Frances Lincoln Limited, £25

As They Really Were: The Citizens of Alnwick 1831, by Keith Middlemas


What’s so special about Alnwick? The Northumbrian dormitory town about 30 miles outside Newcastle is home to a medieval castle, a Morrisons and a population of around 8,000. It also happens to be the home town of University of Sussex History professor Keith Middlemas and local artist Percy Forster.

These two sons of Alnwick reached professional maturity in the 1830s and 1960s respectively, but they haven’t let the trifling matter of an intervening century or so, prevent this publishing collaboration.

A battered, blue volume lay undisturbed for some 150 years in the Alnwick solicitors’ office where Middlemas’s grandfather worked before he inherited it in the early 1980s. Middlemas was charmed by the 117 portraits within, but it remained shelved a further thirty years while he acquired the erudition on display in As They Really Were. Under chapter headings including ‘Inheritance And Tradition’, ‘The Educated Mind’ and ‘The Balance of Power’, Middlemas introduces us to these citizens of Alnwick, as drawn by Forster around 1831, but does the artist’s work have any relevance beyond enjoyable local sentiment? 

The character sketch was a long-established form, by the time Forster put pencil to paper. Theophrastus wrote The Characters around the 4th century BC, John Aubrey compiled his Brief Lives in the 17th century, and William Hogarth painted his gin-ruined mothers and rosy-cheeked beer drinkers in the 18th century.

Like these others, Forster offers us a cast of characters typical of their time and place and representative of different strata of society. There are successful merchants sketched in profile – all the better to admire their impressive waist-coated girths. There are also practitioners of exotic-sounding trades; flax dressers, tallow chandlers and ‘Tom the Cutter’, a glum, neckless man holding a brace of eels for sale. There are a few children and disappointingly few women, but then this too is revealing of the period.

What is also clear from Forster’s pictures is that these are not only ‘types’, but also his neighbours; real people who really existed. In an age obsessed with physiognomies and typologies, there is an unusual compassion to his work. As Middlemas puts it, “His lively, painless dissections have none of the static sadism of his immediate predecessors.” A few do look like cosy Dickensian caricatures, but most, like Billy Smith, his lips slightly parted in concentration as he reads reports of the markets at the Star Inn, are so life-like they could step off the page and into the 21st century.

If Forster’s skill highlights the timelessness of his subjects, it’s Middlemas’s job to relocate them in historical context. They might have lived at any time, but they lived in 1831 - six years before Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, a decade before the daguerreotype would begin to rival the portrait painter, and just year before – as every GCSE History student knows - the Reform Act would change British society forever. Yet with an eye for the details of everyday life, As They Really Were often hints at how far away these great moments of history must have seemed for an ordinary citizen in Alnwick.

Forster’s snapshot of history would be of natural interest to any local resident, but it’s Middlemas’ achievement that makes it fascinating for everyone else too. What’s so special about Alnwick? Nothing at all. And that’s just the point.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own