Paddling in the Gravy

E.S. Turner

  • The Imaginary Autocrat: Beau Nash and the Invention of Bath by John Eglin
    Profile, 292 pp, £20.00, May 2005, ISBN 1 86197 302 0

When John Wesley visited Bath in 1739 to inveigh against the follies that flourished at hot springs, he was challenged by a fleshy, domineering figure in a white beaver hat, who demanded to know by what authority he was preaching. Wesley’s retort (or so he claimed) was ‘Pray, sir, are you a justice of the peace, or the mayor of this city? By what authority do you ask me these things?’ Richard (‘Beau’) Nash was at a loss for a ready reply. The ‘King of Bath’, as he liked to be known, was the gamester son of a Swansea bottlemaker, a heavyweight playboy whose abundant assurance, or chutzpah, had qualified him to act as arbiter of elegance at a rowdy Bethesda not yet marked out for international fame. He had no more right to invoke the conventicle against illegal preaching than he had to call out the military. How this myth-surrounded adventurer came to play the fashionable despot, and in effect to impose his own tax-supported empire, or ‘Company’, on the Corporation of Bath, is the puzzle explored by John Eglin in The Imaginary Autocrat. It is a task that was first attempted by Oliver Goldsmith in a ‘quickie’ life put together immediately after Nash’s death.

What was a beau? He was no more than a dandy much occupied with fashion and deportment; if he had a soul, it was that of a dancing-master. He knew, as Eglin explains, ‘the five permissible positions for the feet’ and that ‘the proper length of a step was the length of one’s foot.’ He also knew how to take off his hat and how to enter a room. But Beau Nash, though a martinet in the minuet, was much more than a dancing-master. In his prime he was a public spectacle. ‘He travelled in a coach and six with a full complement of liveried drivers, outriders and postilions, the Georgian equivalent of a stretch limousine.’ He had a grand house in Bath and a grand house in London. He won and lost four-figure sums at the tables. At the time of the Forty-Five rebellion he was to be found helping in the acquisition of cannon, though for celebratory purposes rather than for attacking, or joining, the Jacobites. His loyalty to the Hanoverian throne had been amply attested on the king’s birthday in 1734, when he wore a suit so heavily laced with gold that, as the Earl of Chesterfield said, ‘he was taken by many at a distance for a gilt garland.’ George Brummell, an equally famous beau of a later day, would have thought that irredeemably vulgar.

Yet Bath, a city in the ascendant, needed someone like Nash. When the 18th century came in it was half spa, half pleasure resort. The haut ton found Tunbridge Wells more modish as well as more accessible. Both spas boasted of having cured barrenness in royal women. Tunbridge catered for bibbers, Bath for bathers, but by 1705 visitors to Bath had begun drinking the malodorous water in a Pump Room. It tasted no better when swallowed to music. In the way of hot spas, Bath had acquired a reputation for scandal. Voyeurs came to watch the mixed bathing, gallants ogled and toasted their dripping Dulcineas, and boys dived in the scummy water for coins. A satirist described how the women bathers, who waded about ‘like Neptun’s Courtiers, suppling their Industrious Joynts’, were fumbled by the stretched arms of ‘Vigorous Sparks’. A sergeant of the baths strove to keep the sexes separate. Oliver Goldsmith wondered why fit people should wish to seek pleasure among the sick, and perhaps this was the reason. Away from the bath area the scene was also in need of refinement. Carriage folk who endured the long bumpy ride to Bath, evading or paying off highwaymen, looked for more polished recreation at journey’s end than chasing greasy pigs or paddling in the gravy at an ox-roast. Nor did they relish the importunities of beggars and riff-raff, who defied the efforts of the two men employed to keep them out of town.

This was where Nash came in. His qualifications as a reformer and lawgiver were of the slenderest. He was one of many gamesters who descended on the city in Anne’s reign, an enthusiast for the kind of wager which involved riding naked through a village astride a cow. Brief, undistinguished stints at Oxford and the Inns of Court, and as an army officer, had taught him the basic graces and affectations, but his own manners were as much in need of refining as anyone else’s. Yet this was the man who, as master of ceremonies, took it on himself to ban the wearing of swords at social functions, to discipline titled ladies on the dance floor, and to shout at booted squires: ‘Did you bring your horse as well?’

