The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century

Overview

John Brewer's landmark book shows us how English artists, amateurs, entrepreneurs, and audiences developed a culture that is still celebrated for its wit and brilliance. Brewer's purpose is to show how literature, painting, music, and the theater related to a public increasingly avid for them; how artists used, or were used by, publishers, plagiarists, impresarios, and managers; and how contemporary ideas of taste combined with patriotic fervor and shrewdly managed commerce to create a vibrant, dynamic national ...
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The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century

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Overview

John Brewer's landmark book shows us how English artists, amateurs, entrepreneurs, and audiences developed a culture that is still celebrated for its wit and brilliance. Brewer's purpose is to show how literature, painting, music, and the theater related to a public increasingly avid for them; how artists used, or were used by, publishers, plagiarists, impresarios, and managers; and how contemporary ideas of taste combined with patriotic fervor and shrewdly managed commerce to create a vibrant, dynamic national culture. In Brewer's transforming analysis, we see revealed a picture of English eighteenth-century art and literature that is less familiar but more surprising, more various, and more convincing than any we have seen before.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In one brilliant volume, Brewer (The Sinews of Power), who teaches history at the European University Institute in Florence, examines the evolution of the visual arts, literature, music and theater in 18th-century England, managing to elucidate both the general tenor of the time and the peculiarities of the English experience. Despite efforts by Charles II and James II, the British monarchy never regained the grand courtly tradition it maintained before the Commonwealth. No new palace served as a cultural center and the monarchs' chronic financial woes meant that they would be stingy patrons at best. Without the grand courts of the Continent, the arts were more readily molded by the general society. Fortunately, culture had become an important commodity: Taste and sensibility were not inherited, so for well-to-do tradespeople, culture was a way to erase class distinctions, and for gentry to maintain them. The cross-fertilization of culture between London and the provinces proved to be very fruitful. While many of the great names of the 18th centurySamuel Johnson, David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds, James Boswell, Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardsoncame from the shires, London provided an unmatched opportunity for encounters with both culture and like-minded people through coffee houses, pleasure gardens, Italian opera, exhibiting societies, the Royal Academy and much more. Eighteenth-century England experienced changes that would have lasting effects on art. The rise in literacy particularly among formerly illiterate shopkeepers and women benefited from the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695 that allowed for a new expansion of the press. A boom in periodicals also gave writers a new measure of independence in making a livelihood from their chosen field. In the visual artists also began to break free from the domination of aristocratic connoisseurs and patrons. Theater, too, changed, as royal patents were passed from courtiers to businessmen and the Licensing Act of 1737 created censorious strictures that stifled innovation in spoken drama at the same time it spawned Bardolatry and lighter musical fare. Brewer combines synthetic thinking, lucid writing and profound research clearly indicated by his use of happily opportune examples, statistics and 240 truly illuminating illustrations. Here, the pleasures of the imagination are perfectly combined with the pleasures of scholarship. (Sept.)
Library Journal
"[I]n the late seventeenth century high culture moved out of the narrow confines of the court and into diverse spaces in London....The city [became] not only the center of culture but one of its key subjects." Brewer (The Sinews of Power, Knopf, 1989) has written a nearly flawless study of a key period in English literary and artistic culture. A plethora of illustrations, both written and visual, support his thesis. The 18th-century British republic of letters was shaped by the deliberate efforts of its artists and writers to define aesthetic criteria and standards of good taste in their fields, wresting control from the collector/connoisseur, to whom "the artist was of far less consequence than the subject of his portraits." Brewer discusses a host of significant topics, such as the evolution of the book trade and the establishment of the Royal Academy of Art. An intellectual feast of the first order to be savored by amateur and professional alike; enthusiastically recommended.David Keymer, California State Univ., Stanislaus
Peter Holland
"The Pleasures of the Imagination" is vastly learned -- even more so than it appears -- and draws on large bodies of research his own and others' for its dense and detailed history. -- Peter Holland, The New York Review of Books
T.H. Breen
Brewer takes us on a grand tour of the exciting, fluid, often very raucous world of the eighteenth-century arts.... A brilliantly illustrated social history.
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
In encyclopedic detail and with Johnsonian style and gusto, Brewer expatiates on the cultural development of a Public—reading, listening, and viewing—and the rise of Taste.

Historian Brewer follows his work on the politics and government of the same period in Britain, The Sinews of Power (1989), with a reassessment of British culture as it moved out of the aristocratic Renaissance and rakish Restoration, and evolved into a culture driven in part by an extraordinarily mercantile middle class. Brewer demonstrates how London emerged as the center of a boom in literature, music, and art—admittedly from mercenary forces. Grub Street produced Pope and Johnson; the urban landscape inspired Hogarth and Rowlandson; Handel and Haydn found financial independence in oratorios and public concerts; and David Garrick combined the roles of actor-manager and neoclassical interpreter of Shakespeare. Brewer is equally interested in the consumers of this expanding culture. His glosses of the bookselling trade, the mercurial London theater, and art auctions and exhibitions are supported by firsthand accounts, such as those of Anna Larpent, an intellectual lady of leisure and taste, and Ozias Humphry, a miniaturist who never quite succeeded in the art business. With this refinement of taste, though, a cultural divide emerged between connoisseurs and dilettantes, amateurs and professionals, London and the provinces. Brewer, however, shows how the provinces not only absorbed culture from London but distributed it more evenly as well. Outside the home counties, he unearths lesser-known but interesting figures: Thomas Bewick, a successful Newcastle engraver; Anna Seward, the Lichfield bluestocking and contentious associate of Johnson; and John Marsh, a Chichester gentleman with a passion for amateur music.

