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:
As the Master of the Spring Gardens at Vaux-Hall has always been ambitious of obliging the Polite and Worthy Part of the Town, by doing every thing in his Power that may contribute to their Ease and Pleasure; he for that reason was induced to give out Tickets, but in no other View than to keep away such as are not fit to intermix with those Persons of Quality, Ladies, Gentlemen, and others, who should honour him with their Company.4
Tyers’s anxiety would later be shared by Garrick, for, even more than the social pleasures of Vauxhall Gardens, the theater was available to all, and the management of an expensive commercial operation like Drury Lane could not risk antagonizing any part of its potential client base, as the current jargon of marketing puts it.
Garrick’s ambitions for the theater were embodied in his love of Shakespeare, “the god of my idolatry” as he called him, borrowing the phrase from Romeo and Juliet. It was no mere affectation that led Garrick to build a temple to Shakespeare in the grounds landscaped by Capability Brown beside his villa on the Thames at Hampton. Always ready to use any means to publicize himself, he had himself painted by Gainsborough leaning against the statue with his arm draped affectionately around it. The most often painted of all actors—more than 450 paintings and engravings survive—Garrick handed out copies of his image to anyone who wanted them, writing to his brother from Paris in 1764, “I am so plagu’d here for my Prints or rather Prints of Me—that I must desire You to send me by the first opportunity six prints from Reynolds’ picture.” His adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays sought, insofar as the audience would allow, to restore as much of Shakespeare’s text as he could.
Garrick’s dilemma over his audience is most fully suggested in his grandest project, the celebration of the Shakespeare Jubilee held in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769, which he helped finance. For the first time England’s national poet, the embodiment of the brilliance of English culture, was celebrated in the town of his birth. The packed program included a masked ball, fireworks, concerts, processions, and a horse race for the Jubilee Cup. Thomas Arne’s sacred oratorio Judith was performed and Garrick read his new ode to Shakespeare accompanied by a large orchestra and massed choirs. Not a single Shakespeare play was performed during the Jubilee, for, as Brewer writes, “the cult was a cult of the author, not of his plays.” The value generally placed on Shakespeare was not to be manifest in the works themselves but rather in a general obeisance to his position as cultural figurehead. The people of Stratford, recognizing an unprecedented commercial opportunity, raised the prices of beds and meals to extravagant heights. The whole event was socially exclusive simply by virtue of the price of tickets. Torrential rain could not completely destroy the Jubilee’s success but it was a financial disaster for Garrick, who lost over å£2000.
Garrick’s solution was to turn the event itself into the materials for a play, to be put on in London. His short afterpiece The Jubilee, complete with a pageant of characters from Shakespeare’s plays in nineteen separate groups, culminated in the appearance onstage of “the statue of Shakespeare supported by the passions and surrounded by the seven muses.” The final tableau depicted all the characters surrounding the statue with banners waving. Garrick’s manuscript ends:
Every character, tragic and comic, join in the chorus and go back, during which guns fire, bells ring. &c. and the Audience applaud—Bravo, Jubilee, Shakespeare forever!
The production was an extraordinary success, performed ninety times in its first season, a run unequaled in the century. By making it possible for Drury Lane audiences to participate in an event from which most of them had been socially excluded, Garrick was able to extend his glorification of Shakespeare to the most visible stage in the country. At the same time, Garrick turns the narrative into an encounter between provincial ignorance and metropolitan upper-class cultural knowledge, for the locals in his play have no idea what “the Jubillo” is about, suspecting it to be a popish plot.
Garrick’s huge profits from The Jubilee derived from society’s curiosity about an event that it had read about in the newspapers but that few had witnessed, and from the shared recognition that praising Shakespeare was an expression of national pride and good taste. The play, like the event it dramatizes, both celebrates Shakespeare and avoids direct contact with his work; as a French character comments in George Colman’s play New Brooms, “dere was more moneys got by de gran spectacle of de Shakespeare Jubilee dan by all de comique and tragique of Shakespeare beside, ma foi!”5 Jingoistic cultural prestige resides in knowledge about the significance of Shakespeare, not in knowledge of Shakespeare’s work.
While those who made money out of Drury Lane had little to complain about during Garrick’s management, those who made cultural capital out of criticism of the drama complained vociferously about Garrick’s monopoly over repertory. There were frequent suggestions that the theater should not be run by an actor-playwright but instead by a gentleman or a committee without a professional stake in the performances. The debate reflects the parallel struggle for control over the exhibition and sale of paintings at a time when new spaces were being created for the display and sale of artworks.
