Tuesday, 17 December 2019

A Victorian Cartoonist's Christmas

Victorian Christmas cartoons tended to lack the rough, sometimes raunchy humor and social satire of their Georgian predecessors. Victorian images of Christmas were more often sentimental, nostalgic, pious, and domestic. They focused primarily on the comfortably well off, and the holiday as a time of merry family celebration. Well behaved children were an important part of the scene. There were exceptions, as we shall see.

An example of the sentimental family scene is this Punch cartoon by John Leech (1817-1864), "A Family Group, Baby Stirring the Pudding." The large-headed Mr. Punch is at the center, helping "Baby," surrounded by admiring adults and children.

The 1840s saw several important developments in the creation of today's Christmas traditions. That decade saw the introduction of the first Christmas cards, by Henry Cole, a British civil servant. This one below, said to be the very first, shows a prosperous and respectable family enjoying a holiday meal. 

The publication of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in 1843 helped reinforce the sentimental trend. John Leech's illustration of Mr. Fezziwig's Christmas party conveys a nostalgic view of the time when Ebenezer Scrooge was his young employee. The jolly, humane Fezziwig dances under the mistletoe in a room full of happy revelers. Dickens implies that this is how Christmas could be, or rather, should be. 

Fezziwig's party stands in sharp contrast to the Christmas day meal of the Cratchit family. The occasion is pious, sentimental, loving, but meager -- meager at least until the reformed Scrooge shows up with presents, a big turkey, trimmings, and a raise for Bob Cratchit. Now enlightened, Scrooge makes Christmas what it should be.

The decorated Christmas tree began to take front and center in portrayals of the holiday during the Victorian Age. The Hanoverian monarchs had introduced the Christmas tree from Germany in the 18th century. But few of the British adopted the German tradition until the reign of Queen Victoria. Illustrated magazines and newspapers helped popularize the practice to a wider public. An example shows Victoria, her consort Prince Albert, and their children surrounding and admiring a Christmas tree. 

The Royals' Christmas dos did not always receive such positive portrayals. The 1840s was not only a time of the emergence of some modern Christmas traditions, but also of the Hungry Forties, great political and social unrest, the democratic movement known as Chartism, and the Irish Famine. 

The cartoon below, from a radical newspaper, pictures the royals and company gorging themselves on a giant Christmas pudding, or "Blom Buddin" as Prince Albert calls it. Albert is presented as a freeloader helping himself the "good tings of Angland." 

Victoria hands a plate of plum stones to John Bull, the "cook" of the pudding, and says he can lick the dish and suck the stones when the family have finished. Bull represents the people who have created the country's wealth but live on crumbs.

Victorian Christmas images, such as this one by John Tenniel from Punch in 1883, occasionally focused on those for whom the holiday was just another day of deprivation and poverty. Here, Father Christmas confronts a poorly dressed child who lives in a cellar and knows nothing about him.. "This must be altered," he says, presumably meaning such dire poverty as well as ignorance of the Great Present Giver.

Some Christmas Cartoons could be positively frightening, in a humorous way, at least. An example is George Du Maurier's Christmas cartoon in Punch, 1865. The caption refers to a naturalist who says that children should not read fables and fairy tales but read natural history instead. "Here is the result [of reading natural history] on the youthful mind" Du Maurier comments, no doubt tongue-in-cheek. 

Thursday, 12 December 2019

The Previous Lives of Pubs: A church that became a pub, for a time

NB: The church in this article did have a life as a pub, but is now a Miller and Carter Steakhouse.

Churches seem to be prime candidates for conversion (no pun intended) into other purposes. Just as numerous bank branches have closed down in recent years due to the growth of online banking, a decline in attendance has forced a lot of churches to shut their doors to worshippers. 

As congregations have shrunk, so have church budgets. Churches are expensive to maintain, heat, and light, and some have been unable to carry on in their original function. 

Hundreds of former churches have been demolished or converted into homes and businesses of all sorts, including restaurants, galleries, a climbing center in Manchester, and a circus school in Bristol. Others have become pubs. 

One of them once occupied the Muswell Hill Presbyterian Church (later United Reformed Church). Opened in 1903, it served its original function until the 1970s. The Neo-Gothic structure was "saved" from demolition or worse when the O'Neill's chain converted it into one of their Irish pubs. 

From outside it looked like the church it once was, except for the O'Neill signs and logos. The handsome terracotta and flint façade was left virtually untouched. 

Inside, the basic structure also largely remained, but the altar was replaced by a large bar, the pews by chairs, tables, and slot machines. Hymns gave way to pop music. Worship of beer took the place of worship of the Deity.

One can only imagine what the church's founders would have thought of the transition. But perhaps after a pint and some reflection, they would see it as preferable to destruction. 

Other pubs that had previous lives as churches, include the Oran Mor in Glasgow, and the Church Café and Bar, formerly St. Mary's Church of Ireland, in Dublin.