Only a book as rich, diverse, and allusive as Brewer's could do justice to the phenomenal cultural expansion of 18th-century England.

From the Publisher
"[T]his history book is now, for me, the last word on how British literary culture changed between the last days of the early modern period and the Victorian age ... give this book as a present to your favourite amateur historian: they will love you for it." - Kate Macdonald, Vulpes Libris

"Pleasures of the Imagination paints a kaleidoscopic picture of eighteenth-century culture that is both erudite and accessible." - Heather Mcpherson, University of Alabama at Birmingham

"If you want to understand how British culture reinvented itself in the eighteenth century, read The Pleasures of the Imagination... Like all really original achievements it makes us sharply rethink things we supposed we knew well, but it does so with humour and humanity, and through the text runs Brewer's remarkable intellect: forceful, lucid and penetrating." - Simon Schama

"The Pleasures of the Imagination is a splendid cornucopia of a book. It describes the contortions of the eighteenth century as it developed a culture... It is full of pure delight... The marvel of this book is that in writing in exuberant detail about the past, Brewer succeeds in illuminating the present... This book wears its massive scholarship lightly. I hope some of our new political masters have time to read it, for it is a history that teaches us many lessons." - Peter Hall, The Observer

"Brewer ranges over almost every corner of the English mind with sharp, darting observation... Brewer is perceptive, amusing and thorough wherever he strays. This is by far the most complete and up-to-date account of the evolving Georgian arts... We are shown round a society aiming at Rome but often hitting Babylon, with the combined attitutes of fin-de siecle Paris and of Las Vegas. This is a book to treasure as it treasures a past we thought we had lost." - Pat Rogers, Sunday Telegraph

"A model of the new cultural history... In Britons, Linda Colley highlighted the new political, patriotic and religious tides which flowed in the Georgian age, creating a fresh confidence and sense of national identity... The Pleasures of the Imagination confirms this view of the main of the public mind. It shows how the English came to feel not just strong but civilized too, polite as well as powerful. God's chosen people, of the age of Cromwell, were reinventing themselves as Shakespeare's heirs." - Roy Porter, The Independent

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780415658843
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis
  • Publication date: 5/22/2013
  • Pages: 576
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 9.70 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Read an Excerpt

One day towards the end of the eighteenth century, Archibald Alison, an indolent, good-natured cleric given to contemplating the works of man with as much attention as the works of God, dragged himself from his bed, where he habitually lay until two in the afternoon, and sat down in his home in Kenley, Shropshire, to write the opening lines of his first book, Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste. Alison hoped that his remarks, eventually published in Edinburgh in 1790, would impress men and women of refinement and cultivation and especially his patron, Sir William Pulteney. In it he explained:

The fine arts are considered as the arts which are addressed to the imagination, and the pleasures they afford, are described, by way of distinction, as the Pleasures of the Imagination...the[ir] object is to produce the emotions of taste.

His definitions were comfortable, accessible and -- it has to be admitted -- decidedly clichéd. They repeated a view endorsed by all the finest British writers on taste and the arts, including Joseph Addison, Edmund Burke and David Hume. Alison and his illustrious forebears wanted to distinguish the "emotions of taste" from other feelings such as sexual desire and acquisitiveness, and to separate those things that were tasteful from the ordinary and useful objects of everyday life.

Alison was a Scot, a retiring cleric in the Church of England with two ecclesiastical sinecures and a prebend at Salisbury, which enabled him to indulge his dilettante taste for writing elegant fragments and well-turned sermons and for pursuing his desultory interest in natural history. He led a pleasant rural life in Shropshire and Hampshire before moving, for the benefit of his sons' education, to Edinburgh in 1800. Yet, like many minor figures of the period, he was part of a much larger movement, for these issues of taste and the imagination exercised many of the leading figures of the European Enlightenment. The French critic, the abbé Batteux, for example, offered the first coherent account of the fine arts in his Les beaux arts reduits à un même principe 1746, which isolated music, poetry, painting, sculpture and dance as the fine arts, distinguishing them from mechanical skills. Montesquieu synthesized prevailing views of taste in his entry "Gout" in Diderot's Encyclopédie, emphasizing their importance in producing the sensation of pleasure, while the second edition of the Encyclopédie had a separate entry on the fine arts and aesthetics. In Germany a number of philosophers, including Alexander Baumgarten who invented the term aesthetics in the 1750s, Moses Mendelssohn, who expanded Baumgarten's theories to apply to the visual arts and music as well as poetry and literature, and Immanuel Kant, whose Kritik der Urteilskraft 1790 placed a theory of beauty and the arts on a par with the theory of truth and of goodness, developed the Enlightenment's most elaborate analysis of the arts, establishing them as a separate area of philosophical inquiry.

