The Augustan World: Life and Letters in Eighteenth-Century England

By A. R. Humphreys | Go to book overview

VI. THE VISUAL ARTS

i. THE POLITE IMAGINATION

A man of a polite imagination is let into a great many pleasures that the vulgar are not capable of receiving. He can converse with a picture, and find an agreeable companion in a statue.

ADDISON

The Spectator, No. 411

I N his History of England in the Eighteenth Century ( 1878) Lecky observed that the English classical architects 'had touched the very nadir of taste'. The whirligig of time brings in his revenges, and today those architects are extolled as all but infallible. The Augustan arts have never been more admired than in an age which looks back two centuries to the coherence of what seems a golden era of design. That, rather than other art-forms, is the theme of this chapter. Eighteenth-century music, delightful as it is with Handel, the anthems of Greene and Boyce, the chamber works of Arne, and The Beggar's Opera with its melodious ballad-offspring, does not show the pressure of Augustan sensibility as strongly as do the visual arts, and its relations with literature are far less organic. Music expressed the social spirit as an accompaniment to masquerades, glee parties, dances and church worship, but until the nineteenth century felt its romantic intoxications the deeper emotions were stirred rather through the eye. It is what the Augustans saw more than what they heard that reveals their nature. The well-to- do Georgian was not always 'a man of a polite imagination' yet on the whole he was civilised enough to build himself a good house, fill it with seemly furniture, hang it with family portraits and Old Masters, and dispose a quantity of statuary in its niches. This was all part of the Augustan code, and the degree of its success is often superlative.

The polite imagination was more than a social grace; it entered

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The Augustan World: Life and Letters in Eighteenth-Century England
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents ix
  • I. Social Life 1
  • Iii. Public Affairs 98
  • Iv. Religious Life 138
  • V. Philosophy Moral and Natural 179
  • Vi. the Visual Arts 217
  • Reading Lists 261
  • Index 271
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