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The art of Christmas parties

10 December 2021

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

As Boris Johnson and friends continue to be haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past, your correspondent has been enjoying this recasting of Dickens’s great festive tale, looking on as the protagonists are propelled out in their nightcaps into the chilly London streets, and pulled back in time to Downing Street, 18 December 2020. There, with wine and cheese aplenty, their Fezziwig-like host Jack Doyle welcomes their younger, industrious selves: ‘Yo ho, my boys! No more work tonight. Christmas Eve – or near enough. Let’s have the shutters up, before a man can say Barnard Castle!’ And without further ado, the festivities begin…

But where is the modern-day John Leech to bring the scene alive for us? The first illustrator of A Christmas Carol surely best captured the warmth and merriment of Mr Fezziwig’s Ball in his engraving of 1843 – with the fiddler on his podium, apparently some time after he had ‘plunged his hot face into a pot of porter’, and the beneficent host himself centre stage in his ‘capacious waistcoat’, showing off his wonderful calves.

Though merry, however, Leech’s Fezziwig party scene isn’t exactly raucous. So perhaps we should look to another of the illustrator’s festive works to conjure the true spirit of a (fictional) Downing Street do. Christmas Party, a watercolour in the Courtauld collection, has more than a touch of Bullingdon about it. It’s only a matter of time before someone swings from that chandelier…

Christmas Party, John Leech (1817–64). The Courtauld, London.

Christmas Party, John Leech (1817–64). The Courtauld, London. Image via Art UK

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.