Fans of ITV’s popular costume drama Vanity Fair may be interested to know that it has a number of connections with Dulwich.
It is based on a novel of the same name published exactly 170 years ago by William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63) who is played in the series by former Monty Python star Michael Palin CBE. By coincidence, Palin’s older sister Angela and her family lived in Dulwich (her son Jeremy went to Alleyn’s School) and he talks about visiting them in his diaries (e.g.‘conker hunting along past Dulwich Picture Gallery’). Her husband Veryan Herbert was also on the Traffic Sub-Committee of the Dulwich Society. In addition, in 1977, Palin played a charity football match at the Dulwich Hamlet ground (the team comprised most of the Python actors plus Peter Purves of Blue Peter in goal).
Another of the characters in the Vanity Fair series, Sir Pitt Crawley, is played by Martin Clunes, who is perhaps best known for his starring role in the long-running ITV medical comedy drama series, Doc Martin, created by Dulwich resident, Dominic Minghela. A reference to Dulwich even appears in the original Thackeray novel. In Chapter XIX, where Mrs Bute tries to convince Miss Crawley to alter her will, she decides to take her away to get her into ‘cheerful spirits and health’ before renewing her attempt. However, she wonders where to take her:
‘We must go and visit our beautiful suburbs of London,’ she then thought. ‘I hear they are the most picturesque in the world’; and so she had a sudden interest for Hampstead, and Hornsey, and found that Dulwich had great charms for her, and getting her victim into her carriage, drove her to those rustic spots...
Dulwich is also mentioned in at least two other works by Thackeray. The first is in his essay ‘Round About the Christmas Tree’ in Roundabout Papers (1863), in which he describes a winter scene:
‘... when the girls and boys were sliding on the ponds at Dulwich; when the darkling river was full of floating ice, and the sun was like a warming-pan in the leaden sky.’
The second comes in Chapter XII of The Newcomes (1854). Here Clive Newcome (the artistic son of Colonel Newcome) describes a painting, The Death of Cardinal Beaufort (c.1787), by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which used to hang in the Dulwich Picture Gallery before it was destroyed by bombing in 1944. A rather gruesome picture (Reynolds repeated it later), the subject was taken from Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2, Act 3, Scene III, where the King, Salisbury and Warwick witness the Cardinal's death (Beaufort was the Bishop of Winchester and the king’s great uncle):.
‘What for me?’ cries Clive. ‘We are no such great folks that I know of; and if we were, I say a painter is as good as a lawyer, or a doctor, or even a soldier. In Dr Johnson's Life - which my father is always reading - I like to read about Sir Joshua Reynolds best: I think he is the best gentleman of all in the book. My! wouldn't I like to paint a picture like Lord Heathfield in the National Gallery! Wouldn't I just! I think I would sooner have done that, than have fought at Gibraltar. And those Three Graces - oh, aren't they graceful! And that Cardinal Beaufort at Dulwich! - it frightens me so, I daren't look at it.’
The Dulwich Picture Gallery also had another artistic link with the Thackeray family via its recent exhibition (2017) of the works of Virginia Woolf’s elder sister, the painter Vanessa Bell (1879-1961). The first wife of their father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was Thackeray’s youngest daughter, Minny (Harriet Marian Thackeray), which thus makes Thackeray the step-grandfather of Vanessa Bell.
Thackeray’s connections with the occasional summer meetings of the editorial staff of Punch magazine at the old Greyhound Inn in Dulwich in the 1860s have also been mentioned in a previous issue of the Dulwich Society’s Journal (No.191, Winter 2016). Thackeray drew nearly 400 sketches for the magazine and contributed numerous articles. The last recorded meeting of the Punch Table at the Greyhound which Thackeray attended seems to have been on 1 July 1863. The writer Francis (later Sir Francis) Burnand, who was elected to the Punch Table the previous month (he was later himself editor of Punch), described the scene in his memoirs:
'My first appearance was at the Inn at Dulwich where Punch sometimes dined in the summer in those days. Thackeray drove there and left early. He had come on purpose to be present on this occasion, and before quitting the room he paused, placed his hand on my shoulder, and said, "Gentlemen, I congratulate you on the 'New Boy'!" I felt, and probably looked, very hot and uncomfortably proud; and then he shook me very warmly by the hand.'
Thackeray died six months later, on 24 December 1863.