Cave of Spleen

This is going to be a very lazy post, splattered with images of Alexander Pope (1688-1744). Alexander Pope is a famous poet, essayist and wit. But he was also the subject of much prejudice. He was a Roman Catholic, in a time where that was a bad thing – as a Catholic he was not allowed to live in the Cities of London or Westminster or attend Oxford or Cambridge universities (the only universities in England at the time). Catholics could not hold government posts and offices – so they could not be Judges, MP’s etc. No power. But also he was disabled. From the age of 12 he suffered from the side effects of Pott’s disease, perhaps contracted from a wet-nurse. Pott’s Disease is a form of Tuberculosis that affects the bones*. Pope developed a hunchback and didn’t grow above 5ft. He developed other problems as he aged – breathing difficulties, sore eyes, migraines, constant spinal pain and general weakness. At the end of his life he wore stiff ‘bodies’ – like a buckram corset – to keep him upright, and he spent a lot of time in bed, writing. He had a female maid to put him into his ‘bodies’ rather than a male valet to dress him.


Sir Godfrey Kneller: Alexander Pope, Oil on Canvas c.1721 (c) St John’s College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. Pope suffered from migraines and headaches – he is frequently represented holding or resting his head, even putting his hands under his wig, or without the wig that was common in the 18th century.

Pope’s disability and our shared religious upbringing were not what brought him to my notice and interest. The above image was. I had a slim, cheap volume of portraits when I was a ‘tween’, and this was my favourite. I thought Pope had a beautiful face. In fact, as a later teen I copied this onto my school bag. Pope was a double outcast in his society – his faith and his disability made him almost a non-person. In 18th century  Britain people associated the appearance of the human body with the purity of the Soul. If your body was deformed, your Soul was bad. So you can imagine what was said of people like Pope. Hunchbacks were actually quite common, but Pope had the added problem of short height, a very unusual face (discussed below) and a powerful wit. Though he did not attend University he was well-educated and became an excellent Classicist and editor of Shakespeare.Alexander_Pope_by_Michael_Dahl

Alexander Pope by Michael Dahl, Oil on Canvas, 1727 -NPG, London. (Pope was painted a lot. I mean more different types of portrait of him exist than of the then monarchs.)

If you look at most of the images of Pope, you can’t tell there’s anything wrong with him. He does have a striking face in an age where nearly everyone looks the same** – portraits of the time are famous for having limited facial types. In the above two images, Pope is represented as a thoughtful, Muse-struck writer in relaxed dress – almost a ‘Bohemian’. He doesn’t look at us – he is ‘looking beyond’- nothing much has changed in our view of writers as ‘spiritual’, almost magical beings.Alexander-Pope.jpg

^Here Pope is a young Gentleman by Charles Jervas  (1714)- formal with long wig and coat – Sunday Best. Elegant hands on display – quite usual for the age.

So far Pope, young, has played two roles – gentleman and thoughtful poet. Striking but normal. All his formal portraiture seemingly shows him thus. But there are cracks:Alexander_Pope_by_Charles_Jervas.jpg

Pope by Charles Jervas c.1715 – Oil on Canvas, National Portrait Gallery. London.

