Sunday, 29 September 2013

A Pot of Beer

Funny the things you find by mistake. I was looking for the books I own about bottling beer. What I found was this rather odd little piece about a French artist and his love of British bottled beer.

Paul Gavarni is described by Wikipedia as a caricaturist, which sounds distinctly less posh than "artist". On the other hand, he was the illustrator of Balzac's novels, which must have been a reasonably prestigious job. He visited Britain in 1849 and died in 1866.

"A late number of the Pall Mall Gazette contains an interesting notice of the French artist Gavarni, the biography of the brother De Goncourt "suggesting," but not "furnishing, the materials" for the article. It is curious enough that he was first privately known as an admirable designer of fashion plates. An engineer by profession, he "seems to have forsaken his original calling at the earliest opportunity, merely for the sake of drawing gentlemen and ladies in irreproachable attire." He always kept up his mathematical studies, and ended by putting aside art "to occupy himself with a sort of transcendental engineering." "For some years before his death, almost the only designs he made were in connection with flying machines and aerial navigation generally." In politics, he was of the school of Mr. Fitzjames Stephen. You could judge of the men, he said, by the mere phraseology of their political cries. What, for instance, was the meaning of "Droit an travail" (what Judge Bradley in the New Orleans butchers' case calls the "sacred right to labor")? Would it, be said, be a particle more ridiculous to talk of the right to breed rabbits, which no one had ever contested? His personal sympathies were with the Orleans family. Gavarni's object in going to England was to make a number of drawings illustrative of English society and of English life. This work proving a failure, he returned, alter a trip to Scotland, to London, where he took rooms, resolved to study the national character thoroughly. His life there seems to have been as original as from his sketches one would suppose everything about Gavarni to have been. It was his practice to sally out of his rooms in Salisbury Square, Fleet Street, in the evening, or, whenever he felt inclined to be idle, walk across the Square in dressing-gown and slippers, enter a tavern called the Barley Mow, and sit there smoking cigarettes, drinking bottled ales, "coupé avec de l'eau" — in other words, diluted with water— ruminating or conversing, as the case might be. "British bottled ale was at that time almost as strange to Frenchmen as cigarettes were to Englishmen, Gavarni entertained a high opinion of it, especially of the Scotch variety; and, perhaps from having met with it in Paris only at such places as Tortoni's and the Café Anglais, fancied that it was a particularly fashionable beverage."

— He grew so foud of bottled ale that an idea occurred to him. which the writer of the notice cites as an illustration of the difliculties in the way of his getting completely to the bottom of England and Englishmen. It was that of producing a work illustrative of English life in every class, and in every place, town as well as country, to be called 'A Pot of Beer.' Hop-picking, the interior of a large brewery, a village public-house, with laborers and artisans drinking porter, and finally a banquet, with gentlemen and ladies drinking ale, were among the scenes he proposed to represent. It was pointed out to him that ale was not the characteristic drink of people of fashion, nor porter the drink of our working-classes alone; and, moreover, that the title 'A Pot of Beer' would be thought vulgar. On this he abandoned his hastily considered project. One curious thing is mentioned about Balzac, which we have never seen noticed before. Gavarni had a great admiration for Balzac, but he declared that in private conversation he was "stupid," repeating, in answer to a request for an explanation of so surprising a statement, that he was "simplement bête." He added that Balzac found it very difficult to set to work, and that he would cover his paper with numbers of little words and phrases, which he scribbled in all sorts of ways, before he began; though, once having got his faculties into play, it is known that he would continue writing lor prodigious and almost alarming periods."
"The Nation, volume XV, July to December 1872", 1872, page 162.

What a weird and strangelesss pointless fact to learn, that Gavarni was fond of Scotch Ale. I can't imagine any occasion where that knowledge might be useful. Unless I start reading in French again. I have been wondering for the last 40 years what happened to De Rastignac, so that isn't as unlikely as it sounds.

Was Scotch Ale fashionable? I believe it was a posh, expensive drink in some parts of the world. But was that true in Britain? Judging from the way I've seen it advertised, Scotch Ale was seen as classy south of the border. At least the strong varieties.

Gentlemen and ladies drinking Ale in the 1840's doesn't sound right to me. A gentleman, had he spent time in India, might have indulged in a glass or two of Pale Ale, but a lady? I think not.

I can't find any of the drawings he made in Britain, unfortunately. One of artisans drinking Porter would have illustrated this post a treat.


Bailey said...

This led us to 'Gavarni in London' ( which contains an excellent illustration of a London pub and numerous mentions of Indian ale and porter. Ta!

Gary GIllman said...

This article has the typical Establishment dismissal of beer. The writer can't get past the class issue which is a pity since it prevents and probably still does beer being taken seriously as a subject of gastronomy. It works both ways I think in that some modern beer writing has a strident defensive quality to it, but that is more a result of the other attitude and and understandable one. It is the same in North America but not as bad.


Alan said...

Just $500 for the book, Ron:

Martyn Cornell said...

Hah! I actually have the illustration of the barmaid from 'Gavarni in London', and the accompanying chapter, acquired 12 or more years ago, evidently after some bookseller somewhere decided he could make more money ripping the book to bits than selling it whole (although after seeing the price Alan gives ...) That same picture is, IIRC, in Michael Jackson's World Guide To Beer - can't check, we're having work done in the house, and that bookcase is currently inaccessible.