Though these writings on taste were not exclusively concerned with manmade things -- they nearly all discussed the way in which natural scenery provoked feelings akin to those evoked by a work of art -- they succeeded in creating a new category of what Edmund Burke called "works of the imagination and the elegant arts". Of course magnificent works of art, writings about the nature of poetry or painting, and ideas about beauty and sublimity all existed long before the eighteenth century; as the European philosopher would have been the first to acknowledge, they dated back at least to classical antiquity. But until the eighteenth century they had not been treated as a whole, with theatre, music, literature, and painting given a special collective identity. Our modern idea of "high culture" is an eighteenth-century invention.

Why did this happen? Part of the explanation lies in the general rethinking of knowledge and human understanding provoked by the seventeenth-century scientific discoveries of Galileo and Newton and by the philosophical and psychological speculations of Descartes, Hobbes and Locke. Neither the medieval system of knowledge based on Aristotle nor the Renaissance studia humanitas survived the upheavals of this scientific revolution, which distinguished the arts from the sciences, posed in sharp relief the question whether the modern world was the equal or better of the ancients, and divided the European republic of letters between those who supported the Ancients and those who admired the Moderns.

Yet equally important were changes in the arts themselves, which ceased in the eighteenth century to be the preserve of kings, courtiers, aristocrats and clerics and became the property of a larger public. This more commercial and less courtly culture was to be found in coffee houses in Venice, Amsterdam, London, Paris and Vienna, clubs and reading societies in Germany, academies in provincial France, literary and philosophical societies in provincial Britain, commercial theatres of London, Paris and Lisbon, art dealers' shops and auction houses in Naples, Rome and Amsterdam and at professional concerts performed in London, Paris, Frankfurt, Berlin and Vienna. It was sustained, above all, by printers and publishers, engravers and printsellers, who linked together different regions and nations by disseminating images, books and pamphlets through networks of middlemen, colporteurs and shopkeepers throughout Europe. By the middle of the eighteenth century Roman print dealers were distributing images of the Virgin Mary or the Pantheon to Dublin, St. Petersburg and Brussels; art dealers in Florence and Naples were shipping precious oil paintings to the drawing rooms of Paris and the English shires; clandestine publishers in Switzerland and the United Provinces were smuggling scurrilous radical books and pornographic pamphlets -- so-called livres philosophiques -- across the border into France and into the libraries of merchants and aristocrats.

These developments were not entirely novel. The earliest picture dealers appear in Italy in the late fourteenth century; by the fifteenth century the Pand, an art fair with some seventy to ninety stalls, was being held twice a year in the cathedral cloisters at Antwerp. The book and print trades also had a long commercial history. The first print catalogue circulated by a dealer was published in Rome in 1572; the first printed book catalogue appeared twenty years later in Leiden. At the great European fairs at Leiden, Frankfurt, Leipzig and Krakow merchants from all over Europe traded books, pictures and prints. The roots of eighteenth-century culture stretched back to the Renaissance and to the advent of printing and the first production of engravings on metal.

Nor had the arts freed themselves from the influence of royal and princely courts. This was especially true with theatre and music. The international stars of eighteenth-century opera like the castrate Francesco Bernardi, known as Senesino, were professional performers paid fabulous salaries to sing all over Europe he performed in Venice, Bologna, Florence, Genoa, Rome, Naples, Dresden, London and Paris but, like many theatre troupes, the singers who accompanied him were usually court employees. In small states, like that of the Bishop Prince-Elector of Mainz, a princely court continued to dominate cultural life.

But the arts became more commercial and less courtly because they became more urban. Taste in the arts was considered a sign of refinement, cultivation and politeness, qualities it was believed were best nurtured in towns and cities. As the novelist Oliver Goldsmith concluded in his Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe 1759, culture flourished best in convivial, urban surroundings:

Learning is most advanced in populous cities, where chance often conspired with industry to promote it; where the members of this large university, if I may so call it, catch manners as they rise, study life not logic, and have the world as correspondents.

The arts came together in the great cities of Europe -- London, Paris, Naples, Amsterdam, Rome, Madrid, Lisbon and Vienna -- which had theatres and concert halls, booksellers and art dealers and enough prosperous people to create a sizeable public. But they were not confined to the biggest towns. Cities like Edinburgh, Dublin, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Dresden, Bordeaux, Barcelona, Cadiz and Seville, though they each had fewer than 100,000 inhabitants at mid-century, enjoyed a flourishing cultural life, and by the end of the century even quite small towns, as we shall see, had their theatres and reading clubs, bookshops and artists.

Taste became one of the attributes of a new sort of person -- the "sociable man" of Addison and Steele's Spectator, the hônnete homme of Voltaire's Le Mondain, and the "Cosmopolitan" described by Weiland in Der Deutsche Merkur -- who was literate, could talk about art, literature and music and showed off his refinement through agreeable conversation in company. It is difficult to define what social groups are referred to here -- the language is deliberately vague and speaks of personal qualities rather than rank -- but it is clear that they do not include the urban poor or rural peasants, most of whom lacked the wealth, leisure and literacy to enjoy such pleasures. Women of appropriate rank and virtue were included in the community of taste but kept out of some of its most important institutions, notably clubs and associations; their habitat was the drawing room and salon rather than the tavern or coffee house. The community was emphatically not confined to the aristocracy: all over Europe artisans and merchants, shopkeepers and farmers, lawyers, doctors and minor clergy bought books, collected prints to display in their parlours and dining rooms and, when they could, attended dances, plays and concerts.

