Manly beauty: what can boxers tell us about 18th century masculinity? Part III


The other men in William Hogarth’s March of the Guards to Finchley (1750) that I want to talk about are the boxers. In the painting, so evocatively displayed at London Museum, a bare-knuckle prize-fight takes place in the middle-ground. This was a boxing booth opened by James Figg in 1719 on Tottenham Court Road, at the Adam and Eve pub. Figg was one of the first boxers to commercialise the sport, opening his Amphitheatre to teach boxing, fencing, and quarterstaff.[1] George Taylor took over the booth in 1734 and one of the boxers depicted may well be Taylor.[2] We can see its fenced stage, the boxers squaring up to each other, surrounded by a closely packed audience of men, women, and children so avidly watching the match that they pay little attention to the guardsmen behind them. 

Detail of William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750)

It is wise not to overlook the fight as merely a lively backdrop to the scenes in the foreground. Nor should we assume the pugilists are a pictorial symbol of cruelty or the brutal habits of the lower orders; a Hogarthian moralising vignette of the callousness of metropolitan life. For Hogarth, the boxer was a signifier of male beauty, his sport was patriotic, and both were closely associated with national identity. So, with that in mind, what can boxers tell us about Georgian masculinity?

Rather a lot, since they were public performers of the most visceral forms of masculinity; indeed, boxing matches were often advertised as ‘trials of manhood’.[3] They were popular with most social ranks. Aristocrats and royalty patronised them and gambled on them and their spectators and followers included most social groups.[4]

Like the soldier, the boxer was a plebeian patriot. Fighters were labouring men drawn most often from trades that depended on upper body strength, like watermen and blacksmiths. They shared other attributes with Hogarth’s soldiers. Controlled violence was their stock in trade. Pugilists were compared to gladiators in the first half of the eighteenth century, for example.[5] Both were prized for their bodily ‘superiority’ – height in the guardsmen’s case, muscularity in the boxers’. The physiques of both were considered ideal examples of manhood.[6] Indeed, it was soldiers and boxers who often acted as life-models for artists and anatomists in the Georgian period, as discussed in the lovely book Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body by Anthea Callen (2018).

Like soldiers, boxers also resolved some of the challenges for masculinity that politeness and, later, sensibility, posed. Karen Downing has shown that in the period from the 1760s to 1815 the ‘gentleman boxer’ answered the question of whether a man could be manly while conforming to the conventions of the ages of politeness and then feeling. A boxer like ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson (1769-1845) resolved these concerns by cultivating the courtesy and gentility of polite sensibility while displaying the vigour and force required to fight to extend and defend an empire.[7]

Charles Turner, after Benjamin Marshall, Mr John Jackson, 1810

We can see the early stages of this being worked out in Hogarth’s art and writings. His boxers offered a mode of manliness that was rough, plain, sturdy, and authentic. Like other artists, Hogarth admired boxers, featuring them in his art as well as discussing them in his 1753 publication The Analysis of Beauty. The English champions James Figg (1684-1734), George Taylor (1716-1758), and Jack Broughton (1704-1789) served as models for his art.

Figg appeared in Southwark Fair, 1732, the figure on the right, riding in on horseback, A Midnight Modern Conversation, and plate 2 of a Rake’s Progress – the wigged prize-fighter bearing his quarterstaffs. Hogarth also depicted a naked Taylor on his design for the famous prize-fighter’s tombstone. Taylor’s muscular physique in these plates demonstrates why boxers were used as nude life-models – like the other plebeian labouring men who acted as life-models, their work led them to have defined musculature.[8]

William Hogarth, George Taylor Triumphing over Death, c.1750, Tate T08212

The role of such men was to be living examples of classical statuary, in pose, proportions and physical type.[9] They were looked at and studied by both artists and anatomists in art academies and associated events. Hogarth, for example, likely used such life-models at St Martin’s Lane Academy, which had been reopened in 1735 under his leadership. Johan Zoffany joined St Martin’s shortly after arriving in London in 1760 and this is the only known depiction of a life-drawing class there. The figure in red is a porter and occasional model at St Martin’s, who was also the first porter at the Royal Academy, founded in 1768.

