Wednesday 26 September 2018

Review: Pleasures of the Imagination by John Brewer

John Brewer’s ‘The Pleasures of the Imagination’ might be described as a portable book, if you have a tough rucksack and a strong back. It’s a heavy work, not in tone, the writing is bright and easy to read but physically - you need a table for this one.

Broadly, the book tells the story of how the modern notions and systems of culture developed in the eighteenth century. These battles were broadly between professional practitioners of the given art verses the gentleman amateurs who developed most of the initial theory. There was a form of repetition in the book, each art follows the same broad conflict but how that conflict plays out in each arena brings new light to the assumptions of culture we have today.

It starts in the seventeenth century, with the restoration of the throne after the Commonwealth. The new court wanted to be as lavish as previous ones but didn’t have the funds to do so. There wasn’t money to build a proper, modern court nor to hold the sumptuous plays and masques of other courts and so entered into something like public-private investment. Court-City collaborations moved further into the City as monarch’s like Queen Anne, or the early Georges did not have much interest in culture. As George II was reported to have said, ‘I hate poetry and painting’. This move helped the growth of City professionals, whose idea and values of culture clashed with the Court… and that’s much the rest of the book.

The story of writing was the one I knew most about. Following accidental loosening of censorship laws, print-shops grew like mushrooms. Supplying these print-shops were a loose collection of writers for money we know as Grub Street. As these people developed in skill and confidence, they started to create genuine masterpieces and theories of their own. The summit of these authors is of course, Samuel Johnson, who declared only ‘blockheads’ don’t write for money and created masterpieces of criticism and literature. The other side of this is best shown by the Scriblerans, who consider these new writers to be a plague and that the only true thinkers on writing are those Gentlemen who have no vested financial interest in it. 

This battle is even clearer in the case of visual art. In Britain, artists were craftsmen who created decorations and portraits for families - art theorists at the time were dismayed at the English love of portraits, its selfie culture. ‘Real’ art came from the continent in the form of classical sculpture and dingy old masters. Where people like Hogarth wanted to aggressively forge an English culture of painting, celebrating the specific as much as general human themes. He tried his hardest but ultimately couldn’t achieve his wishes alone. For most of the century, the gentleman connoisseurs had the upper hand, with the money and connections to drive the art market but with the establishment of the Royal Society, the balance starts to shift. The society allows a respectable communion of practitioners and they start to portray the connoisseurs as lustful and greedy, hoarding beauty for themselves and ogling it. By the end of the century, the art world is still driven by an elite (as it is now) but an elite of practitioner/theorists rather than aloof gentlemen.

Theatre had the hardest reputation to overcome. In the mixing on classes; the very act of a communal group of people agreeing to deceive each other and the precarious state of acting itself, it was very easy to present the stage as immoral. I found the description of the audience’s interaction with the stage particularly interesting. The audience were part of the show, performing themselves in front of their peers, calling out and adding topical jokes and interpretations which were uncensorable and booing and hissing when the play went places they didn’t like. It reminded me of a comparison I made between an English football match and a baseball game I went in New York. At the baseball, there was a large screen and the crowd cheered and chanted when the screen wanted, and even used the words from the screen (in this case, “Go, Mets, Go”). In football, the chants and songs are generated by the spectators, often with topical, rude and funny words, being caught from one group of supporters to the next. This is how I imagine I night at an eighteenth century London theatre. I was also surprised that this level of interaction was regarded as particularly English and visitors from Germany and France were surprised by it.

The key element that changed this relationship between stage and stalls is, in my opinion, the development in theatre technology. As the century progressed, theatres grew larger. Newer theatres were double, even triple their earlier counterparts. As they grew larger, the feeling of the theatre as one whole organism became harder to sustain. I noticed how, when the Globe was newer, the audiences were far louder. Nowadays, the Globe is an institution in itself and audiences watch the plays quietly. Another change in theatres is the development of theatrical lighting. As the stage became lighter and the house darker, then the cues to be quieter and watch more intently become clearer.

