TImes and Tides: (Includes Related Articles and Two Book reviews)(Cross Currents)(Column)

Article excerpt

The annual Newport Symposium is the world's most desirable historical conference. Christie's sponsors it and the Preservation Society of Newport, Rhode Island, acts as host. The alliance of taste, wealth and scholarship makes the experience unique and ensures that places are keenly contested. Papers are read and refreshments taken in historic locations around the town, including the gilded halls and marble mansions that housed the late nineteenth-century elite when Newport was by acclamation the summer resort of America's unofficial aristocracy. The town has only two zones: the sumptuous ocean-side of ostentatious palazzi and the merely picturesque old town by the harbour. Fleets of transport glide symposium participants between them, while the waves break and the wind braces.

The subject of this year's symposium was `Art, Trade and Empire'. This shows the organisers' inventiveness. I may be wrong -- for nowadays historical conferences are as many as autumn leaves that strow the brooks in Vallombrosa, and most of them turn almost as quickly to mulch -- but, as far as I know, there has never before been a conference dedicated to these topics in combination. Nor do I know of any work which tries to tackle them together on a global scale, except for an under-appreciated little volume of a few years ago by Mary W. Helms, Craft and the Kingly Ideal, which adopts an ethnographic perspective and conjures up the powerful magic transmitted by small objects of desire in traditional societies.

At first glance, the links between art, trade and empire look like the ideal focus for Newport. The town started as a bucolic colony of Baptist exiles, but Quaker craftsmen, Jewish traders and a regime of religious toleration, combined with commercial deregulation, helped turn it into a great eighteenth-century emporium of Atlantic trade. In 1768, when the poet John Maylem beheld `A town built on ten furlongs -- good -- / With houses like the people -- wood --' his satire was already unjust. Newport was becoming a cult-site of polite taste and a modest centre of art patronage, where the work of architects, painters and gardeners all seemed to demonstrate the roles of trade and empire in transfusing artistic influences. Peter Harrison was a former sea captain, with a copy of Vitruvius Britannicus in his chest, who built hilltop gems of classical propriety, pillared and pedimented, such as the Athenaeum and the Touro Synagogue. Among the portraitists, Robert Feke was an ex-mariner and Samuel Smith doubled as a maker and vendor of navigational instruments. The look they and their fellow-artists gave their town was imperial -- a recreation of metropolitan values, housed in frontier weatherboard. The money which paid for it came from the imperial trade of great merchants like Abraham Redwood and Godfrey Malbone. The hardwoods which the firm of Townsend and Goddard turned into furniture of startling elegance came from the Caribbean, along with the molasses that Newport converted into rum. …