Celebrity in 18th-Century London
To coincide with a major new exhibition at Tate Britain on the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, Stella Tillyard asks what fame meant to individuals and the wider public of Georgian England, and considers how much this has in common with today’s celebrity culture.
In the delight at recognizing ourselves in the mirror that the past seems to hold up, we have perhaps forgotten to ask a few pertinent questions. Are we gazing at ourselves, or at something altogether different? Are we forgetting to look past our own image in the glass to that other picture that lies there, half obscured, refracted through our present, but perhaps still traceable?
Celebrity today has a particular narrative that describes and defines it. The story may be different in different places but the elements are common enough to run through all Western culture. This narrative, put simply, is one of rise (often from obscurity, poverty and ugliness), stardom, fall (usually through moral failure) and rise again. To sustain their celebrity, stars in all walks of life need to be tested. A rock star is compromised by drugs, a ballerina crippled by injury, a president tempted by an intern, a soccer superstar surrounded by sirens. These trials haunt them, refine them, strengthen them and, if all goes according to the script, they emerge stronger, more brilliantly shining, more durable and admirable. The story is partly classical, making of every celebrity a wandering Ulysses, but it is mostly Christian: the carpenter’s son born in obscurity who achieved notoriety, was tested by temptation, was humiliated and crucified and who rose again to immortality. When Bill Clinton humbly atones in a thousand interviews for the sin of his affair with Monica Lewinsky we know that his resurrection has begun. His period in the wilderness and his ‘crucifixion’ in the press (for so the English-speaking world describes the darkest days in the celebrity story) are over. But when we read the scorn heaped on footballers Francesco Totti or David Beckham for showing their arrogance and vanity, we understand that their trials are just beginning. Few in our culture of many stars make it into celebrity Elysium; some never emerge from the wilderness, many we forget about, a few step out of their own story.
This narrative, though, is new, a creation of the twentieth century. Even the persona of ‘a celebrity’, the translation of a bundle of attributes and behaviours into a proper noun, is only a century and a half old. The Oxford English Dictionary finds the first printed use of the word ‘celebrity’ as applied to a person in 1849, and the persistent identification of individuals as ‘celebrities’ only entered everyday culture, in England at any rate, with the explosive growth of the popular press and mass literacy at the end of the nineteenth century. I have never read it in any eighteenth-century letter, journal, novel or newspaper. ‘The celebrated Dr Johnson’; ‘the season’s most celebrated beauty’; even, remarkably, the philosopher David Hume writing that people saw in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s odd behaviour ‘an act to gain celebrity’: those formulations are there, but never the notion that a person is, or wants to be, ‘a celebrity’. Although one might argue that the reason for this is that the phenomenon was so new that no noun, had yet emerged to describe it, I would like to suggest that in the absence of that noun lies the difference between our own culture of celebrity and that which was created in the eighteenth century. That is, the people of that period did not inhabit a world full of celebrities as we think of them today, but they were nonetheless extremely interested in, and avid consumers of, some of the attributes of celebrity that we still recognize.
It is within the etymology and pedigree of the words ‘celebrated’ and ‘celebrity’ themselves that we can peel away some of the layers of meaning and begin to distinguish celebrity from its close companion – and often rival – fame. In the eighteenth century someone possessing celebrity was at a simple level someone celebrated, the centre of a throng, a person surrounded, the object of joyous attention. Celebrity was about being with others, together, adored in the here and now by an audience. Fame, since Classical times, had also been about recognition and achievement, but it had always had an unearthly quality that went along with worldliness, a touch of immortality, of death, remembrance and a place in history.
In the first half of the eighteenth century a process occurred by which a nascent culture of celebrity began to form side by side with an existing culture of fame. Sometimes the two overlapped, often they were directly in opposition. But between about 1763, when the Peace of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War and opened Britain and Continental Europe to one another again, and the mid-1780s, when the political and moral climate began to harden in the prelude to the French Revolution, something approaching a cult of celebrity did sweep Europe, incorporating selected members of all sorts of groups and élites, from actors to aristocrats, courtesans to naval captains, magicians, soldiers, politicians and preachers. It was feverish, sensational and evanescent, driven underground at the century’s end by religious revival, war, the collapse of optimism in many fields of endeavour, and the harsh moral climate that was the result.