Johan Zoffany, An Academy by Lamplight, A Life Class at St Martin’s Lane Academy 1761-2

The Royal Academy appointed a Professor of Anatomy to lecture artists on the human form. The first holder of the post was William Hunter, who assumed widespread familiarity with boxers when describing motion and musculature as:

essential to painters and sculptors … Everything that we have seen acted in reality at Broughton’s Amphitheatre at Saddlers Wells, and such places and every thing that we see done on the Stage, in the way of imitation by the Comedian or the Tragedian, is nothing but a skilful exercise of muscular motion.[10]

Johan Zoffany’s painting shows Hunter alongside his lecture props: a skeleton, the Hunter écorché (aplaster standing-figure, flayed to display musculature) and a life model (most likely a pugilist) echoing its pose.[11] Hunter is even said to have stolen the hanged body of a famous Irish pugilist sentenced to death for murder, and made a cast of his corpse; which he used to teach anatomy at the Royal Academy.[12]

It is worth reiterating that these elite men were looking at labourers’ bodies not just to acquire knowledge about function and form; but because these plebeian men were considered aesthetic and gender ideals.[13] Classical bodies shaped ideas of the ‘beauty of proportion’ for men as well as women. Although we tend to think of Hogarth as an artist of satirical types – the faces and forms of his protagonists often distorted and designed to convey character, behaviour, and morals, he also saw beauty of form as crucial to understanding the world. In his Analysis of Beauty (1753) he theorised abut the aesthetic basis of art and experience, setting out the characteristics of beauty both in art and nature.[14] This was no elite discourse, his observations had their roots in metropolitan life. Thus, he used boxers as an example of people’s instinctive understanding of beauty and proportion.

As he says:

almost every one is farther advanced in the knowledge of this speculative part of the proportion than he imagines; especially he who has been used to observe naked figures doing bodily exercise, and more especially if he be any way interested in the success of them; and the better he is acquainted with the nature of the exercise itself, still the better judge he becomes of the figure that is to perform it. For this reason, no sooner are two boxers stripped to fight, but even a butcher, thus skilled, shows himself a considerable critic in proportion; and, on this sort of judgment, often gives, or takes the odds, at bare sight only of the combatants. I have heard a blacksmith harangue like an anatomist, or sculptor, on the beauty of a boxer’s figure, though not, perhaps in the same terms; and I firmly believe, that one of our common proficients in the athletic art, would be able to instruct and direct the best sculptor living, who has not seen, or is wholly ignorant of this exercise, in what would give the statue of an English boxer a much better proportion, as to character, than is to be seen, even in the famous group of antique boxers, or, as some call them, Roman wresters, so much admired to this day.[15]

Here Hogarth considers English boxers to be superior to the Wrestlers, a classical sculpture that was reproduced in antique cast rooms in large form for students to draw from, and in small form as a decorative ornament.[16] This is significant for notions of Georgian manliness more generally, since men’s bodies were a crucial factor in the construction and evaluation of masculinity with classical forms as the standard against which all ideals were compared.

Hogarth discusses, for example, the statue of Antinous, as ‘the most perfect… of any of the antique statues’, showing ‘a manly strength in its proportion’ from its head to its foot.[17] This is illustrated in his plate I, a statuary yard, where he depicts well-known classical statues.

Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, 1753, Plate 1, Statuary Yard at Hyde Park Corner (Royal Academy). Antinous is on the left, next to the dance-master. The Apollo Belvedere is found on the right on a pedestal.

This demonstrates that the huge muscular form of Atlas or Hercules was less appealing in the Georgian era than the more youthful graceful forms of the Antinous and Apollo Belvedere. The ideal manly body of a dexterous carriage and poise and clean-shaven face was influenced by historically-specific factors as diverse as polite sociability, the culture of sensibility, Georgian military techniques, and ideas about physical exercise, diet, and health. The mature Herculean body-type only came to symbolise muscular Christianity in the later nineteenth century, shaped by ideas of empire and warfare, namely new weaponry that required skirmish and light infantry battle techniques (I talk more about this in my article).

As you will see from his art, Hogarth was a proponent of physiognomy, the practice of reading outward appearance, faces and bodies, to reveal inner character.[18] Thus, for Hogarth the body and its capacities and actions shaped function and character – but also, it should be noted – gender. He argues that ‘a fat, bloated person, does not call to mind the character of a Silenus, till we have joined the idea of voluptuousness with it’.[19] In Greek mythology, Silenus was an older satyr associated with wine-making and drunkenness. Here – and in his pictorial series – Hogarth was pre-empting one of the principal ways in which unmanliness would be represented in the Georgian period – as the inability to master one’s appetites. As I will explore at length in my book, vice and lack of self-control were understood to produce a corrupt, unhealthy, unappealing body which was deployed in representations throughout the later Georgian and Victorian periods to stimulate disgust and thus encourage men to avoid the behaviours that would undermine their masculinity – and, therefore, society (For more on the male body in the 19th century, see Joanne Parsons and Ruth Heholt (eds), The Victorian Male Body).

