Photo: M. Caines
By MICHAEL CAINES
One day in March 1742, the aspiring artist Joshua Reynolds, not yet twenty years old, was attending an auction in Covent Garden, when the crowd parted and somebody both very great and very small walked in: the poet Alexander Pope.
Reynolds remembered him as being “about four feet six high; very humpbacked and deformed; he wore a black coat; and according to the fashion of that time, had on a little sword”. By that point in his life, only a couple of years before his death, Pope, a victim of Pott’s disease, would probably have been wearing a corset to support his weak, crooked spine, and he only rarely appeared in public. Perhaps the most striking thing about Pope, though, apart from his stunted height and the fact that everybody (“by a kind of enthusiastic impulse”, according to Boswell’s version of Reynolds’s anecdote) wanted to bow to him or shake his hand (depending on which source you prefer), was his face. Understandably, Reynolds, the future portrait-painter to the elite, thought it an extremely interesting one:
“[Pope] had a large and very fine eye, and a long handsome nose; his mouth had those peculiar marks which always are found in the mouths of crooked persons; and the muscles which run across the cheek were so strongly marked as to appear like small cords.”