Tuesday 17 March 2015

A footnote to the history of tattoos


I once met a Canadian when I was sharing a dorm in a youth hostel whose arm bore a tattoo and who told me middle class Canadians went in for them. So do many Romanian women of gentle birth. Perhaps it is only in Great Britain that tattoos are a specifically working class thing, usually an unskilled manual worker thing. But it was not always so, even in England. King Edward VII's entire 
body was covered in them.

Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, according to legend, had a tattoo on his back of the Waterford Hunt in full cry, of which the notable feature was the fox. All that could be seen of it (and only by Lady Charles, one imagines) was the fox's brush disappearing into what Americans would call his Lordship's ass cleavage.

'Gone to earth'. Quite droll, in a rather naval sort of way.

Andrei Vasilescu pointed out to me that in 1881, visiting a port in Japan as a midshipman in the Royal Navy, the future King George V of England had a blue and red dragon tattooed on his arm. Andrei says that in Romania before the 1989 Revolution only convicts and sailors had tattoos. 

Moving from history to fiction, but staying in the same historical period, here is the story of a commercial traveller who had the Fall of Icarus tattooed on his back, thinking Icarus was a city that was captured by Wallenstein in the Thirty Years' War, but who was unable to pay the tattooist's bill.


  1. Oh that did make me laugh!

  2. I suppose Beresford was the inspiration for one of the stanzas in "Lydia, the tatooed lady" popularized by Groucho Marx:
    "She once swept an Admiral clear off his feet.
    The ships on her hips made his heart skip a beat.
    And now the old boy's in command of the fleet,
    for he went and married Lydia!"

  3. Great article. The Saki story is also excellent of course and for a more sinister take on the same theme I'd suggest Roald Dahl's 'Skin'.