Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Female Bruisers, 1768

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Isabella reporting,

For some inexplicable reason, many men have a weird fascination with brawling women. I don't know if this has to do with unbridled animal passions, or the hope that clothes will be torn off, or the fact that ordinary women are too sane to engage in fisticuffs, but whether it's mud wrestling or Mob Wives, guys will watch. This is, of course, nothing new; this painting of The Female Bruisers by John Collett dates from 1768, and became one of his most popular prints, doubtless pinned to the walls of hundreds of taverns and alehouses for the edification of the male patrons. (As always, click the image to enlarge it.)

Like all of Collett's pictures, there's a great deal going on here. The two combatants are likely prostitutes, perhaps old rivals with a long-standing feud. This isn't the best of neighborhoods, with a house selling Neat Wine on the right and a likely brothel on the left, with an amorous couple kissing in the upstairs window. A pair of fighting cocks in the lower left squawk at one another. A tattered playbill on the wall advertises a performance of The Rival Queens.

The battling woman on the left is the more prosperous, with a sheer embroidered apron, an elegant bracelet, and a watch on a chatelaine at her waist. In the heat of battle, she has dropped her ermine-trimmed cape to the street, while a pair of barefoot, soot-covered chimney-sweeps have made a prize of her ermine muff. Damage has been done: her sleeve ruffles are tattered, her hat's been torn off, and her hair's been pulled.

Beside her, a butcher has left his shop in the background to dab something - I'm guessing a half-lemon?- at her battered nose, and to offer a go-get-'em pat on her back. He's protecting his striped jacket (similar to this one) from his trade with tie-on blue sleeve cuffs (disturbingly like the ones worn by Georgian surgeons!) and an apron tied around his waist.

The other combatant isn't as well-dressed, even before her clothes were torn. She's not wearing stays, the way a respectable woman would, which allows the man who's helping her back to her feet help himself to a squeeze of her breast. Another, older woman (perhaps the madame to one or both of the fighters) is charging forward; she's ready to jump into the fray, but is being held back by a laughing man.

In fact, while there are a couple of fascinated girls watching, most of the onlookers are male of every rank, from bemused gentlemen to the gawking country-man who is having his pocket picked. Some are astonished, but most seem to be enjoying the spectacle. You can almost hear the frat-boy chants of "cat fight!", can't you?

Top: The Female Bruisers, by John Collett, 1768. Museum of London.


Heather Webb said...

I've only recently discovered this blog and I just adore it! You ladies do such a fabulous job of digging up interesting tidbits. Thank you. :)

By the way, this painting is really interesting. The early days of mudwrestling in bikinis. lol.

Undine said...

I've wondered about that fascination, too. I can only figure it's a form of misogyny: Domestic abuse by proxy?

Very interesting painting.

Mike Rendell said...

Fascinating. http://www.fscclub.com/history/fame-prize-e.shtml has an interesting section on female boxers, stripped to the waist, performing at places such as Figgs Amphitheatre in London in the 1720s, and includes a picture purportedly of Elizabeth Stock giving a knock-out blow to her opponent. Whenever I lecture on 18th Century entertainment, the males in the audiences always seem to pay more attention when I get to the bit about female boxing!

Isobel Carr said...

As Mike said, there were female boxers, and female footraces, and female cricket matches. You see bits about them in the broadsides advertising mills with famous male pugilists and I’m pretty sure there was info about them in CITY OF SIN by Giles Emerson.

Chris Woodyard said...

Do you suppose the man is giving her a wiff of a lemon (is it a lemon? I can't tell) as a reviver, like smelling salts? She seems to have either sniffed or tasted it. What a wonderful image!

Samantha said...

I wonder if the woman on the ground is in a dressing gown, hence her lack of stays? So many questions and wonderful details!

Kamil said...

While the picture provides a romanticised vison of the match, the reality was a bit darket; female brawlers fought in dark alleys (saint giles) in horrible higenic conditions and the brawl caused diseeses to both sides... Fortunately Elizabeth Stock had the abilities and the inteligence to promote female boxing reducing backalley brawls to memories of the past

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