Saturday, 4 August 2012

The English Way of Death

                     An idiosyncratic take on the Danse Macabre was presented by William Combe and Thomas Rowlandson, in their collaborative The English Dance of Death (1815-16). 

Title Page

Combe was born in 1741, of dubious parentage, and was educated at Eton and Oxford, where he failed to take a degree as in 1762 he received a £2000 bequest from a London Alderman who may, or may not, have been his father. In a prodigious display of extravagance, he dissipated his fortune in short order and lived thereafter as, variously, a soldier, a cook and a waiter. In 1771, he moved to London and began work as a hack writer, writing to order for little money. 

The Diaboliad - Combe 1777

During this time he published The Diaboliad and The Diabo-Lady, a pair of vicious political satires dedicated to ‘The Worst Man in His Majesty’s Dominions’, which proved very popular and ran to numerous editions. He wrote political propaganda for the Pitt government and edited many works by other writers, before he began to publish poetry under pseudonym of Doctor Syntax. Much of his later life was spent in the King’s Bench Prison, a debtor’s prison at Southwark, from where he continued to write. A collaboration with Thomas Rowlandson, the artist, led to The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (1812), which proved so successful that two more ‘Tours’ followed – In Search of Consolation and In Search of a Wife, which were then published together in one volume. 

Rowlandson - Vauxhall Gardens

Rowlandson was a little younger than Combe and, like him, was accustomed to poverty and profligacy (he was said to sit at the gaming-table for thirty-six hours at a stretch). He, too, had inherited a small fortune (£7,000), which was gone in next to no time, and made a reputation on his engraving of Vauxhall Gardens, the popular London pleasure garden, which brought in illustrative work from Ackermann, the art publisher, (including some that you would not want your wife or your servants to see). 


In 1815-16, Ackermann published The English Dance of Death, which places the skeletal figure of Death in a very English social setting, with verses by Combe and accompanying engravings by Rowlandson. The religious overtones of, say, Holbein’s earlier version is replaced with the secular world of the early nineteenth century. There are clerics represented, but there is no religiosity in their settings, they are merely a part of the larger community. 

Rowlandson - Death and Time

The whole cycle begins with a dialogue between Death and Time and the first divine to appear is the portly Bishop who is the last character of the first volume. 

Rowlandson - The Bishop

The lay figures from earlier cycles make their appearances, but in thoroughly English settings and with typically English humour. A comparison of Holbein's and Rowlandson's work shows this to effect: -

Holbein - Old Woman

Unlike Holbein’s depiction on the Old Woman as a bent, pitiful crone, Rowlandson’s Old Woman is a spitting, scrawny shrew, dragged raving out into the night as her henpecked husband bids her a fond farewell, as the maidservant, Molly, looks on behind him.

Rowlandson - The Virago

“Farewell, (he cried) my dearest dear!
As I no more shall see you here,
To my fond wish it may be given,
That we shall meet again in Heaven;
And since your daily clamours cease,
On earth I hope to live in peace.
DEATH, far away, my cares hath carried.
‘Molly', to-morrow we'll be married.”

Holbein - The Apothecary

The Apothecary is represented in the guise of a Quack Doctor, hawking his potions to a line of patient patients, as Death grinds out his slow poisons behind a curtain.

Rowlandson - The Quack Doctor

“See how his Visage he disposes,
As his hands measure out the doses;
While his round paunch most truly tells,
He never takes the Drugs he sells.”

Holbein - The Drunkard

The Drunkard becomes the English Sot, dead drunk and carried away in a wheelbarrow, as his carousing companions carry on their roistering and boozing in the thatched tavern behind.

Rowlandson - The Sot

“Some die with hemp around their gullets,
And some from balls and some from bullets:
But 'Twas the fate of poor JACK MARROW,
To breathe his last on a Wheel-barrow.”

Holbein - The Lady

The Lady is there too, with her finery and feathers, and Death attends her as a fawning suitor, in periwig and tail coat.

Rowlandson - The Coquette

“Lady, you now must quit your home,
For the cool grotto of a tomb.
Be not dismay'd ; my gallant dart
Will ease the flutt'rings of your heart.
He grinn'd a smile - the jav'lin flies
When Betty screams - and Flavia dies.”

Holbein - The Ship at Sea

And for a maritime nation, there is peril on the Sea. Death comes as the lifeboat founders, and those within all come to grief.

Rowlandson - The Sailors

“They see Death sitting at the Helm;
And, as the mountain seas o'erwhelm,
Amid the Storm's tremendous roar,
One shriek they give and all is o'er.”

Holbein - The Soldier

All is not slapstick and japery, however. There are some poignant plates – none more so than the Soldier. Here he is a raw recruit, marching off to the beat of the recruiting sergeant’s drum but failing to see that the sergeant is Death. He dreams of martial glory, over the hills and far away, and he leaves his love with a tender kiss and a squeeze of her hand – but she knows better.

Rowlandson - The Recruit

“The Sexton says he knows you well,
And 'tis an idle tale you tell:
That your recruits are always slain,
And never see their homes again.”

Holbein - The Child

The Child is taken, in its cot as his drunken wet-nurse slumbers in a chair. His mother, who has left the babe behind while she goes out gadding on the town, returns home to find her offspring dead.

Rowlandson - The Child

“Death rocks the Cradle, as you see,
And sings his mortal Lullaby.
No shrieks, no cries will now its slumbers break;
The Infant sleeps, ah, never to awake!”

It is all very, very English – by turns sentimental, disrespectful, bawdy, eccentric, self-aware, educated and fond of corny puns. The Last Stage anyone?

Rowlandson - The Last Stage

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