With the formation of the Royal Academy under the sponsorship of George III in 1768, a particular model for cultural control claimed dominance. Its artists shared with Garrick the ambition of making their profession respectable and commercially profitable without compromising their aesthetic values. That painters should have control over the exhibition and sale of their own work was new; that they would do so within an institution with royal approval was revolutionary. In a century in which royal patronage of the arts occupied a much less significant cultural role, the king’s imprimatur was still a prestigious device.
At the beginning of the century, English painting was scorned by comparison with the work of Old Masters and restricted in its scope to portraits for wealthy patrons and landscapes for interior decoration. Brewer retells the account by Joseph Highmore of visiting the painter Vanderstraeten in 1714:
He hired a long garret where he painted cloths many feet in length…and painted the whole at once, continuing the sky… from one end to the other…til the whole was one long landscape. This he cut and sold by parcels as demanded to fit chimnies etc., and those who dealt in this way would go to his house and buy three or four, or any number of feet of landscapes.
The Royal Academy redefined English painting as the serious product of high art, work to be respected rather than sold by the foot. To achieve this change, painters also had to be able to paint—and make a living by painting—in such genres as history painting, the forms which could bring aesthetic approval. But history paintings are necessarily enormous and expensive canvases, requiring a dangerously large investment for the artists unless commissioned. The line between ambition and bankruptcy was frequently crossed.
In 1700 art was exhibited by dealers or in private houses; there were no public spaces controlled by the artists themselves. Hogarth tried to evade the dealers by having his work displayed at Vauxhall Gardens and at the London Foundling Hospital or by making engravings which could be widely sold at cheap prices even though the original painting was still sold to upper-class patrons. Hogarth was not only in conflict with the dealers. He also sought to regain control over aesthetics from the connoisseurs, gentlemen who saw themselves as the arbiters of taste. But in 1759 a meeting of artists moved from individual action to corporate strategy with their announced “Intention of Producing to Public View encourageing [sic] the Arts and paying the Charge that may attend the Exhibition of the Performances of the Artists.” Their aim was not only to sell their own work and raise their own reputations but also to look after their own:
The intention of this Meeting is to endeavour to procure a sum to be distributed in Charity towards the support of those Artists whose Age and Infirmity’s [sic] or other lawful Hindrances prevent from being any longer candidates for Fame.6
Such charity, like the donation of paintings to a charitable institution like the London Foundling Hospital, was a public statement of benevolence, a gentlemanly principle for eighteenth-century morality. The public was fascinated by the artists’ 1760 exhibition in the Great Room of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce on the Strand, and 6,582 catalogs were sold.
Arguments among the artists over the next few years often concentrated on fulfilling the stated charitable aims; but equally important was wresting control from the gentlemen connoisseurs who ran the Society of Arts. The connoisseurs’ wish to decide what should be hung at future exhibitions, particularly their condition that the work of prize-winning artists, mostly amateur, should be included, led to the artists separating to form their own organization, the Society (after 1765, the Incorporated Society) of Artists.
The ambitions of the most famous artists for their profession—what was, in effect, a wish to professionalize painting—rather than the more modest aims of many members of the Incorporated Society led to a further breakaway and the formation of the Royal Academy with Sir Joshua Reynolds as its first president. The two institutions each refused to allow their members to exhibit with the other and the prestige of the artists who made up the Royal Academy eventually ensured its victory. In 1780 over 61,000 people visited the Royal Academy’s first exhibition at Somerset House. The Academy’s annual exhibitions became the place not only to see the most important new work but also to be seen, a significant event in London’s social calendar.
But the prestige of the Academicians was also a function of their deliberate exclusivity. Membership was limited to forty artists, and this fiercely maintained limitation was a denial of the principle of open access for membership of the Incorporated Society. The premise of the Royal Academy and a large part of its success were owing to its sense of the appropriateness of maintaining a hierarchy for its professionals. The sole arbiters of taste were no longer amateur gentlemen connoisseurs but professional gentlemen artists. The work of amateur artists of the kind that artists objected to in the 1760s still forms a significant part of the works displayed at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions but it is now chosen by artists, not by critics.
