July 2014: Your Auntie Waddle: less famous than either Miró or Revere

There is a game that goes by many names and under many guises but which, in the Handscombe household, is called “The Hat Game” and is played thus: the players (eight in two teams is good but you can make it work with any decent-sized group) each put the names of six famous people in a hat and then take turns to have a minute to describe the names one at a time to their team-mates without using proper nouns or adjectives derived therefrom (for example English – from England). A second round in which the same names are described using just one word and a third round where only acting is allowed can then follow depending on the stamina of the players. This is a truly marvellous game but one which depends quite strongly on the players choosing names of people who are actually famous (according to the very simple definition of everyone there having heard of them). I am afraid that I have quite a poor record on this front: often choosing, in an effort to be cunning or humorous, someone of whom several of the players have not heard. “Your Auntie Waddle” – a fictional hippopotamus mentioned once in a television series none of us had seen was a low point and a name that I freely accept was a poor choice for the hat. The question of suitability is, however, not always this clear cut and can lead to debate. This debate once led me into to a fierce argument with a friend (an impressively laid-back Australian with whom, apart from this incident, I have never quarrelled). The disagreement was sparked because he had included the name of Miro – whom I thought obscure – whilst I had written Paul Revere – of whom he had never heard. We failed to come to an amicable solution and, to this day, contest hotly whose name was most unreasonable – but which of us is right?

Paul Revere was a hero of the American War of Independence: he was involved in the Boston Tea Party and fought in the Massachusetts militia but it is his ride on the night of April 18th 1775 to warn the people of Concord and Lexington that the British were coming that has made him most famous.

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Map of Boston and environs showing the route taken by Paul Revere and the marvellously named “Noodle Island”.
Taken from a Walt Disney comic of 1957 entitled “Paul Revere’s Ride”

In the late 1760s and early 1770s, Paul Revere was a businessman in Boston, an important port and the largest city in the British colony of Massachusetts. At this time the British economy was suffering from a recession caused by the Seven Years War (an enormously complicated European conflict that was fought across four continents and was arguably the first “world” war) and had to raise taxes to pay for it. These included a tax on all printed materials produced in the American colonies (called the Stamp Tax). These two issues hit American businesses hard and there was growing anger at the taxes imposed on the colonies without their agreement. The campaign united behind the slogan “No Taxation without Representation” and argued that these taxes were a denial of their rights as Englishmen. In the face of this opposition the British Government repealed the Stamp Tax and most of the other taxes imposed on the colonists but kept a tax on tea (a “Townshend Tax”) in order to underline the principle that they had the right to set and collect taxes in the American colonies. Unfortunately, by now, the colonists were just as keen to reject this principle.

The tea trade in the 1770s was complicated because of the number of laws, restrictions and taxes that governed it. Tea came from India and was imported into London by the East India Company (nobody else was allowed to import it and they were not allowed to sell it elsewhere) who paid tax on it there. It was bought by merchants who sold it in a number of places including Boston where they paid a further tax (the Townshend tax). Meanwhile smugglers sought to evade these taxes both by bringing tea from the Netherlands (the Dutch also had an East India Company) into England and also exporting it to the colonies. The tax was so high and the smugglers so efficient that the East India Company couldn’t sell all the tea it imported and soon had a large surplus. In order to save the company (which was a large and important commercial organisation) the Government cut taxes on tea except, crucially, for the Townshend tax and sent seven shiploads of cheap, but taxed, tea to the Colonies (four of them to Boston). This move highlighted the Townshend tax and angered colonists who were no longer protesting against expensive goods or high taxes but against the very principle the Government were determined to defend. When the ships loaded with tea arrived in Boston the protesters stopped the tea being unloaded and demanded that it be taken back to London. The Governor of Boston (Thomas Hutchinson) refused to allow this and there was deadlock until the night of 16th December 1773 when a number of men, including Paul Revere, some of whom were dressed as Mohawks, boarded the ships and poured the tea into the harbour. The number of men involved is unclear (Wikipedia says 30-130 and there seems to be no agreement amongst other sources) but the number of chests of tea is known to be 342 spread across three ships (the fourth ship bound for Boston sank before reaching its destination).

