Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - A Plate of Heads

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life13.gif (47165 bytes)FIRST get your hare, says Mrs. Glass - then dress it. As with the hare, so with the head. It is equally clear that you must first find your head, before you can possibly dress it. The next question, then, is - how is it to be dressed? whether a la sauce piquante or au naturel? whether en papillotes, like a lazy head that comes down late to breakfast, or aux cornichons, like one of the stupid empty heads that buy tickets in those Heine-ous-Humbug Lotteries, and expect to receive in return a waggon-load-full of florins and a feudal castle on the banks of the Danube.
    The plate is before the reader, and he has only to pick out what head he pleases. There are all sorts. The carte of a French restaurateur could not contain a more puzzling variety. There are undoubted calves' heads, and sheep's heads; heads of which game can be made in a moment; and heads of fish, so exceedingly queer, that they scarcely come under any head at all. The reader is invited to discuss them. If he be a man of real taste - and I would not doubt it for the world - he cannot fail to enjoy the rich pictorial feast that M. Gavarni has liberally laid before him.
    It has been said by cooks and philosophers - Soyers and Bacons - that the first requisite for enjoying a head is the accompaniment of brains. Now, without [-102-] wishing to be personal to anybody, this is very absurd; for the heads which are generally enjoyed the most in society are precisely those which have the smallest "portion" of brains. Who is it that generally sets the table in a roar? - but the Block-Head. Who is it that is welcome at every board, that gets more laughs, that provokes more wit, that causes more delight to children, grandpapas, and all? - but the great big Blunderhead who is liked by every one and feared by none, and cares no more for the jokes that are cracked upon him than a donkey does for the blows that are dealt about his head to make him lively! These are the Thick-Heads - otherwise the good-natured people; and it is the very want of brains that makes them so delightful, by reason of the peculiar dressing they never fail to get from some kind friend or other, who enjoys a reputation, which an anchovy might be proud of, for "plenty of sauce." Take the Thickheads away, and there would be nothing left in this world but the Longheads - gentlemen probably with brains enough to supply a House of Commons, and nearly as dull as the M.P.'s who sit in it. It is only the Blockheads who make the Longheads laugh. If we all had brains, what a set of miserable creatures we should be! The world would be as sprightly as a conversazione of the Royal Society, or an evening party of mutes.
    It is curious to watch the heads in the pit of a theatre. I do not mean the Opera-house, for emotion is not fashionable, and the heads of the aristocracy, besides, are more or less disguised with wigs, and other devices, to conceal the emigration of hair; nor do I mean the pit of a French theatre where the Voix des Femmes is never heard, and where, as in Mahomet's [-103-] Paradise, a woman is not admitted; nor do I exactly mean the pit of Exeter Hall, where the features are painted in black and the clothes in drab, and where the predominant feeling is that we were only "born to be miserable," as Mr. Drummond so beautifully expressed it the other night - and certainly his speech could have left no other impression on his audience; but I mean the pit of an English theatre. The heads are packed as close as those in a bundle of asparagus. There is every variety of organ. A phrenologist, doubtlessly, would play a voluntary upon them as easily as Mr. Adams does on the Apollonicon, and extract a sort of cerebral "Ode on the Passions" out of the black and white keys (the latter formed by the bald heads) before him. This is a sleight of hand, however - a tremendous power of fingering - to which only a phrenologist could pretend.
    How strange it is that, out of the immense number of lines, each line containing an immense number of dots, there are not two heads alike! There may be two noses of the same order· of architecture - or two mouths approaching within an inch of the same width - or two eyes, or rather four, that do not positively contradict one another in the precise shade of colour; but we do not find, pick them where we will, two faces that contain a perfect resemblance of all those beautiful features. You will find this the case in boxes, gallery, everywhere. Watch a theatre when God save the Queen is being sung - and it has been repeated so often lately that I wonder the instruments, from the excessive loyalty to which they have been attuned, do not play it now of their own accord. Well, there is the cry of "Hats off!"- even that poor Frenchman with [-104-] the republican hat has been compelled to uncover - and every head is exposed to view. What a collection! Some as round as bullets - others so fiat that they look as if they had been purposely planed - some with foreheads that run out so far that they seem as if they were padded like an officer's breast, and a pretty fair sprinkling with temples that slant off in the style of the roof of the Tuileries, capital heads for a shower of rain. Then there are bald heads, that shine like ostrich-eggs, and are not unlike them in shape; and others, with a few hairs, like the bars of a gridiron, very "few and far between" - old heads - grey heads - young curly heads - heads with perruques and without them - there are not two that are facsimile. Nature's Book of Beauty, it appears, never contains two engravings of the same face.
