This book typifies the modern way of writing popular history. The author takes her cue from an object – in this case The Sharp Family, a huge painting by Johan Zoffany – and her own response to it. Building on that intuitive reaction, she proceeds to reanimate some of the individuals in the picture, hoping to restore to view not only the public achievements of the men but also the quieter domestic trials and triumphs of the women. The seven Sharp siblings (four boys, three girls), born into a clerical family, were undoubtedly a high-achieving bunch: their number included a philanthropic priest, a royal surgeon, a brilliant inventor-engineer and a tireless abolitionist. Anyone who has ever enjoyed or endured a canal boat holiday can bless or curse the Sharps too, since they invented the whole shebang. The Union, launched in 1777, was seventy feet long and could accommodate twenty-four people in grand style as they wafted up and down the waterways, beguiled by music and chat.
Grant skilfully weaves her vast knowledge of 18th-century English history and the complex story of a large family into a fluent narrative, only occasionally marred by those attempts to recreate a specific scene that you often find in popular history books, which never ring true (“It had been drizzling all day, and now as the drear of the winter evening fades imperceptibly into the darker shades of evening…”). The book paints a vivid picture of London life, in all its squalor and splendour. The bustle and stink of the River Thames, the horrors of “gin lane”, the pleasures of a music party on the river, are contrasted with the rustic pleasures of life on a country estate, where peasants would be invited to celebrate the end of the harvest with free bread and ale.
Grant’s is an inspired scheme, cleverly researched and related with great charm and insight. The Good Sharps are good sorts and their company is a pleasure. Two small quarrels, however. The first is that Zoffany himself never quite comes to the foreground. More of the artist’s spirit, adventuring and social clambering would animate the telling.
The second quarrel is not unconnected. Grant reminds us often of the fun of the Sharps: their games, teases, rags and “jolly doings”. Zoffany too liked play and puns and innuendo. But humour is fatally lacking.
The Good Sharps calls into question the old cliché that “a picture is worth 1,000 words”, because the casual viewer of Zoffany’s portrait of the family with their musical instruments, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London, would come away with little conception of the extraordinary lives of the men and women it depicts. Only narrative histories such as this, which interweave biography with a broader history, can fully express such lives.
As the siblings’ lives interweave and interconnect — they certainly knew how to put on a good party — one marvels at the harmony of their relations. Many large families are riven with petty feuds, jealousies and grudges; not the Sharps, whose setbacks came in the form of the tragic deaths of children: few of the original boating party survived into the next century.
But this is an account of lives fulfilled and well-lived, narrated with exceptional insight, warmth and humour. Grant conjures the texture and bustle of daily lives in vivid, imaginative vignettes that track the siblings at work and play, and one closes the book with a sharp pang of regret, along with real affection and admiration for its protagonists.