The fine arts, whatever the composition of their public, were viewed as one of the defining features of modern commercial society. As one of the first guides to the arts in London put it,

The cultivation of the polite arts is justly deemed an object of the highest importance in every well-regulated state; for it is universally allowed, that in proportion as these are encouraged or discountenanced, the manners of the people are civilized and improved, or degenerate into brutal ferocity, and savage moroseness.

Excerpt reprinted from THE PLEASURES OF THE IMAGINATION: ENGLISH CULTURE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY. Copyright © 1997 by John Brewer. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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Table of Contents

Preface
Introduction
Pt. I Contexts
1 Changing Places: The Court and the City 3
2 The Pleasures of the Imagination 56
Pt. II Print
3 Authors, Publishers and the Making of Literary Culture 125
4 Readers and the Reading Public 167
Pt. III Paint
5 The Market and the Academy 201
6 Connoisseurs and Artists 252
7 Painters' Practice, Artists' Lives 288
Pt. IV Performance
8 The Georgian Stage 325
9 The Theatre, Power and Commerce 357
10 Performance for the Nation 384
Pt. V Making a National Heritage
11 Borrowing, Copying and Collecting 427
Pt. VI Province and Nation
12 The English Provinces 493
13 Thomas Bewick: 'The Poet who Lives on the Banks of the Tyne' 499
14 'The Harmony of Heaven': John Marsh and Provincial Music 531
15 'Queen Muse of Britain': Anna Seward of Lichfield and the Literary Provinces 573
Pt. VII Britain
16 Culture, Nature and Nation 615
Conclusion 663
Bibliography 667
Sources of Illustrations 693
Index 697
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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

Changing Places: The Court and the City

HIGH CULTURE IS LESS a set of discrete works of art than a phenomenon shaped by circles of conversation and criticism formed by its creators, distributors and consumers. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England such communities were largely confined to the royal court or, if found outside the ruler's palace, looked to the monarch and his entourage as leaders of taste. The court was the centre of high culture, its superiority expressed in its magnificent buildings, ornate tapestries, lavish decoration and exquisite collections of paintings, all of which created a glittering stage on which the drama of monarchy was enacted.

But in the late seventeenth century high culture moved out of the narrow confines of the court and into diverse spaces in London. It slipped out of palaces and into coffee houses, reading societies, debating clubs, assembly rooms, galleries and concert halls; ceasing to be the handmaiden of royal politics, it became the partner of commerce. Between the restoration of Charles II in 1660 and the accession of George III one hundred years later art, literature, music and the theatre were transformed into thriving commercial enterprises. These looked not to the court but to coffee houses, key places in creating new cultural communities, and to the clubs and associations which were among London's leading cultural patrons.

People at the time were much struck by this remarkable change. Whether they greeted it with enthusiasm or complained at the loss of a better age, the cultural life of London and its new institutions gripped them. Just as artists had once devoted themselves to depicting the court and its values, so London was now repeatedly represented on the stage, in prose and verse, in painting and engraved image. The city had become not only the centre of culture but one of its key subjects.

How did this change come about? To answer this question we have to look back to the court culture of the Tudors and early Stuarts and to the political circumstances that fatally undermined the credibility of the monarch and his entourage.

The English court of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially during the reigns of Henry VIII 1509-47, Elizabeth I 1558-1603 and Charles I 1625-49, followed the pattern of many monarchies throughout Europe. Royal courts were centres of national power, arenas where the struggles and alliances between monarchs and nobility were played out. Increasingly, as kings tried to reduce the military might of their most powerful subjects and as nobles came to accept humanist ideas that valued learning and taste as much as martial prowess, courts became centres of culture and refinement. Modelling themselves on the Italian courts at Florence, Urbino and Ferrara, the English monarchs and their courtiers created communities in which good conversation, taste and learning were cherished.

These values were embodied in the courtier, in his manners and elegant comportment -- the gesture of a hand, the subtlety of a bow, a witty remark -- but also in the objects with which he surrounded himself. From the Thames to the Danube princes urged their courtiers on a headlong pursuit of tasteful magnificence, the collection and display of everything rare, beautiful and wonderful. The Italian humanist Giovanni Pontano described these objects as `statues, pictures, tapestries, divans, chairs of ivory, cloth interwoven with gems, many-coloured boxes and coffers in the Arabian style, crystal vases and other things of this kind ... [whose] sight ... is pleasing and brings prestige to the owner of the house'. They all spoke to the wealth, taste and virtu of their owner. Rulers were in the forefront of this fashion, wrapping themselves in visual splendour and using their palaces, pictures, libraries and collections of curiosities to display both their exquisite taste and their divinely ordained authority.

