restricted access On Great and Little Things: Cockney Art in the 1820s
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On Great and Little Things:
Cockney Art in the 1820s

The 'Cockney School' debate of the late 1810s and early 1820s has long been familiar to Romanticists. Less often remarked upon is the fact that the language of Cockneyism as a mode of cultural abuse continued to have critical purchase well into the 1820s and 1830s, and that its influence went beyond the literary. This essay is devoted to a pair of artists who attracted this type of criticism in the 1820s – John Martin and John Soane – and is prompted by the suspicion that, in this period at least, the term 'cockney', far from being a simple class insult, actually registers a complex awareness of, and discomfort with, the social and cultural conditions of modernity. Cockneyism, in these years, is less a social insult than a cultural one, and gestures toward everything that is most amphibious and uncertain about early nineteenth-century metropolitan life. It is concerned, among other things, with questions of scale and perspective, and of the challenge that the city poses to traditional forms and categories, ways of understanding and ways of seeing. Hence to review the charges of cockneyism that were pitted against Soane and Martin is also to remind ourselves of what was most apparently incongruous and challenging in their work, helping us to recover a sense of these highly idiosyncratic (and still relatively neglected) artists as 'painters of modern life'.

In 1821 the notion of London as a 'New Babylon' was more compelling than ever. Since medieval times, Babylon had been the epitome of the worldly city, a legendary metropolis of great monuments and great impiety, drawing its Christian meaning from the fact that hardly any of it remained. With the increased archaeological activity of the Romantic period, however, some flesh was being put on these bones. There was renewed speculation as to the exact lineaments of the first great brick city of antiquity, and the look and shape of its famously hubristic structures – the Hanging Gardens, the Temple of Jupiter Belus, the Tower of Babel. In 1815 Claude James Rich, resident for the East India Company at the Court of Baghdad, published his Memoir on the Ruins of Babylon, proposing that the public edifices of the old city were probably remarkable more for vastness and solidity of fabric than for beauty of design, and the following year Thomas Maurice, assistant librarian of the British Museum, published some of his own observations on Rich's memoir, speculating further on Babylon's appearance and dimensions.1

This new interest in Babylon coincided with a post-Waterloo construction boom in England, which led to a spectacular wave of public building in the West End of London. By 1821 the Burlington Arcade was open, Nash's Regent Street and Regent's Park were nearly completed, and plans were afoot to remodel the King's Mews and Buckingham House. Fashionable, showy, and built of brick rather than stone, Nash's Regent Street invited [End Page 149] comparison with the great, doomed city of Nebuchadnezzar, of which it was sometimes seen to be a throwaway modern version. 'In less than half a century,' wrote the London Magazine in an article entitled 'The Bricks of the Modern Babylon', 'Regent-street will have the ring-worm, the scab, the itch, the leprosy. Its skin will peel off, like the bark of a rotten tree, and the hide will hang in rags and tatters about the rotting carcass'.2

Figure 1. John Martin, Belshazzar's Feast, 1821. Bridgeman Art Gallery.
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Figure 1.

John Martin, Belshazzar's Feast, 1821. Bridgeman Art Gallery.

Historical parallels between the British and Babylonian Empire came to a height in the spring of 1821, with the final demise of the mad king George III. Since the onset of his illness, George had invited covert comparison with Nebuchadnezzar, who had himself succumbed to madness after bringing the Jews into captivity after the fall of Jerusalem. Blake's 1795 print of Nebuchadnezzar can be read in this way; so too Keats's 'Nebuchadnezzar's Dream' of 1817. The historical successor to Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom was his son (or in some accounts his grandson) Belshazzar, another vain and impious king, at least according...