Episode 1: Graffiti in the garden: Gender, class and morality in Kensington Gardens

(Piixabay)

Any man or woman who walks in an urban landscape will come across graffiti of one kind or another. The buildings surrounding railway lines are covered in spray paint, as are many abandoned buildings, walls, temporary structures and fences. A meander along many urban streets consists of noticing and ignoring such scribbles, mosaics, and cartoonish iconographies.  They are part of the landscape – sometimes obtrusive, often permeable, some of it is considered street art in some quarters, occasionally state-sponsored, often not. Graffiti is, and always has been, part of the landscape in which humans walk.

This video serves as a reminder that modern day walking in London includes graffiti, some of which is still considered vandalism, but some of which is declared as art – often transient, but not always.

For the graffiti artist (or street artist), the activity has many meanings, often subversive, but not always. Graffiti is a form of expression, freed from the restraints of publication – either in print or digital – but intrinsically and uniquely linked to place and to a context, often known only to the artist. The graffiti mark, has a variety of meanings, some only known and understood by an inner circle; a shared sub-culture and community, which itself is a form of subversion of the State and its expectation of cultural norms.

For the observer who has nothing to do with the graffiti, who notices these markings as they walk, there is often something furtive in the perusal. Graffiti, often, is considered by the observer and the State to be a form of vandalism, an act of defacement. Observation of the markings as anything other than vulgar are, to those who consider themselves as law-abiding citizens, internalized as naughty, uncivilized. And yet we often look!

Graffiti in A Sunday Ramble

As the narrator of A Sunday Ramble shows this furtive act of reading and noting words and scribbles of an ‘uncivilized’ nature whilst walking, is nothing new. When the two ramblers visit Kensington Gardens, the narrator considers the perusal of graffiti as a type of voyeurism in which those of a particular class and gender (in particular) should avert their gaze from the vulgar, intrusive, and illegal markings.

I cannot but remark, that though this practice is too well known, many apparently virtuous females were poring over the lines; who, I must be charitable enough to suppose, were not capable of reading them; for they could not, if they comprehended their meaning, have perused them without blushing.

As such the narrator gives voice to the idea that perusal legitimizes something that should be considered illegitimate, especially by people of specific class and more specifically women. The mere act of reading degrades the individual and puts question to their morality. In the case of A Sunday Ramble the degradation of morals is specifically urban in its nature, and this is interesting in itself. The narrator denounces the graffiti as giving ‘great offence of all those who are not lost to all sense of shame’ but he also argues that the more ‘literate’ countrywomen were more than capable of informing them ‘of their error’.

I would, however, advise my more literate countrywomen to inform them of their error; and likewise let them know, (what some of them have probably found by experience) that as well as the laughter such imprudent conduct creates among the other sex, they may frequently meet with hieroglyphicks, sufficiently resembling nature to explain their intended meaning, without the least necessity of the spectators being able to name even the different letters of the alphabet.

As a whole, A Sunday Ramble is concerned with revealing the immoral in everyone from the lowest of prostitutes, to the man or woman engaged in illicit affairs, through to the seemingly virtuous, religious and high status. Although rarely acknowledged by the author, the immorality described and the satire provided is very much that of urban immorality. London, it is insinuated, has a corrupting affect. Emphasizing that point, the author, in chapter 6, describes a ‘countryman’ visiting London who stared in ‘great seeming astonishment at the multitude of people’ and is made to declare that London ‘was the largest beehive he had ever beheld’. The ramblers observe this man and overhear another reply to him:

“Ay, friend, so it is; and though it contains little else but drones, you will find, if you trust them too far, that many of them are not without stings.”

There is a strong reflection of this comment in the story told of Kensington Gardens. This is a beehive of a place filled on the one hand with poets and romantics, and on the other with thieves and criminals. The ‘moralist’, the narrator explains, might wish ‘to indulge his mediations in private’ and can therefore:

…plunge into the recesses of a thick grove, and enjoy his own reflections, undisturbed, but by the plaintive notes of the blackbird, or the more melodious voice of the sweet-warbling thrush.

Whilst the beau (a Dandy):

…may visit the enchanting walks behind the Palace and Greenhouse; where he will find those who equal him in dress, if they do not exceed him in vanity and affectation – or seeks the rejected lover to forget the frowns of a capricious mistress.

The narrator mocks the beau, noting their tendency to levity and overzealousness in crowds, but also hits upon their futility:

…from the levity of the females he will there behold, learn to despise the artful part of the sex, and cease to love where it is in vain to expect a return.

Those who are successful will find quiet ‘less frequented walks’ where he can ‘melt her fond soul with softest tales of love’. Although it is not directly stated, the narrator would seem to point the finger to some of these beau’s as the creators of graffiti.