Three things came together at the turn of the seventeenth century in London that created a climate in which the seeds of this new culture germinated and grew: a limited monarchy, the lapse in 1695 of the Licensing Act which had controlled the numbers of printing presses and to some extent printing, and a public interested in new ways of thinking about other people and themselves. Other countries may have had one or more of these things. Holland, for instance had a free press but a limited audience, while France had a plethora of writers and readers investigating new forms of identity thrown up by the turbulent debates and discoveries of philosophes and natural scientists, but a monarchy that still dominated politics and culture. So it was in London, by accident much more than design, that the conditions were right for an explosive growth of interest in the sort of earth-bound and limited fame that celebrity represented.
In 1688 the Protestant monarchs William and Mary accepted the English throne under certain conditions that Parliament defined and laid out in the Bill of Rights in the following year. In doing so they symbolically and actually placed themselves under a degree of parliamentary control. In 1701, the Act of Succession, which more or less arbitrarily conferred the British crown on the Protestant Hanoverians, stripped any lingering clouds of the divine away from the monarchy, making it quite clear that Parliament chose kings and could, if it so wished, depose them as well. The Hanoverians were a stolid lot, entirely lacking the creepy magnetism of their predecessors the Stuarts, and they were kept on a tight financial rein by a watchful Parliament. Once installed they made few attempts to accrue to themselves the sort of mystical authority that French monarchs, for instance, still asserted. George I (r.1702-14) had little interest in his new country, George II (r.1727-60), after a grand coronation, lapsed into a similar indifference, and by the time George III (r.1760-1820) came to the throne what cultural authority and mystical aura was left in the court had drained away into the vibrant commercial spaces of the capital city. Theatre, the crucible of celebrity, had for two centuries existed in London beyond the ambit and control of St James’s. As the court shrank in importance, all kinds of spaces for entertainment proliferated alongside it. It was from the performers and the audiences of these new centres of power – Parliament included – that the stars of celebrity culture would emerge, at once earthly, yet touched with the aura of mystery and magic that kings used to have.
At about the same time as Parliament limited the monarchy, the Licensing Act was allowed to lapse. After that, anyone became free to set up a printing business and broadsheets, newspapers, pamphlets, book and prints were soon being produced in great numbers. The law of personal libel was so weak as to be non-existent. Almost anything could be written about almost anyone and newspapers needed to take only the most cursory of precautions when they discussed the actions or opinions of individuals (though they had to exercise some caution when it came to the crown and to the institutions of government). By the 1750s public figures were casually referred to in the press by the initials of their names or titles, while the King was simply called ‘a certain great personage’, or ‘a very great personage’. If these short cuts were used, no slander or gossip was unprintable, no accusation needed to be justified. So when, in 1769, the newspapers reported that, ‘an assignation at the White Hart at St. Albans between L—- G—— and a certain great D—e, was disconcerted by the forcible intrusion of my lord’s gentlemen’, readers would easily have identified the great Duke as the King’s brother the Duke of Cumberland, and his lover as the society beauty Lady Grosvenor, and looked forward with salacious anticipation to the next chapter of their sorry story. By 1770 there were sixty newspapers printed in London every week and a sophisticated network of news gathering and distribution right across the nation.