For the monarch's courtiers cultural pursuits were a means to an end. Dancing, drawing, literary composition and the playing of musical instruments -- those skills that the Italian Renaissance courts and their chief propagandist, Baldassare Castiglione, had made the essence of the noble courtier -- were used as weapons in wars of personal intrigue and seduction designed to enhance the status of their possessor and win the monarch's favour. The monarch, at the apex of court power and centre of its ritual, and the greatest patron of the arts, was the cynosure of this culture, standing or, more usually, sitting at the centre of a system of artistic practice intended to represent his or her sacred omnipotence and monopoly of power.

At first sight the English court was not a prepossessing place in which to display such royal magnificence, for it consisted of a hotchpotch of asymmetric late-medieval buildings. It was intimate, local and particular, the personal territory of the ruler. In the chief palace, at Whitehall, the king's private servants and officials lived crammed together in close proximity to the monarch. Quite unlike the grand palaces of other European monarchs, it was a warren of ill-proportioned rooms and temporary structures erected for special occasions. Canvas banqueting halls put up to entertain foreign dignitaries were jumbled up with gardens, bowling alleys, a theatre and tennis court, as well as the monarch's private chambers and public receiving rooms. Repairs and alterations were constantly under way.

Yet, for all its architectural incoherence and its importance as a place of intrigue, the monarch and his followers thought of the court as a microcosm of how the kingdom ought to be, the harmonious expression of a social order centred on the monarch. Though its members were quarrelsome and contentious, in its literature, ceremony and theatre it represented itself as orderly, coherent and hierarchical. Within its narrow confines the court and its elaborate patterns of distinction were believed to reproduce the patterns of the knowable world. It was not necessary to represent anything else, because all things could be represented through the court.

Charles I's court represented the English apotheosis of this Renaissance ideal of kingship. The patron of Peter Paul Rubens, Van Dyck and Inigo Jones, Charles owned some of the finest pictures in Europe, including works by Leonardo, Correggio, Caravaggio, Mantegna, Raphael, Bronzino, Titian, Rembrandt and Durer. `When it comes to fine pictures,' said Rubens on his visit to London in 1629-30, `I have never seen such a large number in one place as in the royal palace.'

Ritual and ceremony complemented art, reaching their apogee in the court masque, a mixture of theatre, music, tableau and ritual, shaped by classical myths and Renaissance iconography, and performed by courtiers -- sometimes including the king and queen themselves -- before an audience of courtiers. The object of the masque was, in the words of the poet Ben Jonson, `the studie of magnificence'; it praised the mysteries of kingship, the organic unity of an obedient polity and the virtues of the monarch. The masque's extravagant costume and complex machinery were elaborately coordinated into a harmonious whole representing both court and nation. They revealed a natural order centred on the king: as Sir John Davenant put it in the masque Britannia Triumphans, performed in 1638, `Move then in such a noble order here/As if you each his governed planet were,/And he moved first, to move you in each sphere.' Inigo Jones's scenery and the extravagant lyrics of the masque, like Charles's exquisite collection of paintings, were intended to create a world of beauty and harmony, a royal realm of moral and political virtue.

Yet, as Charles I was to discover to his cost, the illusion of a unitary, hierarchical, moral and orderly court -- and with it a unitary polity -- was exceptionally difficult to sustain. While Britannia Triumphans opened with a scene in which rebellious citizens of past reigns are dispelled by Heroic Virtue, faction, disorder and rebellion were much harder to deal with in British society. Within a decade of Davenant's eulogy to the king, its plot was reversed: Charles I had lost two civil wars and was the prisoner of his rebellious subjects. On 30 January 1649 he was led by his captors through the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, where frequent court masques had celebrated divine kingship and whose ceiling, painted at his behest by Rubens, depicted the apotheosis of his father, James I fig. 1. On a scaffold outside he was summarily decapitated. The culture of the courtly prince in England was killed by the same stroke. No British monarch was ever to match Charles I either as a patron of the arts or as the fabricator of such an astonishingly rich and complex representation of royal power.

Between 1649 and 1653 Charles I's magnificent collection of paintings was sold, and in the ensuing years the King's Musick, employing eighty-eight musicians, was radically reduced. Beyond the confines of the court the Puritans removed organs from places of worship so that in 1660 there were more in taverns than in churches and closed the playhouses. More than 100 years later Horace Walpole, the aristocratic author of Anecdotes of Painting in England who, like a good eighteenth-century Whig, slept with a copy of Charles I's death warrant above his bed, commented that `the arts were, in a manner, expelled with the royal family from Britain'.

The Puritan regimes of Oliver Cromwell and his followers 1649-60, which replaced the house of Stuart, were those of the written and spoken word. They loved Scripture, enjoyed sermons, and produced a torrent of polemical print, but they despised and feared ritual and images as the symbols of worldliness, popery and arbitrary power. Unsurprisingly, though the Puritans planned to transform the royal collection of books into a public library, they never contemplated housing Charles's pictures in a public museum. Nevertheless there was some respite towards the end of the Protectorate in what was otherwise a bleak era for the arts. Oliver Cromwell, though not a prince, acquired a court, albeit a rather sober one. A great lover of music as long as it was not in church, he permitted private performances and secular court festivities; a few paintings and tapestries appeared at his residence at Hampton Court -- Mantegna's enormous cartoons of The Triumph of Caesar were hung in the Long Gallery; Cromwell's bedroom was decorated with paintings of Vulcan, Mars and less probably Venus; antique marbles of nude men and women were displayed in the Privy Garden, much to the horror of the stricter supporters of the regime. Officially sanctioned theatre returned in the guise of opera, with the performance of William D'Avenant's The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru, held at the Cockpit in Drury Lane in 1658. But Cromwell's court was never a significant social or cultural centre, nor did artists make any serious attempt at an iconographical representation of the Puritan regime. Only in the field of literature, in the works of John Milton and Andrew Marvell, did the Cromwellian regime make any contribution to English culture.

After the restoration of the crown in 1660, first Charles II 1660-85 and then his brother James II 1685-88 aspired to recreate the monarchy of their father and even to emulate the lavish embodiment of royal authority epitomized by Louis XIV's Versailles. But this was no easy task. If the restored monarchy was to be more than a pale imitation of its predecessors and a weak copy of the extravagant absolutist regime across the Channel, it needed to build a palace that was a worthy home, symbol and stage for a powerful monarch, to have a fit setting for the artistic expression and performance of ideals of kingship.

Shortly before the outbreak of civil war Charles I had been working with Inigo Jones on a plan to erect a huge new palace at Whitehall. The king was still examining schemes for the building shortly before his execution. Charles II began where his father had left off, starting to construct two new palaces, one at Greenwich, the other at Winchester. Neither was ever completed. The palace at Winchester was to have been Charles's Versailles fig. 2. Designed by Christopher Wren on land purported to be the meeting place of King Arthur's knights of the Round Table, it was to have been linked to the cathedral by a street of fine town houses to accommodate court servants and nobility. Like Versailles, it would have drawn the aristocracy away from the capital and into the monarch's exclusive orbit. Work began in 1683, at a time when the restored monarchy, having recently vanquished its Whig foes, was at the height of its power and prosperity. But Charles died two years later, and his successor James neglected the building, letting it fall into disrepair. Only an outer shell, the thinnest facade of monarchy, was ever completed. So the palace remained until it was burned down at the end of the nineteenth century. Its magnificent marble pillars, a gift to Charles from the Duke of Tuscany, were given away by the Hanoverians to the Duke of Bolton; the remnant of Wren's vision served as an enduring reminder of the unfulfilled aspirations of the `merry monarch' and, more prosaically, as a prisoner-of-war camp and a local gaol.

No new palace was completed for the British monarchy until the nineteenth century. Its greatest achievements after the Restoration were, in the tradition of the modern middle classes, a succession of remodellings. Charles II spent lavishly on Windsor Castle, creating a splendid series of state apartments, notably St George's Hall. Here the full panoply of baroque symbolism and allegory, notably in Antonio Verrio's ceilings, celebrated monarchical power and virtue. James II made comparable improvements in the great rambling medieval palace at Whitehall. Apartments were designed by Wren, decorated by Grinling Gibbons and Verrio, hung with the last important set of tapestries to be ordered by a British monarch, and filled with paintings by such artists as Godfrey Kneller. Charles and James may have wanted to emulate the Sun King but they lacked the money to do so. Charles was too indolent -- he never applied himself to the business of kingship as Louis XIV did -- and James's rule was too brief. In consequence their works were incomplete miniatures of Versailles; they lacked the monumentality that was the essence of grand monarchy.

William III and Mary II, though they neglected Whitehall, continued their predecessors' policy of piecemeal improvement. A series of new apartments, again designed by Wren, was added to Cardinal Wolsey's sixteenth-century palace at Hampton Court, which also acquired an elaborate new garden, whose design was personally supervised by William. The joint monarchs also acquired Kensington Palace from the Finch family in 1689, transforming it into what John Evelyn described as `a very sweete Villa ... very noble, tho not very great ... the Garden about it very delicious'. This converted aristocratic residence had a council chamber, audience chamber, library and chapel; it also displayed William's fine collection of art. Evelyn was especially impressed by `the Gallerys furnished with all the best pictures of all the Houses, of Titian, Raphel, Corregio, Holben, Julio Romano, Bassan, V:Dyke: Tintoret, & others, with a world of Porcelain'.

William and Mary, though they were not averse to putting their good taste on public display, did not care to live in the grand manner. They closed down Charles's recently decorated state apartments at Windsor, which thereafter received only intermittent royal use. When Mrs Philip Lybbe Powys, a member of the Oxfordshire gentry whose greatest passion was peering into stately homes and country seats, visited Windsor in 1766 she commented in her journal, `there is but little worthy of one's observation; the furniture is old and dirty, most of the best pictures removed, ... and the whole place so very un-neat that it hurts one to see almost the only place in England worthy to be styled our King's Palace so totally neglected.' The castle awaited rescue and renewal at the hands of George III, who began to use it regularly in the 1780s.