The other problem the theatre had to overcome was the reputation of actors. People like David Garrick and Sarah Siddons had to be careful to make sure their home lives were as straight as possible. Garrick also had shares in newspapers so he could spin public opinion in the theatre’s favour. He also developed a narrow repertory, with a heavy emphasis on safe comedy and prestigious Shakespeare. As the book-trade pushed Shakespeare as the national poet, so Garrick hooked his own fame to Shakespeare’s translating the role of theatre from common delusion to safeguard of the nation’s culture.

The second half of the book moves out of London to see how these changes in the Capital grew beyond it.

Thomas Bewick, the Newcastle wood-engraver shows his success coming from the eighteenth century fondness for self-improving clubs. Bewick was a member of many such clubs . A proud Northerner, he created his works himself, using provincial book-selling networks to distribute them. Although loved for his ‘simple’ qualities, he actually has very clear didactic goals with engravings and stories inspired by the ideals of those groups..

The example of John Marsh shows how music was sustained in smaller towns. Music is more expensive then other art forms, needing expensive instruments and tuition. Without a monied figure organising and gathering musicians, no music could happen. Particularly it took someone of private means to connect musicians to audience and a strict code to maintain the social balances.  I particularly found it interesting that players of brass instruments were the hardest to obtain, as the mouth-shapes made by brass players was seen as ludicrous, meaning only members of the military commonly played them. Without someone to organise music, it didn’t happen until the later foundation of professional town orchestras.

The last example given was of Anna Seward. From her safe seat in Lichfield, she propagated the voice of the gentle amateur, defending an open, free and emotional reaction to poetry. In her frequent spats with, and about, Johnson because he stood so solid and as such a figure of professional, aggressive. masculine taste. She was able to hold such a position of influence because of the London magazines and the development of the postal service, letting voices be heard that they hadn’t been before.

I found this book to be extremely clear and persuasive. I also found that the struggles in the book represent those we meet with today, where the internet allows voices to be heard from more corners of the globe. Be it gamer-gate, or the use of Facebook to influence elections are the new struggles to define culture. In the eighteenth century, the power shifted from an elite circle of rich gentlemen to an elite circle of practitioners. What will be the result of our own culture wars?

Wednesday 19 September 2018

Trip: Smaller Museums and Exhibitions

I went to a number of smaller museums and exhibitions recently and I thought I’d look at them.

Teeth - at the Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome Collection is quickly becoming my one of my favourite repeat visits. The permanent ‘Medicine Man’ exhibit shows all sorts of fascinating things from Wellcome’s collection; including chastity belts, healing voodoo dolls and a selection of ancient Japanese priapus. Past special exhibits have included a great one on sex (where I saw Victorian fetish photos and got to sit in an orgone accumulator) and one about man’s interaction with animals (which included fascinating examples of how taxidermists arranged animals as they thought they should be rather than are).

Teeth wasn’t as good as those, but was still good fun nonetheless. Laid out in broadly chronological order, the overall tale being told was one of improvement in the dentist industry and that we’ve never had it so good. A frenchman named Pierre Fauchard was the first ‘dentiste’ and literally wrote the book. He was a big step up from former toothpullers, like Le Grand Thomas ‘the terror of the jaw’ who would physically pick people up by their mangled tooth and shake it out of them. 

Among other things, I saw a skull of a women who has dead people’s ‘Waterloo Teeth’ wired into her jaw. A number of dentures and prostheses, including Burke’s, which included a large front section to make up for a possible cleft palate. 

I saw egg-whisk style hand crank tooth drills, clockwork varieties, foot peddled and the eventual electric variety. There were also clockwork toothbrushes, chewing sticks and Napoleon’s toothbrush. Did you know that the modern toothbrush was invented by an eighteenth century Englishman? In 1770, William Addis (inspired by a broom) developed the idea for a toothbrush while he was spending time in Newgate prison for his part in a riot.  

I also learned that St Apollonia is the patron saint of dentists because her death involved toe-curling examples of Roman dental torture.

A small exhibition but a fascinating one, though one that will have you tonguing your teeth in alarm.

Immortalised - by Historic England

Part exhibition, part art installation, ‘Immortalised’ seeks to ask questions about how we as a community (especially a nation) remember people and events, and how our relationship to those things change with time. it’s housed in an old fire-engine fixing station, just behind the Thames near Lambeth Palace.