His manly bodies were not simply emulations of classical standards of male beauty. The inferior version of manliness that he contrasted with the ideal in his illustrative plate and details was the dance-master. He uses this less favourable type of masculinity, that I have discussed in part I of this series of posts, as the foil for both Antinous and Hercules. Check out the plate above, to see how Hogarth contrasts the fop’s ‘stiff and straight’ pose with the ‘easy sway’ of Antinous.[20]

Hogarth was an artist of urban humanity, not simply classical aesthetics, and thus he thought it essential to identify the role of function in creating form. As such, it was often the plebeian male body in motion that was the subject of his examination of male proportion, evident where he discusses the ways in which men’s labour shaped their bodies: ‘so likewise strength to support, and clumsiness of figure, are united, as well in the character of an Atlas as in a porter’. Don’t forget that one of the life-models at St Martin’s Academy was a porter.

Hogarth is fascinated by the working-man’ real body:

When we consider the great weight chairmen often have to carry, do we not readily consent that there is a propriety and fitness in the Tuscan order of their legs, by which they properly become characters as to figure?

Watermen too, are of a distinct cast, or character, whose legs are no less remarkable for their smallness; for as there is naturally the greatest call for nutriment to the parts that are most exercised, so of course these that lie so much stretched out, are apt to dwindle, or not grow to their full size. There is scarcely a waterman that rows upon the Thames, whose figure does not confirm this observation. Therefore, were I to paint the character of a Charon [Greek mythology: Ferryman of the Dead], I would thus distinguish his make from that of a common man’s; and, in spite of the word low, venture to give him a broad pair of shoulders, and spindle shanks, whether I had the authority an antique statue, or basso-relievo, for it or not’. [21]

The common man was important, he was not to be dismissed as low, and was the model for authenticity. It has been argued that Hogarth’s ‘language of aesthetics is an unashamedly predatory and erotized one, in which visual pleasure is related most closely to the perspectives of the wandering masculine eye, pursuing the alluring forms and outlines of the ever-elusive female body’. This is true perhaps, but it is not an entirely ‘chauvinist erotics’, since he viewed and described the male body as beautiful, typically the plebeian muscular body.[22]

Here again we see the roots of what developed even more strongly in the long nineteenth century, as I’ll show in my new book – the aestheticization, even eroticisation of working men’s bodies in textual, visual, and material culture. You can see that with Ford Madox Brown’s Work as an example (significantly, Mark Hallett notes how Brown was influenced by Hogarth’s art). Idealised working men’s bodies were offered as exemplars of manliness for middle-class men. Increasingly, working men were imagined, consumed, and deployed in constructions of manliness and by the second half of the nineteenth century idealised men’s physicality was not only associated with national identity and strength, they also symbolised economic prosperity.

Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-63

Boxers were an early progenitor. As we see in Hogarth’s art, from the early eighteenth century, they were offering entertainment and sport in fairs and prize-fights and selling training in various forms of combat in specialised locations to paying male customers. Their fans’ and followers’ emotions were stirred by their bodies, their actions, and their cultural representations. Hogarth shows the passion of the spectators – one man mirroring the fighters’ stance. Again, we hear Hogarth – the shouting, the sounds of blows on flesh.

This became more explicit over time with celebrity boxers of the later Georgian period, and the sale of their images in material culture, visual culture, and eventually photographs. Their diets and regimes would become fashionable for young men, most famously, perhaps, Lord Byron, who like other men followed such training as assiduously as possible to achieve health and physical fitness.


The March of the Guards to Finchley tells us more than we might expect about Georgian masculinity. It enlarges our understanding of what constituted manliness – beyond the polite genteel man, or the many forms of masculinity to avoid – by offering insights into the allure and ambivalences of the plebeian model of masculinity.

Hogarth has a reputation for making ‘popular heroes’ – as we see in Beer Street where the ‘stout and jovial’ men’s bodies represent ‘the body politic in a state of health and comfort’.[23] The Beer Street men, however, are somewhat too comfortable and prosperous to defend a nation.

