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Culture Ho!

The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century

by John Brewer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 721 pp., $40.00


As John Brewer, in his exhilarating remapping of eighteenth-century culture in The Pleasures of the Imagination, turns his attention from the engravings of Thomas Bewick to the provincial musical life of the amateur musician John Marsh, he takes a sideswipe at the readers of this journal:

The memory of Thomas Bewick endures, albeit in sanitized, commercialized form. Purged of its reformist associations and transformed into the celebration of a rural idyll, his work adorns tea towels and toasters as well as works of rustic nostalgia; his vignettes assuage the pastoral longings of the urban sophisticates who read the New York Review of Books and they are taken, in both Britain and North America, to embody Englishness.

While Brewer can rightly assume that his own readers will know nothing of the world of an obscure amateur composer and musician like John Marsh, he is concerned here with the way that the traces of eighteenth-century culture survive in the different consumer culture of the late twentieth century. Bewick’s images, contained in his three main publications, A General History of Quadrupeds (1790), his two-volume History of British Birds (1797 and 1804), and his Fables of Aesop (1818), were immediately and startlingly successful, making Bewick’s fortune and transforming the popular representation of natural history. Brewer carefully and convincingly shows that Bewick’s work derived from both his love of nature and his wish to use the small compass of his engravings to provide a moral commentary on his society.

A member of a number of clubs in Newcastle, where he lived and worked, Bewick shared with the other businessmen who met regularly at Swarley’s Club or the Bell Tavern an intense interest in “the Liberties of Mankind.” Whether the primary purpose of a club was political debate or literature and the fine arts, the gatherings brought together men who shared strong beliefs in the Enlightenment, Bewick’s “march of intellect,” as a means of improving their community. As Brewer comments, “Literature and the arts were not considered to be separate from morality but to encourage wisdom and shape better citizens.” Few of the members were gentlemen; instead, the clubs provided a meeting place for men—and their membership seems to have been restricted to men only—who worked in every aspect of Newcastle’s thriving economy.

That communal zeal for social improvement informs Bewick’s engravings. The format of his books was based on the design of books for children, for Bewick was passionate in his belief that, as he wrote, “it is of the utmost importance to the wellbeing of society that youth be early initiated in the true principles of Religion, Morality and Patriotism.” Through the kind of fables that he wrote and illustrated, Bewick hoped his readers, old and young, would learn moral lessons. Sentimental aesthetics were subordinate to religious and social didacticism.

But Bewick’s autobiography, A Memoir of Thomas Bewick written by himself, both reveals his moral purpose and suggests a continuing and profound anxiety that his work was not properly understood. When Wordsworth praises Bewick as a “poet who lives on the banks of the Tyne,/Who has plied his rude tools with more fortunate toil/Than Reynolds e’re brought to his canvas and oil,” he is expressing a widespread view that Bewick was some kind of rustic—or at least provincial—genius. Bewick may have been well-read but it suited the cultural assumptions of many of the educated readers who greatly admired his work to see him as some kind of unlettered workman. Audubon, the American naturalist, described him as “purely a son of nature, to whom alone he owed nearly all that characterized him as an artist and a man.”

Throughout The Pleasures of the Imagination, Brewer is interested as much in the way culture was absorbed and consumed as in the intentions of the artists whose works created that culture. But the failure of some readers to appreciate Bewick’s intentions is also telling. The moral argument of the images that Brewer outlines with great clarity is thoroughly convincing but it certainly does not follow that all those who bought the books and relished the engravings understood their moral message. The sheer accessibility and delight of the images of the animals themselves make it almost too easy for the reader to miss Bewick’s moral point. Perhaps, though Brewer does not suggest it, all consumption of culture can trivialize, whether the consumers are eighteenth- or twentieth-century. Certainly, there is less difference between most contemporary responses to his work and that of the readers of The New York Review of Books than Brewer’s mocking comment on the latter might suggest. But Brewer’s imaginative sympathies are so strongly with Bewick’s eighteenth-century audience that he overcompensates by disparaging its successor.

Nonetheless, The Pleasures of the Imagination is a magnificent achievement. I doubt if there is anyone other than John Brewer who could have accomplished it. Enormous in its scope, astute in its choices of examples, learned in its resources, but written with an almost unfailing lucidity and accessibility, Brewer’s book builds surely on his own previous accomplishments. By far the most important of these was the three-year program of research on “Culture and Consumption in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries” which was held at the Clark Library in Los Angeles while Brewer was its director and which resulted in three vast tomes, all co-edited by Brewer, containing only a fraction of the papers delivered to the project’s seminars.1 “Consumption” was the key word both for that research project and for Brewer’s new book. He is less interested in establishing the worth of the objects the culture produced than in tracing the mechanisms by which they were disseminated through the culture. He tries to establish the full meaning of Bewick’s engravings, but he also tries to identify the means by which those images could be read and misread by the people they reached. As he states in his introduction,

I am examining writing, bookselling, publishing and reading rather than the genius of Johnson; exhibiting societies, academies, art dealers and collecting rather than the brilliance of Reynolds; and censorship, subsidies, theatres, audiences and actors rather than the talents of Garrick.

