Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Pre-Raphaelite Childhood: Punch & Judy

Dinah Roe

Pre-Raphaelite Childhood: Punch & Judy

When the Rossettis were children, their neighbourhood hosted regular Punch & Judy puppet shows. The fit-up was always positioned to face the houses opposite the Rossetti’s Charlotte Street (now Hallam Street) home, and so the children were forced to view the spectacle from backstage. They marvelled at the colourful curtains, flinched with each crack of the puppeteer’s slapstick, giggled as Punch delivered his immortal swazzle-voiced ‘punchline’: ‘That’s the way to do it!’ But what Punch was actually doing to Judy remained a mystery to the Rossetti children. Young Gabriel, unable to endure the torment any longer, once asked for permission to cross the street and view the action. His father Gabriele told him that this would be infra dig (beneath his dignity).

Like the Rossettis, this quintessentially English form of street theatre has Italian roots. Punch’s name is widely thought to have derived from the commedia dell’arte stock character, Pulcinella, and an Italian puppeteer is credited with introducing this popular form of street theatre to London audiences. English puppeteers maintained this cultural tradition by putting on ‘Italian’ accents during performances. Though Punch & Judy shows became a famous staple of Victorian seaside entertainment, they had been appearing on London’s streets since the Restoration. On May 9, 1662, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary that he had enjoyed watching the ‘Italian puppet play’ at Covent Garden. A commemorative plaque marks the spot today.

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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.