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Great Tarts in Arts:
High Culture and the Oldest Profession


Report of the lecture given by Linda Smith
on May 23rd 2012

Linda Smith explained that there are many synonyms for prostitute and that fortunately for her one of them, tart, rhymes with art, hence the intriguing title of the May lecture. The chairman's introductory remark that there seemed to be far more men than usual in the audience and the speaker's riposte that it had always been her most successful lecture set the tone for an hilarious, informative and sumptuously illustrated talk combining great art and amazing stories.

Starting in the 17th century with the complicated love life of the Merry Monarch, King Charles II, Ms. Smith took us on a journey through the centuries which reflected changing fashions and moral attitudes. Indolent and pleasure seeking Charles was noted for his strings of horses and mistresses. Until the Restoration royal mistresses had no particular status but Charles had been brought up in the French court where they did things differently. His first official mistress was Mrs Barbara Palmer, later Countess Castlemaine, who was eventually created Duchess of Cleveland in her own right, for services rendered. A very beautiful woman with auburn hair and blue eyes, she was a charismatic, rude and promiscuous, and men, Pepys included, were fascinated by her. Sir Peter Lely painted her several times and her languorous look with slightly pop eyes and a pad of fat under her chin became the look of the age and was regarded as the height of perfection.

She was supplanted by the exquisite Louise de Kerouaille, who was French, Catholic, very intelligent, manipulative, a possible spy for the French King and highly unpopular. In one painting by Lely she is shown in a sort of shift with a flowing gown over it, the intimacy of the painting indicating her status. One might say she is stripped for action. The tenancy of Castlemaine and de Kerouaille as royal mistress overlapped and they hated each other. Both had seven children and they vied constantly for the best titles for their children.

The advent of Nell Gwynne, probably the best known of Charles's mistresses must have come as something of a relief. In Linda Smith's words she was as common as muck, and was an extremely popular figure. "Pretty, witty Nell" as Pepys described her, was an actress who benefited from Charles's decision to let women play female characters on the stage, roles previously played by young men. She did not live at court but was given a house in Pall Mall. She had no title but on one occasion is reputed to have suspended her son by Charles out of a window, threatening to drop him unless he was given a title. Charles promptly ennobled him. On another occasion, Nell's carriage was set upon by an angry crowd under the impression that Louise de Kerouaille was inside. Nell is reputed to have shouted out "Good people, you are mistaken. I am the Protestant whore." Charles and Nell were good friends and on his deathbed Charles is alleged to have said "Let not poor Nelly starve." In the 18th century William Hogarth produced a scathing indictment of society in a series of paintings called 'Marriage a la mode', depicting the decline of an arranged marriage between an impoverished young aristocrat and a rich young woman. One picture shows the young man visiting his doctor holding a black box of mercury pills in his hand, the only treatment for syphilis at the time, ineffective though it was. A wretched looking child prostitute stands to one side. The use of face patches in this painting symbolises corruption, both physical and moral.

The blame for sexually transmitted diseases was placed on women in general, and not necessarily prostitutes, a view which lasted well in to the 19th century. However, in 1769 George Stubbs painted the Milbanke and Lambe families, which was an example of a successful if unorthodox arranged marriage between a poor aristocrat and a rich man. Elizabeth Milbanke, who was certainly a very clever woman, gave her husband a son, embarked on a series of discreet affairs including one with the Prince of Wales, had other children by several men, ran her husband's business and a literary salon, procured a title for her husband, and one of her illegitimate children Lord Melbourne, became Queen Victoria's Prime Minister.

The 17th and early 18th centuries appear to have been the heyday of the courtesan and many were painted by famous artists. Kitty Fisher of the nursery rhyme, is depicted by Nathaniel Hone. A play on her name pictures her with a kitten trying to catch fish in a bowl and spectators reflected on its surface echo the concept of life lived a goldfish bowl. She charged enormous fees, once eating a £50 note in a sandwich when she felt insulted at the small amount of money offered for her services. It was possibly no coincidence that one of her protectors was the Earl of Sandwich.

