To Swing or be Swung – a puzzle from the Long Eighteenth Century

Today, the Times published a piece on some work being carried out on one of the treasures of the Wallace Collection, the glorious work by Fragonard, The Happy Accidents of the Swing. In the article it mentioned that one of the things they hoped to discover was, if the elderly gentleman pushing the swing had originally been painted as a bishop, as a tale told about the paintings creation suggested.

This description of the elderly gentleman ‘pushing’ the swing is repeated in both the Wallace Collection’s catalogue and on their website. However if you look closely at the painting you will see that he is not ‘pushing’ the swing, rather he is ‘pulling’ it using a pair of ropes.

And that is the puzzle, if you look at illustrations, and surviving examples, of swings over the centuries it is clear that they were either swung by the person on the swing, or pushed from behind. This happened across Europe, Asia and Africa from the second millennium BC until the present, apart from in Europe during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there the swing was swung by ropes.

'The Swing' by Nicolas Lancret 1735


Why this should be is a mystery, certainly at this time swinging was seen as an adult, as well as a child’s, recreation and was prescribed as a suitable exercise for elderly persons. Certainly the use of ropes would make swinging an elderly lady or gentleman easier, when they couldn’t swing themselves or it would be inappropriate to push them.

Philibert Louis Debucourt, Modes et Manières No. 9- L'Escarpolette


Also swinging was regarded as an ‘adult’ activity in that a young lady could be swung so that a viewer could have an ‘interesting’ view like the lover in Fragonard’s painting. This ‘activity’ is described in the remarkable poetic description of the great gardens at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, by Gilbert West in 1732.

A cool Recess there is, not far away,
Sacred to Love, to Mirth, and rural Play.
Hither oftimes the youthful Fair resort,
To cheat the tedious Hours with various Sport.
Some mid the Nine-pins marshall’d Orders roll,
With Aim unerring the impetuous Bowl.
Others, whose Souls to loftier Objects move,
Delight the Swing’s advent’rous Joys to prove:
While on each side the ready Lovers stand,
The flying Cord obeys th’ impulsive Hand.
As on a Day contending Rivals strove,
By manly Strength to recommend their Love;

Toss’d to and fro, up flew the giddy Fair,
And scream’d, and laugh’d, and play’d in upper Air.
The flutt’ring Coats the rapid Motion find,
And One by One admit the swelling Wind:
At length the last, white, subtile Veil withdrew,
And those mysterious Charms expos’d to view—
What Transport then, O — possess’d thy Soul!
Down from thy Hand, down dropt the idle Bowl:
As for the skilful Tip prepar’d you stood,
And Hopes and Fears alarm’d th’ expecting Croud.
Sudden to seize the beauteous Prey he sprung;
Sudden with Shrieks the echoing Thicket rung.

But the swing was also used by children, with the pulling ropes attached, though with a much more innocent purpose.
In the delightfully titled; Healthful Sports for Young Ladies of 1822, is a description of a swing that would make a modern health and safety enthusiast proud.

1 The Swing

The posts which supported the swing were a little decayed since the preceding year, but they were soon repaired. Madame D’Hernilly recommended prudence to the young people in partaking of this amusement, and, as an additional precaution, she took care to be present whenever they enjoyed it, and strictly ordered that no one should swing in her absence. They were prohibited standing upon the seat; neither were two persons allowed to get in at the same time; Ernestina, or Aglaé, or another of their friends, placed themselves by turns upon the seat, which was furnished with a soft cushion; and, while the one who took the exercise grasped the cords tightly with her two hands, two or three of her companions pulled the end of the cord, and thus made it go backward and forward.


And that is almost the last mention of ropes pulling a swing. I have seen a few later pictures, but these are clearly inspired by earlier works. Why they appeared, why they disappeared, I don’t know, but it is little puzzles like this that can make history so fascinating.


[The man (certainly no gentlemen) who pursued the young lady in the gardens at Stowe was a local clergyman, Conway Rand. Randy had been used as a term for a drunken gathering before this date, but it is only after this time it is used for a man who is sexually excited. Officially the origin of that meaning of the word is unknown – but perhaps?]

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Filed under Georgian, Regency

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