Alfred in the Neatherd's Cottage: History Painting and Epic Poetry in the Early Nineteenth Century

By Harvey, A. D. | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Alfred in the Neatherd's Cottage: History Painting and Epic Poetry in the Early Nineteenth Century


Harvey, A. D., Philological Quarterly


In 1766 the German dramatist and critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing warned in his essay Laokoon against over-emphasizing apparent similarities between the arts of poetry and painting, and his views have been restated more uncompromisingly by modern critics. (1) Nevertheless the sheer number of epic poems and history paintings, often on the same theme, produced in western Europe in the five decades following Lessing's death makes it tempting to suppose that there was some sort of underlying conception common to the work of both poets and painters. (2) Both epic poetry and history painting enjoyed a particular vogue in this period. In France the depiction in the grand manner of scenes from French history was sponsored by the comte d'Angiviller, Louis XVI's Directeur des Batiments from 1774 onward; after 1800 Napoleon made sure that events of his own reign were similarly celebrated by the leading painters of the day, both French and Italian. In Britain Benjamin West, having established his reputation as a history painter with his The Death of Wolfe, was patronized by George III and in 1792 elected to succeed Sir Joshua Reynolds as President of the Royal Academy. Official encouragement of epic poetry was less direct, though one notes that epic poets of the period included junior ministers like James Bland Burges and Richard Wharton, court officials like Goethe and state councillors like Anders Frederik Skjoldebrand, but one way of looking at the artistic and literary culture of this period as a whole is in terms of a kind of division, perhaps even competition, between a neo-classicism that emphasized participation in the public sphere and the celebration of public events in a style self-consciously derived from the classics, and a romanticism which involved a retreat from, even a rejection of, the public sphere in favor of self-contemplation and an immersion in nature and local traditions, and if this distinction is held valid, epic poetry will be seen to fall very much on the neo-classical, public-sphere-oriented side of the divide. (3) Since certain topics were almost equally favored as subjects for history painting and epic poetry it is worth investigating what it was in these topics that attracted both painters and poets.

One theme that was notably popular with practitioners of the two sister arts was King Alfred, the ninth-century King of the West Saxons, the only English monarch to have been accorded the title "The Great." (4) Born in 849, Alfred succeeded his elder brother AEthelred as King of the West Saxons in 871 at a time when invading Danes seemed at the point of conquering the whole of England. After a number of battlefield reverses and a period of guerrilla warfare directed from a base in the marshes of Somersetshire, Alfred vanquished the Danes at the Battle of Edington in 878 and established a peace which left him in control of England south of a line running from London to Chester, a territory which had to be defended when war with the Danes flared up again in the 890s. Probably the first English king to be able to read and write, Alfred translated the first fifty psalms and Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae into Anglo-Saxon, sponsored the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, drew up a code of laws, encouraged the spiritual education of the clergy, and organized a navy. Though he never enjoyed the legendary, almost mythic status of Charlemagne, who had reigned less than a century earlier and whose great-granddaughter was the Saxon king's stepmother, Alfred benefited from being relatively well-documented by contemporaries, notably Asser, a member of his household, whose life of Alfred is the earliest known biography of an English layman.

Though all but forgotten during the Middle Ages, with the growth of antiquarian interest in Anglo-Saxon antiquities from the sixteenth century onwards Alfred assumed an increasingly important role in Englishmen's perception of their national identity. …

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