Elizabeth Armitage was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. A rich and successful whore she conducted a scandalous relationship with Charles James Fox, the politician. To escape publicity they went to live in the country, and were socially ostracised. They eventually married and against all odds were very happy. Giovanna Bacelli, the actress mistress of the Duke of Dorset was shown by Gainsborough in full theatrical makeup. When her lover was awarded the Order of the Garter she wore it in her hair flaunting their relationship. Grace Dalrymple, again painted by Gainsborough, was of a good Scottish family. Imprisoned with aristocrats in the French Revolution she is alleged to have received a proposal from Napoleon. As she was 6 ft tall this might have made an interesting liaison given his height.

Harriet Wilson appeared in an engraving by Cooper. When in debt towards the end of her career she threatened to publish her diary naming her lovers unless financially recompensed. Some complied. Her most illustrious lover, who she said looked like a rat catcher, was the Duke of Wellington. He famously said "Publish and be damned". Harriet criticised his sexual performance but an unnamed French prostitute, when asked whether Wellington or Napoleon was the better lover, said of Wellington that he was formidable and much better in all ways. When Linda Smith repeated this story to a French friend he, with true chauvinism, said that she did not understand. Napoleon was born in Corsica ! Napoleon's first language was Italian. He Gallicised his name.

Emma Hamilton painted by Romney had a menage a trois with Nelson and her compliant husband, She had a daughter by Nelson who, in his will requested that the government look after Emma. This wish was ignored and she died in poverty. The lecturer quoted an excerpt from the T.V. Series Blackadder in which someone says that nobody ever gets anywhere on good looks and charm alone, to which Blackadder replies "You have obviously never met Lady Hamilton". Many of these ladies were obviously beautiful but they also by wit, personality and intelligence made a good living for themselves in a dangerous profession at a time when women did not have many career opportunities and they did often marry well.

In the Victorian 19th century with its more repressed sexual code, Holman Hunt painted "The Awakening Conscience" depicting the moment when a kept woman became aware of her 'sin': as one would expect the man looks anything but contrite. Holman Hunt himself attempted to rehabilitate a 15 year old barmaid with a view to marrying her, but in his absence in the Holy Land she formed a liaison with the charismatic Dante Gabriel Rosetti and had many other lovers. She eventually married the Earl of Ranelagh, was very happy and had many children proving that the wages of sin are not always degradation and death.

Manet's 'The Bar at the Folies Bergere' posed an enigma. Is the young barmaid a prostitute or is she not, and his depiction of a masked ball shows male dancers feeling the elbows of their partners as it was believed that lymph nodes in the elbows indicated the presence of syphilis. Degas's Little Dancer was originally in wax with real shoes, wig and bodice. It was only cast in bronze after his death and is not the innocent depiction of childhood we imagine. Ownership of boxes at the opera gave patrons the right to visit back stage and the young dancers, some as young as 10, were often for sale by their mothers or aunts. Toulouse Lautrec, sympathetic to the plight of women, in "Au Salon Rue des Moulins" in 1894 depicts a prostitute pulling up her skirt, not for sexual purposes but for a regular visit from a doctor. These visits were often brutal resulting in abortions or permanent damage. Pretty pictures often hide ugly truths if we know how to read them.

In the 20th century during the Weimar Republic, works by the German artists, George Groz, Christian Schad and Otto Dix, reflected the tensions of the age and their depiction of whores can be interpreted as a hidden commentary on and a condemnation of a corrupt and corrupting political system. Later in the century, shortly after her suicide, Andy Warhol produced a famous portrait of Marilyn Monroe. She was not a prostitute but was certainly a victim of the casting couch. His painting reflects his realisation that in the 20th century, celebrities, unlike in previous times, were no longer regarded as individuals but as commodities to be marketed and mass produced, like his tomato soup cans. The lecture ended with one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. This is Lewis Morley's photograph of Christine Keeler sitting back to front on an Arne Jacobson chair. Her affair with Cabinet Minister John Profumo ruined his career and her life. When he died newspaper obituaries concentrated on the affair ignoring the fact that after the scandal he spent a life devoted to good causes. Private Eye just printed a cartoon of a tombstone with Christine Keeler sitting astride it marked, ''J.P. R.I.P." If you substitute CK for JP it could equally well apply to her but the affair marked the time when attitudes to the ruling classes began to change and respect had to be earned and was not a birthright.

The lecture over ran by 15 minutes for which Linda Smith apologised but I do not think anyone noticed or minded as the subject was so absorbing .The stories were fascinating and the paintings were marvellous.

And none of the men fell asleep.

Ann Brookes


Linda Smith