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…

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