So it was that a free press and a weak libel law created a climate of speculation and gossip far freer, more direct, personal and scurrilous than we have today. Information, paid for by eager editors, poured into publishers’ offices, and straight into type. Readers were enjoying the heady pleasures of scandal in high places, newspapers the commercial and political value of linking stories about private life to attacks upon individuals, governments and the crown. The public was also ready to put this sort of information into a literary context. Ever since the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, ‘secret histories’, which told scandalous stories of immorality at court and in other high places, had been highly popular. Biographies of notorious and famous individuals, and the notion of fixed character that could be written as a literary construct and then used in a plot, were also becoming commonplace. The great age of biography and of the novel – which usually depended for its plotting and moral framework on the connections between private life and public events of one sort or another – was just beginning. Readers were ready and eager for life to imitate literary form and vice verse. From the 1750s, all sorts of people who wanted notoriety were leaking to, or placing in, the press intimate or scandalous details of their own lives. Celebrity was born at the moment private life became a tradeable public commodity. It had, and still has, a more feminine face than fame, because private life, and the kind of virtue around which reputations could pivot, were both seen to reside in femininity and in women.
If fame depended on posthumous memory and reputation, celebrity was transient and febrile, created in the embrace between an audience or readers eager for entertainment and public figures who wanted recognition, adoration and wealth. ‘I wrote not to be fed, but to be famous’, the novelist Laurence Sterne declared after he had become the most talked-about writer of his day, and the fame he sought was not, he implied, the imprimatur of the future but the applause of the present. As Samuel Johnson, a trenchant critic of what he saw as a feverish modernity, wrote in 1749:
Unnumber’d Suppliants croud Preferment’s Gate,In this new climate, anyone with the skills to use the press and play to the audience might become, however briefly, celebrated. Thus the captivating aristocratic Gunning sisters, whose distinguishing feature was that there were two of them, were sent on a carefully managed progress from their home in Ireland to England in 1750 to be launched on the marriage market. All along the way, as they travelled from Hertfordshire to Windsor, stories about their astonishing beauty appeared in the press. By the time they reached the capital crowds gathered in parks to see them and prints, poems and numerous column inches were devoted to them for several months. Six months after their arrival, advance notice of a visit they were to pay to Vauxhall Gardens brought eight thousand spectators there to see them. Early in 1752, Elizabeth married the Duke of Hamilton, Maria the Earl of Coventry.
Athirst for Wealth and burning to be great,
Delusive Fortune hears th’incessant Call,
They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall.
At the other end of the social scale, the courtesan Kitty Fisher also used the press to create and sustain her reputation. Having burst on the scene as a vivacious nineteen-year-old in 1758 and found herself constantly written up by the daily newspaper, the Public Advertiser, Kitty staged an accident in Hyde Park where crowds had gathered to watch her ride, falling off her horse and exposing her pretty thighs. This trashy appeal to the public desire for sensation, so like the television antics of minor celebrities today, produced an avalanche of print, and her prices and the social standing of her clients rose in response. Firmly established as the most fashionable courtesan of the season, she paid her first visit to Joshua Reynolds’ studio, and had herself painted leaning forward as if over the lip of a balcony or a theatre box, with an open letter in front of her. No longer just a shrewd and clever professional, she became in the painting and the many thousands of prints engraved from it, an innocent Juliet, her viewers a thousand Romeos looking on. She was soon back at the studio, signalling her success and prosperity, and this time she was painted as a queen. Wealthy and sensuous, she posed as Cleopatra dropping a pearl into a cup of wine. Before she reached thirty, though, she was dead,and lingered in the popular memory only by virtue of a bleak little rhyme that mixed sexual innuendo with the message that money and fame would not last:
Lucy Locket lost her pocket,By the 1760s the sort of celebrity that brought people out onto the streets and guaranteed frequent mentions in the newspapers had ceased to be conferred mainly on women. In the following two decades men too became the object of fascination, and those that had hitherto sought posthumous fame or worldly glory through offices or titles began to exploit and be noticed in the press. Charles James Fox, the politician and the most famous public figure of the second half of the century, became instantly celebrated when he first appeared in the House of Commons following his election at the age of nineteen in 1768. His blue wigs, red shoes, extravagant gambling, determined womanizing, brilliant speeches and overwhelming charm were the stuff of speculation and gossip for decades. Fox’s jowly face adorned mugs, jugs, handkerchiefs, prints and lockets right up until his death in 1806. Similarly, when David Hume went to Paris as the ambassador’s secretary in 1765, crowds turned out to see him and he was lionized and given far more attention than his employer, Lord Hertford. More spectacularly, when Hume played host to Jean-Jacques Rousseau a year later, he noticed that at the theatre even the King and Queen seemed to spend more time gazing at his guest than at the stage. Rousseau, though, was in paranoid flight from the very publicity he had helped to create about himself. In response to the overwhelming attention of the London public he took himself off to the wilds of Derbyshire and began to write his Confessions, in which he demanded the right to be heard on his own terms rather than to become a site for others’ imaginings. Inevitably, the Confessions, which contained pages and pages of intimate revelations, merely increased both the fame and the opprobrium heaped on Rousseau after his death.
