Francis Hayman's supper-box paintings at Vauxhall
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Hayman depicted such things as skittles, ``hunt the whistle,'' flying kites, angling, ``the cutting of flour,'' and sliding on the ice. The themes were mainly youthful, as might be expected in a place of entertainment. But less expectedly, perhaps, some of the pictures seem to have carried deliberately pointed morals.Skip to next paragraph
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IN style they were influenced by French rococo - by artists like Watteau, Fragonard, or Lancret - and were consequently lighthearted, decorative, and theatrical. Though Hayman was to develop later in his career into a serious historical painter, he had, in fact, started out as a theatrical designer. On one occasion he had even painted scenes at the Drury Lane Theatre for ``a New Entertainment after the manner of Spring Gardens, Vaux-hall, with a scene representing the place.'' So he had been familiar with Vauxhall for a number of years before he painted its supper-box pictures.
Today, about the only way to find out what many of these decorations were like is to look at Hayman's surviving preparatory drawings or at the prints that were made after some of the final paintings.
``Battledore and Shuttlecock'' is still here in Hayman's drawing - squared for transfer to canvas - and also in an engraving by R.Parr. It is an enchanting depiction of an indoor game. In the engraving an extra chair appears on the left, presumably because this area seemed too empty in the large painting or the composition looked too unbalanced. But the drawing has the freshness of observation: The furniture in the classically simple 18th-century interior has been, realistically enough, drawn to one side to allow for the boisterous, if decorous, energies of the sport.
``May Day or the Dance of the Milkmaids'' shows, with deftness, two May Day customs that continued from an earlier time into the 18th century. To the left, young chimney sweeps beat their brushes and shovels. This ``music'' provides the rhythm section for the fiddler, who obligingly accompanies the London milkmaids as they perform their traditional May Day dance.
The note in Dr. Allen's catalog quotes from an essay in The Spectator: ``It is likewise on the first Day of the Month that we see the ruddy Milk-Maid exerting herself in a most sprightly manner under a Pyramid of Silver Tankards....'' These tankards were borrowed for the occasion and ``hung round the milk-pails, with the additions of flowers and ribbands.'' The milkmaids went round the houses of their customers with these elaborate trophies on their heads and hoped for small tips.
HAYMAN has turned the occasion into a pretty piece of theatricality, with some nice contrasts to give the subject additional charm: The sooty blackness of the chimney sweeps makes the dresses of the maids seem as clean as fresh milk; the buxomness of the maid on the right (more as one would imagine a real milk-maid, perhaps), the obliging youth carrying the tankards, and even the attentive fiddler seem immobilized in comparison with the skinny lasses who ``trip it as [they] go/ On the light fantastic toe.''
In the case of his ``May Day'' decoration for Vauxhall, not only has the actual painting survived unusually intact, but so has a small painted copy of it. This is the picture shown here. Belonging to the Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, in Hampstead, North London, it is thought by Allen to have been made as guidance for the engraver Charles Grignion, whose engraving also survives until today. He even believes that Grignion may have painted the picture himself.
Despite such complications, all the versions of ``May Day'' attest to a delightful idea, enchantingly realized.