These three main subjects, dubbed by Brewer alliteratively “Print,” “Paint,” and “Performance,” take up the first half of the book and each field is inevitably dominated by the genius, brilliance, and talents of Johnson, Reynolds, and Garrick.

It is David Garrick whose portrait by Gainsborough serves as the frontispiece to The Pleasures of the Imagination. Though he is never quite explicit on the matter, Garrick seems to epitomize Brewer’s view of eighteenth-century culture, less for his abilities as an actor than for his pragmatic commercialism, his social mobility, and his artistic ambitions. Garrick was born in Hereford in 1717 but his family soon moved to Lichfield, where he lived until he was twenty, going to school for two years at Edial, where he was taught by Dr. Johnson before he and Johnson journeyed to London together in 1737. Unlike the poet and novelist Anna Seward, the subject of one of Brewer’s three chapters dealing with provincial art (alongside Bewick and John Marsh), who lived her whole life in Lichfield, Garrick revolutionized the place of theater in English culture by moving to the capital.

From 1747 to 1776 Garrick was the manager of Drury Lane Theatre in London. As actor, manager, and playwright, Garrick both ensured that Drury Lane was financially successful—thereby increasing his income—and transformed the status of his profession: as Dr. Johnson put it, “His profession made him rich and he made his profession respectable.” Edmund Burke phrased the same sentiment more politely in his epitaph. Garrick, he said, “raised the character of his profession to the rank of a liberal art, not only by his talents, but by the regularity and probity of his life and the elegance of his manners.”2 For Burke, rank and status are products not only of professional skill but also of the correct forms of social behavior. Garrick’s long and happy marriage was as important for the status of acting as anything he did on stage, since it not only modeled a perfect gentlemanly chastity but also controverted the normal image of the actor as a rake.

For the first time it was possible to think of an actor as someone fit to converse with gentlemen, and Garrick’s circle of friends included scholars and critics, essayists and country gentlemen, businessmen and aristocrats. Brewer is fascinated by the networks that such circles define not only for their suggestiveness about the interaction of disparate groups within English society but also for the authority to shape culture that a circle may achieve. A society’s image of its own culture is generated precisely by the modes of transmission of the understanding of that culture. The development across the century of varieties of places in which art was discussed—in magazines and pamphlets, clubs and debates, letters and libraries—marks a crucial change in society’s perception of its own culture. One of the key figures in Brewer’s account, Anna Larpent, married to the Chief Inspector of Plays in the Lord Chamberlain’s office, carefully recorded in her diary the titles of the hundreds of books she read, but she also assessed each one in the style of The Monthly Review, a journal she read thoroughly each month to see what was newly published.3 Such journals, the forerunners of The New York Review of Books, were themselves new, a sign of a society eager not only to know what had been published but whether it ought to be read, whether, for instance, a copy should be bought by a circulating library or one of the many private libraries whose existence throughout the country ensured a widespread engagement with print culture, far beyond the purchasing power of the kinds of people who belonged to them.

For Anna Larpent living in London and far more for Anna Seward living in Lichfield, journals were an indispensable means of participating in the culture’s flood of new books. But while such publications suggest a democratization of access to culture, at least for the middle class, taste, that crucial word in eighteenth-century views of culture, was largely shaped by exclusive groups. Among the most influential definers of taste was the Literary Club, founded by Sir Joshua Reynolds in honor of Dr. Johnson in 1764. Originally consisting of nine members, the club had grown to thirty-five by 1791. David Garrick and fellow managers George Colman and Richard Sheridan belonged to it. Even at its largest the club was extremely exclusive. It exemplifies English society’s ambivalence, both wanting and distrusting open access.

How to make culture widely available—and hence commercially attractive—while maintaining its genteel tone exercised the minds of those engaged in providing places for the population of London to enjoy themselves. Vauxhall Gardens, for instance, once little more than an outdoor brothel, was transformed by Jonathan Tyers in the 1730s: its labyrinthine gardens, once so convenient for assignations, were ordered and straightened; its supper rooms were decorated with paintings by Francis Hayman showing decorously those groups, like children and the poor, who were not admitted; its walks were used to display artworks like Roubiliac’s statue of Handel; its halls resounded to orchestras and organs playing polite music. Tyers was particularly concerned to ensure that the proper clientele for these entertainments were not troubled by the presence in their midst of undesirables. In 1736 he issued a notice explaining his new practice of distributing admission tickets:

  1. 1

    (with Roy Porter) Consumption and the World of Goods (Routledge, 1993); (with Susan Staves) Early Modern Conceptions of Property (Routledge, 1994); (with Ann Bermingham) The Consumption of Culture 1600-1800: Image, Object, Text (Routledge, 1995).

  2. 2

    Quoted in George Winchester Stone, Jr., and George M. Kahrl, David Garrick: A Critical Biography (Southern Illinois University Press, 1979), p. 648.

  3. 3

    Brewer has written intriguingly about Larpent in “Reconstructing the Reader: Prescriptions, Texts and Strategies in Anna Larpent’s Reading” in James Raven, Helen Small, and Naomi Tadmor, editors, The Practice and Representation of Reading in England (Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 226-245.

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