While Windsor was shut up after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the palace at Whitehall went up in flames on a bitterly cold and windy day in January 1698, sparing only Inigo Jones's Banqueting Hall and Whitehall Gate. Here was a great opportunity to build a modern palace in the heart of the city. But William pointedly ignored Wren's plans for an extravagant new palace. As Daniel Defoe remarked of Whitehall in his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, first published in 1724, `I have nothing more to say of it, but that it was, and is not, but may revive.' But Defoe's hope that `a time will come, when that Phoenix shall revive, and when a building shall be erected there, suiting the majesty and magnificence of the British princes, and the riches of the British nation' was overly optimistic. Subsequent rebuilding schemes had lukewarm support and came to naught.

When Whitehall burnt down William could hardly have been more disgruntled with the nation that had made him king. Hounded by his parliamentary critics and hankering to return to Holland, pressed for money and angry at the ingratitude of the people he believed he had saved, he was in no mood to exalt the English crown. In 1700, two years before his death, as if preparing for a move home, he had his favourite cultural treasures at Kensington packed up and shipped off to his beloved Dutch palace at Het Loo.

None of William's successors was a great palace builder. Queen Anne and the first two Georges, like their predecessors, were improvers rather than innovators. Three new state rooms -- the King's Drawing Room, the Cupola or Cube Room and the Privy Chamber -- and new courtyards to serve George I's extended German family were added at Kensington, and a new stable block erected at St James's. It remained for George III to acquire the first new royal residence in more than half a century, an early eighteenth-century red-brick ducal mansion close to St James's Park and at the end of the Mall. George paid 28,000 [pounds sterling] for Buckingham House in 1762, quickly doubling his expenditure by adding new apartments, including the Library where he was one day to entertain Dr Johnson, the Saloon Room in which Queen Charlotte held her drawing rooms, and a music room for private concerts. But only in the nineteenth century, with complete rebuilding after 1825, did this large house become the substantial palace that we see today. Indeed, during the eighteenth century it was known as the Queen's House, for it was less a palace for royal business and monarchical functions -- which took place across the park at St James's -- than a private royal residence where Queen Charlotte brought up her numerous and unruly children fig. 3.

Despite the growing importance of Britain as an international power, then, no ruler constructed an extravagant stage on which to display the court's refinement or the monarch's taste in music and the decorative arts. This is all the more extraordinary when compared with the building achievements of the great baroque princes of Europe. Princely palaces of inordinate size and richness were springing up in Stockholm, Berlin, St Petersburg and Dresden, at Schonbrunn outside Vienna and Caserta outside Naples. Even pip-squeak princelings like the Prince Bishop of Wurzburg lived in palaces that put the British monarch's residences to shame. It was a constant source of puzzlement and wonder to foreign visitors to England that the monarch of such a powerful nation should live in such low circumstances. As a print of St James's Palace in the series Nouveau Theatre de la Grande Bretagne put it, `c'est dans ce mediocre Edifice, que reside aujourd'hui LE PLUS PUISSANT, LE PLUS HEUREUX: ET LE PLUS SAGE ROI DU MONDE MDCCXXIV' In this mediocre edifice today lives the strongest, happiest and the wisest king in the world. The only palaces in England were erected by English aristocrats. The Duke of Marlborough built Blenheim at public expense, while successive monarchs lived in ramshackle firetraps, dreaming of unbuilt magnificence. Britain's rulers lacked the personal wealth to build a vast palace and never turned to parliament for funds to house them in monarchical grandeur. They lacked the political will and personal inclination to build a grand palais.

Without a proper stage it was difficult to perform the rituals of power effectively. The court could serve as a cultural centre for the arts and literature only as long as it was large, visible and fashionable--filled with courtiers, hangers-on and admirers, full of social excitement, glittering ritual and solemn ceremony. After the Civil War Charles II's court, though without a modern palace, aspired to be such a place. Until an assassination plot against him in 1683 led him to be more cautious, the king made it exceptionally open and accessible. The vast, rambling palace at Whitehall, with its chapel, theatre and 1,400 rooms, was full of court servants, wits, rakes, ambassadors, musicians, minor functionaries, whores and hangers-on. Charles, who actively disliked court formality, was accessible to all, receiving petitions and requests not only during audiences but at all hours of the day. It was easy for the inebriated, rakish John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, lurching in the palace corridors, to mistake the king for a fellow courtier and to thrust his scurrilous lampoon on king and nation into the monarch's outstretched hand: `Poor prince! thy prick, like thy buffoons at Court,/ Will govern thee because it makes thee sport.' Whitehall was a place of little ceremony and less etiquette, the centre of a giddy social round of dances, merriment, balls and plays.

Charles himself enjoyed the parody of solemnity and Rochester's ribald encomia. His official response to the earl's verse was to banish Rochester from the court, but his true wishes were granted in the quick return of his boon companion. Charles preferred such witty verses to work of more serious intent. He offered scant reward to Abraham Cowley, the most loyal of loyalist poets and most discreet of diplomats, and Samuel Butler, the author of Hudibras, a brilliant attack on Puritan hypocrisy, died in penury. The court was full of aristocratic wits and amateur literati like the Duke of Buckingham, the Earl of Dorset and Sir Charles Sedley, who wrote their own plays and verse and who generously patronized less affluent writers like John Dryden. In between bouts of drinking, gambling and womanizing, Charles himself showed great interest in music and painting. He patronized the musicians Henry Purcell, John Blow, Pelham Humfrey and John Banister sending the last two to study in France, the decorator Antonio Verrio, the carver Grinling Gibbons, and the painters Kneller and Lely. He also managed to recover some of his father's pictures and to add substantial Dutch holdings to the royal collection. But the merry monarch's greatest contribution was as a leader of fashion: an innovator in the use of violins for sacred music in the Chapel Royal condemned by the sanctimonious John Evelyn as fitter for a tavern than a church; an ardent advocate of French music, dancing, furnishings and costume -- tastes he had acquired in exile; and the proponent of rhymed heroic drama and the comedy of manners in the theatre.