The story of how Nash contemptuously ripped off the Duchess of Queensberry’s pinafore at a ball is carefully examined by Eglin, who shows that in the context of her dress this tiny lace ‘pinafore’ in no way resembled that of a housemaid. If Nash had tried such a personal assault on the Duchess of Marlborough, he would surely have received a stinger on his fat chops. The famous rules of behaviour posted in the Pump Room displayed a would-be-witty impertinence that must have grated on curistes of even moderate breeding. As, for example: ‘That no Gentleman give his Tickets for the Balls to any but Gentlewomen. – N.B. Unless he has none of his Acquaintance’.

The regulation of gentlewomen and ladies of quality was one of Nash’s self-imposed duties. He posed as Protector of the Fair, concerned that maiden virtue should not be rudely strumpeted in his domain. At the same time he set himself up as an overseer of the marriage market, ‘well placed’, as Eglin says, ‘to serve as either matchmaker or panderer-in-chief’. Supposedly he made free with the boudoirs of matchmaking matrons. It is startling to read of a letter in which Nash advises the Duke of Somerset on which of two high-born sisters he should marry. This was the ultra-proud duke famous for having struck £20,000 from a daughter’s inheritance for sitting while he took a nap, instead of standing like a sentry. For a grandee of this stamp to correspond with such a counsellor beggars belief. Nash, while concerned for the virtue of women, did not conceal the fact that he kept mistresses, or that he gave them tickets for the ball. Taxed with being a whoremonger, he retorted that he had only one woman in the house, and that ‘a Man can no more be deemed a Whoremonger, from having one Whore in his House, than a Cheesemonger for having one Cheese.’ One of his better sallies, perhaps. Despite being surrounded by heiresses and rich widows, Nash never married. There is nothing to suggest that he was ‘not the marrying kind’, and it would be idle to speculate which of his shortcomings drove his eccentric mistress Juliana Popjoy to leave his bed and live in a hollow tree for thirty-odd years.

What, then, was the source of the income that enabled Nash to lead so extravagant a life? That was what puzzled the Earl of Chesterfield. When Nash complained of losing five hundred guineas to ‘that damned bitch Fortune’, the Earl replied: ‘I don’t wonder at your losing money, Nash, but all the world is surprised where you get it to lose.’ Ostensibly it came from the two-guinea fees which visitors paid to join his ‘Company’ – a charge which covered admission to public rooms, where Nash paid the musicians and other expenses, and then retained the balance. But this was the heyday of Old Corruption. Among the entrepreneurs building the new Bath was the Duke of Chandos, a magnifico who had shown what could be done in ‘the mother of all venal offices’, that of paymaster-general for the armed forces, siphoning off £600,000 for himself in the course of eight years. The establishment of the day was sustained in a cat’s cradle of outrageous sinecures and non-jobs not unlike many of those advertised in the public sector today.

Nash would no doubt have profited by cuts, commissions, percentages and gifts. But the major part of his wealth almost certainly came from the gaming tables. Once a gamester, always a gamester. Eglin, who is working on a book on the commercialisation of gambling in the 18th century, gives an extended run-down on the ways in which Nash could have worked the system for profit, and explains how he was able to tie up lordly defaulters – including the Duke of Bedford – to his own advantage. He posed as a moderator of disputes at play and may well have done good service in that line, but he apparently did nothing to exclude sharpers from the rooms. The opportunities to lead gulls to the plucking were plentiful. Eventually, a string of new laws banning certain games of hazard had a disastrous effect on his fortunes.

