THE CULTURE OF SMOKE: HIGH LIFE
Sir Walter Raleigh is credited with championing the habit of tobacco smoking at the Elizabethan court. While it was far from being a respectable practice throughout the general population, by all accounts the extravagantly dandified beau monde of the late 16th and early 17th centuries immersed itself deeply in the novelty of tobacco at a time when it was still a fresh and new, albeit alien and savage, drink. Images and reports make clear that in Dutch, French, and English society, the greatest propensity to smoke in the early decades was on the part of those most eager to be at the height of fashion. Among the early smokers were mercenary soldiers. With money to burn and a precarious, nomadic existence, they easily fit the rugged, manly, and dandyish stereotypes associated with tobacco.
In spite of the harsh words of James I a century earlier, the upper classes of 18th-century England indulged themselves heartily in tobacco, reveling in the thick, luscious clouds of smoke. The gentleman's club was the locus par excellence for manly conversation and relaxation, aided by consumption of a good glass of beer or punch and a fine, long, slow-burning pipeful of tobacco. This gentlemanly practice was also on the receiving end of much languid smoky satire, making it that much more memorable.
The 18th-century smoking club epitomizes the arguments both for and against the devilish herb. In this milieu, its narcotic effects are plainly, blatantly sought and achieved. Caricature in 18th-century England, from Hogarth to Gillray, cultivated an extraordinarily keen sense of getting to the bottom of social habits and institutions. In this world, the identity of the characters shown smoking is no longer irrelevant, but a vital part of the equation.
The sleepy Mr. Read's profession and his relation to Hogarth (if any) are not known, but the print is evocative of the relaxed atmosphere in London clubs, the function of which was to provide a sort of home away from home. The British club (mostly male-dominated) is essentially an 18th-century phenomenon, arising in the decades after the introduction of tea, coffee, and chocolate. The oldest club, White's, began in 1693 as White's Chocolate House, while the club proper was instituted only later.
According to an early 19th-century writer, "The object of clubs is
asserted to be, the promotion of trade, human conversation, and the communication
of curious and scientific matter; but, according to an old writer, . .
. 'most considerate men, . . . have found, by experience, that the general
end thereof is a promiscuous encouragement of vice, faction, and folly.
. . .'"
Gillray's "club," published
12 days after France declared war on England, is distinctly politicized:
the space is identified as the House of Commons by the gallery in the background,
with the Speaker at the head of the table. William Pitt (the diminutive
prime minister, who had a reputation for abstinence despite his weakness
for port), to his right, sends a cloud of smoke toward his opponent, Charles
Fox (the ever-controversial foreign secretary and Pitt's bitter opponent),
who returns the favor. The tray of pipes and tobacco paper on the table
in front of Fox refer to his reputation as a notorious man of excess. The
frothing tankard held by the scrawny Pitt, and the bowl of punch being
consumed by the Scot Dundas at the far end of the table, are, along with
the pipes and tobacco, a mainstay of the club scene.
Hogarth, who is credited with establishing Britain's reputation in
the visual arts, was a clever satirist as well as a competent businessman
whose prints assured his fame. The popularity of this print is evident
in the proliferation of copies on paper, punch bowls, and cups; it also
inspired a popular play. Said to depict St. John's Coffee-house, Temple
Bar, it exhibits varying stages of drunkenness, with brimming punch bowl
and tobacco smoking equally important components. Hogarth denied that any
of the characters were intended as portraits, but contemporaries inevitably
found striking likenesses, including that of the tobacconist, John Harrison,
wildly gesticulating in the back, and placing a second wig on the parson's
On the subject of a smoking club, the Rev. George Crabbe (1754–1832) penned the following:
A Club there is of Smokers –Dare you come
In the midst of this crowded Dutch market scene, replete with vegetable vendors and quacks, peasants and the fashionable upper classes, young and old, an outdoor tobacco shop is set up on a barrel, and a young dandy tries what could be his first puff of tobacco smoke through a pipe provided by the salesman, who quietly smokes his own pipe. Children, very much present throughout van de Velde's market scenes, are extra-attentive to both the smoker and the quack, who present both the greatest novelty, and the most dubious activities.
In 1635, when these prints were made, Hollar was living in Cologne
and had, in the previous year, made a trip to the nearby Netherlands, where
he was as much intrigued by the art he saw as with the landscape and people.
Close links to Dutch genre painting are evident in these diminutive scenes,
and it is surely not coincidental that the only reference to tobacco in
all of Hollar's nearly 3,000 prints dates to his first visit to Holland,
where tobacco was an important commodity and smoking still a relatively
The rather dandified soldiers pictured here are enjoying a relaxing smoke; the playing cards off to the side and the glass suggest their other activities. A verse that has been trimmed from this impression suggests that tobacco both revives the men from melancholy and prepares them for future fighting. A copy of the print was used on a 1641 English Puritan broadside attacking Charles I, in which the verses speak to the temperance inherent in dining on "a leafe," a reprise of the Amerindian theme of tobacco as sustenance, while the text of the broadside centers on the theme of the prodigal son.