Posts Tagged ‘Georgian Bathers’

Gentle readers, I have been staying inside during this week’s heatwave, which shows no signs of letting up. As I showered, I wondered how people in days of yore dealt with their sweat and overheated bodies. Karl Philipp Moritz’s excellent and delightful travel journal from 1782, ‘Travels in England’, gave me a clue. Here are some excerpts from his account of wandering through the British countryside.

River Scene with Bathers, 18th century (oil on canvas), Vernet, Claude Joseph (1714-89) Image @Bridgeman

Now it is a pleasing exchange to find that in two hours I can walk eight miles.  And now I fancy I was about seventeen miles from London, when I came to an inn, where, for a little wine and water, I was obliged to pay sixpence.  An Englishman who happened to be sitting by the side of the innkeeper found out that I was a German, and, of course, from the country of his queen, in praise of whom he was quite lavish, observing more than once that England never had such a queen, and would not easily get such another.

It now began to grow hot.  On the left hand, almost close to the high road, I met with a singularly clear rivulet.  In this I bathed, and was much refreshed, and afterwards, with fresh alacrity, continued my journey.

A river landscape with bathers, Dutch 18th c. painting. Such scenes were common throughout Europe.

Karl, a romanticist, read Milton as he rested in between long walks. His account bears witness to his love of the British countryside, despite the poor manners of inn keepers, who were wary of a man on foot. (Those who traveled on horseback or in a carriage received preferential treatment. )The following description shows how people during the Georgian era were not as deprived of baths as we thought, or as adverse to bathing!

I went down into the coffee-room, which is immediately at the entrance of the house, and told the landlord that I thought I wished to have yet one more walk.  On this he obligingly directed me to stroll down a pleasant field behind his house, at the foot of which, he said, I should find the Thames, and a good bathing place.

I followed his advice; and this evening was, if possible, finer than the preceding.  Here again, as I had been told I should, I found the Thames with all its gentle windings.  Windsor shone nearly as bright over the green vale as those charming houses on Richmond Hill, and the verdure was not less soft and delicate.  The field I was in seemed to slope a little towards the Thames.  I seated myself near a bush, and there waited the going down of the sun.  At a distance I saw a number of people bathing in the Thames.  When, after sunset, they were a little dispersed, I drew near the spot I had been directed to; and here, for the first time, I sported in the cool tide of the Thames.  The bank was steep, but my landlord had dug some steps that went down into the water, which is extremely convenient for those who cannot swim.  Whilst I was there, a couple of smart lively apprentice boys came also from the town, who, with the greatest expedition, threw off their clothes and leathern aprons, and plunged themselves, head foremost, into the water, where they opposed the tide with their sinewy arms till they were tired.  They advised me, with much natural civility, to untie my hair, and that then, like them, I might plunge into the stream head foremost. Refreshed and strengthened by this cool bath, I took a long walk by moonlight on the banks of the Thames.  To my left were the towers of Windsor, before me a little village with a steeple, the top of which peeped out among the green trees, at a distance two inviting hills which I was to climb in the morning, and around me the green cornfields.  Oh! how indescribably beautiful was this evening and this walk!

Women Bathers by a River, Tharp, 1900. This painting was made over 100 years after Karl’s journey. Notice the segregation of the women from the men, which held true over a century before this painting was made.

About Karl Philipp Moritz (from Wikipedia): Karl was a German author, editor and essayist of the Sturm und Drang, late enlightenment, and classicist periods, influencing early German Romanticism as well. He led a life as a hatter’s apprentice, teacher, journalist, literary critic, professor of art and linguistics, and member of both of Berlin’s academies. Karl traveled through England in his 20s; he died young, when he was 37.

This scene in Pride and Prejudice 1995 might not have been in Jane’s book, but Darcy’s desire to cool off in his stream-fed pond made sense and was historically accurate.

You can download Karl Philipp Moritz’s book for free into your Kindle or Kindle app. [Moritz, Karl Philipp, 1757-1793. Travels in England in 1782 by Karl Philipp Moritz (Kindle Locations 987-992). Mobipocket (an Amazon.com company).]

Colin Firth in a wet shirt.

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