Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Learned Pig in Providence

Mr Pinchbeck, whose advice on how to train a Learned Pig was featured in one of the more popular posts on these pages, enjoyed enormous success with his own sapient animal in the northeastern states of America in the late 1790's. And, among the numerous cities and towns on his itinerary, I was delighted to discover that my longtime home of Providence, Rhode Island, was indeed visited; man and pig appeared there late in 1798 at a venue described as "the Sign of the Golden Ball," whose proprietor was one "Mr. Ammidon." On researching this fine establishment, I was amazed to discover that it was located at 159 Benefit Street, adjacent to the present site of the George Earle Building at whose longtime tenant, Geoff's Superlative Sandwiches, I had just eaten a sandwich yesterday! Thank heavens it was pork-free.

A bit more research revealed that the "159" address was originally assigned to a neighboring lot, site of the original inn known as the "Golden Ball" and later as the Roger Williams Hotel and lastly the "Mansion House," which had hosted many luminaries, George Washington, James Russell Lowell, and Edgar Allan Poe among them. Alas, it was demolished in 1941, not long after these photos were taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey. The storefronts adjacent to Geoff's are currently vacant -- I am tempted to rent one and open a "Learned Pig" emporium of some kind -- but for now, I am content simply to know that, by some strange and random miracle, my footsteps and those of Pinchbeck's Pig of Knowledge trod the same streets.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pigs and Politics

On my recent appearance on the fabulous Litopia After Dark, I was asked if there were any points of comparison between the pig in my pages and those in Parliament at the moment. I quipped that Toby would take offense at such a comparison, adding that, among their other good qualities, pigs care nothing for austerity. Which is all true enough, but in point of fact, the comparison has been made on numerous occasions, many of them implying either that the Government were pigs, or that their intelligence was no greater than that of a "Learned" one.

In first of the cartoons shown here, we see John Rolle, an MP who had been among the reliably faithful supporters of Pitt the Younger; a man of great size and "few words," he was described by Nathaniel Wraxall as a man whom "nature had denied all pretension to grace or elegance; neither was his understanding apparently more cultivated than his manners were refined." These qualities, apparently are what earned him a cartoon comparison to a pack of trained animals, among them the "Surprising Monkey," the "Wonderful Hare," and the "Learned Pig." And yet his more loquacious political enemy, Charles James Fox, suffered an even worse comparison when he was lampooned as being the "Learned Pig" himself, who will "show the most surprising feats of Knowledge," among them "explaining many Passages in late Acts of Parliament ... the like never before having been even attempted in these our Realms!!!"

The third of our political cartoons depicts David Lloyd George, here not as a Pig but as the Pig's Proprietor. His recalcitrant subject is the Irish leader Eamon De Valera, who despite what the cartoon suggests is the prime minister's persistent prodding , seems unable to spell "Home Rule" for Ireland, a reference to the debates over the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, otherwise known as the Fourth Home Rule Bill. Other historical events, as it was to turn out, rendered that bill moot, but it's interesting as evidence that the "Learned Pig" act was still familiar to readers of Punch in the 1920's.

Of course these images far from exhaust the subject of pigs and politics, not to mention related expressions such as "pork barrel politics" -- so I'm sure I'll return with more in the near future. But for now, at least, let it be said still that, when compared to most politicians, pigs come out by far the cleaner.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Dickens and the Learned Pig

With the 200th anniversary of Dickens's birth, everything Dickens is being celebrated, from the trivial to the Gigantic; we are about to be blessed with duelling versions of Great Expectactions, still more Christmas Carols than we are usually inundated with, and even a Scottish Falsetto sock-puppet tribute (I'm not making this up).

But the man who, by many lights, was the greatest novelist Britain ever produced, also possessed a whimsical side. That he was was acquainted with the history of learned pigs is clear from his early reference to the pig, a rival to our "Toby," exhibited by Mr. Fawkes, in an early piece for Bentley's Miscellany:
The earliest account that we have seen of a learned pig is to be found in an old Bartholomew Fair bill, issued by that Emperor of all conjurors, Mr Fawkes, which exhibits the portrait of the swinish pundit holding a paper in his mouth, with the letter Y inscribed upon it. This ‘most amazing pig’ which had a particularly early tail, was the pattern of docility and sagacity: the ‘Pig of Knowledge, Being the only one ever taught in England’. He was to be visited ‘at a Commodious Room, at the George, West-Smithfield, During the time of the Fair’ and the spectators were required to ‘See and Believe!’ Three-pence was the price of admission to behold ‘This astonishing animal’ perform with cards, money and watches, &c. &c. The bill concluded with a poetical apotheosis to the pig, from which we extract one verse:

A learned pig in George’s reign,
To Æsop’s brutes an equal boast;
Then let mankind again combine,
To render friendship still a toast.
And there's more: just recently, I came upon an account in an 1880 issue of The Graphic, which concerned the practice of concealing a door within a library behind panels covered with imitation spines bearing dummy book-titles. Thomas Hood, the author of the "Lament of Toby," was commissioned to prepare such a door for the Duke of Devonshire; among his titular facetiæ were such drolleries as "Lamb on the Death of Wolfe," "On Sore Throat and the Migration of the Swallow," and "Johnson's Contradictionary." Apparently, Dickens himself took up the idea, and had a doorway in his study at Gad's Hill Place so covered, inventing the titles himself. Among them: "The Quarrelly Review," "History of the Middling Ages," "Lady Godiva on the Horse," and -- here's the kicker -- "The Life and Letters of the Learned Pig."

This portmanteau portal is still in place, and can be seen 'round about 3:42 seconds into this video tour of the house, although Toby's letters, alas, are not visible.