The Pleasures of the Imagination
English Culture in the Eighteenth Century
By John Brewer
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.
Farrar Straus Giroux
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