"Monamy, the famous Marine-painter, decorated a carriage for the gallant and unfortunate Admiral Byng, with ships and naval trophies; and he also painted a portrait of Admiral Vernon's ship for a famous public-house of the day, well known by the sign of the 'Porto Bello', remaining until recently, within a few doors north of the church in St Martin's-lane. After the battle of Culloden, most of the old signs of military and naval victors gave way to the head of Duke William: and Horace Walpole has noticed this change in his thirteenth letter to Mr Conway, dated April the 16th, 1747.
'I was', says that elegant author, 'yesterday out of town, and the very signs, as I passed through the villages, made me make very quaint reflections on the mortality of fame and popularity. I observed how the Duke's head had succeeded almost universally to Admiral Vernon's, as his had left but few traces of the Duke of Ormond's. I pondered these things in my heart, and said unto myself, surely all glory is but as a sign!'
Clarkson, the Portrait-painter, was originally a coach-panel and sign-painter; and he executed that most elaborate one of Shakespeare, which formerly hung across the street at the north-east corner of Little Russel-street, in Drury-lane: the late Mr Thomas Grignon informed me, that he had often heard his father say, that this sign cost five hundred pounds!" ¹
Nollekens and His Times, by J.T.Smith, 1828, Vol I, p.25.
¹ Edwards, in wrongly attributing the Shakespeare sign to Samuel Wale, adds that the portrait, a whole-length, was sumptuously framed and was suspended by rich ironwork. When signs were disused it was sold, says Edwards, to a broker named Mason, at whose door in Lower Grosvenor-street it was gradually wrecked by weather and rough usage. John Green (Odds and Ends about Covent Garden) repeats the attribution to Wale, but reduces the cost of the sign to "nearly 200l." Note by Whitten in his 1920 edition of Nollekens and His Times, p.24. Pears, in the Discovery of Painting, also quotes Edwards, p.115.
Editorial note. Walpole's sustained ill-feeling towards Admiral Vernon is recognized by both Douglas Ford and Cyril Hughes Hartmann in their biographies of Vernon. Walpole is subtle and indirect in his detractions. Nevertheless, there are a great many more pubs named Vernon than Walpole to this day.
"... there was a turnpike in St.Martin's-lane, leading to Covent Garden. No.20, is a Public-house called 'The Portobello,' with the date 1638 on the front. I remember it had Admiral Vernon's ship, extremely well painted by Monamy, for its sign. This Public-house, with many other miserable dwellings, has given way for the public improvements which are now in progress."
Nollekens and His Times, by J.T.Smith, 1828, Vol II, p.236; Recollections of Public Characters sometime Inhabitants of St.Martin's Lane.
Editorial note. The date "1638" seems curious. Is this an error for 1738? Porto Bello was taken in 1739 of course, and didn't galvanize the nation until 1740.
In The Art of Hogarth, Professor Paulson remarks that "simple traditional English directness was the quality Hogarth sought, and the signboard was the most indigenous manifestation of art available". The English signboard is a notable feature in many of Hogarth's works, and especially in his popular prints. The above print, Canvassing for Votes, was produced in about 1754. According to Laurence Gowing, the inn with the sign of the Crown is a Whig tavern being besieged by a Tory mob, "infuriated by taxation, and there are symbolic references to the decline of British fortunes, especially at sea". Vernon's veterans from 1739 are seated below a sign depicting a ship, implying that the promise of Porto Bello had come to nothing in 1754. The situation was remedied by the execution of Admiral Byng in 1757.
It appears to me, however, that Gowing's reading of the scenes outside the pub with the sign of the crown is open to re-interpretation. The crown would seem to represent King George II, who had previously been associated with the policies of Robert Walpole. By this date, 1754, the tavern is perhaps not well or even accurately described as "Whig", nor need the mob, "infuriated by taxation", be thought of as "Tory". The political issues cut across these simplified party divisions. The crown more probably represents political corruption, highlighted by the fat candidate in the central scene of the picture, assiduously buying votes, and the infuriated "mob" personifies that section of the electorate protesting against the misuse, in their eyes, of tax revenue, better employed in strengthening England's sea power, now in decline. There is also a hint in Hogarth's depiction of a soldier, at the right of the print, that money was being wasted in deflected support of the Hanoverian monarchy's military interests on the continent.
The lane depicted in the painting, leading into green fields, is not St Martin's. Could it, however, have been modelled on the lower end of what is today the Portobello Road? A few doors down from Vernon Yard there is now a pub called the Portobello Star: it seems to be in the place where the Whig tavern, the Crown, is shown in the painting. The corner house where the ex-sailors are sitting seems to have become a collector's market for bric-a -brac. The Porto Bello Road used to be a track descending from Notting Hill to the Porto Bello Farm.
These photographs were taken some years ago, on a typically beautiful late November London afternoon. The signboard of the Portobello Star is shown in close-up, below, but I believe it has now been replaced. If so, it will have taken 260 years for the visual memory of Vernon's exploit finally to fade.
The public house signboard lives on, nevertheless. To the left of the Portobello Star sign, with one of the legendary six men of war about to batter the Iron Fort, is a brand-new ship, in the centre of London's West End, insouciantly flying flags that were never seen in naval history. The Whitbread sign for the Portobello Star appears to have been based either on Scott's or George Chambers senior's version of the attack on Porto Bello.
"In the 18th century there were six Taverns in Davies Street. Today there remains but one. The Running Horse. This sign, like many in its day seeking Royal protection, was derived from the "Galloping Horse of Hanover" --- quite appropriate in view of the recent translation of the Elector of Hanover to the throne of England as George I. The original building on this site was erected in 1720 but was not transformed into a Tavern until 1738. ..... The Running Horse has survived to become the oldest public house in Grosvenor, Mayfair." On the back of a menu sheet from The Running Horse, 50 Davies Street, London W1Y 1LB.
"Joseph Addison ... wrote a complaint in the Spectator in 1711: 'Our Streets are filled with blue Boars, black Swans and red Lions, not to mention flying pigs and hogs in Armour, with many other creatures more extraordinary than any in the Desarts of Africk.' He wishes he could 'clear the city of the Monsters'. .... In 1762 a proclamation was issued which stated that all hanging signs within the City of London and Westminster were to be removed. .... In future all such signs were not to project more than four inches from the walls. The order was obeyed only reluctantly ... The streets became ... bare and cheerless ...." From a modern account of the history of English advertising, title and author unknown.
"One of Jack Laguerre's last projects was opening a tavern in St Martin's Lane; and his sign of St Martin cutting off a piece of his garment to cover the nakedness of a beggar who solicited his charity was a good specimen of his skill in painting." Jack Laguerre was the son of Louis Laguerre, died 1721, godson of Louis XIVth, described by Vertue as "a man free of access, pleasant conversation, and always willing to help and instruct in his art."
From Artists and Their Friends, by W.Whitley 1930, Vol I, p.14
Iain Pears and Others on Pub Signs & Decoration
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