Each area in the space has a large wooden cutout of a memorial, proceeded by hanging sheets with the same shape cut out of it and mini speakers weaved into it that play songs, interviews, poems and speeches. Attached to these wooden cutouts are objects, analyses and descriptions. Some of these objects were interesting; the Lutine bell from Lloyds, the maquette for the Millicent Fawcett statue and the roundel saying ‘Gareth Southgate’ that was fixed to Southgate Station during the World Cup. 

The questions raised by the exhibition were interesting. They asked why we memorialise certain people and how the memorials of past people are seen today.

One of the most emotive and provoking elements discussed was the history of the slave trade. This took two prongs. The first, active prong, is a statue dedicated to remembering the slave - as there are no statues for them. It features a large round platform featuring slaves chained together, an old slave woman, an Olaudah Equiano and a former slave holding up a chain. The voice playing overhead stated that the statue will exist ‘to raise awareness’ - a phrase that needs to die. People are aware of the slave trade, it's not awareness that needs to be raised, it's empathy. It also said that the statue would help Africans and those of African descent to be proud, though the focus of the statue is on the chains rather than the freedom.

More interestingly, were the different ways in which the people of Bristol have interacted with the person of Edward Colson. He was a rich businessman who founded many cultural and charitable institutions of the city and was given a large statue to celebrate him. However, Colson earned his money by being one of the key lynchpins of the Atlantic slave trade and so responsible for some of the biggest atrocities of the modern age. The people of Bristol (in general) do not wish to delete their history but do need to respond to it. Suggestions have ranged from changing the plaque on the statue, to re-situate the statue in a square built in the shape of a slave ship with paving slabs representing the tiny spaces slaves were kept in. Currently he wears a red, woollen ball and chain.  I was delighted by these creative ways to react to history instead of destroying it.

This was a very interesting and thought-provoking exhibition, which was exactly what it was supposed to be.

The Migration Museum

Kept in the same building as ‘Immortalised’, it’s a museum seeking a home. 

The museum told the story of seven moments in the history of migration to Britain. These moments were beautifully varied; from the expulsion of the Jews, the coming of the Huguenots, Windrush and modern discussion of Syrian refugees. Each of these themes are addressed in a few objects and many, many first-person accounts. This is a museum of voices, sometimes too many voices, but a thoughtful, and at times joyful, look at migration in Britain.

I really look forward to the time when this museum becomes a large and settled place and l will certainly visit it and discuss it in more depth.

The Garden Museum

On the way to the Immigration Museum and Immortalised exhibition, I happened to pass a little church near Lambeth Palace. This little church is home to the Garden Museum. It was made into a museum in order to save the church. It’s internet famous due to one of its objects being voted ‘the most boring artefact in any British Museum’ - this object, an orange jumper worn by Alan Tichmarsh on the Gardener’s World TV show.

It’s not worth that derision though, the Garden Museum is interesting in its own right. Where else will you see a cucumber straightener or a collection of terrifying gnomes? Nor would I have ever seen a Vauxhall Gardens season medallion, as designed by William Hogarth. I also saw a book on flowers from 1593, pictures of botany by James Sowerby and a book that Repton used to present his vision of gardens to prospective customers. Having recently finished John Brewer’s ‘The Pleasures of the Imagination’, I related those items to what I had read and got more out of them than I would have. I also learnt that the first named gardener in Britain was named Edmund and was paid the exorbitant sum of two and a half pence a day.

Although I didn’t get ten pounds worth of interest out of the museum, I have never owned a garden or been interested in gardens. If you are, it’s likely you’ll get a lot out of it.

The museum is also worth visiting as a church. Buried there are some very interesting people; Elias Ashmole, the Lichfield native whose collection formed the Ashmolean in Oxford, John Foreman, the doctor who was the basis of the Casebooks Project and Botanists Sowerby and the Tradescants. Even if you don’t want to visit the museum, I recommend peeking into the porch and seeing one of my favourite headstones of all time.

London has some wonderful big museums and exhibitions but I recommend checking out the smaller ones to.