So, in Hogarth’s robust soldiers and boxers we see virility and violence, both considered essential components of a forceful masculinity fit for a modern commercial colonising nation.[24] Like the guardsmen, boxers conveyed national as well as gender identity through their pugnacious and patriotic bodies. As Matthew Craske observes, Hogarth celebrated English people’s riotous tendencies as a feature of their national character: ‘a physical manifestation of the national proclivity towards liberty’.[25] This contrasted with the perceived authoritarianism of continental states, but also indicated the capacity of Englishmen to stay on the right side of libertinism.[26]

The men at the heart of The March of the Guards to Finchley embody the notion of the ‘plain’ man that the English have cultivated and admired from the eighteenth century onwards. It is a model of masculinity that prizes authenticity over artificial manners, demonstrated by a plain, bluff appearance and rough behaviours, supposedly indicating honesty and usefulness. It is a type of manliness that has its roots in a plebeian culture, and while potentially dangerous to society, can at times be seen to be the saviour of the nation and is often deployed even by elite men to gain approbation.

[1] Kasia Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History, London Reaktion Books, 2009, p. 26.

[2] David Day, ‘”An Art and a Science”: Eighteenth-Century Sports Training’ in Rebekka von Mallinkrodt and Angela Schattner, Sports and Physical Exercise in Early Modern Cultures: New Perspectives on the History of Sports and Motion.

[3] Kasia Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History, London Reaktion Books, 2009, p. 26.

[4] Kasia Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History, London Reaktion Books, 2009, pp. 26, 29.

[5] Kasia Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History, London Reaktion Books, 2009, pp. 32-3.

[6] Karen Downing, The Gentleman Boxer: Boxing, Manners, and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century England, Men and Masculinities, Volume 12 Number 3, April 2010, 343

[7] Karen Downing, The Gentleman Boxer: Boxing, Manners, and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century England, Men and Masculinities, Volume 12 Number 3, April 2010, 334.

[8] Anthea Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018, p. 73.

[9] Anthea Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018, p. 79.

[10] Martin Postle (ed) Johan Zoffany RA Society Observed, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2011, p. 223. Joseph Turner drew the écorchéin 1791

[11] Martin Postle (ed) Johan Zoffany RA Society Observed, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2011, p. 223.

[12] Anthea Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018, p. 82.

[13] Boddy sees Hogarth’s early interest in pugilists as life-models as related to his interest in proportion relating to function in the Analysis of Beauty rather than academicians later who she suggests saw them as approximations of pre-determined ideals of beauty. I think he saw them as beautiful. Even in the Taylor images he uses the linear curve that he associate with beauty above him. 66-7.

[14] Mark Hallett, Hogarth, London, Phaidon Press Limited, 2000, 240

[15] William, Hogarth, The analysis of beauty (1753), Paulson, Ronald Publication date 1997 Topics Aesthetics Publisher New Haven, Conn. : Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art by Yale University Press pp. 144-5.

[16] Anthea Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018, 69

[17] Hogarth, The analysis of beauty, 146.


[19] Hogarth, The analysis of beauty, 150

[20] Hogarth, The analysis of beauty, 9

[21] Hogarth, The analysis of beauty, 150-1

[22] Mark Hallett, Hogarth, London, Phaidon Press Limited, 2000, 253-4.

[23] Matthew Craske, William Hogarth, London, Tate Gallery Publishing Ltd, 2000, p. 66-7.

[24] Matthew Craske, William Hogarth, London, Tate Gallery Publishing Ltd, 2000, p. 22,

[25] Craske, William Hogarth, p. 48

[26] Craske, William Hogarth, p. 49-50.

St George: patron saint of manliness

I’m writing a book on the history of masculinities from 1750 to 1918. One of things that I’m investigating is men’s interaction with objects that conveyed ideas about manliness. One of the most striking ‘objects’ that I have noticed is St George and the Dragon, patron saint of England, whose idealised form embodied many prized qualities of male behaviour.

Wikimedia St._George_and_the_Dragon

St George was and is very popular across the globe and is patron saint of several nations, towns and groups. In England he evolved from religious cult in late antiquity to national icon and from the early nineteenth century took prominence as a romantic, chivalric, and patriotic figure. St George was also a symbol of manliness as numerous Victorian depictions of the saint illustrate. The art historian Joseph Kestner declares him ‘a central tenet of the construction of masculinity (with all the attendant allied virtues of courage, valour, loyalty, comradeship).’ In particular St George represented the manly qualities of courage, self-sacrifice, strength, and virtue. I’ve talked about St George on this blog before here, and this post gathers together some of my thoughts on the way the figure of St George helps explain how ideas about manliness were communicated to men through visual and material culture. I think that he acted as an emotional catalyst in disseminating values to men.

