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This article is taken from PN Review 270, Volume 49 Number 4, March - April 2023.

Pictures from a Library
Tim Bobbin’s Vernacular Republic
Stella Halkyard

Artists once thought that delineating the human passions in art was generally rather bad form. Influenced by classical notions of decorum and the acetic traditions of medieval monastic culture these views were, through time, inherited by genteel society and absorbed by the aristocratic patrons that the artists of the eighteenth-century served. Expounding the virtues of ‘ideal beauty’, Joshua Reynolds, for example, felt the portrayal of strong emotions ‘produced distortion and deformity, more or less’ and should be suppressed. While John Gibson, claimed ‘the expression that is meant to be permanent should be serious and calm’. The representation of laughter was singled out for specific censure and was especially to be avoided. Its effects deemed to be ‘too ludicrous and too violent a straining of the features’ (Charles Bell). Generalisations about the conditions of eighteenth-century artists, and their status, are perilous for they ‘varied enormously, ranging from a handful of wealthy and ennobled academicians [like Sir Joshua] at the top to the humblest decorators of furniture, coaches, and signs at the bottom’ (Larry Shiner). Yet, tensions were evident between the so-called ‘polite’ and ‘vulgar’ arts which sometimes found expression in depictions of emotions, strong or suppressed. So while the easel painters of the metropolis’ burgeoning academies aspired to an elevated status amongst ‘polite’ artistic circles, the far-from-humble artist John Collier/Tim Bobbin, whose work is shown here, devoted himself instead to the ‘victory of laughter’ (Mikhail Bakhtin) in remote Lancashire.

Born in Urmston in 1708 John Collier was apprenticed to a weaver when his father’s eyesight failed scuppering his chances for the Church. Maintaining his ‘hatred of slavery in all shapes’ he absconded to become an itinerant schoolmaster before settling permanently in Milnrow, Rochdale. Having acquired ‘notoriety through squibs, satires, poetry, and practical jokes’ (Robert Poole), he became the first writer to publish a literary work in Lancashire dialect (1746). From that point on he adopted the name Tim Bobbin, ‘a persona not simply a pseudonym’ (D.M. Hogan) that masked his crypto-republican sympathies. In the 1750s he became a painter and widely distributed his wares across the North of England and America via Liverpool’s merchants ‘exploiting in astonishing variety his literary and artistic talents’ (Donald and Maidment).

‘Laughter and Experiment’ shown here, precisely captures all the elements Sir Joshua Reynolds deplores. The features of the faces of both figures contort, flouting standards of composure, deportment, and manners. Mouths gape in abject pain and sadistic laughter. Clothes are dishevelled, wigs and turbans sent awry. Carnivalized, these protagonists appear ‘ugly, monstrous, and hideous from the point of view of classic aesthetics’ and in the ‘violation of natural forms and proportions’ they defy and reject ‘official, formalistic, authoritarianism’ (Bakhtin). Played for broad laughs, ‘in the manner of a jester’ (Hogan), they convey Tim Bobbin’s hard-edged subversive critique.

‘Laughter and Experiment’ by Tim Bobbin, from The Passions Humorously Delineated, 1810 (R51705) © University of Manchester 2023.

This article is taken from PN Review 270, Volume 49 Number 4, March - April 2023.

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