As I've written here before, Katherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester (1657-1717), was not a typical royal mistress. Considered plain, even ugly, by her contemporaries, Katherine relied not on beauty to make her way at court, but on her scathing wit.
She also made her share of enemies, including Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset (His Lordship has last appeared here before, too, with Katherine's father, both Men Behaving Badly). Dorset asked Katherine to become his mistress, suggesting she was too homely to expect any better offers. Not surprisingly, she declined, and the earl retaliated by publishing a series of scurrilous lampoons about her, including these lines:
Love is a calm and tender joy, Kind are his looks and soft his pace; [Katherine's] Cupid is a blackguard boy That runs his link into your face.
Seventeenth century gossip-hounds would have understood the snark factor here as clearly as their modern counterparts devour Perez Hilton. Most court beauties would have had a rosy-cheeked Cupid to guide their love affairs, but Katherine deserved a much less adorable version: a malicious link boy.
Link boys were a necessary evil in London before street lights. Poor boys carried lighted torches, called links, and loitered outside taverns and playhouses, hoping to be hired to light the way through dark streets –and, often, to lead unsuspecting gentlemen into a dark alley with waiting thieves. But link boys were also known to be victims themselves, child prostitutes catering to wealthy pederasts. In the unsentimental 17th-18th c., link boys were seen as despicable creatures: poor and dishonest, perverted and untrustworthy, their faces blackened by their sooty links. If you were a respectable Londoner, you likely believed the soul of a link boy was equally as black. Lord Dorset chose his words to be insulting, and they are.
Which brings me around to this curious painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds(1723-92). Painted a century after Lord Dorset's slander was written, this picture also portrays a link boy as Cupid. Instead of the white-feathered wings that Cupid usually sports, the link boy version has black bat's wings, as befits a creature of the night. He is also holding his link in a most suggestive manner, making his role as a sexual plaything abundantly clear. As a classical Cupid, his phallic link could also be ready to fan the flames of love in the unsuspecting. Beneath his tattered coat, he appears to be wearing an ancient tunic instead of an 18th c. shirt, and across his chest is a strap that could hold a quiver of arrows, those "love darts" that cause so much amorous mischief in mythology.
Yet although the elements for a satiric print are all there, the mood isn't. While Reynolds was famous for his society portraits, he also painted smaller "fancy," or fanciful, pictures like this one for his own amusement. For these he drew his inspiration not from great ladies, but from common people he glimpsed in the street. This Cupid must have been one of those, some unknown link boy whose face captured Reynolds' imagination, and whose poverty is indicated by his tattered clothes and the derelict buildings in the background. But instead of a traditionally impish Cupid, this boy's expression seems dark and introspective, and almost too sensitively painted by Reynolds. Did the painting begin as a ribald dirty joke, only to have the conventional smirking Cupid waylaid by the poignant reality of the young model?
Above: Cupid as a Link Boy, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1771. For more about Reynolds' painting, check out this audio post at one of our fav fellow-blogs, Georgian London.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.