Wednesday, September 25, 2013

When Politics Made a Performer a Fox, 1781

Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Isabella reporting,

In my last post, I shared an elegant portrait of the celebrated dancer Auguste Vestris (1760-1842). There are, however, a good many more images of both Auguste and his father, Gaëtan (1729-1808), from the time, and they're far less flattering.

There was much about the two dancers that made them the perfect targets for the infamous satiric caricaturists of late 18th c. London: they were extremely popular on the stage, they were handsome, athletic, and fashionable, they made a great deal of money, and, most of all, they were foreigners (Gaëtan was a Florentine with a German wife, while his illegitimate son Auguste had been born in Paris to a French mother). It didn't matter that father and son weren't particularly politically inclined, or that they traveled from one country to the next for work, much as performers do today. To the English caricaturists they were plundering FRENCH, and since England was perpetually at war with France during the 18th c., that was enough.

It's interesting that in several caricatures, it's not Gaëtan or Auguste who are the ridiculed the most, but the English audiences who supported them. Both of the drawings here are accompanied with long, scolding verses that liken the Vestris supporters to not-very-bright geese.

The print, above, shows Gaëtan giving dancing lessons to a goose. He's dressed like a stylish macaroni, complete with an exaggerated wig, and the extra-dark brows and large nostrils show he is Not English (though to be fair, Gaëtan's portrait by Thomas Gainsborough shows a certain haughtiness as well). Ten verses question how England has come to value Vestris and dancing over everything else (you can read them all here):

  Of all the fine Accomplishments, sure Dancing far the best is,
  But if a doubt with you remains, behold the Goose and Vestris....
  Poor Milton wrote the most Sublime, 'gainst Satan, Death, and Vice,
  But very few would quit a Dance to purchase Paradise....
  The Soldier risks Health, Life, and Limbs, his Fortune to advance,
  While Pique and Vestris Fortunes make by one Night's single dance....

The print, below, is even more direct: A Vestrician Dish, or, Caper Sauce for a Goose Pye. Auguste is shown dancing gracefully on the stage of the Opera-House in the Haymarket, but the artist has replaced his head with that of a wily fox, and given him a fox's tail as well. His English audience hasn't fared any better: they're all shown as a flock of too-trusting, admiring geese under his spell. Here's part of the caption; read the rest here.

  If a Fox should appear from a pilfering band,
  Who has rifl'd your Roots and have damag'd your Land,
  What Loons would allow such a Thing still to fleece,
  If they were not a mere Set of Cackling Geese.

  Shall he gull us, because he can caper and reel,
  And wreathe his fine Body, like any Thames Eel,
  Such a Thing was ne'er heard of in Rome or in Greece,
  As a Fox well supported and courted by Geese....

  I now have a Guess at the Reason, I vow;
  So the longer we live, still the wiser we grow;
  It is a French Fox, all Pomatum and Grease,
  That so prettily tickles our English Geese.

Top: Detail, Six guineas entrance and a guinea a lesson, print by Paul Sandby, c. 1782-84. The British Museum.
Below: Detail, A Vestrician dish, or a caper sauce for a goose-pye, published by F. Assen & J. Jones, c. 1781. The British Museum.


Caroline Hartman said...

Isabella, To write such a piece you must REALLY know the history. Well done.

Lil said...

This is fascinating. I love the detailed information about minor figures from the past—the ones who aren't important politically or militarily and therefore don't make it into history books.
One thing I'm curious about. You mention that both Gaëtan and Auguste made a lot of money. But what constitutes a lot of money for a performer at this time? Was it payment or gifts? Did female performers also get wealthy from their performing careers?

Anonymous said...

I saw the Dandies/Artists show at RISD, too, and I remember this man's portrait. Very striking! So interesting to learn more about him. What a shame there is no video from that time so we could see him dance today. He must have been pretty fabulous!

robertastar said...

The fox-headed drawing strongly resembles the work of 20th century illustrator Edward Gorey, both in strangeness and in linework. I would never have guessed it was 18th century.

Drayton said...

What a pleasure to have stumbled upon this blog beautifully written, witty, informative. Altogether splendid.

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket