Textual Vision: Augustan Design and the Invention of Eighteenth-Century British Culture by Timothy Erwin (review)
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Textual Vision: Augustan Design and the Invention of Eighteenth-Century British Culture by Timothy Erwin
Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press; Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
xviii+282pp. US$100. ISBN 978-1-61148-569-1.

Timothy Erwin examines how, over the course of the eighteenth century, a classical (or the “Augustan” of his title) aesthetic of design gave way to a modern aesthetic of what he calls the “empirical image.” Design is a well-established term in the history of art, where the English word is often replaced by the Italian disegno or the French dessein, which connote both design and drawing. In academies of painting from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, disegno described a clearly drawn, rationally composed, linear aesthetic of Raphael, Poussin, and Ingres, in contrast to colore, or colour, which described a more painterly and expressive aesthetic of Titian, Rubens, and Delacroix. Although Erwin addresses these academic debates, he pairs the term design not with colour but with “image.” Erwin then applies these visual terms of image and design to literature, positing that the literary image was akin to colore as a method for vivid description, while literary design, which he defines as narrative or plot, was akin to disegno or composition and perspective in painting. He argues further that the meaning of literary imagery shifted during the Romantic era, from language that was merely descriptive to language that was figural and eventually metaphorical. Erwin posits that while literary scholars may be familiar with the discourse of the image that dominated aesthetics, they also need to learn something of the art historians’ familiarity with design in order to understand how this older form of textual vision was being questioned by modern notions of empirical description and figural imagery. Indeed, it was only by challenging design, Erwin argues, that a modern British literary and visual culture could develop around the discourse of the image.

The four chapters progress chronologically to chart the shift from design to image. Chapter 1 focuses on Alexander Pope and his investment in academic theories of painting and design. Examining Pope’s oeuvre from An Essay on Criticism (1711) to The Dunciad in Four Books (1743), Erwin argues that Pope upholds the discourse of design against the on-slaught of modernist chaos. By emphasizing plot, form, and figuration, Pope insists on the design of a harmonious whole, much as his academic contemporaries did in painting. Chapter 2 argues that Samuel Johnson’s An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage (1744) responds to Pope’s Dunciad and marks an iconoclastic departure from design to the image. By situating Savage within the new commercial context of the professional writer, Johnson expresses scepticism about the ethics of formal design. [End Page 506]

Chapter 3 considers the artist William Hogarth’s challenge to classical design and academic history painting through the realism of his empirical observation and embrace of popular taste. Erwin finds parallels between Hogarth’s anti-aristocratic modernism and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), whose title character refuses to be seen through the aristocratic lens of ideal beauty. In this way, Richardson contrasts with Henry Fielding, who employs the discourse of classical design in figuring his heroines. While Hogarth famously located beauty and grace in the exterior form of the serpentine line, Richardson focuses on the inner beauty of goodness, while Fielding represents beauty as a mixture of inner and outer qualities, of body and soul. But, while Fielding holds onto an outmoded separation of beauty from commerce, Hogarth and Richardson accept the commercial context of exchange that regulates taste. Erwin concludes this chapter by arguing that Edward Gibbon similarly registers his scepticism towards classical design in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88).

The fourth and final chapter examines the works of Jane Austen as providing a middle way between the classical discourse of design in Pope and Fielding and the modern discourse of the image in Johnson, Hogarth, and Richardson. While Pride and Prejudice (1813) represents the old order of design, in which pictures speak more truly than words, Persuasion (1818) represents the modernist paradigm of the image, in which...