Gone to earth

John Barrell

  • Sporting Art in 18th-Century England: A Social and Political History by Stephen Deuchar
    Yale, 195 pp, £24.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 300 04116 0

The post-war saloon-bar modernisation programme began in the era of Macmillan and the Affluent Society. Like most such programmes in England, its main intention was to resist the modern: the character of a pub, or so the landlord would tirelessly reassure his regulars, was not going to be changed, just ‘brought out’, much as monosodium glutamate brings out the true flavour of food. It soon emerged, however, that every saloon bar in England shared the same character, founded on one simple contradiction. To a generation of interior designers for whom to modernise was the same thing as to antiquate, it was a place where everything was to be simultaneously out of date and up to it, pre- and post-industrial. Saloon-bar repro, undistressed and innocent of all intent to lie about its age, was a thoroughly economical way of signifying at one and the same time the venerably antique and the brand new. The twofold character of the bar was signalled also by the repeated opposition of the Dull and the Bright, the relentless contrast of dark wood and recently burnished metal. Tables stained in Jacobean oak were topped with easy-wipe, machine-dimpled copper. Wall-studs were newly exposed or newly installed, painted or stained black, and smothered with freshly-minted brass. On every wall the traditional black-and-gold plastic of Hogarth frames was screwed to the flock wallpaper. Ah, those would be the days, if they were no longer with us!

Almost nobody ever looks at the sporting prints inside the Hogarth frames, and anyone who does happen to give them a second glance can see that they are not there to be looked at. They are not ‘originals’, even in the loose sense in which the word can be applied to reproductive prints. Like the chairs and tables, they are reproductions of reproductions of reproductions, and in the process of transmission the engraved lines have become so attenuated that the titles, ‘Duck Shooting’, ‘Gone to earth’, and so on, have to be inferred from the subjects, the subjects from the titles. Glimpsed from a distance, however, the prints can be judged by the standards of decor, not of art, and now they come into their own. The scarlet and chestnut of coats and horses repeat the ruddy tone of the wallpaper and soft furnishings, which the dazzlingly white, textureless paper punctuates and preserves from monotony.

In this programme of simultaneous modernisation and antiquation, no other branch of art would have been as serviceable as the sporting print. It is so entirely without pretensions. It does not expect to be treated as art at all, and no one is offended by the appallingly low standard of reproduction that is the consequence of its manufacture as an item of decor. Indeed, mass-production seems the most appropriate way of turning out images which all aspire to look as much like each other as possible. To foxhunters, each set of half a dozen may elaborate an excitingly different narrative of the multiple events that intervene between a view and a kill, but to the uninitiated, one print of hunting or shooting is barely distinguishable from another, and all seem to mean exactly the same thing. Conveniently enough, that meaning is the same as the meaning of the saloon bar itself: both employ an indeterminate past tense to rabbit on about the pleasures of relaxation or play (the rural as the opposite of urban toil), of hearty good cheer (our fun is the only fun and everyone else is a killjoy), and of social – and racial – exclusiveness (gents not cads, saloon not public, the English or the British versus whoever the rest happens to be, at one time or another).

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