BY Tom Morton in Frieze | 01 JAN 02
Featured in
Issue 64

Life's a Drag

Cope's Tobacco Plant

BY Tom Morton in Frieze | 01 JAN 02

'Paradoxically, he no longer wanted to give up smoking: what he wanted to do was take up smoking. Not so much to fill the little gaps between cigarettes with cigarettes (there wouldn't be time, anyway) or to smoke two cigarettes at once. It was more that he felt the desire to smoke a cigarette even when he was smoking a cigarette.'1

Richard Tull, the failed novelist at the centre of Martin Amis' The Information (1995), is my second-favourite smoker in literature. He could sprout a second head, its quivering mouth devoted solely to puffing on cheap cigarettes, and he still wouldn't quell his nicotine pangs. Richard Tull is an A-list addict, but as with every race he's ever wheezed through, the gold medal goes to the other guy.

Bored by the brave new world of late 19th-century Paris, the writer Théodore de Banville resolved to take up smoking. Nothing unusual in that - smoking makes tedium manageable, speeds the train to the empty platform and makes modern life a little less rubbish. A bit odder was de Banville's dedication to the burn. Pledging his entire existence to consuming beautifully crafted hand-rolled cigarettes, he simply did nothing else. 2 This was fag-ash dandyism, a variation on the theme of heroic and all-consuming pointlessness found in the writings of Charles Baudelaire, Victor Fournel and J.-K. Huysmans. His cigarette smoke curling across Art Nouveau interiors and yellowing the glass of Parisian arcades, de Banville's celebration of tobacco feels like a peculiarly French phenomenon. Aside from Oscar Wilde's florid bons mots, we can't really imagine smoking being treated with such flâneurial grace in uptight Victorian Britain. Which, as Lewis Carroll's Alice might have said, makes leafing through Cope's Tobacco Plant: A Monthly Periodical Interesting to the Manufacturer, the Dealer and the Smoker curiouser and curiouser.

Published as a promotional tool by Cope's Tobacco Company between 1870 and 1884, Cope's Tobacco Plant was much more than an exercise in early advertorial copywriting. In a reversal of de Banville's seclusion in a cloud of cigarette smoke, the magazine embraced a crazy range of scientific, historical and cultural subjects, all glimpsed through a lazy tobacco haze. Pseudo-histories of smoking in faraway lands rubbed up against articles on the use of tobacco as an insecticide and gaggles of medical quackery. Briar pipes clenched between their teeth, the readers of Cope's were encouraged to muse on contemporary art. The April 1876 edition carried a review of an issue of John Ruskin's Fors Clavigera, the publication in which the bumptious critic famously described Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) as 'a pot of paint' flung 'in the public's face'. 3 Recherché Ruskiniana was balanced by translations of the tripped-out musings of two of the 19th century's finest neuronauts: Baudelaire's On Hasheesh appeared in October 1875, followed by Théophile Gautier's On Opium a month later. In the singular world of Cope's Tobacco Plant the drugs not only worked - they offered bohemian glamour to the provincial clerk or suburban gentleman of letters.

The eccentric editorial selections in Cope's seem perfectly tuned to the Victorian taxonomic impulse. Like the panoptic canvases of William Powell Frith, the magazine caught social types in its gas-fired headlights. The 'Smokers We See' column identified different devotees of the weed, providing an illustration and a brief character sketch. The Genteel Smoker, resplendent in a frock coat and well-waxed whiskers, carries a cane and a fat cigar. We learn that he's 'a literary man of the period ... always the perfect gentleman of the period, and a model smoker of the period'. Should his constant puffing dissuade you from entering his orbit, the column reassures you that on meeting the Genteel Smoker 'your senses are lulled by the perfume of the finest brand'. The Unpolished Smoker, a bushy-bearded Courbet figure accompanied by a Hogarthian pug, is a cuddlier prospect: 'While he paints - for he is an artist - the livelong day in an atmosphere of smoke ... there arise with the clouds the good wishes of many a young aspirant helped on the way to fame by the rough hand which uses the brush so gently.' 4 It's not so much the artsy cool of the Genteel and Unpolished Smokers that spark the imagination as their philanthropy and impeccable manners. You want to mooch around their studios, buy them a drink and offer them a smoke. As product avatars go, they leave the Marlboro Man looking like a soggy cardboard cutout.

There's something oddly touching about the effort put into Cope's, the energy expended on promoting a commodity that - given its addictive properties - pretty much sells itself. Reading the magazine, you start to think that the anonymous editor felt a higher calling. In the monthly round-up of reader's poetry, amateur belletrists were given the chance to versify their philosophies of smoking. It's easy to imagine J. A. Colwyn contentedly slurping on a post-prandial cigarette and penning the lines: 'Oh 'tis very pleasant; thus to sit and smoke / Makes a peer of peasant, of sad life a joke.' 5 There's a similarly melancholy edge to Charles Sprague's Ode to My Cigar: 'Thy clouds all other dispel, and lap me in delight.' 6 For these sad-eyed readers the blue wisps of tobacco smoke transformed dingy Victorian Britain into a soporific wonderland. Maybe there's a point about Modernity here, about bad medicine making the horrors of industrialisation a bit easier to swallow. Clouds of crap may choke our lungs, but they work wonders on the nasty realities of life.
Some time in the mid-1990s, at the fag-end of my teenage years, I read an interview with Damien Hirst. Shaven head cocked in the accompanying photo, he told the interviewer that smoking is accepting life as it really is. It seemed a pretty cool thing to say at the time, the perfect justification for the packet of Camels in my pocket. Now though, flicking through Cope's Tobacco Plant with my nicotine-tinged fingers, I realize that he's wrong. Smoking's about denial, and fantasy, and idly dreaming of something better. As Jim Morrison sang in The Doors' 'Soul Kitchen' (1967): 'I light another cigarette, learn to forget ...'

1. Martin Amis, The Information, Harper Collins, London, 1995,
p. 111.
2. Théodore de Banville, L'âme de Paris: noveaux souvenirs, G. Charpentier, Paris, 1890, p. 234.
3. John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, London, July 1877, Letter 79.
4. Cope's Tobacco Plant, London, June 1870, p. 30.
5. J. A. Colwyn, in A. Hamilton (ed.), An Odd Volume for Smokers: A Lytell Parcell of Poems and Parodyes in Prayse of Tobacco, Contayning Divers Conceited Ballades and Pithie Sayinges, Reeves and Turner, London, 1889, p.180. Originally published in Cope's Tobacco Plant (n.d.).
6. Cope's Tobacco Plant, London, March 1870, p. 3.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.