Pleasures of the Imagination

John Brewer, Author
John Brewer, Author Farrar Straus Giroux $40 (721p) ISBN 978-0-374-23458-4
Paperback - 721 pages - 978-0-226-07419-1
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In one brilliant volume, Brewer (The Sinews of Power), who teaches history at the European University Institute in Florence, examines the evolution of the visual arts, literature, music and theater in 18th-century England, managing to elucidate both the general tenor of the time and the peculiarities of the English experience. Despite efforts by Charles II and James II, the British monarchy never regained the grand courtly tradition it maintained before the Commonwealth. No new palace served as a cultural center and the monarchs' chronic financial woes meant that they would be stingy patrons at best. Without the grand courts of the Continent, the arts were more readily molded by the general society. Fortunately, culture had become an important commodity: Taste and sensibility were not inherited, so for well-to-do tradespeople, culture was a way to erase class distinctions, and for gentry to maintain them. The cross-fertilization of culture between London and the provinces proved to be very fruitful. While many of the great names of the 18th century--Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds, James Boswell, Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson--came from the shires, London provided an unmatched opportunity for encounters with both culture and like-minded people through coffee houses, pleasure gardens, Italian opera, exhibiting societies, the Royal Academy and much more. Eighteenth-century England experienced changes that would have lasting effects on art. The rise in literacy particularly among formerly illiterate shopkeepers and women benefited from the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695 that allowed for a new expansion of the press. A boom in periodicals also gave writers a new measure of independence in making a livelihood from their chosen field. In the visual artists also began to break free from the domination of aristocratic connoisseurs and patrons. Theater, too, changed, as royal patents were passed from courtiers to businessmen and the Licensing Act of 1737 created censorious strictures that stifled innovation in spoken drama at the same time it spawned Bardolatry and lighter musical fare. Brewer combines synthetic thinking, lucid writing and profound research clearly indicated by his use of happily opportune examples, statistics and 240 truly illuminating illustrations. Here, the pleasures of the imagination are perfectly combined with the pleasures of scholarship. (Sept.)
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