Wednesday 12 September 2018

Trip: 'The Rake's Progress Opera' at the British Youth Opera

I went to see Stravinksy’s opera of ‘The Rake’s Progress’ performed by the British Youth Opera because I happened to catch the poster on my way back from (my umpteenth) viewing of the‘The Rake’s Progress’ paintings in at Sir John Soane’s house. 

In the lead up to seeing this opera, I was going through the paintings in my mind and imagining what I might see. There’s a painting when young Tom Rakewell is surrounded by the professionals aimed to make him a gentlemen. I imagined each one having a different theme - the fencing master with a martial theme, the dancing master with a prissy song, the jockey with a galloping tune - and all these songs mixing together into a pleasingly raucous mess. I also imagined the boozy laziness of the Rose tavern and the woozy madness of Bedlam. The opera didn’t really deliver on this.

The opera does broadly follow the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell and his faithful lover, called Anne in this version. It was arranged in nine distinct scenes as Hogarth’s sequence is arranged in nine paintings. There was a Rose Tavern equivalent and a moving ending set in Bedlam but the opera adds a manservant who leads Tom into trouble and is actually the devil. Instead of marrying an elderly lady for money, Tom marries a bearded-lady for money and novelty. He also loses all his money by investing in a machine that turns stones into bread. I should have been disappointed, and in a sense I was but as I thought about the opera, I began to realise what it really was… a ‘Rake’s Progress’ and ‘Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus’ mashup.

The scenes with Baba, the bearded lady, reminded me of Martinus marriage to the conjoined twins (though Scriblerus had a hilarious love quadrangle). The stones-to-bread machine could have appeared in ‘Martinus Scriblerus’, the third book of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ or any other Scribleran project. Once I reconciled myself to that, I was a lot more comfortable with the adaptation.

My confusion with the adaptation aside, the three-and-a-half hours went by extremely quickly. I had heard Stravinsky was a difficult and often atonal composer but there was thrilling bombast, lilting melody and hummable tunes. I really enjoyed it. I know nothing of the technical skill, but the man ahead of me frequently nodded in encouragement (though occasionally shook his head in disagreement). I particularly liked the person plating the devilish manservant, Nick Shadow, his evil had a joy in it which I engaged with whenever he came on stage.

I’m still encouraged to tentatively tap my toes into opera and enjoyed this experience a great deal - though I still feel a straightforward rendering of Hogarth’s ‘Rake’s Progress’ into opera would be a treat.

Wednesday 5 September 2018

Trip: ‘James Cook: The Voyages’ at the British Library

I have a habit of getting to exhibitions late. When it comes to ‘James Cook: The Voyages’ at the British Library, I got there on the last day. I’m going to review it anyway, if just to work out my reaction to it - because it was complicated.

On the surface, it seems straightforward. First, gather materials from Cook’s three voyages; maps, logs, diaries, paintings and a few material items from Oceanic cultures. Then use them to present these voyages to the public, along with a through-story that questions and analyses the purposes for the voyages and their impact. The difficulty is that the materials and the through-story told different things.

I shall look at the materials and how they were arranged first because there was a lot of thought put into the physical space. After an introduction to Cook as a person, the viewer was led into a mock-up of an eighteenth century cabinet of curiosities. This area is ‘London’ and from here, the viewer goes on the first voyage. 

This voyage took the visitor on a zigzagging path (often very cramped) with different areas representing different islands before coming back into the centre to a different part of ‘London’ where the voyage was assessed. The visitor was then led on the second voyage and back to ‘London’ again before going on the third. The third didn’t come back to ‘London’ as Cook did not and the visitor was led out to the gift shop.

Apart from the sometimes awkward physical angles, I liked this idea. I enjoyed the pattern of voyage and reflection, and following the narrative of each voyage as each progressed. It was clever and interesting, and the ‘London’ parts made explicit the impact of London culture on the voyages themselves.

In the first part, the cabinet of curiosities included books that presented the enlightenment wish to describe and catalogue the world, from an extensive encyclopaedia to (Bank’s own) copy of Linnaeus. This meant that, in the subsequent voyage, the maps, pictures and documents were understandable from this need to collect and organise.

