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Posts tagged “#dr johnson

A Night at the Theatre…

The other day I spent the afternoon and evening in the company of Mr Goya and Mr Foote – and a good time was had by all: Mr Goya as irrepressible as ever, his tone a little less acerbic than in his ‘Disasters of War’; his sitters treated with sympathy for their intellect and made approachable. Here he shows his other side, that of the court painter, analyst, friend and colleague – there is no sense of status quo, only of Goya’s striving to grasp the essence of his subject.

He proceeds to fling and slap and dash loosely at his subject; he glares up at us briefly from his easel, eyebrows  inquiring as to what, exactly, we are doing there – can’t we see he is busy?

Occasionally his stare is more abstract; concentrating on some study he hasn’t quite resolved – and later, his expression is the stark, tragic one of the deaf-smitten. Only recently appointed as Director of Painting at the Royal Academy of San Fernando, he was forced to resign owing to this disability, brought on by a mysterious illness in 1792-3.

The portraits follow his development in style, and to a degree, his life, among friends, patrons and (legitimate) family until finally we are allowed to sit at his bedside, while he is administered to by his brilliant friend, Doctor Arrieta. Behind the two men shadowy figures hover, in distant conversation – are they alive or imaginary?

I made my excuses and hurried on, anxious to visit Dona Isobel de Porcel, who had been given a whole wing to herself some distance away. She had been the main draw of the show for me, yet was not included in the main exhibition. The simplicity of her portrait is misleading. The verve and zest of the artist is in very lightness of touch – her black lace veil, wound carelessly about one arm, barely covering her bronze hair, is but a few hasty brush strokes, yet convince utterly in their loose deftness. All the portraits, drawn together from collections across the globe, demonstrate his in-depth study of character, his mastery of technique; all share a play on light and shade, and a radiance of the skin. Eyes bright, their skin luminous, they glow from within the shadowy framework of the canvass he places them in.

I left Mr Goya and company reluctantly, and wandered down from the National to Regent Street; on turning a corner I bumped into Mr Foote, showing off his other leg at the Haymarket, like the brazen hussy he was. On an impulse, I allowed him to usher me in to witness the story of his life, though swift scene shifts and quick, lively banter enriched by occasional visits from Mr Franklin expounding the theory of electricity, and Prince George himself. Mr Garrick was there too, along with Miss Woffingham, and of course Mr Foote’s servant Francis Barber (on loan from Dr Johnson). All of the company gathered there were bustled through backstage, upstage, dressing rooms and wings of the theatre as Mr Foote trod the high and low.

The action is fast and merry, the whole piece is a vigorous theatrical tour-de-force, with scenes reminiscent of a Gilray or Rowlandson brought to life (the sorry incident of his leg being removed by Doctor Hunter is a prime example) – visually, the colours, lighting and period detail are atmospheric and well-studied; candle light and shadows play against walls, ceilings and floors, (for we rarely leave the theatre, save in the dark) adding drama, terror and warmth to this most engaging of plays.

Both Mr Goya and Mr Foote share a ferocious vitality, a splendid disregard for convention and status, as well as surviving life-threatening situations : Goya’s illness resulting in the loss of his hearing, Mr Foote’s ill-timed wager resulting in the loss of a leg. Both satirize, challenge and explore; both lived through turbulent times and both made enormous contributions in very different ways to our ideas on perception and cultural development.


Mr Foote’s Other Leg runs until 23rd January at the Haymarket.

Goya The Portraits runs until 10th January at the National Gallery.


And now for something completely silly . . .

“Birds have the greatest variety of notes; they have indeed a variety, which seems almost sufficient to make a speech adequate to the purposes of a life which is regulated by instinct, and can admit little change or improvement. To the cries of birds, curiosity or superstition has always been attentive; many have studied the language of the feathered tribes, and some have boasted that they understood it.”

Dr Johnson

Lady MuchRuffles: Wherefore do those birds twitter ? (Apologies to Mr Zoffany)

Lady MuchRuffles: Wherefore do those birds twitter ?

Mr FortlyBreeches : Why, for the pleasure of mankind, that we may hear their song!

Lady MuchRuffles : What sort of song is that then ?

Dr Belch : Why, ‘tis a great nattering of beaks, an explosion of feathers, a great flapping of wings, a snort of snuff, a great sneeze, – not worth the air it besprinkles!

Mr FortlyBreeches: I believe from those who study these things that the tweeting offers much in the way of enlightenment…

Dr Belch : Enlightenment, pah ! It is all so many tiny chirpings, a mighty blast of hot air from so many throats –

Mr FortlyBreeches : But if you were to address them, sir – you could tell them all so in one line – of no more than 140 characters however –

DR Belch : I fear a mere 140 characters would not suffice to tell them what I think of their noise.

Mr FortlyBreeches : Why, sir, I am certain if your put your head to it, you would surely discover a way –

Dr Belch : Have at them then ! (takes a bird and shakes it, but it continues to tweet) You see ? Sans shock, sans sense, sans anything – they tweet on regardless !

Mr FortlyBreeches : Allow me, then dear sir : (proceeds to tweet – immediately the birds begin to listen)

Lady MuchRuffles: Goodness, how did you manage that, dear sir ?

Dr Belch : How, indeed ? Is this trickery ?

(All the birds fly to Mr FortlyBreeches and follow him)

Mr FortlyBreeches : No trickery at all, Dr Belch – I merely told them something they wished to hear . . .

Lady MuchRuffles : Oh Mr FortlyBreeches, I beg that you will teach me how – I am most taken with all these feathered followers !

Mr FortlyBreeches : With pleasure, ma’am.