But the court suffered from two overwhelming difficulties -- public penury and private misconduct. The palaces remained incomplete and the royal musicians unpaid because of the parlous state of royal finances. As early as 1666 Samuel Pepys learned that `many of the [King's] musique are ready to starve, they being five years behind-hand for their wages'; in 1677 Louis Grabu, the French Master of the King's Musick, was owed more than 600 [pounds sterling]. Charles's extravagance and financial mismanagement, his lavish gifts to his royal favourites, mistresses and bastards, were a poor foundation for the sustained munificence necessary to maintain royal appearances.

Charles's court exuded a congenial hedonism. It was exuberant and intemperate, given to both languor and excess. This made it difficult to represent it as a salubrious seat of heroic power, though this was not for want of trying. In his Absalom and Achitophel, first published in 1681, John Dryden produced a brilliant and sustained apologia for the restored regime. But such works, much admired by the king and the court, were undercut by the irony and satire of the likes of the Earl of Rochester, Dryden's rakish literary opponent, who died, worn out by a life of debauchery, at the age of thirty-three.

It was not possible to recreate Charles I's theatrical expression of his royal authority because it no longer commanded uncritical assent even from those who should have believed in it. Courtiers might participate in the ritual and show of kingship, but their view of the symbols of authority was ironic, satiric and sometimes openly parodic. One evening in 1663, only three years after the Restoration, three courtiers -- Sir Charles Sedley, Lord Buckhurst, the future Earl of Dorset, and Sir Thomas Ogle -- left the palace of Whitehall and walked north to the flesh-pots and taverns of Covent Garden. Sedley's literary reputation at the court of Charles II was second to none. Playwright, poet and translator, he was told by his monarch that `Nature had given him a patent to he Apollo's viceroy' and that `his style, either in writing or discourse, would be the standard of the English tongue'. Buckhurst was the great Maecenas of Charles's court, the patron of Dryden, Butler and Wycherley, and the author of one of the Restoration's most famous songs, `To All You Ladies'. Both appeared, as Lisideius and Eugenius, in Dryden's Essay on Dramatick Poesie 1668, which was dedicated to Buckhurst. The impression they made that evening was rather different. From the balcony of Oxford Kate's Tavern they shocked and delighted a crowd of onlookers with their blasphemous and obscene antics. According to Samuel Pepys, Sedley `showed his nakedness -- acting all the postures of lust and buggery that could he imagined, and abusing of scripture ... preaching a Mountebank sermon from that pulpit ... that being done, he took a glass of wine and washed his prick in it and then drank it off; and then took another and drank the King's health'. Finally, according to the waspish gossip, Anthony a Wood, all three men turned their backs on the citizenry, `Putting down their breeches they excrementiz'd in the street.'

This story of members of the Restoration court, including two of its greatest literary luminaries, dumping on the London citizenry is more than yet another incident in the long catalogue of libertinage and debauchery for which Charles II's entourage was famous. It reveals how far the ideal of the Renaissance court and courtier had fallen in England, and how the rituals and ceremonies of power -- preaching the Christian word, dipping the host in the wine, loyally toasting the monarch's health -- could be mocked and parodied even by men close to the king. The trouble was that Charles shared this ironic, parodic view. He protected his friends when they fell foul of the law and laughed at their libertine ways. He was not himself averse to blasphemous parody: he had his mistress and illegitimate son painted like a Raphael madonna and child fig. 4. As Charles's companion the Earl of Mulgrave explained, the king had a `natural aversion' to ceremony: `He could not on pre-meditation act the part of a King for a moment, which carried him to the other extreme ... of letting all distinction and ceremony fall to the ground as useless and foppish.'

The scepticism, irony and satire with which the king and his courtiers viewed the rituals and symbols of authority gave them some distance from values they held dear in their more sober moments. Memories of the republic, of the bloodshed of the Civil Wars and of the execution of the king were too close, uncritical commitment to the full panoply of court culture almost too much of a risk. Better a ribald verse circulated among friends than the public acclamation of princely authority in a royal masque. As Rochester put it, `Our Sphere of Action is Life's Happiness/And he who thinks beyond, thinks like an Ass.' Courtiers and monarchs had not recovered the confidence needed to claim the court as not only a seat of pleasure but a morally exemplary institution. Not until the reign of George III, when his life of domestic felicity was taken as a model of propriety, did the culture of the royal family make such a moral appeal, and by then the royal court had shrunk into a burgerlich household. The court would survive, of course, but only as one of several centres of literary and artistic endeavour.

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