & Blackwell fame. The company had its headquarters at 21 Soho Square from 1838 until 1925. Crosse & Blackwell’s main warehouse in Tottenham Court Road later became the Astoria cinema and dance club, now demolished to make way for Crossrail. For safekeeping, Blackwell gave the statue (we do not know what happened to the river gods) to his friend the artist Frederick Goodall.
Incidentally, Frederick’s first commission had been for Isambard Brunel: six watercolour paintings of the Rotherhithe Tunnel. Four of these were exhibited at the Royal Academy when Frederick was sixteen. Goodall’s work received high praise and acclaim from critics and artists alike and he earned a fortune from his paintings, which is why he could afford to have a home built at Grim’s Dyke, Harrow Weald, by Richard Norman Shaw. Here he entertained guests such as the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII).
When Blackwell gave the statue of Charles II from Cibber’s fountain to Goodall, instead of restoring it, the artist had it erected on an island in his garden lake and there it remained to bear witness to the great librettist Sir William Schwenck Gilbert gasping his last in a tragic swimming accident. In 1938 Gilb
ert’s widow had the statue moved back to its original home in Soho Square, minus the river gods, where it remains today presiding over urban picnickers and the Soho glitterati.
The Serendipitous Compendium is back for a second season and I am delighted to be involved in a segment called The Doctor’s Dozen. Over forthcoming weeks, I’ll be introducing listeners to various artists – thirteen in all – and linking them together into an imaginary art historical circle. Inspired by the context in which the artworks were made, I’ll be discussing subjects as diverse as photomontage, German satire, Merz collage, Pop, Bloomsbury and Camden Town. Beginning with an artist who returned time and time again to the beautiful Maine coast, we’ll travel back and forwards in time and across continents in the pursuit of the stories behind extraordinary art and the people who produced it.
So where do we start?
When I last visited John, your host of the Serendipitous Compendium, we spent a happy day the Portland Museum of Art, and we both found ourselves drawn to one particular work. Here’s a photo I took of the painting at the time.
The title is Matinicus and it was painted by George Bellows (1882-1925) in 1916. I was surprised to see such a bright and joyful work by an artist I had long associated with gritty images of urban life in New York. As the museum label states, here Bellows captured a sense of the island’s bustling waterfront through the jumble of fishing shacks, lobstertraps and boats. The scene is animated through the artist’s thickly textured brushwork and lurid, non-naturalistic colours exemplified by the yellow cow on the left.
Bellows was a student of Robert Henri who was a leading figure in the Ashcan School of American Realism, and he came to notice in 1908 when he and other pupils organised an exhibition of urban studies.
His New York scenes depicted the crudity and chaos of working class people and neighbourhoods and sometimes satirised the upper classes.
Like Henri, Bellows started to summer in Maine, painting seascapes on Monhegan and Matincus islands.
But it was Bellows’ paintings portraying amateur boxing matches that were his signature pieces.
Bellows was politically active and associated with what was known as the Lyrical Left. He publicly supported US intervention in WWI and created a series of works graphically depicting the atrocities committed by Germany.
The idea of an American artist using his work to bring attention to the events of the war, made me think of a German artist whose art served a similar purpose. His name is George Grosz, and he’s the next artist I’ll be discussing next in the second part of the Doctor’s Dozen.
I am in the process of collecting and collating ideas for a book that will set out to explore the impact of the River Thames on visual culture. Although I am keeping an open mind at this stage, the focus of my research is shifting towards the stretch of the river that flows between London Bridge and the sea. The business end if you like. I am interested in how visual references to the Thames – both its actual physicality and the perception of it, good and bad – have been employed as ciphers for widely held beliefs and notions that have encompassed concepts such as commerce, military power and patriotism to poverty, prostitution and suicide. Here’s something that’s caught my eye [see above]. It hails from the late nineteenth century.
This is the cover of a typical Victorian penny dreadful and it depicts the story of a grisly murder of a mother by her two sons. It’s all a bit grim. There’s a whiff of irony about it too, for when the body was found the police had also discovered a stash of these so called penny dreadfuls, which were to all intents and purposes cheap magazines for boys. However, despite the police and coroner’s agreement that the magazines were at the bottom of the tragedy, there’s something else that might be at play here and I think the illustrator has added a visual clue that has sent me off on a different scent altogether – and this one smells of the Thames.
As Kate Summerscale makes clear in her book The Wicked Boy (Bloomsbury, 2016) it was ‘far easier to blame the penny dreadfuls than to explore the anger and fear that might have prompted a 13-year-old to attack his mother with a knife’. One cause, which emerged in court, was the eldest son’s anxiety about leaving school for a punishing job in a Thames shipyard. Given that the family lived in a small terraced house in Plaistow, east London – just a couple of miles walk from the docks and shipyards of the Thames – this explanation gains plausibility. The shipyards had a terrible reputation and working conditions and pay were dire. Could the model ship on a small shelf above the chest of drawers (which appears in both the illustrated scenes of the murder and the discovery of the body) symbolise this dreaded future employment, the fear of which might have been familiar to boys of a similar age and background at which the magazine was targeted? It may have been a shorthand reference by the illustrator but darker still, if the model ship had actually been there in the room, is it possible the mother had used its symbolic significance to taunt her sons and to threaten them with the kind of maritime future they would be doomed to suffer if they failed to do her bidding? If so, did she push it too far with her sons – aged only 12 and 13? Could they have taken her vivid threats so seriously they believed it necessary to do away with their own mother in order to avoid their perceived fate?
London’s river had also inspired stories for other forms of penny dreadful such as this fine tale of derring do published for the London Romance Company entitled ‘Wild Will or The Pirates of the Thames’ (c.1865). Here the maritime protagonist embarks on a series of heroic adventures with his fair maiden in tow.
It’s a million miles from the drudgery of a future condemned to toiling in a Thames shipyard, but another indication of the river’s dominant role in the real and imagined lives of young, working class Londoners in the 19th century.