Mutton chops and door knockers, face fungus and designer stubble – Lucinda Hawksley at the Christchurch Art Gallery, WORD Christchurch

Having sported a beard of varying bushiness for many years, I have a longstanding interest in facial hair, so I was delighted to discover that this was the topic of a talk by Lucinda Hawksley at the Christchurch Art Gallery on Sunday, presented by WORD Christchurch. On a rainy Canterbury afternoon an audience of bearded and un-bearded alike almost filled the Art Gallery’s auditorium to hear all about the fascinating history of facial hair from ancient Mesopotamia to the modern hipster, and all points in between.

Using pictures mostly taken from the National Portrait Gallery, Lucinda’s fascinating talk focused mostly on European examples, but we also heard about how dangerous and painful it must have been to have your face shaved in ancient Egypt (apparently they used sharp flints and mussel shells, risking nasty cuts and blood poisoning), and how the ancient Egyptians liked to be buried wearing false beards (women and babies included!). Since then beards have fallen, periodically, in and out of fashion. Initially popular in Ancient Greece (where they implied high status and masculine beauty), but less so in Ancient Rome, they lost favour after Alexander The Great insisted that his soldiers should be clean shaven. Throughout history, beards have been associated with barbarians, although the often cited etymological link between them appears to be less clear cut. In medieval times, suits of armour were often designed to accommodate the long and luxuriously flowing facial hair that was common at the time.

As Lucinda’s talk entered the early modern era, the focus switched to British beards, and we discovered the astonishing fact that periods when beards were in highest fashion seem to coincide with female monarchs. The reigns of Queens Elizabeth I, Victoria, and Elizabeth II were all times when beards flourished, and in the first two cases, the subsequent ascension of a King to the throne resulted in an immediate and rapid decline in facial hair. Interestingly, more recently, men have grown longer beards at times when women’s rights movements have been particularly strong (e.g. women’s suffrage in the late Victorian period, women’s lib in the 1960s, etc.).

Lucinda’s talk was richly illustrated with portraits of famously bearded men from the extremely fashionable, and much emulated, pencil-thin moustache of Lord Byron, (which would appear again in the 20th century as the Hollywood moustache of Clark Gable, Erroll Flynn, and others), to the sumptuous sideburns of Charles James Napier, the extraordinary neck-beard of Robert Browning, and the familiar “door knocker” beard of Charles Dickens (Lucinda’s great-great-great-grandfather, who started his foray into facial hair by entering a moustache-growing competition and then got hooked, despite his family’s protestations). We are also shown the glorious mutton chops of Dickens’s illustrator, George Cruikshank. (Apparently Charles Darwin replaced Dickens on the British £10 note because his beard is more difficult to forge.) We also learned the different outcomes that being a bearded women can bring, depending on the times, from ruthless exploitation as a freak (Barbara Urselin), to admiration as an unusual sex symbol (Annie Jones).

The greatest flourishing of the beard came in the late Victorian period after soldiers returned from the Crimean War with large beards necessitated by the extreme cold and lack of shaving facilities, making beards a mark of the hero. Coinciding with the women’s suffrage movement, this beard craze affected all levels of society, and for the first time facial hair was no longer a signifier of class. (Prior to the invention of the safety razor, regular shaves were largely the preserve of the well-heeled). During this era, barbers had a hard time of it and had to come up with inventive ways of making a living, with aggressive marketing of hair dyes and oils, leading to advent of the antimacassar.

By Edwardian times the beard had all but gone, with the novelist Frank Richardson labelling it “face fungus”, and the final death knell came with World War I and the need for close-fitting gas masks. Despite some notable exceptions, e.g. Salvador Dali (“the most famous moustache in history”), and the Handlebar Club (founded in 1947 and still going strong, requiring the growth of a moustache with “graspable extremities”), facial hair was largely gone until the 1960s when it reappeared with the hippy movement and again, as history repeated itself one more time, was correlated with a period of women’s lib. We were finally brought up to date via Tom Selleck’s moustache, and the designer stubble of the 1980s, to the recent hipster beard and the controversy surrounding Conchita Wurst. The audience were captivated by these tales of the hirsute, and the hour seemed to fly by. Lucinda has a real gift for storytelling and there is so much more to learn about the history of facial hair in her recent book “Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards”, on which her talk was based.