Kitty Fisher found it;
There was not a penny in it,
Only ribbon round it.
Whether they declared it or not, Rousseau and Hume were after more than the sort of celebrity that made them objects of such popular attention. Both wanted, through their written works, to have an impact on the way their contemporaries thought and behaved, an achievement beyond the magnetism of their presence and personalities. Both too – unlike Fox, who displayed a relaxed indifference to his personal celebrity and to the way posterity might imagine him – wrote autobiographies in which they presented themselves as they wished to be seen both alive and dead. In this, they were bidding for a different sort of fame, a fame of lasting achievement and remembrance.
Some took this elevation of achievement over applause even further. From the mid-century onwards commentators and readers began to be interested in anonymous achievement that seemed to insist upon the work itself as the focus of attention. Yet anonymity was itself a kind of negative celebrity, a celebrity that came from speculation rather than recognition, secrecy rather than public acclaim. That was the fame of the novelist Fanny Burney, the poets James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton, and of the notorious journalist Junius. All four wrote using pseudonyms; Burney called herself simply ‘A Lady’, Chatterton and Macpherson invented Rowley and Ossian respectively, while Junius wrapped himself in a latinate name associated with satires on public life. From 1769 to 1772 Junius held the readers enthralled by letters in the Public Advertiser addressed to public figures which used the revelations of private life to stir political controversy and make a series of defiantly radical political demands. Macpherson and Burney were unmasked, Chatterton had died by the time he became really famous, but Junius was never definitely identified, and to this day the mystery of who he was has continued to guarantee his fame.
One reason for the endurance of old forms of fame and for the fascination with anonymity was that the narrative of celebrity, when it emerged alongside the culture it described, was a morality tale, a rise and a fall which had no redemptive ending. If, on the one hand, the Town and Country Magazine, the first and best scandal sheet of the age, liked to declare, ‘On eagles wings immortal scandals fly/ While virtuous actions are but born and die’; on the other, courtesans’ memoirs, poems about the thirst for fame and scores of sentimental novels told another story. ‘I have known the highest splendour of elegant prostitution’, wrote the famous courtesan Ann Sheldon (or her ghostwriter) in her Authentic and Interesting Memoirs:
I have experienced all the giddy pleasure that mingles with the mercenary gratification of libidinous passion. I have been admired, courted, and even loved; and now I feel upon what slender, transitory objects, the short lived prosperity of the public woman depends.This was 1787, with the American colonies lost and the French Revolution looming. The culture of celebrity, like a brilliant hot-house flower, was beginning to fade. Some of its elements would survive in the personality cults surrounding established national figures and military heroes like Nelson and Wellington and in the popularity of literary figures. It was there, for example, in the notoriety of the poet Lord Byron, though it was a measure of just how much the moral climate had changed by 1815 that revelations about his private life brought not more fame and interest but opprobrium and exile. But a full-blown culture of celebrity would reappear only at the end of the nineteenth century, when new readers and mass forms of entertainment like the musical hall and the cinema demanded new idols. Then, gradually, the celebrity as we know him and her today would emerge and new stories of longing and fulfillment would entwine themselves around them.
- John Brewer, Pleasures of the Imagination (HarperCollins, 1996)
- Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown. Fame and its History (Oxford University Press, 1986)
- Roy Porter Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (Penguin, 2001).
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