Friday, July 1, 2016

My pretty George ... The story of the forgotten man who created one of the C19th's favourite songs.

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This week I reached no 850 in my series of articles on VICTORIAN VOCALISTS. He was rather fun to discover, so I thought I'd tell the world about him ...

"ROBINSON, George (b Northampton c1799; d Pentonvillle 11 December 1857)

‘Mr Robinson’ was, for thirty years, a pleasing alto-tenor vocalist on the concert platforms, and around the city dinners and glee clubs, of London. But at his death, the press actually gave him a little obituary. A rare thing among the kind of singing gentlemen who modestly followed such an occupation. Why? Because Mr Robinson had been ‘the first to sing ‘My Pretty Jane’ at the Vauxhall Gardens in 1829’.  

Well, we’ll get to Jane, and her date and stories, in due course.

George was apparently born in Northampton, but I know nothing of his birth for sure. Nor does anyone else. But I have a slight idea. The only address I have for the adult George is 10 Chapel Street, Pentonville. The adjacent building, no 12, was at one stage the headquarters of George Robinson, bookseller. Coincidence or consanguinuity?

My first provable sighting of our George is 25 February 1825, at the Drury Lane oratorios, singing in Weber’s Kampf und Sieg, under Henry Bishop and starring John Braham. The Lenten oratorios were not something into the soloists list of which you just strolled, so he had obviously been singing somewhere else. I just hadn’t found him.
My next sighting is soon after, 3 March 1825, and he is getting wed. His bride was Miss Alice Adams Lees, daughter of Edward Lees gent of Redcross Square and Highgate. They would have a daughter and a son before Alice’s death in 1849.
I don’t see him again until the next year’s Concerts of Ancient and Modern Music, at Covent Garden, when he is again on the soloists list, notably for a Messiah top-billing Braham, Miss Stephens, Phillips et al. At the end of the series, the singers migrated to Vauxhall.

The pleasure gardens at Vauxhall had been given a major revamp in 1826 and the ‘gaudy, eastern’ Rotunda had been metamorphosed in a 3000-seater concert hall. It opened 29 May (and poured for 24 hours), with a bulging bill of vocalists, and Mr Bishop as conductor, pianist and house composer. Mr Robinson was amongst the also sangs. ‘Glees by Messrs C Taylor, Robinson, Horncastle and Tinney’. The season at Vauxhall ran till September 1, and while the big stars came and went, Mr Robinson stayed. He would return over eight seasons, rising up the bills until eventually he, himself, was sometimes the only billed artist.

He must have done something in between, a church choir post perhaps? But I couldn’t find him. He surfaced at the Covent Garden and Drury Lane concerts, alongside Tinney and co, singing in a variety of glees and ensembles, and I spot him in the regular 1828 Drury Lane season singing in the glee ‘Mynheer van Dunck’ in Paul and Virginia … was he a minor member of the Drury Lane company? Yes. Got it. Here is a piece of sheet music from circa 1830 ‘as sung by Mr Robinson of the Royal Gardens, Vauxhall and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane’. I wonder how long he had been there. Before 1825, evidently.



And so we come to 1829. The starry quotient for the concerts at Vauxhall had diminished pointedly since the re-opening and the bill included such lesser lights as W H Williams, Mr G Smith, Mr Weekes, Miss Helme and the very young Priscilla Horton. During the season, the company played a little burletta Opera Mad, and Robinson gave the song ‘My Love’s Roundelay’ ‘with finish, tone and power’, but no mention of Jane.

So, is the DNB right to date Jane at 1831? Nope. They’re wrong too. But a little excusably. The name of the song which was to make George Robinson’s name was not, originally, ‘My Pretty Jane’. It started life, and was published, as ‘The Bloom is on the Rye’ and it made its appearance in print in August 1830. Vauxhall was not reviewed much, so alas I cannot find evidence for a precise date of first performance, but it ought to have been not long before that. And oddly, the only description I have found comes from a reminiscer, thirty years on: ‘[the song] carries us back to the great and palmy days of Vauxhall, when the great Mr Simpson used to ‘welcome one to the Royal Property’ and when little Robinson charmed the sentimental youth of both sexes with his na├»ve interpretation of this ballad’.

