Thursday, 4 August 2011

Hogarth, prizefighting and a gravestone scandal

An intriguing anecdote is related by Thankfull Sturdee in his Reminiscences of Old Deptford. He explains why this watercolour of the New Cross Road from 1840 features a gravestone:
The castellated looking building on the right was occupied by a Monumental Mason, and the gravestone shown against the wall was originally intended to be placed in the Churchyard of St Paul to the memory of, at that time, a noted pugilist, but the inscription was such, that the erection on its proposed site was prohibited by the Rector and his Churchwardens. The inscription was of such a nature that it was an attraction for a considerable distance round.
The reader is left wondering what the inscription was - but the answer is perhaps even more extraordinary than you might imagine. The pugilist was George Taylor, prize-fighter, manager of the Tottenham Court Boxing Booth and owner of a self-defence academy for gentlemen. In retirement, he was landlord of the Fountain Inn, Deptford. However, he still couldn't resist a challenge, and in 1758 he fought Tom Faulkner whom he had previously beaten twice. It was third time lucky for Faulkner: Taylor was defeated after a long fight, his pride as hurt as his body, and died a few months later.

Taylor may have personally known William Hogarth, who was the designer of the scandalous headstone. How to commemorate this prize-fighter? In life, Taylor had never been shy of attention, however unwise it might prove (his earlier claim to be 'champion' had caused his star employee Jack Broughton - who had beaten him - to leave and set up a rival establishment next door; it would force Taylor's booth to close). It's apt then that Hogarth went for a bold approach: his drawings are titled 'Death giving George Taylor a cross-buttock' and 'George Taylor triumphing over death'. The cross-buttock was a move for which Taylor was renowned, which involved holding the waistband of the opponent's breaches with his right hand and the right shoulder with his left hand, then throwing him over his right hip and buttock head-first.

Despite the element of religious allegory involved in the designs (see 'Taylor triumphing' here on the Tate website and the 'cross-buttock' here), it is perhaps unsurprising that the authorities were not eager to have the cross-buttock immortalised in St Paul's. It's a real pity though, not least because Deptford lost the chance of its very own Hogarth illustration.


C.J. Archer said...

Thanks for the interesting article. I love these quirky bits of history. And now I know what a cross-buttock is!

CarolineLD said...

Thank you!