Historical Portraits Picture Archive

A London Fair c.1730 1730c.

John Laguerre 

A London Fair c.1730, John Laguerre
Oil on canvas
18th Century
31 x 46 1/2 inches 81.3 x 120 cm
Parke Bernet Galleries, New York, September 25th 1968 lot 11.
On loan to the British Embassy in Paris through the Ministry of Works, 1968.
John Laguerre was a man ideally suited to portray the world of the fair in early eighteenth century London. He was the son of the decorative painter Louis Laguerre, but cast his net more widely than his father and became a participant in the world that he portrayed. To contemporaries he was equally well-known for his painting as for his singing and acting in Colley Cibber's company.

Perhaps for this reason few works by him survive, or, at least, are recognised. The most famous of his paintings are the four illustrations for Flora, or Hob in the Well (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), which were popularised through a series of engravings by Claude Dubose. The theme of the theatre is never far away in Laguerre's other known works, and here, although the scene is apparently a documentary one, it is theatre which predominates, both in the prominent depiction of the travelling players and in the ''theatre of real life'' shown in the interrelation of the spectators.

The theme of the fair was a popular one at this time, and although the painting will recall its the contemporary engraving, Hogarth's Southwark Fair of 1733, it is also parallels aspects of a great number of less well-known prints, paintings and even fan designs. Nevertheless, there was a close connection between Laguerre and Hogarth, and it may well be that the present painting was not composed without recollections of Hogarth. Both men were members of the same Masonic Lodge, and Hogarth was sympathetic enough with Laguerre to quote an engraving of his in Southwark Fair, reproducing it as a show cloth before the stage. In July 1733 Laguerre had published an engraving satirising the current dispute between the two principal theatre owners, Rich and Cibber. Laguerre -''a facetious companion, universally esteemed in every scene of life (Obituary 1748)- displayed in this a characteristic levity, since he was indebted to both men, as scene painter to the former and singer to the latter.

Like Southwark Fair, the various episodes of Laguerre's painting are united by the central theme -dear to a man of the theatre- that ''all the world''s a stage.'' Both in the foreground and far in the distance, actors are performing -now quite unidentifiable- plays, but the drama of real life seizes the attention quite as much. A recruiting sergeant and his drummer stand at the left of the painting forming a patch of bright colour to balance the actors on their balcony. They have clearly tempted a young man to take the King''s shilling, despite the tears of his (pregnant?) wife. Much of the painting is given over to equally well-observed episodes, each different in mood, which allow the viewer's attention to pass over the scene and relish each private and public moment of drama.

Locating the scene with any precision around London is not easy. The soldiers can be identified by their uniforms as being from the second regiment of Foot Guards, commonly stationed in the capital, which at least provides a general mise en scene. Most of the fairs that took place in the London suburbs -the famous fairs at Mitcham, Bartholomew Fair and a host of others in places such as Camberwell, Peckham and Chiswick- would have provided attractions indistinguishable from those that appear in this painting. Stage players in particular were never loathed to travel to any venue that would boast a large and captive audience, and we must not suppose that the actors shown here were not a credit to their profession: contemporary reports describe the scramble among leading figures such as Cibber to appear in the booths and on the balconies of Smithfield.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.