Before the Bicycle: The Regency Hobby-Horse Prints, is the most recent book by Roger Street, a scholar of early forms of the bicycle. However, this important book will be of interest not only to those fascinated by that very Regency vehicle, the hobby-horse, or velocipede, but to both art historians and social historians of the era as well. Before I proceed with my review of this book, in the interests of full disclosure, I must explain that I was honored to be invited to write the Foreword for this book by "Captain" Street, and that he has most kindly sent me an autographed copy, which I am proud to have in my personal Regency research library.
And now, why I think Before the Bicycle is so special …
The velocipede, more commonly known in Regency England as the hobby-horse, was like a fast-moving comet, sky-rocketing to the height of fashion in London, then nearly as fast, falling out again. Its brief moment of glory in the metropolis was the spring, summer and fall of 1819. In fact, its very narrow window of popularity was used by Georgette Heyer to allow readers to date her novel, Frederica. One of the characters in that novel decides to learn how to ride this dashing new vehicle, what Heyer called the pedestrian curricle, another Regency term for the hobby-horse. Fortunately, that young man was eventually offered the use of the hero’s stables after a most comic disaster with his pedestrian curricle. The dandy set adopted the hobby-horse in great numbers, and could be seen riding all over London on their fashionable new vehicles that summer of 1819. For that reason, the hobby-horse also came to be called the dandy-horse.
Politically, there was a great deal of tension that summer of 1819. Print-sellers wanted something novel and humorous to appeal to their customers, most of whom were much in need of a bit of levity. And the caricaturists who supplied these print-sellers were always eager for unmistakable targets on which they could unleash their cutting visual satire. Both caricaturists and print-sellers alike must have felt they had been given a great gift that summer, when dandies were to be seen all over the city astride their ever-so-smart new hobby-horses. What caricaturist could resist the combination? Dandies, who were nearly a walking caricature of themselves, and this distinctive and easily drawn vehicle which was ripe for so many visual lampoons. It was quite irresistible. And so, from the spring of 1819 well into the autumn, the caricaturists’ pens flew over their paper, engravers’ burins cut those images into copper plates and presses whirred and clanked away as scores of caricatures were printed for the amusement of the masses.
In that target-rich environment of 1819, no one was spared the barbs of the caricaturist’s satire. Dandies and dandizettes featured in many of these caricatures, but so did others, from humble parsons, Oxford dons, uniformed military officers, members of Parliament and government officials to the Prince Regent himself, along with his royal brothers and all their mistresses, in a number of quite provocative positions. Though the British government monitored and censored plays and books, there was no restriction at that time on images, so the caricaturists were free to lampoon any one they chose, in any way they liked, no holds barred. And they took full advantage. Two or three new caricatures featuring a hobby-horse appeared each week in print-sellers windows. Crowds filled the pavements outside laughing at the most recent prints hung in the windows, then hurried inside to buy the prints they liked the best.
What no one knew at the time was that this would be the last summer, in fact, the last year, that print-sellers would be able to print and sell such racy images of the Regent and his debauched brothers. In January of the following year, King George III passed away, thus making the Prince Regent King George IV. By the end of 1820, the new king had managed to bribe or threaten nearly every caricature artist in the country into agreeing not to " … caricature His Majesty in any immoral situation." Most of the caricature artists took this to mean that they could no longer portray their king in any situation which had overt sexual overtones. None of them, however, felt this agreement restrained them from lampooning the king with regard to his politics. And so, though George IV would often be mercilessly lampooned in caricatures during his reign for his political views, after the fall of 1819, he would never feature in another caricature in which there was even a hint of sexual impropriety.
In Great Britain, over the course of the spring, summer and fall of 1819, there were eighty known prints produced which included images of the fashionable new hobby-horse. Most of those images were caricatures, but there were also a handful which depicted the hobby-horse being ridden and enjoyed by quite respectable people in charming and bucolic settings. For the first time, in Before the Bicycle, Roger Street has brought all eighty of these prints together in one elegant volume. Each print has its own page, opposite a page which includes its title, date of publication, the publisher’s name and address, and the name of the artist, if known, along with the dimensions of the print. In addition, there is a brief description which provides any known details about the print, followed by the name of the museum or library which holds a copy of the print in its collection. All of the prints are printed in full color, nearly all of them close to, if not exactly, their original size.
The Introduction to the book briefly outlines the history of the hobby-horse, about which Street has written extensively in his previous books. He follows that outline with a brief overview of hobby-horse prints in general. For art historians and print enthusiasts, one of the most valuable parts of this book, beyond the prints themselves, is the Appendix. Here, Street presents a table which shows which prints are held in which of the six major collections of hobby-horse prints in the United Kingdom and North America. A gift to art and social historians who wish to view specific prints for their own research.
Before the Bicycle is available in either hard or soft cover format. Both are printed on a high-quality glossy paper stock which ensures accurate detail and color in each print reproduced. I have the hard cover edition, with gilt-stamping on a rich brown buckram cover. It has a sturdy dust jacket with the same image as that on the cover of the soft bound edition. I have other books by Roger Street, in soft cover editions from this same press, and they are very sturdy and strong, so I have no doubt soft cover editions of Beyond the Bicycle will be equally so.
You can purchase your copy of Beyond the Bicycle directly from the publisher, Artesius Publications, on this page. On that same page you will find links to the Table of Contents, Extracts from the text and sample plates. For those of you who are interested, on the Artesius Publications home page, you will find a link to download a free copy of Roger Street’s essay, A Colossal Achievement – The Life of the Reverend Joseph Coltman M.A. of Beverley. The good reverend is considered to have been the heaviest man in England and was a avid hobby-horse rider. The silhouette of the substantial reverend is included in Beyond the Bicycle and Street’s essay will tell you much more about this very interesting Regency-era clergyman.
In addition to being a dedicated scholar of the hobby-horse and other early forms of the bicycle, Roger Street is also Captain of the Dandy Chargers, a group of aficionados of the hobby-horse. So dedicated are these gentlemen, and ladies, that they dress in Regency costume and make appearances at stately homes and other venues around Great Britain each year, riding replicas of those fascinating vehicles Georgette Heyer called the pedestrian curricle. The finale of their 2014 Riding Season will be on Saturday, 13 September 2014, at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath. Not only will this be the third appearance of the Dandy Chargers riding their dandy-horses at the Festival, they will be part of a effort to attain a milestone for the Guinness Book of World Records. The Jane Austen Centre is hoping to bring together the largest gathering of people all dressed in Regency costume. So, if you will be in Bath on 13 September 2014, dress in your best Regency costume and watch the Dandy Chargers parade about the town on their Regency hobby-horses. And, if you bring along your copy of Beyond the Bicycle, you might want to ask Captain Street to autograph it for you.
So that you will be prepared, should you encounter any of the Dandy Chargers in Bath this September, I leave you with their traditional greeting, "May your strides ever be long ones!"