An actor, an artist, tug of war, and bushrangers

David Garrick in the Alchemist
Garrick (right) in Jonson’s The Alchemist, painted by Johann Zoffany

On 19 February 1717 Hereford-born actor, playwright, and producer David Garrick was born. Apart from his successes on stage, Garrick was responsible for establishing the fame of German artist Johann Zoffany, after whom Zoffany Street in Islington is named.

Zoffany was born in Germany and ran away from home at the age of 13 to study painting. He went to England in 1758 and had his first success in 1762 when he was commissioned by Garrick to use him as the model to paint a scene from Garrick’s own play, The Farmer’s Return.

The painting was very popular with the public, establishing Zoffany, who became a founder member of the Royal Academy in 1768, as a name in the art world.

Johann Zoffany self portrait
Johann Zoffany, a self portrait

Zoffany, who also enjoyed the patronage of George III and Queen Charlotte, spent many years in Italy – at the expense of George III – and, later, in India, where he made enough money to return to England and buy the copyhold (tenure of land) of a house at Strand-on-the-Green, now named Zoffany House.

19 February is also International Tug of War Day. Tug of War was once an Olympic sport and in 1908 (the first games to see the now traditional gold, silver and bronze medal awards), the City of London Police took gold for Great Britain in the Tug of War event. They took gold again in 1920, the last time Tug of War was an Olympic sport, so technically they are still the reigning champions.

The 1908 games were held in the purpose-built stadium at White City; the White City area of London features many streets names with an international flavour, including Batman Close.

John Batman
Engraving of John Batman

Batman Close is nothing to do with comic book heroes or member of the armed forces (a batman was a soldier assigned as a servant to a commissioned officer). In this case, the street is named for John Batman, the Australian who founded a settlement on the River Yarra; that settlement later became the city of Melbourne.

Batman gained prominence for his capture of Matthew Brady, an English-born bushranger known as the Gentleman Bushranger due to his good manners when robbing his victims and the fact that he never insulted women. Before Brady’s execution in Hobart Town, his cell was filled with flowers from the women of the town.

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The London Olympics and the White City

This day in London’s history: on 19 November 1906, London was selected to host the 1908 Olympics. The games had originally been awarded to Rome, but Mount Vesuvius erupted on 7 April 1906, devastating the city of Naples. The Olympic funds had to be diverted to the rebuilding of Naples, and the Games were reassigned to London.

The Games, held for the first time in London, were the first to feature a stadium specially fitted out for the occasion. In 1908 the site was also the venue for an event considered more noteworthy – the Franco-British Exhibition. The area became known as the Great White City due to the white marble cladding used on the exhibition pavilions, and the Great Stadium became White City Stadium.

Other firsts of the London Games included a specially built pool for swimming,with a special folding tower for diving. Previously swimming events had taken place in open water. Also, for the first time, the competitors paraded behind their country’s flag in sportswear.

In 1909 the exhibition site also hosted the Imperial International Exhibition and in 1910, the Japan-British Exhibition. The final two exhibitions to be held there were the Latin-British (1912) and the Anglo-American (1914).