Those documents, particularly the pictures, were a fascinating glimpse into the minds of Banks and the scientific team. Even more interesting was how, on Tahiti, Banks developed a relationship with the people of Tahiti, particular Tupaia, a navigator and priest of Oro. It showed what started as scientific interest, recording the cultures of people with the same attitude they took with plants and flowers and how this attitude became one of friendship and cultural exchange. 

There was then a video where modern Tahitians discussed Tupaia, some saying they were proud of him for his skills and adventurous spirit, others calling him a traitor for leaving the island.

This friendship and understanding were shown in the way Cook’s map of Tahiti was created with native names, compared with Samuel Wallis’ map, calling the island ‘King George’s Island’. It is further developed by the fascinating pictures drawn by Tupaia and then, after he joined the crew, his map of his knowledge of the seas and islands of the Pacific. What may have started as observer and subject definitely grew into conversation of equals.

The maps of New Zealand and parts of Australia don’t show the same interest in place-names and do show Cook ‘naming’ those places. Also, there was a number of descriptions of violent encounters with people, often with Tupaia smoothing the process. One of these violent encounters involved a surgeon called Monkhouse shooting a Māori called Te Rakau. Interestingly, while Cook’s account named him, Monkhouse’s places it in the passive voice and avoids his guilt.

By the end of the first voyage, the visitor had been presented with a journey that had the principal aim of mapping the transit of Venus in the Southern Hemisphere and a further brief to boldy go where no European had gone before and meet new cultures - with a particular emphasis on good relationship. What’s more, the evidence presented showed a development of pure scientific observing become warm human exchange and co-operation with the occasional misunderstanding, that was usually patched up. 

What’s more, the second voyage showed the same thing. Cook meeting new people, delving as far into Antarctica as any European ship had ever done (confirming the reports of the Pacific people that beyond was ‘a white land’) and flogging any member of the crew who stole or injured a native - something that didn’t happen to Monkhouse (though that was probably because of his profession as a surgeon not a sailor.) The pictures from these voyages were stunning and, like the ones from the first voyage show an appreciation for the cultures they encountered.

The third voyage had a more explicit commercial tone (find the northwest passage and asses the possibility of fur trading) but the materials showed Cook engaging even more in local cultures. In Hawaii, he took part in ceremonies where he went shirtless, which seemed demeaning to his crew, but he did it anyway. He bemoans the strain and pressure that European contact might have with the Pacific cultures and seems very aware of the possible impact.

At no point do the materials present him as a Columbus or a Cortez, there is no talk of slavery or even settlement. But, to provide context, there were frequent screens and the wrap-up videos at the end of the exhibition which were the only sound in the room. These videos were mainly interviews with modern representatives of the cultures Cook encountered and they presented him as a coloniser. This was my disconnect. 

That colonisation happened as a result of Cook’s voyages is true but Cook’s voyages were not presented as ones of colonisation. Perhaps, if the exhibition could have included more details of how colonisation stemmed from Cook’s voyages, some papers relating to Joseph Bank’s suggestion of setting prison colonies in Australia, then the link could have been more explicit in the evidence.

In the part where Cook’s death is presented, it says that he was killed in a fight on a beach when he went to kidnap the leader, Kalaniʻōpuʻu. ,in order to swap him for the return of a longboat. It described this manoeuvre as ‘typical’ yet we hadn’t encountered it anywhere else in the exhibition. The whole affair raises lots of questions; why was the longboat stolen? Why did Cook have a 'typical' tactic to resolve this? Why was that tactic as extreme as kidnapping kings? None of these elements had really come into the rest of the exhibition and it all came out of nowhere. Perhaps some explanation of how this radical tactic had become ‘typical’ and the thinking behind it may have set up Cook’s coloniser credentials more completely.

But as the exhibition stood, the material evidence (mostly of British creation) presented the voyages as full of wonder and openness, whereas the all-pervasive analysis and context videos presented the voyages as acts of aggression. While the eventual impact of Cook’s Voyages are of vital importance, they are not exactly part of the story of the voyages and I think more needed to be done to tie these elements together.