CoverMoustaches, Whiskers & Beards

(Not that’s not Rasputin on the cover, in fact it’s a young George Bernard Shaw, someone we’re more used to seeing depicted in old age.)

If facial hair isn’t your thing (perhaps you have pogonophobia?), Lucinda has written many other books on an impressively wide range of other topics.

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For more fun with beards, the library has all sorts of great stuff including a graphic novel about a “Gigantic Beard That Was Evil”, manuals on how to grow a handsome beard, and even a couple of children’s books.

See also:

Of beards and men

Of Beards and ManI have never seen my husband without a beard. Were he to remove it in the dead of night and presume to present himself at breakfast without this major accessory, I might fall about with the vapours and require resuscitation. Come to think of it, I have never dated  any man without facial hair. Heaven knows what this says about me!

Good thing then for both of us that it’s 2016 and Beards Are In! Without turning a hair, turns out I have married a fashion icon – and all because he couldn’t be bothered with all the hassle of shaving when he was very young. And it was OK in his particular field of endeavour – engineering. Only geologists are more likely to have facial hair, and I dated one of those as well.

Exactly how popular are beards right now? According to the Huffington Post June 2015, over 67% of New York men have beards. After reading a very entertaining review in The Oldie magazine on the book entitled Of Beards and Men (The Revealing History of Facial Hair), I did a catalogue search only to find that Christchurch Libraries did not (yet) own this book. Which is why we have the marvelous Request An Item form online. If ever you see an item you would love to read, and we don’t have it on our shelves, you can put in a request for the library to buy that item – and you may well be lucky. Like I was with Oldstone-Moore’s fascinating book on the history of beards – of which he says:

To a surprising degree, we find that the history of men is written on their faces.

But even if history is not your bag, there are loads of other books where facial hair plays a prominent role:

Book-O-BeardsFor example, have you ever been mortified when your little one screams blue murder at the sight of their first bearded man? Try Book-o-Beards which is billed as a “wearable book”  This means it has “die-cut holes, which invite the reader to try out the six bearded masks.” This is beard-speak for: How To Terrify Your Toddler At Bedtime In Six Easy Steps.

Once you’ve damaged the littlies, move right on to your resident Young Adult with the graphic novel: The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil which is a “smooth fable of a man whose unkempt facial hair ravages the tidy city of Here”.

After that, how about a bit of travel writing with the intriguingly entitled Drinking Arak Off An Ayatollah’s Beard, or perhaps you are more interested in a gender record breaker? There’s To the Poles (without A Beard) about a young British woman who walked into the record books by becoming the first British woman to reach the South Pole on foot, and a year later hauled her sled to the more physically challenging North Pole.

The Art of Growing a BeardSome people, however, need instructions for everything. Not for them the simple act of ceasing to shave. Oh No, they need a book to tell them how to grow a beard, and amazingly, the library has that too. The Art of Growing a Beard will help you to get your beard “through the awkward growing-in phase with dignity, and tips on everything from grooming to eating and kissing.”

But let Oldstone-Moore (who does indeed sport a beard. I checked) have the last word:

The clean-shaven face of today, Oldstone-Moore says, has come to signify a virtuous and sociable man. Whereas a beard marks someone as self-reliant and unconventional. History, then, has established specific meanings for facial hair, which both inspire and constrain a man’s choices in how he presents himself to the world.

So, not only has my husband saved time on shaving (and money on the cost of  razors for something like 35 years), but he is also self-reliant, unconventional and something of a trendsetter.

Who’d have thought!

See some facial hair of days gone by in our set Moustaches for Movember.