In the above full length seated portrait, Pope is again contemplative. The female behind him represents his ‘Muse’. The bust on the left is of Homer, who Pope translated. Again, not a rare image of a poet. Muses bother these poor people all the time. However, Pope is uneasy in his seemingly comfortable chair. If you examine his physiognomy, it too is uneasy. His legs are very thin in his stockings. They are short and narrow compared to his shoulders. His arms are long and large, terminating in hands almost as big as his feet. Jervas was no genius, but he could describe the body accurately. But most interesting is his torso. So far, Pope has been shown wearing a loose robe around his shoulders, or, if in fitted attire, cut in half, so his whole upper body is not visible. Above, that is not so. From where his body bends it expands upwards, and his left shoulder is visibly rounded and large – the coat does not hide his hump. Coats at this time were not very ‘structured’ as we know them – they were round, soft shouldered without pads. They hung from the neck. Pope’s neck was short and bent. His head was normal sized, as were his arms, but his torso was short because of the bend in his spine, and his legs were small. For Pope’s physical uniqueness to be represented at all in such an image means that it must have been extreme. Jervas has edited and smoothed and glamoured his form, yet it is still ‘wrong’ – therefore reality must have been exceptional. The seeming ‘jumble’ of body parts – almost like the creature in Frankenstein- is also reflected in the odd perspective of the chair and the lack of relaxation in Pope’s seated form. He looks like he’s squirming uncomfortably in his chair, rather than calmly contemplating (something anyone with constant pain will recognise).

I have mentioned Pope’s unusual face. It wasn’t just unusual in its general features – large eyes, full mouth, striking nose – but in a particular way that was remarked on by everyone. The tendons and muscles in Pope’s cheeks were very visible – Joshua Reynold’s remarked “his mouth had those peculiar marks which always are found in the mouths of crooked persons; and the muscles which run across the cheek were so strongly marked as to appear like small cords”*** – and he had these recorded in his portraits. Not only paintings but sculpture. A late portrait: Alexander-Pope-by-Jonathan-Richardson.jpg

A portrait study by Johnathan Richardson, Oil on Canvas, 1737. NPG: Pope’s shoulders are again covered by a flattering drapery, his head is wrapped in the Laurel Wreath of Fame. But you can see the lines in his cheeks. The sketch is rough and it shows Pope’s tired, aged features. It is not idealised and is very different from Richardson’s other images of people – he was a ‘smooth’ painter. Pope provoked a very different reaction from Richardson than other sitters. And he also accepted un-finessed images – he was on 18th century photoshopped.  The lines by his mouth are also visible in the previous Jervas.

Pope was in constant pain. He was violent with his pen, and very aware of his deformity and difference. It did not stop him socialising and being popular, but may have contributed to his not marrying. He became very famous, and built a house and beautiful garden (of which the grotto still survives) in Twickenham. His physical problems- particularly his pain- did not stop him from producing a vast quantity of work – translations of Homer, his own satirical poetry and epic poetry and many, many letters. In an age of limited pain relief, no physio and rudimentary, if not bloody dangerous pharmaceuticals Pope kept going.

NPG 873; Alexander Pope by William Hoare

by William Hoare, red chalk, circa 1739-1743


Pope: pen and ink sketch made in 1744 by one of Pope’s female friends. This and the image by Hoare were done secretly: Pope would have been angered and upset by being represented so accurately. In both you can see the lines and tendons in his face and his bent spine.He’s in his 50’s here.

But this post is more about Image than the Man. Pope was painted a remarkable number of times, his face adorned artist’s prints, his books, and some not very positive materials that attacked him. The 18th century may not have had photography or Instagram but people of the middle-class upwards could and did afford portraits.**** Celebrities, Aristocrats and Royals were painted often, but for a Catholic Poet to be portrayed so frequently is remarkable. One painted image reproduced as a print in a book or in a print shop was the norm for the most famous of writers and ‘public’ personalities. The multiplicity of images of Pope is astounding. Only Elizabeth I and the mistresses of Charles II nearly a century earlier can match him before photos (in the UK). Pope was friends with some of the artists who painted him, but in addition to this, he was famous. People wanted his image. Direct images – such as from-life paintings – were given to friends, copies were purchased by admirers. This was not limited to his 2D presentation, but also portrait busts and medals. He was all over the place.


A print depicting Pope as a deformed monkey wearing a Pope’s Tiara – not only a play on his name but his religion. Pope was a public figure and this was how he was treated – not much different from public figures today – but Pope was not an MP, but a poet.


