The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century by John Brewer

10 February 2009

In addition to this rather glowing review, I ought to mention that even though I first came across this book as a library book, I enjoyed it enough to purchase my own copy for my shelves. That’s a rare enough occurrence for me in this day and age to be worth mentioning as a preface to the review itself.

The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century by John Brewer

At the start of the eighteenth century, it was increasingly plain to a number of English painters, writers, composers, actors, and other producers of arts and literature that their livelihoods were in a precarious state. The 1600s had been a time of great social and political upheavals in which the traditional support structures of the fine arts had been severely weakened or even destroyed. The Civil War had swept away the vast art collections and stately court masques of Charles I and Henrietta Maria; the stage plays and public performances suppressed under Cromwell had revived during the Restoration but were struggling to establish ‘respectability’ in a public mind that equated theatres with vice and debauchery; and artists, writers, and composers found that the old aristrocratic patrons were not as generous with their commissions as they had been even a half-century before. At the same time, too, philosophers and writers were pondering weighty aesthetic questions, attempting to define concepts such as ‘beauty’ and ‘good taste’ and to set generally accepted standards for the kind of art and literature that ought to be supported. But now that the court and aristocracy had lost much of their cultural pull in England, who or what would be the new arbiters of artistic quality and literary merit? How, in fact, would this new culture be defined?

John Brewer’s The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century provides a sweeping overview of the literary, artistic, and societal development of English culture in the ‘long eighteenth century’, roughly spanning the ascension of King William III and Queen Mary II to the throne vacated by Charles II and ending shortly before Victoria’s coronation. Brewer examines how the growth of trade and commercial enterprises and the expansion of literacy and education brought culture down from its aristocratic heights and into the coffee houses, the printers’ cooperatives, the debating societies, the amateur literary and musical groups, and any number of other associations that sprang up to meet a growing public demand for access to culture and refinement. Separate sections describe the clever and witty but often vicious publishing coteries of Samuel Johnson and Joseph Addison, the art world that produced both William Hogarth’s wicked satirical prints and Joshua Reynolds’ grand portraits, the musical contributions of George F. Handel and Joseph Haydn (two German expatriates who relished the freedom and lucrative contracts that London provided), and the theatre circles dominated by the playwright and actor David Garrick. And whether the audience was a wealthy gentleman who subscribed to a concert series or a prostitute who solicited her clients in the theatre district and pleasure gardens, Brewer looks into how the providers of art and literature had to keep up with the public demand — even if it meant re-evaluating their opinions on what the public ought to be demanding.

Brewer’s greatest skill is in showing the intricate connections and networks that encouraged the growth of commerce and the arts, especially the influence of the publishing trade. He explores how the tensions between ‘polite’ society and popular entertainment spurred ongoing debate about the meaning of culture, and fostered no small amount of animosity between wealthy amateurs (or ‘dilettantes’) and the less-well-off professionals who sought to scrape together a living from their work and fretted over the social stigma of being ‘in trade’. In addition, Brewer expands his purview beyond London and looks into the contributions of the literati and artistic circles that attracted followers in smaller cities like Manchester and Birmingham, as well as towns and villages scattered across the country. To further widen his perspective, he also considers the role played by women as both patrons and artists in their own right, demonstrating that both sexes could influence the standards of the culture they sought to appreciate.

To get the most out of this masterful book, it helps to have a very basic familiarity with a few of the most well-known artistic and literary figures of the time; name recognition alone will suffice, for the most part. And even though Brewer admits from the outset that he could not cover every facet of English culture in the 1700s — he mentions architecture and dance as two areas he might be accused of neglecting — there is more than enough material in The Pleasures of the Imagination to whet the appetite and encourage further exploration of particular fields of interest. As a comprehensive work of social and cultural history, The Pleasures of the Imagination sets a very high bar and clears it almost effortlessly, all the more so for its broad and ambitious scope.

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