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  • The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century
  • Heather Mcpherson
John Brewer. The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997. Pp. xxx + 721; 229 black and white illus.; 12 color plates. $40.00.

The Pleasures of the Imagination remaps the cultural topography of England by situating the visual and performing arts and print culture at the center rather than the periphery of eighteenth-century experience. Brewer argues persuasively that the modern notion of high culture was an eighteenth-century invention that brought about profound transformations in attitudes, ideas, markets, and institutions (xv–xix). Brewer’s encyclopedic but extremely readable account of eighteenth-century cultural life focuses on the broader historical processes through which the arts were commercialized and consumed by a rapidly expanding urban populace. The seven thematic sections of this generously illustrated book explore different aspects of cultural production from the Georgian stage to book illustration. Brewer is particularly concerned with the role culture played in affirming British identity throughout the eighteenth century. Although scholars in particular disciplines may quibble with Brewer’s inclusions or exclusions, this important book provides a new road map for surveying eighteenth-century culture and synthesizes an amazing amount of recent scholarship into a compelling historical narrative. [End Page 541]

The opening section traces the diminishing role of the monarchy as patrons and arbiters of taste and the emergence of London as cultural and commercial capital. Coffeehouses, taverns, and clubs became communities of taste and knowledge that helped shape artistic and literary culture. As Brewer tellingly points out, Handel’s famous Music for the Royal Fireworks, commissioned to commemorate the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1749, was first performed at Vauxhall several days before the official ceremony. The diary of Anna Larpent, a voracious reader who frequented the theater, concert halls, and Royal Academy exhibitions, testifies to the richness and diversity of cultural offerings. Although women played an increasingly prominent cultural role, there was considerable ambivalence about professional women and the feminization of British culture, reflecting patriotic sentiments and Franco-British rivalries. As culture became financially accessible to a broader cultivated public, competing discourses about taste evolved and the ideal of politeness gave way to sensibility.

Part 2 examines the literary marketplace and the reading public. Brewer documents the commercialization of the publishing industry in which copyrights and patents became salable commodities and the periodical press generated a republic of struggling authors. Moreover, with the explosion of print culture and the establishment of circulating libraries and book clubs, books became available to a vastly expanded public including women. Literary culture was also transformed by new preoccupations with originality and the personality of the author exemplified by the career of Johnson. Part 3 examines the art market and the academy, connoisseurship and collecting, and artistic practice. These chapters provide a useful summary of recent art historical scholarship and rehearse the complex relationship between the expanding art market and the Royal Academy and the gap between artistic theory and practice. Long disadvantaged by the preeminence of foreign artists and inadequate training, British painters gained new status with the establishment of the Royal Academy and public exhibitions. Despite attempts to elevate public taste and promote history painting, portraiture remained the dominant mode of artistic production and artists vied with connoisseurs to shape public taste. Although Sir Joshua Reynolds triumphed as an exemplary modern painter and theoretician, less fortunate academicians, such as the miniaturist Ozias Humphrey, foundered in the increasingly competitive London art market.

One of the book’s strengths is Brewer’s integration of the performing arts too frequently marginalized in discussions of verbal and visual culture. Part 4 considers the public (and patriotic) dimensions of the Georgian stage and the rise of the concert hall. The eighteenth-century public became increasingly fascinated by theatrical biography and individual interpretations of famous roles that spawned the cult of the actor. The famous tragedienne Sarah Siddons, who was patronized by the royal family, appeared in 1789 at St. Paul’s as Britannia to celebrate the king’s recovery from madness. From mid-century the dramatic repertory was realigned with Shakespeare occupying an increasingly prominent...

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pp. 541-543
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