Louis Francois Roubilliac: A sculpture of Pope in marble from 1741. Roubilliac was a very famous sculptor. In this work you can see the famous lines in Pope’s face. Again he’s wearing drapery- an echo of Greek and Roman sculpture, but also a way of camouflaging his spinal deformity. Even so it is evident that his left shoulder is raised and the over-worked, raised muscles and tendons in his neck and shoulders attest to the amount of tension in his torso – many people with spinal and neck problems will recognise these over-defined soft tissues. Pope was also modelled by John Michael Rysbrack – copies of both busts were given to friends, bought my admirers and copied in later centuries for institutions. They’ve recently been the subject of both an exhibition and a book in the Yale Centre for British Art.

So what is my point? Well, it’s not really a point. It’s just a big chunk of writing about a famous deformed person from the past, whose image I find interesting. I’ve been interested in Pope’s face for over 20 years. For as long as I have been deformed. I studied Portraits at college. I never got to study the Imagery of Pope, but I would have liked to. I find the different ways he’s depicted interesting – their variety, the ways he hides his deformity, the times he doesn’t – the honesty and the lies. I see similarities – I can project – that great 21st century disease – backwards. I’ve worn corsets and supports for my back, I’ve worn scarves over my shoulders, arranged my body to hide different problems, dressed to ‘edit’ how I appear, ‘edit’ what is wrong – walking, real-time photoshop. And even with modern medicine, pain relief and physio, I’ve not written one f*cking epic poem.

About my title: ‘The Cave of Spleen’ – the Spleen was believed in the 18th century to be where you kept all your melancholy – and then melancholy was connected with ‘artistic’ affectations, and interests in the fantastick and poetic. Pope’s  cave is filled with amazing and uncanny things, and the Goddess Spleen is attended by handmaidens ‘Ill-Nature’ and ‘Affectation’ – considered the worst traits in women. Pope wrote of the ‘Cave of Spleen’ in his comedic parody poem ‘The Rape of the Lock’ (amazingly illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley). Here he is (a la Beardsley) in the cave:


Did you spot him?:


*My Great Grandmother had Pott’s disease: she contracted it after a fall from a bicycle. It turned from TB in the bone to bone cancer.



Sir Godfrey Kneller: Thomas, 1st Duke of Newcastle and Henry 7th Earl Lincoln, 1721 – a ‘Kit-Kat Club’ portrait – Oil on Canvas – NPG, London. This is an example of portraits where people look the same. Kneller was famous for painting ‘Whigs in Wigs’ and his Kit-Kat Club portraits are the archetype. But compare this image to his picture of Pope – Kneller, the man who made everyone look the same, could not do this with Pope. More information about this image:

*** Reynold’s full description of Pope from 1742: “about four feet six high; very humpbacked and deformed; he wore a black coat; and according to the fashion of that time, had on a little sword…[Pope] had a large and very fine eye, and a long handsome nose; his mouth had those peculiar marks which always are found in the mouths of crooked persons; and the muscles which run across the cheek were so strongly marked as to appear like small cords.” James Boswell, the biographer of Samuel Johnson described Pope thus “pallid, studious look; not merely a sharp, keen countenance, but something grand, like Cicero’s”.

**** Pope was the son of a Linen merchant – middle class – here he is, painted age 7 circa. 1695 – artist unknown. The laurel in his hand was added later.


More info about Portraits of Pope in the NPG who own the copyright of all their images above:

Oh, and finally, my favourite quote from Pope, from his Essay on Criticism c.1711

‘A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir’d at first Sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts,
While from the bounded Level of our Mind,
Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc’d, behold with strange Surprize
New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!
So pleas’d at first, the towring Alps we try,
Mount o’er the Vales, and seem to tread the Sky;
Th’ Eternal Snows appear already past,
And the first Clouds and Mountains seem the last:
But those attain’d, we tremble to survey
The growing Labours of the lengthen’d Way,’

Phew, if you got through that, I salute you.




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