Marketing the Arts: The Cultivation of Modern Britain

By Battestin, Martin C. | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

Marketing the Arts: The Cultivation of Modern Britain


Battestin, Martin C., The Virginia Quarterly Review


The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century. By John Brewer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $40.00.

Some years ago, reflecting on philosophical changes that, for better and for worse, have altered our sense of the world we live in, Leo Spitzer declared the middle decades of the 18th century to be "the great caesura" in the intellectual history of the West-the moment when a new materialism displaced confidence in a providential world view. Just how abruptly the ideas of the philosophes transformed political thought in this same period is suggested by Jacob Viner's observation that in the hundred years from 1660 to 1760 not a single work published in England advocated egalitarian principles of government; yet before the century was out, there would occur political cataclysms in America and Europe that signalled the demise of the old order. The story of these radical transformations in 18th-century life has been often told by historians. What John Brewer provides in this magnificent book is instead the story of a gender aspect of this century of revolution-the story of what might be called the civilizing of a nation, of England, through the rise of "High Culture" and the widespread commercial diffusion of the objects of aesthetic pleasure.

There is much about Brewer's book that justifies hyperbole. To begin with the least of its virtues, it is handsomely designed and, despite its length (nearly 700 pages), it is a pleasure to read: numerous aptly chosen illustrations share space on the page with the narrative, and three bright garlands of color plates are gathered at intervals to cheer us on the way. The scope of the work is also generous. Brewer undertakes to trace the evolution of taste in the arts over a period stretching from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the early decades of 19th-century romanticism; and in the course of this history he describes the process by which a new commercialism, replacing the desultory patronage of kings and noblemen, revolutionized the production and marketing of books and prints, and opened theaters, concert halls, and pleasure gardens to a wider public. His survey is broad, taking in the immense variety of a people's pleasures-books and the visual arts, opera and the theater, country dancing and bell-ringing, tourism, and much, much more: it is indeed, as the author of a "puff" on the dust jacket has it, "a splendid cornucopia of a book." It is also rich in illuminating detail drawn from primary materials-contemporary journals, memoirs, tradesmen's ledgers-among them important sources for the most part previously untapped: the journal (in 17 volumes, covering the years 1773-1828) of Anna Larpent, for instance, who "personified a cultured lady of late eighteenth-century London"; the papers of the West Country miniaturist Ozias Humphry (1742-1810), an archive revealing the difficulties faced by artists of the period as they tried to establish a place for themselves in the profession; and the manuscript autobiography (in more than 28 volumes!) of the provincial musician and composer, John Marsh (1752-1828), who left behind "a saga," as Brewer calls it, "of one man's pursuit of musical and Christian harmony."

Because they are so little known Larpent, Humphrys, and Marsh are among the more interesting figures in Brewer's strategy of organizing this crowded history by means of a series of biographical "sketches" that serve to exemplify his themes and bring them, as it were, to life. The "characters" who serve in this way to enliven his account of the cultural life of London are for the most part more familiar: Richard Steele for the coffee-houses; Jacob Tonson the publisher and Samuel Richardson (who was a master printer as well as novelist) for the book trade; Johnson and Boswell for literature; John Gay and Garrick for the theater; Hogarth and Reynolds-rival advocates, respectively, for a native realism versus an ideal classicism in painting; Handel and the historian Charles Burney for music; Jonathan Tyres, creator of Vauxhall, for the pleasure gardens; Sir Francis Dashwood and Richard Payne Knight (learned author of An Account of the Worship of Priapus [1786]) for the sensualist connoisseurs of the Society of Dilettanti. …

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