Yet Nash had been a good thing for Bath, a one-man syndicat d’initiative helping not only with the city’s image but by raising substantial sums for charities, ruthlessly shaking down the rich and contributing generously himself. As a licensed ‘character’ he was able to take liberties of speech and approach which he would have condemned in the ‘impertinents’ he castigated in his rules. It helped to foster a spirit of sociability, if not egalitarianism, as expressed in an easy intercourse between strangers. This does not mean that Nash was ready to disregard rank, but he was an enemy of those who stood on rank or were prepared to abuse it. Persons of quality for whom the Abbey bells were rung (at a price) on their arrival, and whom he personally greeted, found that in Bath they were able to unbend in the presence of the middle and professional classes, even of aspirational and well-conducted tradespeople. This was strictly a localised relaxation. It was well understood that an acquaintance struck up at a spa, like one formed in a brothel, was not to be presumed on elsewhere. The quarrelsome squireens temporarily deprived of their swords left to continue their lethal mischief elsewhere; the hobbledehoy squires wore their muddy boots in other ballrooms; and the young ladies whose maiden virtue had survived unstrumpeted moved on to encounter rude shocks in the real world.

It so happened that when Nash died, in 1761, a battered and angry old beau, recreational fashion was changing. The English were displaying a loss of faith in their spas, whether cold, hot, stinking or holy, however vigorously promoted by doctors on the make and deluded water poets. They had belatedly realised that the sea – the sea which kept foreigners away – was the best spa of all. Bathing huts appeared at Scarborough, diverting custom from an existing spring; it would be left to Brighton to incite bathers to drink saltwater. But while the rush coastwards was gathering momentum, and as new-found inland ‘spas’ were reverting to smelly puddles, the honey-coloured terraces of Bath – which Nash never saw – slowly rose to achieve a rare Palladian grandeur. The waters of Bath now mattered less and less: the ambience was all. And that ambience increasingly lured the new middle classes, who relished a resort in which respectability had begun to encroach on raffishness. Not that the upper classes had pulled out. In the dying years of the century, according to Phyllis Hembry’s The English Spa 1560-1815, the subscribers to James Marshall’s library in Bath’s Milsom Street included two princes of the blood, five dukes, four duchesses, seven earls, four countesses and 43 knights. It is pleasing to imagine John Wesley returning to town and finding all these potentially libertine overlords with their noses stuck in a good book. By now the role of master of ceremonies had been established even at Margate and Brighton. Dickens has Mr Pickwick welcomed to ‘Ba-ath’ by Angelo Bantam Esquire, ‘a charming young man of not much more than fifty’, scented with bouquet du roi, dilating on a paradise rendered bewitching by beauty, elegance, fashion and the absence of tradespeople. A beau in all but name.

The Imaginary Autocrat is none the worse for the fact that for sizable stretches Nash is absent from its pages, as if he had been sent upstairs for bad behaviour. Eglin concedes that he has had to go along with many of the well-worn myths spread by Nash and others. The Beau himself was not one for writing things down, though in his late years he was apparently threatening to publish his memoirs, and intimating that a subscription of two guineas would ensure no unfavourable mention. The scarcity of hard facts is no great matter; the author’s heart is really in the ‘invention’, or re-creation, of Bath by ‘the large consortia of entrepreneurs, builders, investors and the odd architect’, possessors of ‘monumental egos and superhuman wills’: men like John Wood and Ralph Allen. (The Duke of Chandos turned out something of an also-ran.) Eglin’s widely sourced and well-written book amounts to as lively an offbeat history of Bath as one could wish; it is helped along by quotations from the army of lampoonists who settled on Bath like blowflies.

Eglin has, of course, paced the modern-day streets of this world heritage site, noting here a restaurant purportedly haunted by the ghost of Juliana Popjoy, there an intrusive ‘acromegalic’ hotel. But he never overdoes the lacrimae rerum. He will have noticed that the English, who have so long despised their spas, are frequently to be seen trundling great flagons of alien waters from the supermarkets, and paying silly prices in restaurants for bubbles bottled at improbable founts. No doubt he dreamed of taking a wallow in the waters of Aquae Sulis, but in his acknowledgments he pays tribute to two ladies who ‘introduced me to the pleasures of the bath in Hot Springs, Montana’. A cop-out, surely. More remarkable is the final acknowledgment: ‘Arthur W. Lavidge III has contributed signally to this project in resembling Beau Nash in personality and disposition more closely than anyone I know.’ A tip for biographers: first find a doppelganger for your subject.