Brewer offers parallels to the histories of Garrick and the theater or Reynolds and painting in the histories of Samuel Richardson and the novel or Dr. Johnson and the art of writing. There is, strikingly, no such parallel possible for music. Brewer is intrigued by the vast sums earned by Haydn at his London concerts (å£800 at his 1794 benefit concert); he is adroit in his account of the great Handel commemoration concerts in Westminster Abbey from 1784 to 1791. Indeed, Handel, after death, became the ideal of the English composer. But musical culture is not only visible in such colossal public events, in which the choirs and orchestra at the 1791 commemoration numbered 1068 people. Playing music can also be a small-scale activity, a central part of the experience of a wide circle of amateur musicians.
The finest chapter of The Pleasures of the Imagination is Brewer’s account of the life of John Marsh, a little-known composer of church music who, coming into an inheritance in 1781, settled in Chichester, where he lived from 1787 until his death in 1828. Marsh had been a solicitor but his inheritance enabled him to live as a gentleman with an income of more than å£1000 a year. Music was a hobby, not a financial necessity, for him. Thomas Bewick’s fame as an engraver could earn him an immense fortune but it could never turn him from businessman into gentleman, a social restriction he shared with the other Newcastle businessmen with whom he met and earnestly discussed the issues of the day. Marsh’s career as a musician was entirely the activity of a member of a leisured class. With great sensitivity, Brewer uses Marsh’s unpublished autobiography to create the portrait of the musical life in a small town: the glee clubs and concerts, church organs and assemblies, private evenings of music-making and public nights of music festivals. Each aspect of Marsh’s musical life—including the playing of his compositions in many English churches—proves to reveal much about the organization of eighteenth-century musical culture.
John Marsh’s musical culture was hardly visible on the national scale with which The Pleasures of the Imagination is mostly concerned. In the lack of countrywide reverberations for such concerts, in the day to day of his performing and playing music that can only be described in such detail because of the survival of Marsh’s writings, Brewer hints at its typicality. The nature of eighteenth-century musical life makes that especially possible. More than in any other section of his book, Brewer is able here to explore the cultural life of a significant cross section of a provincial community; yet that cross section is by no means representative of the whole of Chichester society—unless we hear a silent adjective, “polite,” before that word “society.”
If The Pleasures of the Imagination has a serious weakness, it is that it is so rigidly concerned with high culture, with the arts as enjoyed by the middling sort and their superiors. Brewer has little to say about working-class culture, about oral traditions of ballads or about the extent of working-class literacy, about rural festivals and urban sports. “Culture” becomes the prerogative of some and controlled by few; it was the right of English men and women, provided they could afford it. As The Pleasures of the Imagination moves from provincial art to the natural art of the English countryside, it leapfrogs over the lives of the eighteenth century’s equivalent to blue-collar workers. This is an aspect of the account that remains for someone else to complete. But it is a pardonable fault when there is so much else in Brewer’s book to admire and enjoy.
At one point, Brewer discusses the ways in which the culture’s concern to “order the arts”7 resulted in the writing of critical histories of each art: Horace Walpole’s Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762), for instance, or Sir John Hawkins’s A General History of the Science and Practice of Music (1776). Only one of these histories was by a university don, Thomas Warton’s History of English Poetry (1774-1781). Brewer describes it as “vastly learned (though less learned than it appeared) and nostalgic about England’s literary past,” a work which “drew on a large body of antiquarian materials for a dense and detailed history.” Without Brewer’s caveats, this would serve as a fine description of Brewer’s own achievement, for The Pleasures of the Imagination is vastly learned—even more so than it appears—and draws on large bodies of research (his own and others’) for its dense and detailed history. Like Warton’s too, Brewer’s book has an appeal that “extended beyond the academy”; it too will be “a vast source book,” but one whose own great pleasures far outweigh those of his eighteenth-century ancestor.
April 9, 1998
(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). ↩
Quoted in George Winchester Stone, Jr., and George M. Kahrl, David Garrick: A Critical Biography (Southern Illinois University Press, 1979), p. 648. ↩
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. ↩
Quoted by David H. Solkin in his excellent analysis of Vauxhall, Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England (Yale University Press, 1993), p. 111. ↩
Quoted in my “The Age of Garrick,” in Jonathan Bate and Russell Jackson, editors, Shakespeare: An Illustrated Stage History (Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 75. ↩
Quoted by Solkin in Painting for Money, pp. 174-175. ↩
See, especially, Lawrence Lipking, The Ordering of the Arts in Eighteenth-Century England (Princeton University Press, 1970). ↩