10 Mar 2016

Arts and Tarts

Yesterday’s NDFAS was entitled ‘Great Tarts in Art.’ The lecturer was superb. She was fluent and funny. She began by telling us that although there were many names and euphemisms for prostitutes, some carrying more overtones of disapproval than others, she had chosen ‘Tarts’ simply because it rhymed with Art. After this disarming admission she went on to be witty, knowledgeable, and not in the least judgmental. 

Since NADFAS is all about art the subject necessarily focused on the paintings of famous courtesans, king’s mistresses, and the women whose good fortune and good looks enabled them to both feather their nests comfortably and rise in society to situations where they were treated with deference, occasionally with respect. Some became quite fabulously rich. A beautiful woman known for her discretion (and discretion was important, even in the societies permissive in this area) could ask the modern equivalent of £6000 for a night in her company. A career with such an obvious expiration date meant careful husbanding of wealth and contacts. Some were better at it than others. If they became ‘kept’ women they could ask for a fine house, servants, a carriage, exquisite jewels and clothes. With this equipage they could receive guests, hold ‘salons’ and influence the dealings of the day both in court and in politics by bestowing attention on young men who also wished to rise in station. This was the social networking of the time, the salons, and the public school system once it arrived, were the way society drew into itself those it enjoyed having close, the most useful, amusing people, and those who would play its games in order to attain desirable heights.  

The faces we are accustomed to seeing in the art galleries are most often mistresses of one of the Kings. Charles II was especially beneficent to today's art-loving public in this respect.  In order to hint at their special positions (and distinguish them from the wives) these women were frequently portrayed as shepherdesses. We were told by our lecturer that during the Q&A section of one of her events the ‘why?' of this fact was asked. Though she didn't have a definitive answer herself, a male member of the audience did: ‘Because they hadn’t invented school uniforms.’ Shrewd. Youth and innocence have always been a turn-on, added to which the implied healthy lifestyle of the background suggested a disease-free young woman - a serious bonus in those days. 

Peter LiIly, the Dutch painter who succeed Van Dyke as court painter, has given us several of the lovely ladies who enlivened the days of Charles II, generally simultaneously. That is to say they knew of each others existence and there was great rivalry between them. One mark of the king’s favour was especially important and that was the bestowing of titles. Elizabeth Strickland became Lady Elizabeth Stricklend, then Countess of Kildare. Henrietta de Kerouaille became Countess of Pembroke. These two hated each other, vying constantly for position. They were pregnant at the same time and lobbied for their sons to be given important titles. Harassed by their insistence the king reportedly said: ‘first come, first serve’ meaning not which child appeared first, but which envoy got to him first with the petition (if that's the word.) It seems that Lady Elizabeth Strickland had the fittest envoy because her child received the most coveted title. 

These women where also the Stars of their day. The Posh and Becks, the Brad and Jennifer. The populace had their favourites. When the carriage of Lady Strickland was stoned and almost overturned by a baying mob, disaster was only avoided by the beautiful passenger appearing in the window crying: ‘I am not the whore from France. I am the whore from Lambeth.’ 

Neither felt much challenged by the lovely Nell Gwyn it seems, probably because she was ‘common as muck.’ Nell was one of the lucky girls allowed onto the stage after Charles II changed the law (which incidentally put hundreds of pretty young boys out of a job.) It was a wonderful opportunity for good looking women to better themselves and find a patron. The lovely Elizabeth Armistead, painted by Joshua Reynolds, who started her career as a whore in one of the most famous brothels in London, spent a short time treading the boards. The critics where not impressed by her acting skills but were very impressed by her looks and figure.  

Women who already had positions, came from good families and married well were not above having their fun. As long as they were discreet their husbands would ‘turn a blind eye’. This has occasionally blurred the hereditary genetic demarcation lines. Women waited until they had provided their husband with a son and heir before they began their adventures, but if that child died it might well be a subsequent, illegitimate, child who succeeded to a title. 
There were the occasional almost fairy-tale endings when true love was found between a nobleman and his courtesan. Elizabeth Armistead was one of these. She was taken from the brothel by Lord Bolingbroke who became her patron. There were other patrons along the years who endowed her with pensions and made her wealthy, but she always remained friends with James Fox, a young politician of the Whig party, who had been in the company of Bolingbroke when he met Elizabeth and rescued her from the brothel. Eventually after 10 years of platonic friendship, Elizabeth and James married. On the internet I found this touching piece: “In 1795, after they had been together for more than ten years, Fox wrote to his nephew, ‘I think my affection for her increases every day. She is a comfort to me in every misfortune and makes me enjoy doubly every pleasant circumstance of life. There is to me a charm and delight in her society which time does not in the least wear off, and for real goodness of heart if she ever had an equal she certainly never had a superior.’” Elizabeth lived to be 95 years old. 

Predictably, Hogarth represented the darker, gloomier, side of prostitution amongst the poor in one of his inimitable cartoons. This one is a triptych. He shows a sly looking madam, a very young girl who is obviously distressed, a finely clad gentleman, and a greedy, dissolute looking doctor. A phial of black pills in the hands of the gentleman is at the centre of the group and tells the story. These pills would have been mercury, which has been shown to alleviate some of the symptoms of venereal disease but with obvious side effects. The madam would have bought the child, sold her to the wealthy ‘gentleman’ who was now aggrieved that his purchase was not as pure as he had been led to believe. The madam and the gent both have the tell-tale black patches known as ‘beauty spots’ that covered either smallpox scars or signs of syphilis. 

A later painting by one of the Impressionists (if I remember rightly) shows a woman propositioning a well-dressed man who is holding her in what, at first sight, looks to be a tender caressing sort of way with his hand on her elbow. This, we were told, was actually his way of assessing her state of health. Syphilis causes swellings in the joints, notably the elbow. Various sayings have come out of this cautious act, ‘elbowing ones way around the room,’ for instance. 

As always, seemingly innocent and charming nursery rhymes have come from the prevailing, less pretty, realities. This pleasant little song that most (at least amongst the oldest of us) will have heard at one time or another, is an example:  

This version appeared in ‘A Baby’s Opera’ by Walter Crane in 1877.

1. "Where are you going to, my pretty maid?
Where are you going to, my pretty maid?"
"I'm going a-milking, Sir," she said,
"Sir," she said, "Sir," she said,
"I'm going a-milking, Sir," she said.

2. "Shall I go with you, my pretty maid?"
"Yes, if you please, kind Sir," she said,
"Sir," she said, "Sir," she said,
"Yes, if you please, kind Sir," she said.

3. "What is your fortune, my pretty maid?"
"My face is my fortune, Sir," she said,
"Sir," she said, "Sir," she said,
"My face is my fortune, Sir," she said.

4. "Then I can't marry you, my pretty maid."
"Nobody asked you, Sir," she said,
"Sir," she said, "Sir," she said,
"Nobody asked you, Sir," she said.

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