Graffiti in the Garden

In the eighteenth-century, Kensington Gardens was, as it is now, intended as an escape from the urban setting; a place to walk and stroll, and to enjoy the benefits of nature. The intention in creating gardens such as this, was to provide a place for those ‘well-to-do’ to enjoy, but in reality people of all social statuses used the spaces and each London garden became a mosaic of societal contrasts.

Kensington_Palace,_London_03
Kensington Palace Gardens

Judging by the newspapers of late eighteenth-century England, Kensington Gardens had a reputation for graffiti as well as offering a home for illicit affairs, murders of passion, and thievery. In the 16 May 1788 edition of The Times, it was reported that admission would now only be possible via ticket due to vandalism. In the same paragraph it was reported that graffiti was a common sight:

The offence that is offered to the eye of Majesty, and which so disgraces some of his subjects, who have transferred the filth of their polluted minds to his seats and alcoves, deserves a most severe castigation; and it is highly probable some of these scribbling fools will be caught in the fact; and by a few well drawn lines on their backs, be taught that he who offends the eye of delicacy, merits punishment as much as the man who offends the ear.

 – Times [London, England] 16 May 1788: p. 3

In eighteenth-century London graffiti appeared regularly along streets, on the seats of inns, and at toilets amongst other locations. Often it was written into glass using diamond pens, and this is the case in A Sunday Ramble. The narrator observes and remarks that:

…the unpardonable folly of scribbling obscene verses on the glass of the green house to the great offence of all…

The time and effort spent in etching graffiti into glass demands more than just an opportunistic and momentary thought but instead requires serious consideration by the graffitist. Christina Lupton describes the purpose of this graffiti as a form of expression for Britain’s poorest and semi-literate writers and offered an opportunity to immortalise oneself in a specific place and in particular ways.  Not all graffiti was lurid or infantile, much of it offered poetry of at least a rough form and, as argued by David Stuart Rodes, included amongst their creators many educated men and women.

In 1731, Samuel Johnson published a four volume miscellany containing a variety of graffiti marks that he had discovered around London. The Merry Thought or, the Glass-Window and Bog-House Miscellany provides us with an indication of the type of markings that the women in Kensington Gardens might have been reading. Here are a few examples:

I become all things to all men, to gain some, or I must have starved. Moll. Friskey.

– In pencil upon a wall in a Tavern near Covent-Garden

 

If virtue rules the minds of women,

They’ll never let you touch their Linnen;

But if they are not virtue proof,

Then you may kiss them oft enough.

– Bull and Mouth Street

 

No hero looks so fierce to fight,

As does the man who strains to sh-te.

– From the Temple Bog-House

The graffiti on the greenhouses in Kensington Gardens were more likely to talk of romance or ‘dilly-dallying’ than the humour found in the city’s toilets. The context of location and moment is crucial.

Tea Gardens as microcosm of urban life

There is plenty that can be unpacked from the narrators account of graffiti in Kensington Gardens. Firstly, the narrative plays on popular expectations of class and gender. The London tea gardens are used in A Sunday Ramble as a microcosm of larger urban society. As such there is the good and the bad; the moral and the immoral; the beauty and the ugly of urban life, all contained in a small area. It is, indeed, a beehive, although it is a controlled one. The narrator notes – with glee – that servants ‘prevent persons meanly clad from going into the garden’ by standing at the entrances, but – with frustration – that ‘notwithstanding the great care that is taken to preserve decency and decorum in this place, there is generally complained of nuisance prevails’. The newspaper reports of the time confirm that the servants are not always successful in their duty, but it also seems to suggest that the ‘nuisance’ is often caused by those seemingly well-dressed.

For our interests here, the gardens are also a location for walking, for moving through the minutia of city life in microcosm. At one point the narrator describes Kensington Gardens as ‘the most agreeable I ever beheld’ with ‘a vast number of the most beautiful walks’, whilst also berating it for its lurid graffiti and the immorality of the people. The existence of graffiti in Kensington Gardens is – if we recall the discussion in the video – a feature of interest even if it is officially discouraged and disliked. Someone has walked through the garden and spent time etching into the greenhouses the thoughts that occurred to them during that walk.  Furthermore, others have paused in their walks to peer at the scribbling. The thoughts of one walker are transferred to others. What does this mean for our understanding of thought-processes whilst walking? The consumption of another walkers thoughts related to place but perhaps distanced from its original context, is difficult to analyse.

Essentially, the author of A Sunday Ramble, shows us in this passage that the act of walking can also be one of observation and that such observations can reveal the immorality barely hidden under the surface of London society. It also tells us that a reading of walking is filled with hidden details, complex associations, and negotiations between the acceptable and unacceptable.

Sources

Christina Lupton, Knowing Books: The Consciousness of Mediation in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Philadelphia, 2012). 

“This evening, Lady ARCHER will have a very numerous route, having sent cards of invitation.” Times [London, England] 16 May 1788: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. Website

Images: Graffiti Street Art Urban – pixibay