The depiction of St George is fairly consistent – the ‘classic’ St George and the dragon: mounted with one arm raised, spearing the monster. The horse is either rearing or treading foursquare on the dragon with the whole forming almost a circular composition. This is his most distilled emblematic form. As a military saint the attributes of the warrior are his most obvious link to manliness. He had long standing appeal to soldiers from at least the Crusades to the First World War. St George was thus a useful cultural motif to call upon in times of war to inspire and persuade men to fulfill social expectations to fight. Nonetheless, his martial qualities were as central to manliness in the age of enlightenment as militarism for courage was always valued as an attribute of the manly man.

The look of St George was significant too. The male body was central to the concept of manliness throughout the period studied though its idealised form changed considerably over the 170 years. At mid-eighteenth century, the ideal manly body was dexterous and graceful, strong, but not necessarily rugged or burly. By the end of the nineteenth century, idealised representations of men were large, robust, and overtly muscular. Interestingly there are often two types of St George depicted in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One emphasises a very dynamic, forceful, muscularly poised body closely engaged with the dragon, which is generally large. He was mature, often indicated by bigger size – more bulk and heft, or by being bearded, or shorter haired, or wearing a visored or partly visored helmet. My impression is that the larger St Georges were popular in the later nineteenth century, when the more rugged masculine physical form was the standard and health and exercise actively promoted.

The other type was youthful, un-bearded, often combined with long hair or un-helmeted head. When associated with youth, St George is more slender and often languid; his apotheosis is in Burne-Jones’ images which are less about power and almost dreamily passive. The youthful depictions of St George particularly conveyed the allure of manly purity. St George was representative of virtue – most obviously because as a Christian Saint slaying the dragon he represented the mastery of good over evil. Generally chastity was a feature of the Saint – in the sense of mastery of body and emotions. But virtue was not confined to saints. Virtuous manliness was about correct deportment through bodily and emotional control and the regulation of appetite. Indeed, self-control was a feature of both the youthful and mature versions.

I think that St George’s continued association with pious and virtuous manliness helps explain why he was deemed suitable as a role model for youths in the late 19th c/early 20th. In his Scouting for Boys Baden Powell made St George ‘the patron saint of cavalry and scouts all over Europe’. Indeed he remains so to this day. The Scouts website currently explains that Baden-Powell chose him as patron because ‘St. George epitomised the qualities of selflessness and both moral and physical courage which he saw as being among the aims of Scouting’. In short, St George was an emblem who not only personified piety and patriotism; he modeled manly values like courage, strength and virtue. Thus the Saint was a vessel for a number of values associated with masculine identity. St George was a object to be produced, consumed, and circulated.

After all, the materiality of St George was fairly ubiquitous in so far as any form of cultural production can be. Men encountered his form in many places. He is seen in many churches and was also acted out in civic and folk performances. He was also an object to be handled and worn, worn on jewellery and as badges for hats (for example regiment pins which continued into the20th century), he decorated ceramics and was painted onto furniture. St George was also part of print culture from its inception in book frontispieces, antiquarian collections of passions, legends, and ballads, intellectual treatises, and children’s books.

His fairly widespread visibility is not alone sufficient to explain how the manliness he represented might be communicated and sought after. I think the emotive power of his materiality offers some clues into the successful circulation of his manly qualities. I’m suggesting that men – typically within but sometimes across social groups – shared a world view and emotional knowledge that they derived from a broadly common historical experience. Thus St George was a ‘thing’ that men who shared emotional knowledge consumed. For men encountering him, he served as an intimate devotional icon producing the male self. Effectively, men could interact with his image in very individual ways, responding to his beauty, his bravery, his self-sacrifice, his excitement, but shaped by their shared knowledge of gender constructions.