    The only public heads that cherish a seeming similarity are brewers and porters. The head of the beer and stout which they are constantly imbibing, may produce a family resemblance on the shoulders of the former; and the knots, with the heavy burdens on them, may have something to do in knocking into the same rough shape the heads of the latter. Covent Garden market women and coal-heavers also exhibit a sort of family likeness. These are all persons who work essentially with their heads.
    It is curious to watch the uplifted heads during a display of fireworks at Vauxhall, or when Mount Etna, or the fashionable volcano of the season, is vomiting its sky-rockets and Roman candles at the Surrey Zoological. All the noses are nearly turned upside down, and I have often thought if a jocular spirit from above, or some star that was fond of playing [-105-] practical jokes, sprinkled down a small shower of snuff, what an universal sneezing there would be. 
    The heads at an auction, with all the eyes radiating to the Demosthenes who is flourishing his hammer in the pulpit, are well worth looking at. The extreme caution of the Jews, the brokers nodding as they are prompted by the capitalists whispering at their sides, the nervousness of the female bidders, the triumph of the hero who carries off the gridiron after a series of the most valiant advances, are little amusing scenes of physiognomy to anybody who, in studying expression, thinks pre-eminently that "the play's the thing."
    The gentlemen at the passport-offices must be sadly puzzled sometimes. There are some heads and faces so unmeaning that they give you nothing to take hold of - which must be very convenient for them if they happen to be Irishmen, or quarrelsome. There are others so unfortunately comical, or plain, that the clerk's pen must halt two or three times before it can have the courage to write the awful truth. Supposing it puts upon paper the very worst, think of the feelings of that poor fellow who has to carry about with him everywhere the written confession of an unhappy squint, and has to exhibit the cruel testimonial to every gendarme - to every cocked hat at a barrier, that calls upon him to produce the voucher of his unhappy identity. The pompous official looks to the paper, sees "louche," then looks up to the poor fellow's eyes, and returns the paper with a most cutting " C'est tout en règle, Monsieur."  Why! It is fairly insulting a man to his face!
    There used to be a most polite gentleman at the Poland Street Office. If he had been a portrait painter, [-106-] he would have made his fortune long ago - he used to flatter everybody with such a grace. "Your profession, sir ?" he would say with a most fluty voice. "Author," you answered with a half-blush. There was no staring, not the smallest decrease of the man's civility; and when you referred to the paper, you found he had generously disguised the "Author" under the title of " Rentier!" These are little compliments that make you think all the better of mankind.
    There are often advertisements addressed to "heads of families." These heads must have great weight, for everything is submitted to them, from Infant Soojie down to patent pokers and tongs. Nothing is good unless it is patronized by them; and if the heads should belong to the Royal Family, the patronage is, of course, so much the higher. There was an absurd instance of this the other day, in a Professor laying the Ointment to his flattering soul, and advertising it as "patronized by the heads of the Royal Family." Another genius, too, has been puffing his "gutta percha elastic stockings," as "patronized by numerous heads of the nobility." I can hardly imagine a nobleman wearing a stocking round his head, unless he happened to have a cold.
    Every nation has its own respective head. Meet with an Englishman where you will - under the falls of Niagara, on the top of the Pyramids, or at the bottom of an Austrian salt-mine - no matter whether he is spoilt by foreign coxcombries, or is hidden in a miner's dress suit of dirty leather, or however much he is masquerading in moustaches, Turkish caps, tobacco-pouches, or Tyrolean hats - you are sure to recognise him long before he has opened his mouth. There is [-107-] that individuality about him which no tailor, or barber, can possibly disguise. The same with a Frenchman. But it is easier for an English head to pass for a Frenchman's than vice versa. How is this? Is it easier to caricature humanity than to embellish it? Is it that there is nothing to add in the Englishman's head, and if you garnish it with hair, and trim it with whiskers, and serve it up with moustaches, it is only a fine head spoilt? This is a curious head for an argument, and which would take a wiser head than mine to determine - for a person in endeavouring to be too national often hits a point with additional strength in order to drive it home. Thus Prejudice hammers away at Truth, just like a tenpenny nail, and knocks it on the head!


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