Thursday 25 September 2008

Won’t Wash Clothes

Cradled by the crescent moon
The monkey strums an idle tune
Lost in a world where anything goes
What a shame it Won’t Wash Clothes.

He’s the hardest working brand character of the Victorian era. On his shoulders rested the responsibility for persuading the great British public that a block of Monkey Brand soap was an indispensable household commodity even though it Won’t Wash Clothes. This is our second visit to the bizarre imagery of the strange world of Monkey Brand publicity and some very curious images are on display. This refugee from the wild and untamed jungles of the Victorian imagination is pressed into service in an astonishing variety of disguises from commedia dell’arte to mandarin, tamed and costumed in an elaborate sequence of charades calculated to break down customer resistance by indulging the secret fears and prejudices of the prosperous readership of the Illustrated London News and similar publications. A world without order and a world without hygiene being uppermost among their concerns.

There seems no end to the indignities that our simian hero must endure. Portrayed as a beast of burden, crushed by the weight of an outsize bar of Monkey Brand, then reduced to the proportions of a child, clad in evening dress and posed on the ample thigh of John Bull. But for sheer horror nothing can equal the image in which the hapless creature is skinned and mounted by a grinning child brandishing a whip. This image of sadism and subjugation is almost overloaded with peculiarly Victorian obsessions including an unhealthy preoccupation with the forms of naked children. I like to think that the uncanny resemblance between the monkey fur and the hair of the child was a sly comment on the part of the artist. Perhaps we are looking at a celebration of the triumph of imperialism or an allegorical rejection of Darwinism.

Surrealist poets and painters were much attracted to the notion of the incubus – a supernatural creature of the night that invaded the bedchambers of the innocent for the purpose of illicit sex. The image of the Monkey Brand as cherub (previously seen perched in the lap of the seductive figure of Leisure) has all the characteristics of an incubus except, of course, for reproductive organs. A sensible omission to avoid fatal contamination of the brand! Incubus or not, this curious flying figure, with an ability to insinuate itself into the most private of spaces, possesses formidable power to threaten and disturb. Redemption finally came in the form of a trip to the Universal Exhibition of 1900 in Paris where he is solemnly invested with the order of the burnished frying pan by a comely demoiselle. A trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower and a drink of champagne from the demoiselle’s shapely slipper is the least he deserves in return for all the years of faithful service.

Victorian commerce created the modern advertising industry. Advertising proliferated in the absence of regulation to cover virtually every surface in the modern metropolis. Advertising agencies were a Victorian innovation and we have them to thank for developing the concept of branding and brand characters. The latter half of the 19th. century was a period of massive expansion in marketing and promotional techniques. The activities of the industry with the Victorian passion for outlandish stunts would make the basis of a fascinating TV drama series along the lines of Mad Men, based on mid-century Madison Avenue. Alternatively, if only Gilbert & Sullivan had turned their attention to the world of Victorian advertising, the gimmickry, the sharp practice, the outrageous claims and the ubiquity of publicity would have made perfect targets for their brand of satire.

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