I think that this was powerful because St George evoked certain emotions crucial to this process. He served as an emblem or an idea stimulating emotions, such as love (for country, for God) and pride (for guild, for England); in war, aggression and self-sacrifice. He also served as a model of which [unmanly] emotions to restrain: fear, anxiety, grief, passion. The emotions he evoked are evident in the legends of his appearances to support the Christian or English on battlefields in the crusades, at Henry V’s victory at Agincourt, and most startlingly at Mons in 1914, an entirely fictional appearance which nonetheless stimulated considerable feelings amongst soldiers and citizens alike. As an emotional catalyst, it is, therefore, perhaps no surprise that he was used in memorials for the fallen in the Boer War and Great War, both in sculpture and stained glass window. Not only was St George a traditional figure deployed to lend meaning to large scale loss and a cult to promote the martyrdom of the fallen, in such memorials, he embodied the best of manliness cut-off in its prime; his use was intended to provoke profound feelings in those individuals affected – such as grief and resignation, pride and sorrow; but also was so recognisable he could not be forgotten.

St George was a vessel of specific manly values which were circulated through his form to be shared by men – and women who of course were involved in constructing manliness. As a form of material culture St George was an emotional catalyst. His connection with men was forged through various emotions, which thereby created a bond with specific manly qualities, and embedded them more firmly in men’s minds as a way to construct a self, and to access the power that manliness conveyed, although it was a power that was not without penalties, as the use of St George in war memorials demonstrates.

Image: Study of Carpaccio’s St. George and the Dragon. 1870-72 From “Ruskin, Turner and the pre-Raphaelites”, by Robert Hewison, 2000. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Will-power and Writing History

In a break between teaching and marking I’ve spent a week writing a draft of a chapter related to my current research project on the concept of being manly. This is for an edited volume by Nadine Muller and Jo Parsons on the male body in Victorian literature and culture and an expanded version of it will eventually become chapter three of my book. I often claim I like writing, but I wonder if this is really so, for the process of writing this draft has been very difficult (and it is still not finished).

With some reflection (as a means of procrastination and avoidance, no doubt), I realise that it is so painful because I’m being taken out of my comfort zone. I label myself as a social/cultural historian of the long eighteenth century. My book project spans the period 1760-1918 and, I’m finding, takes me further into other fields like ideas, medicine, and politics; that is beyond the edges of my knowledge.

This chapter, for example, is exploring the relationship between will, emotions, the body and manliness – predominantly in the Victorian period. Now, I have got data (thanks to the lovely Dr Melanie Reynolds who worked as an RA on this project) which I’ve coded on NVivo, and a broad understanding of the scholarship on the history of masculinities (thanks to teaching a third-year module across the period covered). I’ve also got lots of ideas about change over time in the broad understandings of my selected concept of manliness.

The thesis I’m working on in this chapter is that the successful exertion of will epitomised manliness through the action of conquering passion during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If men did not conquer vice and succumbed to temptation, they were unmanly: that is inferior and dependent. Manliness was thus often about bodily and emotional control and the regulation of appetite. This sign of ideal manliness had long roots. In the earlier eighteenth century ‘luxury’ was identified as making men effeminate, or like women. Thus frugality was prized, which included restraint in consumption and behaviour.

It is my impression that in the Victorian period this was even more essentialised within the male body, partly represented by a shift in emphasis from moderation to abstinence in bodily consumption. I think that the will-power associated with purity, a praised aspect of manliness in the late Victorian period, for example, was far more intense than the manly frugality of men in the early part of the century. I hope to reveal this through a case study of male insane asylum patients whose admission notes often describe the failure of bodily control. Also I’m thinking about using the figure of Sir Galahad, whose manly purity was so popular by the 1880s to offer insights into the power of will by the later period.

Sir Galahad ARthur Hughes

Sir Galahad by Arthur Hughes Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Yet, as I start to write, all this stops being a foundation and becomes a series of holes – in my knowledge. I have my firm points in the secondary literature: Thomas Dixon on the changing understandings of emotions, and how passions and their mastery were conceived; Stephanie Olsen on the links between manliness and the regulation of emotions in training youths in late Victorian and Edwardian England; Anne Guerrini and Roy Porter on frugal diets. However, I begin to realise how sketchy my knowledge is of temperance, of medical understandings of the body and mind, or the admission or treatment of men to insane asylums from the second half of the nineteenth century.

My evidence buckles from the strain I place it under. How, after all, do I put insane men and Sir Galahad in one place? My examples of virtue, vice, and self-control become scattered and fragmentary not sustained. Basically I don’t have the same grasp of trends in Victorian print and visual culture as I do Georgian. In other words, I’m not a Victorianist.