The song was to become one of the most popular tenor chestnuts of the century and, as such, became the subject of more than one chestnutty story. S J Adair Fitzgerald has perpetuated a pretty silly one in his Stories of Forgotten Songs. The unsatisfactory, binned composition which was fished from the waste paper and sung THAT NIGHT ‘by George Robinson, the great tenor of the day, and at once created an enormous success’. No it didn’t. And ‘great’ little George never was. This was his moment and he would never surpass it.

He played in the burletta Adelaide or the Royal William, he sang in more glees (‘Here’s a health to the King and the Queen’, ‘The Palmer Knights’)  and – yes there he is, in 1831, at Drury Lane playing a tiny part in The Brigand, singing part-music and being a Singing Witch in Macbeth, before heading back to Vauxhall to sing his ‘interesting air’ ‘Pretty Jane’ in his ‘pleasing style’.

Needless to say, attempts were made to repeat a good trick. Bishop was the most successful with ‘My Native Hills’, ‘Sung by Mr Robinson, Mr Allan, Mr Wilson, Mr Templeton, Mr Clement White etc. The Poetry by George Inman’. Imagine! Little Richardson the bit-part player billed above stars of the magnitude of Allan, Wilson and Templeton. Alexander Lee’s ‘The Pride of our Valley’, ‘Thy form was fair’, ‘Pretty Jeannette’, ‘Thy smile was sweet’, the duet ‘Love and Wine’ for him and Paul Bedford, ‘When the grasshopper sings’ with Miss Forde, ‘Whate’er my fate’. But mostly he was wanted to sing ‘My Pretty Jane’.

And then back to the Lane for another season singing in concert, and playing Ben Budge in The Beggar’s Opera, the Duke of Buckingham in The Heart of Midlothian, a guard in something else, a spirit of the mountain in Bishop’s The Doom Kiss, a Savoyard in William Tell, a robber in The Forty Thieves …

This curious but comfortable arrangement seems to have come to an end in 1835. But it seemed for a while that there might be something else to partly replace it. The amateur Exeter Hall Choral Society had been transmuting into what would quickly become the Sacred Harmonic Society, the best and most fashionable purveyor of oratorio in London. And they were hiring professional soloists. 29 December 1837, they gave The Messiah. Braham took the tenor solos, and Robinson sang the alto: ‘The voice of this vocalist has some of the sweetest tones and he exerted himself to great effect’. Well, he sang some of it. Maria Hawes took ‘He was despised’.

On 7 February the society presented Perry’s The Fall of Jerusalem, 25 June Judas Maccabeus and 29 December The Messiah in each case with Robinson among the soloists and with Miss Dolby or Miss Hawes, and Braham or Bennett included. So I am not sure quite what he sang. Between times, I spot him with the Western City Glee Club, and what seem to be other part-singing groups. When the Sacred Harmonic gave up on male altos, there was no more employment coming from Exeter Hall.

From here on, he turns up in the groups of vocalists who entertained the bibulous gentlemen at the many celebratory dinners which the city hosted, and at the concerts which the singers of those groups gave. He, himself promoted a few such concerts. By 1849, he was already described as ‘the veteran ballad singer’. But ‘Mr Robinson's ballads were sung with his usual taste’.

The same year, Mrs Robinson died and, by the 1851 census, George can be seen living with a young manually-working lass named Elizabeth Wood. He would marry her later that year.

Now, he was struggling. His name had disappeared from the concert bills and what were to be his last days were not pleasant. George Robinson died in 1857. The press couldn’t agree exactly when, any more than they could agree on the date of ‘My Pretty Jane’. But 'Jane' went on without him, and in the hands of Mr Sims Reeves became a monument in British popular song.

But George sang her first."


(Thanks to my pal Andrea for the loan of her picture!, if anyone can find one of 'Jane' with his portrait ...) 

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