Last Thursday we were joined by the writer Lucinda Hawksley for another beard-related talk. Lucinda, being the great great Granddaughter of Charles Dickens ought to know a thing or two about beards, and she does, having published a book on them. Her examination of them however has been conducted at arms length, having been a pogonophobe since an early age. Lucinda was warned off bearded men by her divorced grandmother who had a distaste for her ex-husband’s whiskers. Lucinda described how as a child she had received countless birthday cards and Christmas presents from this grandfather who had found it amusing to add in cuttings from his beard as an extra bonus, she told us, “he died when I was 6 but the damage was already done”.
Lucinda was asked by the National Portrait Gallery to write her book Moustaches, Whiskers and Beards, using their collection and she thought she would face her fear head on by immersing herself in their many images of facial hair. The book provides a “social history of beards in Britain” and Lucinda gave us a whistle stop tour through her findings.
She began with Ancient Egypt – where priests shaved their whole body every day to “prevent lice or impure things”, and then to Ancient Greece, where surviving statues and curling tongs found by archaeologists are still testament today to their lustrous chin locks.
Alexander the Great employed an army of barbers to travel with his soldiers as he felt that beards were too easy a target and could be used against them by being grabbed during the throngs of battle.
Then there were the Vikings. Lucinda shuddered “I can’t even look at this picture” but then told us that our image of them as filthy barbarians wasn’t quite true and that there is actually a lot of material evidence that Scandinavians at this time were clean and well groomed – the Brits would have been far less hygienic.
Moving to the early modern period and Lucinda gave us an anecdote about Sir Thomas More, the story goes that when awaiting his fete at the chopping block, he paused the executioner so that he could move his beard away from his neck exclaiming: “pity that to be cut that has not committed treason” – although Lucinda noted that this comment may not be true since he is unlikely to have inferred that he did commit treason against Henry VIII.
When the young Edward VI came to the throne following his father’s death, he introduced a ban on beards with a fine – perhaps as he was yet to hit puberty and unlikely to have been resplendently bearded himself.
By now, beards had fallen out of favour and were rarer to spot. Hans Steininger was a rare exception. His beard was so exceedingly long that he kept a pouch around his waist to tuck it into. One night, in 1567, there was a fire in the town of Braunau where he lived and he ran out fleeing from the flames, having forgotten his pouch his beard dragged on the floor and he tripped and fell. Lucinda said with some vindication: “death by beard”. If you fancy a pilgrimage, the actual hair from Steininger’s beard has been preserved and is still held in the Braunau District Museum. ‘World Beard Day’ celebrated in September every year was established in his honour.
In the late seventeenth century Peter the Great did a grand tour of Europe and on his return home he realised that Russia was the only country where men still had beards. He felt that this was holding them back and so invited his noblemen to come and see him, and as each one came forward and bowed before him he chopped their beard off and instructed them to have a close shave. He then introduced a tax for those wishing to keep a beard. There were beard tax tokens inscribed with a phrase roughly translating to: ‘beards are a ridiculous ornament’. The tax wasn’t repealed for another 100 years.
And so to the nineteenth century when, following the Crimean war, facial hair became popular once more and was worn by many a prominent Victorian. Lucinda noted that the three most heavily bearded times in history have been under female monarchs: “when women are in power, men grow massive beards”.
Dickens was one such bearded Victorian, and Lucinda described his beard journey:
- At first he chose the ‘clean shaven dandy’ look, modelled on Lord Byron
- By the 1840s, he had grown his first moustache – for a facial hair growing battle with a friend which he later shaved off
- In the 1860s, just as William Powell-Frith was commissioned to paint his portrait, he began to grow a beard, his friends pleaded ‘paint him quick before the beard becomes more ridiculous!’ Dickens later said of the portrait ‘it’s a little too much to my thinking’ as though he had ‘just received word of his neighbours house being afire’
- Finally, he settles on a door-knocker beard, “slightly akin to the pharaohs”.
Dickens beard became even more famous when immortalised on the ten pound note. That is, until Darwin replaced him. Lucinda told us that this is because Dickens’ beard had been “too easily forged”, a fact she had even had confirmed by the Bank of England. This makes the Dickens note quite rare to find these days, and therefore quite valuable – if you haven’t already checked your wallet for one I suggest you do!
Lucinda ended her talk and then bravely posed for a picture with bearded members of the audience and as she smiled through her wince, it became very clear how much her fear still haunts her.