Dr Belch : Bless me, that would be a trick worth knowing – teach me as well !

(Mr FortlyBreeches and Lady MuchRuffles walk off, arm in arm, followed by birds and at a distance, Dr Belch, all singing ) :

“So, we’ll go now for a-tweeting

So late into the night,

Though our brains be not as thinking

Nor our words be quite as bright

For fluff  out-strips good sense

With its value much in doubt;

The aether surely grows  dense

With all that stuff  about

So the night was made for tweeting,

And the day returns too soon

Yes, we’ll do some  more a-tweeting

By the light of the moon

( . .  And apologies to Lord Byron too. Sleep easy. This idle chatter shall not disturb thee, I think . . )

Salons, WindBags & Windy Vlogs

It was a combination of Breakfast TV, – without the television, and without the breakfast –  more likely tea and delicacies – and an informal concert. A chat show, with the occasional star guest and some music thrown in for good measure. The musical interludes have since been translated into links on Youtube, and where paintings were once pointed out on the walls, participants instead now point to images from Wikimedia, googled in seconds and flung up on the screen.

In fact the format of a good many morning/evening shows regularly viewed on broadcasting channels has changed very little since the 18th century salons of Miller and Montagu.

The purists may tear their hair and bang their heads on their desks, but essentially, it was and is a question of the host and his guests : guests who do not however bring only  their dirty shoes, walking canes and gossip, but ideally, something that can  contribute to the common lot of man  . . . one hopes.

The internet contains many such salons now, blog circles, online communities and forum threads; various individuals develop a gathering, a following, an online audience whereby it is sufficient to write a sentence (however simple, even, dare I say, banal – no, even utter drivel) and be instantly responded to by a series of bright, witty, psychotic or plain dull individuals. Plus ça change.

Dr Johnson would have a field day. After a crash course in IT. Actually, he’d probably break the internet on first encounter . . .

‘Sirs of the Internet, it has come to my notice that there are no oysters to be had on this site. This situation should be rectified immediately, as a site bereft of oysters is :  “. . as bad as bad can be: it is ill-fed, ill-killed, ill-kept, and ill-drest.”

And he would probably hit the ‘send’ button with the full force of his fist, thereby bending the keyboard in two.

Dr Johnson consulting an IT manual prior to breaking the internet

Had we had Aethernet in the 18th century, whole websites, forums, threads would have opened up with the likes of Johnson, Boswell, Seward and Montagu strolling through, offering their pennyworths and exchanging “no solid conversation; for when there is, people differ in opinion, and get into bad humour, or some of the company who are not capable of such conversation, are left out, and feel themselves uneasy. It was for this reason, Sir Robert Walpole said, he always talked bawdy at his table, because in that all could join.”

So bawdiness, no solid conversation, indeed whole threads and forums full of banter and lightheartedness, without (to quote Boswell now): “uttering one sentence of conversation worthy of being remembered.”

As Johnson replied then:  “Sir, there seldom is any such conversation.”

Plus ça change indeed.

Let them stroll into the average salon forum then, as hosted by Mistress Seward, or Mistress Kettle, or Madame ByYourLeave, where the hostess asks : ‘And what have these gentlemen to say for themselves ?’

What can the latest news be ?

‘Why, Mistress Kettle, we have been in a vlog,’ they reply.

‘A vlog,’ she asks – ‘What kind of a thing is that, sirs ?’

‘Why, a very pretty thing indeed, madam, if you cared to try it – and a very ugly thing if others tried it.’

‘How so, pray ?’ she asks, quite perplexed.

‘How so ? Why, it is a fine show, if you have something to say worth listening to, and a view to offer – but a pretty poor show if you babble on and on, and show nothing that is either pretty, original or even inviting.’

‘I wonder so many do it !’ says one of the others, helping himself to some Punch.

‘Ah indeed, we live in an age of mediocrity where the poorest pisspot of a brain  may display a total want of good taste, intelligence, even character and all for a song – indeed, for nothing at all, which is often all it is worth.’

Here Mr Remonstrance interjects, with an air of reproval : ‘It is a spectacle, one that we can all participate in after all.’

‘Yes,’ joins in Mr Irascible, ‘and we can cheer or howl or throw peanuts at the performers all we like – for they shall not hear us – so all are happy, except for those of us who seek only a little entertainment, and get a full spittoon instead.’

‘Indeed, I wonder whether I should try such a thing after all,’ says Mistress Kettle dubiously.

‘Madame Kettle, you could only be an adornment and a treasure were you but to try . . .’ offers Sir Lech, by way of a compliment.

(Here Mistress Kettle blushes and fans herself coquettishly. Sir Lech leers over her, Dr Ponderous takes offence and hurls a pot of ink at him. ‘Music !’ clamour the other guests, wearied unto death . . . and usher in the servants of Euterpe :


The comparison of 18th century salons and their present day online equivalent might be worth a thesis-full for some under-grad of social history or literature; it would surely be an improvement on research into how many people actually frequent a coffee bar . . .

‘Indeed, I wonder whether I should try such a thing after all,’ says Mistress Kettle dubiously.

Some more entertaining visions on view at the following salon  :


How might King Lear have put it, after struggling for hours in front of his laptop? :

‘Blow, blow, thou windy vlog
Thou art not quite a blog
Thou content may be crude
It flows vapid and overkeen
On things best left unseen
– Truly, thy breath be rude.’

Other sites of related interest : http://www.drjohnsonshouse.org/



http://orlando.cambridge.org/public/svPeople?person_id=montel(Elizabeth Montagu)

http://www.chawton.org/library/biographies/seward.html (Anna Seward)