Jenny Uglow is the author of The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World and Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense. (August 2019)


Civility and Its Discontents

A satirical lithograph of Englishmen learning to bow in an etiquette course taught by the French, 1817

In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England

by Keith Thomas
“Civility,” Keith Thomas notes, “was (and is) a slippery and unstable word.” “Civil” and “civilian” evoke the social life of a people not under military rule, the world of the civitas—the organized community—the only place, according to Aristotle and Cicero, where the good life is possible. While “courtesy” relates to the values of the court, “civility,” Thomas writes, is “the virtue of citizens”: in his Dictionary (1755), Samuel Johnson defined it as both “politeness” and “the state of being civilized.” Thomas explores the understanding and use of the term in England from 1500 to 1800, when it referred both to manners in daily life and manners as mores: the customs and attitudes of the allegedly civilized nation as a whole.

Big Talkers

‘In the Shades’; drawing of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell by Max Beerbohm, 1915

The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age

by Leo Damrosch
The Literary Club, known simply as “The Club,” was established in early 1764 after the portrait painter Joshua Reynolds became worried about his friend Samuel Johnson, who was sinking into a black depression. An old Oxford friend, William Adams, had visited Johnson the previous autumn and “found him in a deplorable state, sighing, groaning, talking to himself, and restlessly walking from room to room.” Johnson told Adams, “I would consent to have a limb amputated to recover my spirits.” An evening of talk with friends, Reynolds suggested, was a less drastic remedy.

Island Hopping

The death of Captain Cook on February 15, 1779, at Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii; engraving from John Rickman’s Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Journey to the Pacific Ocean on Discovery (1781). It was the first image of Cook’s death to be published.

Captain James Cook: The Journals

selected and edited by Philip Edwards

James Cook: The Voyages

by William Frame with Laura Walker
On August 26, 1768, a day of fresh winds and cloudy skies, James Cook guided his ship, the Endeavour, past the coast of Cornwall into the open sea. On board, he noted in his journal, were ninety-four men, “Officers Seamen Gentlemen”—including the wealthy young naturalist Joseph Banks—and the ship carried …

Stepping Out of Byron’s Shadow

Ada Lovelace; painting by Alfred Edward Chalon, 1835

In Byron’s Wake: The Turbulent Lives of Byron’s Wife and Daughter: Annabella Milbanke and Ada Lovelace

by Miranda Seymour

Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist

by Christopher Hollings, Ursula Martin, and Adrian Rice
On March 20, 1816, Annabella, Lady Byron, received a poem in the mail. In fifteen stanzas, Byron’s “Fare Thee Well” was a cascade of brokenhearted loss and love: All my faults perchance thou     knowest,       All my madness none can         know; All my hopes, where’er thou goest, …


‘To Particularize Is the Alone Distinction of Merit’: Blake’s Visionary Imagination

William Blake: Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car, 1824–1827

The Blake exhibition at Tate Britain, the first major exhibition in nearly twenty years, shows 300 of his prints and paintings, with manuscripts and printed books, gathered from galleries and libraries across the world. To corral this, the curators have imposed a chronological arrangement, setting Blake’s work in the context of the French Revolution, the spread of industry and the growing British empire, and devoting rooms to his patrons and his career as an engraver to show how he scraped a living until the relative freedom of his final years. Far from being dwarfed by the vast Tate rooms, within these controlling boxes Blake’s shining art explodes with energy, sometimes mystical, sometimes rippling with anger, sometimes leaping with delight.

Dora Maar’s Piercing Gaze

This haunting show, in the cool gallery spaces high above the city that Dora Maar knew so well, makes it clear that she was indeed a star, a leading figure in Surrealist photo-montage of the mid-1930s. Maar’s largest exhibition in France, it contains over 400 of her works, yet, like the model in the banner, she turns away, and hides her face, remaining enigmatic in her work. In Self-Portrait with Fan (1930), she shows only her reflection in a mirror, her serious gaze shrouded by the circles of an electric fan. She looks as if she might blow away, dissolve into fragments.

The Art of Czechoslovakia Amid a Fight Over De-Accessioning

Käthe Strenitz: Village, twentieth century

“Czech Routes” contains works by twenty-one painters, printmakers, and sculptors who left Czechoslovakia at different times in the past century. One fine bronze by Irena Sedlecká, who stayed in Britain after the USSR crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, is a sculpture of Kafka she made in 1967. “Reading The Trial,” Sedlecká said, “I understood for the first time what it means to be Czech. He made sense of those terrible times when the authorities would simply pull you in for questioning, without your ever knowing the reason. That experience has shaped our national psyche.”

Airy & Otherworldly Japanese Poetry Prints

Keisai Eisen: A mother with her two children feeding chickens, 1825

“Plum Blossom and Green Willow: Surimono Poetry Prints,” with its array of nineteenth-century Japanese woodblock poetry prints, transports us to another world. A quiet revelation to visitors who are primarily attuned to the arts of the West, this is a strange and lovely show, accompanied by clear labels that usefully explain the context of the genre and teach us how to “read” these rare woodblock prints—to understand the relation of the work to the poems inscribed on the prints and the meaning of the figures shown, with their references to ancient traditions.