This book sets out to give an account of what the foundation of The Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 meant for artistic practice in particular and cultural life more generally in Britain between 1760 and 1840. It is to be welcomed, because it fills a gap, and fills it well. The history of art institutions in Britain attracts sporadic attention.
The campaign for the ‘People’s Charter’, a democratic movement which thrived in the decade after 1838, was probably the most important mass movement in British history. Chartism captivated contemporaries and has had a magnetic attraction for historians, generating over 100 books and articles in the last decade alone.
Duncan Bell’s book comes with an intriguing picture on its front cover: Gustave Doré’s famous 1860 depiction of a New Zealander perched on a broken arch of London Bridge sketching the ruins of St Paul’s and its environs. The image, derived from an essay by Thomas Babington Macaulay, captures much of the Victorian premonition and anxiety about empire.
Beatrice Webb wrote in her first volume of autobiography, My Apprenticeship, that the age in which she grew up was dominated by two ‘idols of the mind’, namely a belief in scientific method and ‘the consciousness of a new motive; the transference of the emotion of self-sacrificing service from God to man’ (quoted p. 249). Auguste Comte was the prophet of both of these idols.
The history of the Enlightenment can sometimes appear as a male narrative, dominated by canonical male writers, with women appearing only as subjects denied an equality of rationality and relegated to a feminine domesticity.
In spite of the time period implied in her subtitle, Ann Thomson’s book covers debates about the materiality of the soul from 1650 to the early 19th century. She deals with a vast range of thinkers – primarily in England and France, but also in the Netherlands.
The Industrial Revolution has traditionally been seen as a transformation in the technological basis of production and in the social arrangements surrounding it. On the other hand, the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries was originally conceived as a purely intellectual transition, a shift in mentalities or worldviews.
In our age of climate change and peak oil anxiety, environmental problems loom increasingly large in politics as well as everyday life. Yet even if ecology were to become the preeminent science, it is difficult to imagine a future where the authority of nature will form a unified source of morality, aesthetic value, and scientific truth. Such a world seems irretrievably lost to us.
This book sheds much light on the ascendancy of liberal values in the 19th century and their role in the transformation of the fiscal military state of the previous century. While using a wealth of secondary literature, including many essays and review articles in literary weeklies and monthlies, William Lubenow charts new and important territory.
David Allan’s Making British Culture and Mark R. M. Towsey’s Reading the Scottish Enlightenment pursue the same worthy goal: to give reading a larger role in the definition and conceptualisation of the Enlightenment, particularly in its Scottish manifestation. The connection between the two books runs deep.