guest post by Brian Liddy
While scouring Talbot’s oeuvre for a seasonably festive image my eye kept being drawn to yet another photographic copy of a lithograph by the satirist HB Doyle, one titled “The Waits”. Accepting its content at face value, five street musicians livening up the atmosphere, I could picture it gracing an actual Christmas card. But what hidden meaning did this have to Henry Talbot?
The ‘Waites’ were an ancient tradition in Britain, the earliest the night watchman who played an instrument to prove that they were on the beat. Eventually they became part of the townscape, joined by others, brightly costumed and avidly supported by local authorities. These formal groups were abolished by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, the year after Talbot left Parliament, but there was an exception for Christmas troupes who raised money by playing carols. Similar amateur groups existed in many countries, the Italian Pifferi, Dutch Stadspijpers and German Stadtpfeifer.
Suitably dressed to keep the cold at bay, these are plausible Victorian musicians performing during a period of great social change. But Doyle depicted actual politicians in this December 1840 satire. Were they busking to raise funds for the replacement Houses of Parliament just then rising? The cello player is Sir James Graham, a contradictory figure who supported the continuation of the Corn Laws but later started the RSPCA. The American-born Lord Lyndhurst, son of the painter, is on the French Horn. Lord Stanley playing the trombone was derisively designated the head of the erratic Derby Dilly group. The Tory Duke of Wellington on the clarinet was definitely opposed to reform, whereas the violinist Sir Robert Peel, soon to be Prime Minister, was an avid supporter.
The year 1840, with young Queen Victoria in only her third year on the throne, was a contradictory one. The Penny Black stamp issued in an era of [link] greatly increased communications throughout the isles. Compulsory but publicly funded vaccination of poor children was introduced. But literally the seeds of the Irish Potato Famine were being sown and the cruelty of the Corn Laws was still cutting deeply.
We can only speculate why Henry Talbot would have chosen to copy this Christmas satire, clearly something at hand in the library of Lacock Abbey. Perhaps his reasons paralleled our reactions to the tumult of Brexit or the social disruption of the American tax bill. Doyle cautioned that his musicians “are the old genuine waits, all others are pretenders.” One hopes their music was more in tune than their politics. Perhaps I’ll return one day to the political machinations that inspired Doyle to create ‘The Waits’ and try to explore what it meant to Talbot.
• Questions or Comments? Brian Liddy can be reached at email@example.com • Please feel free to contact Prof Schaaf directly at firstname.lastname@example.org • WHFT, Copy of Doyle’s ‘The Waits’, calotype negative, National Science and Media Museum, Bradford, 1937-1030; Schaaf 429. There are no known prints from this negative so it has been paired here with a digital print. • John (HB) Doyle, The Waits, lithograph, published 31 December 1840. Printed by General Lithographic Establishment, published by Thomas McLean. Reproduction © National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG D46360.