With the athletic grace of Olympic figure skating currently on display at the Winter Games in Sochi, it seems fitting to look at two views of 18th c. skating in London. There were, of course, no elaborate indoor rinks or Zambonis. Skating was an outdoor activity that required a sufficient spell of cold weather to freeze the Serpentine River in Hyde Park. Anyone who has played "pond hockey" knows how unpredictable outdoor ice can be, especially when the Georgians were navigating it on the still-primitive skates that tied on over shoes.
Not that you'd know any of that from the portrait of the Scotsman William Grant (also known as The Skater), left, who strikes a confident, elegant pose worthy of any gold medal. Painted by the American Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) to mark the end of his apprenticeship to fellow-expatriate Benjamin West, this portrait was considered strikingly innovative, even daring.
Why? At the time, English gentleman preferred to have their portraits painted in grand, grave, noble poses, and not engaged in an active sport like skating. However, as Stuart later recalled, inspiration came from an actual event. When Grant arrived for his sitting, he noted that "on account of the excessive coldness of the weather...the day was better suited for skating than sitting for one's portrait." Stuart agreed, and the two men went off for an afternoon of skating on the Serpentine. Afterwards, Stuart suggested that he paint Grant on his skates on the frozen river, with Westminster Abbey in the background. Not only was Grant pleased with the portrait, but the crowds at the 1782 Royal Academy exhibition agreed, and with his reputation made, Stuart was soon able to set up a studio of his own.
In the distance behind Grant is a group of less skillful skaters on the ice. Likely these were more the rule and Grant the stylish exception, especially after seeing the drawing right.
As captured by Swiss artist Samuel Hieronymus Grimm (1734-1794), these skaters are colliding and crashing to the ice. Dogs are barking, wine bottles are flying (a little restorative against the cold?), and a pair of ladies appear to be strolling across the ice without skates at all. I particularly like the gentleman on the bench to the right, his hands in a muff, sternly watching while another man (a servant?) bends over with the gentleman's leg braced between his legs to pull off his skate.
Left: The Skater (Portrait of William Grant), by Gilbert Stuart, 1782, National Gallery of Art. Right: Skating in Hyde Park, by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, c. 1780, The British Museum.
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.