Punch Scholar

Punch, or May Day by Benjamin Haydon

The next essential reading about Punch is not a book but rather a painting that hangs in Tate Britain in London. The painting is by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846) entitled "Punch or May Day" and was painted in 1829. It is 150.5 x 185.1cm and was bequeathed by George Darling in 1862.

Detail showing Pike's puppets.
Click on the image for a closer look.

One could speculate that Haydon was, at least in part, inspired by the success of the Collier/ Cruikshank publication the previous year. Haydon's diary simply states that he woke up and thought he would paint "a Punch".

The Punch and Judy show depicted prominently in the painting is shown as part of a scene full of activity and different types of person one could encounter in London at the time. Indeed Haydon thought the painting could well be entitled "Life". The man doffing his hat in admiration is a farmer about to be pickpocketed by a boy hidden in the skirts of a woman behind him. There are two coaches, one for a marriage and another a funeral. May Day was a day when the tradition was for chimney sweeps and milk maids to dance through the streets with a boy dressed up as a tree, as seen on the right side. [Click here for more on this]

The ever impoverished Haydon later bargained that King George IV would buy it when it was taken from an exhibition and sent to Windsor for the weekend. But, after a few days consideration the King did not, because he thought it "too cluttered".(O'Keeffe, P., 2009, p 282). Eventually the painting was bought after Haydon's death to provide funds for his widow and eventually donated to the Tate.

The picture is set on what was then the New Road (now Marylebone Road), with the church of St. Marylebone in the background. We can confidently say that it is a very specific and real location, that we can easily identify today. Haydon was at the time living nearby in number 4 Burwood Place, off Edgware Road. The probability is that this was a place where the show was actually performed.

For the Punch scholar it is Haydon's accurate depiction of a particular show that makes this painting so important. We can see clearly on the proscenium that it says "Pike's original Punchinello" and we know that indeed there was a showman named Thomas Pike, born in 1770 and who died in Marleybone in 1841, aged 71. We also know something about Tom Pike from Henry Mayhew's interview, in which the Punch performer interviewed said; he had been Piccini's apprentice, was an even better performer than his teacher, introduced the live dog Toby to the show, and eventually died in the workhouse (Mayhew, 1851) - which has proved to be true, as on his burial record (from St. Marylebone Cemetery) there is marked the initials W.H., meaning he was from the St. Marylebone Parish Workhouse. (I spent some hours scrolling through the microfiche until I eventually found it, and later his death and birth records online.)

Another of Mayhew's interviewees says that Pike also performed at the Royal Vauxhall Gardens (Mayhew, 1851), other research finds that he was a regular at St. Bartholomews fair before it was closed down to showmen (Leach, 1985). Although small in the actual painting, the accurate depiction of the puppets used and the booth is also informative.

Mayhew, H. (1851). London labour and the London poor: a cyclopaedia of the condition and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work and those that will not work (Vol. 3).
Cass. O'Keeffe Paul. (2009) A Genius for Failure: The Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon. The Bodley Head.

A copy of Thomas Pike's death registration.
Click image to enlarge.

[ Click here for further information. ]

Reproductions based on Tom Pike's puppets. There can be no doubt that Haydon's depiction is thoroughly accurate.

In 1826 the Monthly Magazine published a poem about watching Punch in London. It shows how much esteem the Punch and Judy show held for the literati of that time.
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