Friday, September 24, 2010

The Cult Of Celebrity In The Late Eighteenth And Early Nineteenth Century --
Guest Blogger Nicola Cornick

There is a tendency to see celebrity as a modern phenomenon, a product of the age of mass media but the concept of being lionised or celebrated was widely understood as far back as Greek or Roman times when gladiators, for example, were the heroes of the sporting arena. In the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries fame’s spotlight was provided via portraits and paintings, newspapers and scandal sheets, word of mouth and public appearances rather than by the electronic media, but its fundamental effect was the same as today.

The Written Word

The Reverend Henry Bate took the editor’s chair at the Morning Post in 1772 and from the start he concentrated the newspaper’s coverage on personalities. He joined the Beefsteak Club, where he met and cultivated Sheridan, Garrick and other contemporary wits and he had an entrée to the Prince of Wales’s circle of friends from whom he gained many items of scurrilous gossip. Throughout the eighteenth century the public appetite for scandal and secret history, as it was called, was given blanket coverage in the press, often fuelled by the salacious details of evidence from adultery cases heard in the House of Lords.

It was in keeping with this tradition of muckraking that scandal sheets were handed out in the London streets in Georgian and Regency times. Thus it was that the crowds who hailed Horatio Nelson as a hero were equally well acquainted with his personal relationships. Details of his ménage a trois with Sir William and Lady Hamilton were common knowledge. This appeared to make little impact on Nelson’s popularity and could arguably be said to have been an essential aspect of his celebrity persona.

Nelson also took an active part in the “spinning” of his own legend, starting with his own account of the events of the Battle of St Vincent in 1797. He consciously used the press to create the hero image that drew him to public attention and acclaim.

Public Appearances

Just as the film stars of the modern day turn out to wave to the crowds at premieres and parties, so the celebrities of the Regency age were feted in streets.

On his return to England in the summer of 1797 Nelson was greeted with public acclaim wherever he went. Each of his victories was celebrated by huge popular demonstrations. Nor was Nelson the only Regency celebrity to receive such popular acclaim. During the state visit of Czar Alexander of Russia and King Frederick of Prussia in 1814 celebrity-watchers went to ridiculous lengths to catch a glimpse of their heroes, some people renting windows along the route of the Grand Procession, others holding parties in kitchens and basements so that they could peer through the area grating to see the famous visitors pass by.

Sporting heroes of the day also used their popularity to generate public celebrity. George Wilson, famed for his achievements in the sport of pedestrianism, understood the value of publicity and used to advertise his events in advance, selling engravings of himself in action to onlookers. By 1815 he was so famous that when he turned up for a pedestrian event in Blackheath there was such a huge crowd that he had to employ men with whips and ten foot staves to cut his way through the throng, the equivalent of the modern day bodyguard.


Portraiture was another way in which celebrities could use the visual arts to project an image. There was a growing demand for glamorous and humorous pictures. Sporting heroes such as boxers Jem Belcher and Tom Cribb had their reputations enhanced through the production of tinted drawings like modern day sporting posters. Opera singers and actresses were celebrated in a similar way. The cartoons of Gillray, Cruikshank and Rowlandson lampooned celebrities and were reproduced by the thousand. The victims of the caricaturists prized their celebrity then just as their contemporaries do now and the Prince Regent paid vast sums to collect the originals of Gillray’s cartoons of himself.

Benjamin Haydon’s portrait of the poet Wordsworth was painted against a backdrop of the mountain Helvellyn – a hero in the setting of his deeds. The artists who painted Nelson were colluding with the subject to present him in heroic guise and burnish his celebrity. Lord Byron accompanied the publication of his poem The Corsair in 1814 with a self-portrait complete with exotic headscarf and cutlass, thus identifying himself explicitly with the smouldering piratical hero.

The fame of most Regency celebrities was based on accomplishment, whether military, sporting or other. It that respect it could be said to have a greater intrinsic worth than some modern day celebrity, though it could also be argued that the fame of Beau Brummell, for example, based on his skill as an arbiter of fashion, was no different from that of a top model today. As for the beautiful Misses Gunning, a comparison with reality television might be drawn when a crowd turned out at an inn one night simply to watch them eat!

Nicola Cornick is the author of 35 books for Harlequin Historicals and HQN. A double RITA and UK RNA Award nominee, Nicola also works as a historian in the 17th century hunting lodge Ashdown House. She has an MA in Public History and studied hero and hero legends for her dissertation.

WHISPER of SCANDAL by Nicola Cornick
- October 2010 Release!

Lady Joanna Ware is the darling of the Ton, a society hostess who has put behind her the misery of her unhappy marriage to a philanderer. Until her late husband bequeaths to her joint care of his illegitimate child…

Alexander, Lord Grant, is an explorer lauded as a hero and adventurer. He scorns the Ton and wants no family ties. Until his best friend bequeaths to him joint care of his illegitimate child…

Joanna and Alex disagree from the moment they first meet, so how are they ever to stay civil long enough to join forces and rescue the orphaned baby girl? Saving Nina takes them from the celebrity salons and balls of Regency London to the frozen wastes of the North Pole and tests both of them - and their emotions - to the very limit. For what will happen when their bitter hostility turns to an equally passionate desire?


Lady Leigh said...

Thanks for the post! It is really relevant to the manuscript I am plotting right now. I appreciate these little 'history lessons'.

Louise Allen said...

Fascinating post, Nicola thank you. I always love the story about Welington meeting Nelson and huffing afterwards about what a self-publicist he was

Elizabeth Essex said...

Very thought provoking post. Thanks, Nicola and Lesley-Anne.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you very much for inviting me today, Lesley-Anne. It's a pleasure to be here! Lady Leigh, I'm glad you found the post useful! Best of luck with your manuscript! Elizabeth, thank you! Louise, yes the Nelson and Wellington encounter was very funny, wasn't it!If I had been one of Nelson's fellow officers I would probably have found his self-promotion pretty difficult to live with!

margaret blake said...

Very interesting post. Do you think they had a better class of celebrity?

Nicola Cornick said...

Ooh, good question! I think that Regency celebrities tended to be celebrated more for their achievements, Margaret, and so in that sense they were definitely a better class of celebrity! Mind you, if you saw Prinny drinking everyone under the table you might not think so, I suppose!

Miranda Neville said...

Great post, Nicola. I read a lot about the cult of opera singers researching for a book (which I hope may one day see the light of day). Some of the coverage of Angelica Catalani was quite reminiscent of modern tabloids.

Nicola Cornick said...

That sounds fascinating, Miranda, and I will look forward very much to the book!

When I was writing Lord of Scandal I was amazed to discover that hacks would hang about the servants' entrance of the big London houses hoping for tip offs! The similarities to the paparazzi are pretty strong!

Jane Holland said...

Fantastic. And I love the thought of people crowding round an inn to watch "It" girls eat their dinner. Many thanks for the post, Nicola - instructive and entertaining at the same time, as always. Jx

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you, Jane! Glad you liked it. Yes, you can imagine the crowds gawping at the Gunning sisters, can't you!

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

I'm so sorry I haven't been around this week, Nicola, to support your guest post. I'm glad things have gone well, and thank you to all commenters.
We are in the throes of a death in our immediate family, so things have been rather fraught. I hope to be back to blog next week.

Thanks again, Nicola.