Of all our favourite Words lately none has been more in Vogue, nor so long held its Esteem as that of TASTE.
The Universal Spectator (1747)
The concept of ‘taste’ was tremendously important in Georgian society. Taste was used to assess fashion, behaviour, and design. The architecture, decoration, and contents of a house, the clothes worn by its inhabitants, and the way they interacted with those around them could all be found wanting when it came to taste. Taste was needed in deciding what books to read, what music to listen to, and which plays to see.
Taste was not just about aesthetics and polite manners, it could have moral connotations also. Those with good taste may chose an classical design over a gothic one, but they could also be trusted to make sound moral jugements.
The most polite Ages are the least virtuous…it becomes a Rule not so much to regard what we do, as how we do it…But this false Beauty will not pass upon Men of honest Minds and true Taste.
The Spectator (1711)
Mr Spectator asserts the ability of men of ‘true Taste’ to distinguish between the polite affectations of the day and true, virtuous action.
Taste In High Life
For many, taste was a matter of fashion and design. The materials you used for curtains, and whether you decorated with Chinese porcelain or French-style furniture, mattered. Of course, there were always people who took it too far (PVC boots anyone?) and those willing to laugh at them when they did.
In 1742 the well-known satirist William Hogarth produced an oil painting for one of his partons, Mary Edwards of Kensington. Mary had commissioned Taste In High Life to mock the ridiculous behaviour and frivolous possessions of those she believed were slaves to the idea of taste.
Mary Edwards was considered eccentric by many; she was mocked for her habit of wearing old fashioned clothes. This painting is often said to be her small revenge, laughing at those who laughed at her.
In this painting Hogarth offered a caricature of popular French fashions of the 1740s. The stiff boning of the women’s ridiculously large hooped skirts take up most of the space in the stylish interior. The hoop of the first woman is forced up into the air by that of the second.
One of my favourite moments in this piece is the two figures on the right fawning over a miniature porcelain cup and saucer. There were many wealthy individuals at this time with a passion for collecting porcelain (the black page boy is also holding a porcelain figure and a Chinese vase can be seen in the background). The tea cup is associated with female frivolity as the tea-table was the domain of the women in a household. However, the tiny cup is totally useless as it would fit no more than a thimble’s worth of tea.
The paintings on the wall reflect the inhabitants’ obsession with fashion. In the large, central painting cupid tends a fire of discarded petticoats and wigs next to a classical female sculpture decked in stays, hoops, and heels. This demeaning version of classical design is perhaps meant to juxtapose ‘true taste’ (e.g. the noble tenets of classical design) with bad or false taste (e.g. obsession with fussy French fashion and Chinese patterns).
Failure of taste is associated with wealthy women consistently in this painting (see the woman trapped by her own dress on the firescreen). However, the foolish man does get a look in. The thin-legged, long-haired man is supposedly based on the 2nd Earl of Portmore, Charles ‘Beau’ Colyear. The French style he wears is a copy of the outfit worn by the Earl to his birthday celebrations in 1742 – white fur muff included.
Even the page boy, with his feathered, oriental headdress and long coat tails is not exempt from the foibles of fashion on display. His role in this piece is to suggest that just as he is a slave to his masters, so his masters are slaves to the latest fashions of ‘High Life’.
Most people think that the page is based on the real-life servant Ignatius Sancho who was kept as a child by three sisters in Greenwich – another reference to the odd whims of the upper-class perhaps.
As with most of Hogarth’s works, there are many more things that could be said about this sketch (the monkey is reading a menu of French delicacies for example) but we must draw a line somewhere!
Though Hogarth doesn’t dismiss the idea of taste altogether, he does associate certain behaviours and fashions common amongst the upper-classes as false representations of taste.
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This post was inspired by a few paragraphs in the introduction to Amanda Vickery’s fascinating book Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (2009).