I’m finding that stepping into new areas as a historian while fully aware of how little I know of that era and related subjects is both disconcerting and exposing. Do I have the time to do justice to the topic, or, even, to write the book? I hope I’ll bring a fresh eye to the subject, but I also know I’ve got to face up to reviewers and readers with that extensive in-depth knowledge. That is not a welcome prospect. Well, at least my empathy is renewed for undergraduates tackling essays and postgraduates embarking on their research with the ‘infinite’ archives and finite time.

And perhaps I’ll now stop irritating people by saying how much I enjoy writing. Actually, I only enjoy it when it is easy. But, then, what would be the point of that?


History, Intimacy and Power

This post is a new format for me, because I’m using it to think ‘aloud’ about some of my current research and writing. Previously I’ve written about things which I’ve been exploring for some time, like marriage, marital violence, the household and so on. Instead I’m blogging here about a work-in-progress. This helps me formulate and work out what I think, but I am also making it public so that anyone interested in academic writing can see the mechanics behind the process!

In a couple of weeks I need to give a paper at a symposium of some note.  Its themes are intimacy and power. So, in preparing my paper, I’m thinking about these terms in more detail. It seems to me that intimacy is generally used in a couple of ways by historians. First, quite straightforwardly it denotes ‘private’ as in the bits of lives that are not seen by many, so an intimate history is a history of private life, perhaps of actions but typically of feelings and sexuality; like Theodore Zeldin’s An Intimate History of Humanity. Intimacy is also used as a way to think about the practice of being an historian. Carolyn Steedman’s ‘Intimacy in research: accounting for it’ is a great example of a historian reflecting on her relationship with her historical subject and how that influences her interpretation and writing. This intimacy is about feelings: closeness and connection. Steedman reflects at one point: ‘You have worked for these feelings, caught the trains to distant archives, read the books these people read, deciphered their handwriting’.

The sense of intimacy as conveyed through words and images leads me to a much more theoretical discussion of it which I’m not particularly familiar with. I’m currently being guided through it by Gabriele Linke’s article ‘The Public, the private, and the intimate’ in Biography, 2011. Here intimacy is assessed on a much larger, collective scale and explored in terms of the public sphere. The literary critic Lauren Berlant’s scholarship is clearly seminal, with her development of the concept of the ‘intimate public sphere.’ Her theoretical framework considers intimacy as a relatively recent mode of social being, produced through printed media, where participation in the public sphere is primarily about self-disclosure and association based on shared knowledge about each other.

Despite its personalised disclosures of personality, emotions, and acts deemed private by some, the intimate public sphere is very much a collective arena in which political allegiance and belonging are negotiated. As I understand it, this is the novelty of the theory because it acknowledges the co-existence of intimacies of self-disclosure alongside and part of the political world.

Obviously this has gender and power implications. The intimate public is a mode of expression that can enable those perceived ‘weak’ (because of race, sex, sexual orientation, age), to enter the public sphere and access a political voice. It also means that the dominant (typically white, wealthy men) are held to account for their personal and ‘private’ acts. I don’t need to mention the numerous MPs careers stalled by such disclosures to point to the impact this can have.

The current resonances of this are quite startling, of course, when the concept is applied to social media – a form of communication and community so often condemned for facilitating self-disclosure in so many varieties.  All power to it in my view, for where else would you get to see the British Prime Minister asleep on his sister-in-law’s four poster bed?


Thus, one of the appeals of this theory of intimate publics is that they seem to be anti-hegemonic in nature, or at least potentially subversive. However, I’m trying to think about this in terms of the past, manliness, and hegemony. This raises different questions. So, when did the intimate public sphere come into being? If it dates to a group sharing common texts and things, then it could be argued to have a very early date (and not the 19th century, which seems to be where literary critics see its real development). After all, elite men have long been a like-minded group who whose world view and emotional knowledge was derived from shared experience (Berlant’s definition of the consumers of this public sphere). I’m wondering – was there an ‘intimate public sphere’ of manliness? And does this only work if the members of this group were intimate by sharing acts of self-disclosure? I can think of groups of men who did just that, particularly if the hypothetical ‘intimate public’ does not have to be a very large group.

In the article which is helping me think through these issues Linke suggests that

mediated intimate knowledge is not necessarily shared across group boundaries but within them, confined to a group, enhancing existing publics rather than transcending them (p. 17).