The tea-party failed to reconcile the colonists with the British Government (the key to these situations, I find, is to bring biscuits) but neither did it push the British into acceding to the colonists’ demands and so the disagreement rumbled on, gradually turning from a protest into a rebellion. By April 1775 the rebels were armed and organised although still largely peaceful and scattered among the Massachusetts towns and villages. On the night of April 18th 1775 General Gage, the British commander in Boston, sent his troops across the Charles River to disarm the rebels in Concord and to arrest the leaders. Paul Revere and William Dawes (who is FBSI*) were sent out to give the alarm. This was done very effectively: the rebel network had prepared for such an eventuality and the message spread through the countryside much faster than the soldiers marched. As a result of this warning the soldiers were met by an armed and organised militia rather than a handful of sleepy farmers; there was a battle (more than one really) which the British lost (or at least failed to win) and the American Revolution had started. Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride was inaccurately commemorated in a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow which begins “Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere” and was instrumental to his fame amongst Americans (William Dawes had no poem written about him and is now almost as obscure as your Auntie Waddle); it is also discussed and used as an example in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point” which examines situations where a single person can have a large impact. Revere himself went on to fight in the War of Independence, including involvement in the Penobscot expedition – an incident that is worth learning about if only because it is one of the few incidents in the conflict where the rebels made more of a hash of things than the British. “The Fort” by Bernard Cornwell contains a highly readable, but fictionalised, account of the affair.

So then, Paul Revere was a businessman (a silversmith), a rebel (or patriot, depending on your point of view), a rider and a soldier who was celebrated in poetry: what about Miro?

Joan Miró i Ferrà was a Catalan painter, sculptor, illustrator and ceramicist: his work has earned him international acclaim and has been interpreted as both Surrealism and as a focus of Catalan pride and is shown in galleries across the world including at least two dedicated to his work.

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An illustration drawn by Miró for a Catalan children’s magazine called “Cavall Fort”

He was born in 1893 and studied art from a young age. In 1918 he had his first solo exhibition (this went reassuringly badly – even great artists have to start somewhere). His early works were inspired by Van Gogh and Cezanne and showed similarities to the Fauvists (an artistic movement which included Henri Matisse) but showed a distinctive Catalan character. One of his works from this period: “The Farm” was painted at his parents’ farm in Mont-Roig and was purchased by Ernest Hemingway who wrote “It has in it all that you feel about Spain when you are there and all that you feel when you are away and cannot go there. No one else has been able to paint these two very opposing things.”

In 1924, Miro joined the Surrealist group (which was led by André Breton and also attracted Salvador Dali whose home in Figueres is at the far end of Catalonia from Mont-Roig) and developed a style that was full of symbolism. An example of this period is the painting “The Tilled Field”. He avoided explicitly political paintings until he was forced to leave Spain by the civil war (1936-1939) and was commissioned to paint a mural “The Reaper” by the Republican Government.  This was destroyed in 1938 and only a few black and white photographs survive.

Miro’s works include a series of paintings “The Constellations” that were much admired by André Breton, who wrote a series of poems named after and inspired by them; a series of sculptures and ceramics for The Homage to Surrealism exhibition of the early 1960s; and a tapestry, created with Josep Royo, for the World Trade Centre which was one of the most valuable works of art destroyed by the terrorist attack of September 2001. One of his paintings (Painting Poem: 1925) was sold for a little under £17 million in 2012.

So then, Miro was a surrealist artist from Catalonia whose work has been influential, prestigious and commercially valuable but is he more famous than Revere?

In the past, this question would have been unanswerable: there is no objective way of comparing two people who lived at different times, in different countries and whose fame comes from two such different fields. Fortunately, the internet gives us tools to answer these (and other) questions. One simply has to Google the two names and to see who comes up most frequently! There are some issues with this methodology concerning reliability and objectivity (and what name to put into the search engine) but after 15 years of debating the question I have reached the point where I would just like it settled one way or the other. I have therefore conducted the experiment. On Google, on 30th June 2014, “Joan Miro” gained about 2.6 million search results whilst “Paul Revere” got 7.4 million and I am therefore able to announce conclusively and indisputably that Paul Revere is more famous than Joan Miró.

On the same scoring system “William Dawes” got 121,000 results whereas “Your Auntie Waddle” gained no results whatsoever.

 *FBSI: Fascinating but sadly irrelevant.