Friday, December 3, 2010

Link Boys as Cupid

Friday, December 3, 2010
Susan reporting:

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.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating article! One does always think of Sir Joshua's portraits of kings and generals, but this little lost boy is most touching.

Lady Burgley said...

The Victorians found this painting so disturbing that it was almost never included in lists of Reynolds' works in the nineteenth century.

From the child's empty eyes to the way he is looking over his shoulder as if fearing he is followed, it is indeed unsettling, and a far cry from the little girls of privilege that were Reynolds' bread-and-butter.

Monica Burns said...

What a beautiful, haunting child.

Araminah said...

What an amazing portrait, so vulnerable and full of sadness. He looks like one of Dickens' urchins, Oliver Twist, perhaps.

Chris Woodyard said...

Link-boys were, indeed, notoriously "linked" with crime and immorality. The infamous prostitute/bawd Betty Careless had her personal link-boy Little Casey/Cazey. Henry Fielding said that Casey and his two bosom companions were “the three most troublesome and difficult to manage of all my Bow Street visitors”. Little Casey was transported to America in 1750. All references to link-boys I could see in the Old Bailey court site were in cases of robbery, assault, or sodomy (in the molly house of Margaret Clap.)

When I saw the bat wings, I thought, "Goth". Walpole published Castle of Otronto in 1764 and moved into Strawberry Hill in 1747 so the Gothick revival was well underway. Supposedly Gothic arches and vaulting were based on bat-wing curves. Bat wings were also a standard motif in rococo design. There may be some subliminal Gothick subtext, but I think the bat wings here are probably just the general "Devil wears Bat Wings"/creatures of the night trope. (See for an 18th c. Devil.
I also thought of the bat-winged witches of Goya's Los Caprichos, but they are later in date, as is Fuseli's bat-winged Puck. More than a hint of Reynolds's link-boy there, I think!

And, curiously, in The Life of Samuel Johnson, on May 10, 1778, Dr Johnson discussed the strange physiology of bats and their wings with Sir Joshua Reynolds at the table.

TMI. You can tell it's a slow Friday and I am procrastinating...

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Intriguing comments!

Anonymous, Lady Burghley, Araminah, and Monica: I'm glad you responed to the boy's wistfulness much as I did, too. It's so hard to try to look at him with 18th century eyes instead of 21st century ones, and with the earlier sensibility as well. Maybe an earlier viewer would see the boy's expression as a pose, a pretense of calculated vulnerability meant to seduce. That time had a much different concept of childhood and innocence, and also saw a connection between poverty and wickedness that's alien to us. So who knows?

Chris, I came across the tales of Betty Careless and Little Casey, too - but my post was already running long! Here's a print showing Betty being carried home drunk in her sedan chair, with Little Casey before her, his dragging link unnecessary since it's now morning:

Interesting insight regarding the bat wings and Gothic overtones. I esp. love the idea that Dr. Johnson and Sir Joshua were discussing bats over their dinners, too. Surely there's some punch-line hidden there....:)

Historical Reminiscing with Marilyn said...

Good Lord...were link boys that young? This is just a small child what about nine? And they were already into sodomy or crime? I have read a little about them but hadn't pursued it but I certainly will now! I always thought of them as poor beggared Children running about the streets of London much like Sherlock Holmes "little spies" did for him....

Richard Foster said...

I never cease to be amazed by what I learn from you ladies. Brava to you both.

Anonymous said...

Long time lurker here...
I think we can best appreciate how much the boy is portrayed as a sexual plaything - the suggestive posing is not incidental - looking at 'Mercury as a cut-purse' ( The two pictures are very similar and bought by the same patron, the 3rd Duke of Dorset.
I'm not sure that social commentary was what both painter and patron had in mind.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Mari, unfortunately the poor - and poor children in particular - were constantly at the mercy of those above them. This is long before any social service agencies, or even stringent laws to protect children.

Richard, thank you for the compliment! We're always learning ourselves, too.

Courtaud, I'm so glad you came out of lurkdom. Thank you so much for linking to the painting of Mercury (the limp, cut purse is esp. creepy), and adding more information to the discussion. With your lead, I'm now finding mention of these described as a pair of "lewd pictures" bought by the Duke of Dorset. Usually that description refers to paintings of frolicking nudes, so it's doubly. disturbing to find pictures of young, poor boys described in that fashion.

I was also intrigued by the coincidence of having the pictures bought by an 18th c. Duke of Dorset and the poem lambasting Katherine Sedley written by his ancestor, a 17th c. Earl of Dorset. Oh, those Sackvilles.

I'm investigating all of this further....:)

Isobel Carr said...

I love this painting. Always have. I guess it's my Goth-roots showing. Link boys are one of the tiny details that make the streets of London come alive in fiction, very much like Dickens's roving band of child pickpockets.

Unknown said...

In addition to the phallic torch (love shining a light) and the lewd gesture with Cupid's left hand there is also the 'encounter' between the two cats on the center left edge of the composition which removes any possible doubt about this line of interpretation for the composition.

David Mannings wrote an extensive catalog note on this work and its pair, the Mercury, with much about the commission the receipts and ledger book entries and the Duke's other Reynolds' with decent bibliography, in Nicholas Penny ed. 'Reynolds ...' London: Royal Academy, 1986. Cat #93-4 pp. 264-5.

Manning notes, "In addition, whilst serving as Ambassador in Paris the Duke acquired a Venus from Reynolds for a French marquis. An English newspaper reporting this transaction waggishly observed that ‘the Duke had her for four hundred – others he had, cost him infinitely more.’ The Duke had more of a reputation as a rake than as an art collector and the Cupid and Mercury suggest that he too could make a joke about this."

Both were also engraved and published ...

for the Cupid, John Dean after Reynolds, London: Sayer & Bennett, 1 August 1777

for the Mercury, by John Dean after Reynolds, London: Sayer & Bennett, 2nd. April 1777,

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LaDonna said...

This thread is so awesome! It's like reading a mystery, with all the clues being discovered one by one.

Chris Woodyard said...

Dear me, I thought those were pigeons on the roof...

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Isobel, I agree. it's the entire picture that makes history so interesting.

LaDonna, it is fun, isn't it? Why I love history, and art history, too.

Chris, yes. Pigeons. :)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Michael, thank you for all the additional info! The two prints are esp. enlightening, revealing more details that reproductions of the painting don't show. Like the cats.

Since you have the exhibition catalogue (which I've requested, but haven't yet received) perhaps with it in hand, you can answer a couple of other questions.

Do the buildings to the left represent actual places? The couple in the street suggests a brothel.

Was the Cupid painted before the Mercury? Guessing here that it was (sequels seldom being quite as successful as originals.*g*)

Also - has anyone else ever noted the eerie resemblance between the link boy's face and Reynolds' portrait of the imminently respectable Lady Caroline Howard? The expression, the 3/4 turn of the face, the shape of the nose and mouth are very similar:

Shannon said...

I don't have much to add other than Wow ... that's a little depressing. Still, it's important to know.

Arnie Perlstein said...

I hope you enjoy this!

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Arnie Perlstein said...

This is one home Jane Austen visited that Amanda Vickery would not be talking about, for reasons that will be obvious when you read this through:

The Notorious 3rd Duke of Dorset in the subtext of 3 Jane Austen novels (along with Garrick's disturbing Riddle & Joshua Reynolds's disturbing "Cupid as Link-Boy")

Today I have been honored to be invited to write a guest post at the English Historical Fiction Authors blog created and coordinated by author Debra Brown--here is the link to my post, together with the introduction to the connections outlined in my Subject Line:

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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