This certainly could be applied to masculine communities which in their own ways had emotional rules that permitted certain forms of self-disclosure. For example, what about the small, yet powerful group of the Hell Fire Club; surely John Wilkes was a master of self-disclosure? Or the emotional self-disclosure permitted by men sharing experiences of crisis, like soldiers, to take the most obvious instance where emotions are concerned. There again, for an ‘intimate public’ to work does the intimate knowledge on which it is based have to enter the public (however narrowly defined) through media – as in print and visual culture? Can we also assume an oral culture binds together men, though its physical traces for the distant past are more difficult to find? And does an intimate public sphere only come into being if it bonds strangers?

These are things I shall be thinking about over the next few days as I try and putll the themes together into a paper. I tell you what – I wish that the equivalent of Twitter and Instagram existed for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries! As it is, my next task is to look at the evidence I’ve gathered on manliness and see where it takes me.

Savagery and Sadness in Eighteenth Century Sunderland Part 2: The eccentric Justice Ettrick

William Ettrick (1726-1808), a justice of the peace, inherited his estate at High Barnes, Bishop Wearmouth, in 1752 at around 26 years old. The Ettrick family rented the rights to run the Sunderland ferry from the Bishop of Durham. This made a very decent profit as it was the only way to cross the River Wear.[1]

sunderland ferry

It was this wealth that allowed William to defend himself against his wife’s cruelty separation case and which therefore produced such voluminous records. After immersing myself in the rich evidence about William, his life and his outlook on his world, I could not help but be slightly besotted by him. As I’ve tweeted recently, I can’t help but be fascinated by him, despite his many unpleasant deeds towards his family. This kind of attachment may not be bad thing for a historian, perhaps inevitable when we spend so long spying into past people’s lives, but it feels weird when we are drawn to the nasty subjects of our studies.

Anyway, I don’t think I am alone where William was concerned. Today’s post gives you a sense of how those outside his household-family saw him: eccentric to say the least, with a sneaking sense of joy in his peculiarities. He was known to be bad tempered and irascible. The History and Antiquities of Sunderland reported the stories that still circulated about him into the nineteenth century:

He was a man of independent spirit, somewhat of a humourist, but both feared and respected, and notwithstanding his eccentricities, he was possessed of great talents, and one of the best and most upright magistrates that the town of Sunderland or the county of Durham ever produced.

(For more on Justices of the Peace, see London Lives here)

The writer went on to repeat a couple of the most well-known anecdotes about Mr. Ettrick, which had lingered in local history for decades:

One day, coming to town upon magisterial duty, he observed a crowd of people surrounding one man, and gazing at him very intensely. He enquired who he was; upon being informed he was a great boxer come to town, he thought proper to send him a challenge to meet him. The boxer knew not from whom the challenge came; upon enquiring, he was told he was our most active magistrate; this alarmed him greatly, and he thought proper to leave the town. Mr. Ettrick, on his way home, seeing a crowd of people assembled, enquired the cause, and was told the boxer was leaving the town. Oh! oh! said he, tell him from me he is a great coward. I sent him a challenge, but he durst not accept it!

Boxing for Ettrick post

I love this report. It seemed to occur after prize-fighting was formalised somewhat by Jack Broughton’s Boxing Rules in 1743. The ‘sport’ was still illegal, yet here was William – the magistrate – offering to go a round with a famous boxer!

The story seems to convey much about William: a gentleman who cultivated a tough manliness. Not for him the polite rules of conduct, or the emotional expressiveness of sensibility that was gripping genteel society from the 1760s. As I’ll discuss in future posts, William’s personae quite consciously rejected the polished side of life. If anything, he was a man who liked and spent time with men of noticeably lower social rank.

Here’s another local story of the Justice’s single-mindedness:

Upon another occasion, whilst sitting upon the bench, a cart-man was brought before him for not having his name upon his cart according to law: as a matter of course he was fined, but in a mitigated penalty. The man thinking he had been rather harshly dealt with determined to be revenged the first opportunity:– he had scarcely got his fine paid, and was leisurely driving up the High Street, when he met Mr. Ettrick’s cart-man driving his dung cart in an opposite direction. Here was a chance not to be neglected, so, getting off his own vehicle, he inspected that of the justice, when lo and behold his name was found wanting! Off he went to the magistrates’ room, George Inn, High Street, [and] laid an information, Mr. Ettrick who was still on the bench, tried his own case and fined himself! This proceeding afforded him infinite amusement.


I bet it did! This dung-cart will appear again as it featured in William’s thwarted instructions for his own funeral!

Next time, you’ll meet the highly opinionated William’s wife Catherine.