The thought of the last born of the English Romantic poets barking out his onomatopoeic odes with all the glottal stops and dropped h’s of a barrow boy demanding a pork knuckle at Smithfield Market tests the 21st century imagination. But, indeed, John Keats’ accent was bona fide cockney – making him part of a demographic group which tends to punch well above its weight in terms of its contribution to the cultural canon.
Keats’ brogue was ground and whetted in Moorgate, less than half a mile north of the St Mary-le-Bow church in Cheapside, the bells of which one must traditionally be born within hearing distance of to qualify as ‘cockney’. Today, with traffic noise taken into consideration, this rule frames a small section of London’s financial hub: to be a Generation Alpha ‘cockney’ one will probably have to be the second-home-birthed, expensively educated progeny of a hedge fund manager (the baby Keats, whose father was a livery stable-keeper, would surely not have opened his eyes in the surrounds of Moorgate).
There was a time, though, when
bells could be heard much further afield - Dick Whittington,
according to folklore, heard them five or so miles northwest in
Highgate – meaning that one J.M.W. Turner, born in a Covent Garden
that was then a brothel-fringed fruit-and-vegetable market, most
certainly qualifies. While other working class artists of the era
tried to polish their accents as they entered more rarefied
cultural circles, Turner, the son of a barber and wig-maker,
proudly retained his all his life, although, as anyone who has
seen Timothy Spall’s
excellent 2014 movie depiction of Turner knows, he counterweighted
it with elaborate, polysyllabic eloquence. And if his diction helped shake off his lowly
born tag, to quote from another Londoner Peter Sarstedt, the
gestural majesty of his brushstrokes, and the landscapes he chose
as subjects, could not have been more removed from the Hogarthian
stew in which he was brought up.
The same cannot be said, of course, of Hogarth himself - the Smithfield-born printmaker behind A Rake's Progress who, especially with his depictions of London's descent into the gin craze, depicted lower-class mid-18th century London with detailed gusto – or William Blake, another cockney of centuries yore, whose symbolically rich œuvre transcended not just the English capital but the entire secular world.