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Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century [Paperback]

J Brewer

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Book Description

26 April 2000
An account of the development of a native English tradition in the arts between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Eighteenth century figures such as Johnson, Reynolds, Garrick and Handel are the focus of discussion, and the author also takes account of those areas outside of London.

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"[T]his history book is now, for me, the last word on how British literary culture changed between the last days of the early modern period and the Victorian age ... give this book as a present to your favourite amateur historian: they will love you for it." - Kate Macdonald, Vulpes Libris

"Pleasures of the Imagination paints a kaleidoscopic picture of eighteenth-century culture that is both erudite and accessible." - Heather Mcpherson, University of Alabama at Birmingham

"If you want to understand how British culture reinvented itself in the eighteenth century, read The Pleasures of the Imagination... Like all really original achievements it makes us sharply rethink things we supposed we knew well, but it does so with humour and humanity, and through the text runs Brewer's remarkable intellect: forceful, lucid and penetrating." - Simon Schama

"The Pleasures of the Imagination is a splendid cornucopia of a book. It describes the contortions of the eighteenth century as it developed a culture... It is full of pure delight... The marvel of this book is that in writing in exuberant detail about the past, Brewer succeeds in illuminating the present... This book wears its massive scholarship lightly. I hope some of our new political masters have time to read it, for it is a history that teaches us many lessons." - Peter Hall, The Observer

"Brewer ranges over almost every corner of the English mind with sharp, darting observation... Brewer is perceptive, amusing and thorough wherever he strays. This is by far the most complete and up-to-date account of the evolving Georgian arts... We are shown round a society aiming at Rome but often hitting Babylon, with the combined attitutes of fin-de siecle Paris and of Las Vegas. This is a book to treasure as it treasures a past we thought we had lost." - Pat Rogers, Sunday Telegraph

"A model of the new cultural history... In Britons, Linda Colley highlighted the new political, patriotic and religious tides which flowed in the Georgian age, creating a fresh confidence and sense of national identity... The Pleasures of the Imagination confirms this view of the main of the public mind. It shows how the English came to feel not just strong but civilized too, polite as well as powerful. God's chosen people, of the age of Cromwell, were reinventing themselves as Shakespeare's heirs." - Roy Porter, The Independent

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.6 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lavish synopsis of the marriage between mercantilism and art 10 Jan 2001
By Cyrus Bozorgmehr - Published on
This book is indeed a masterpiece. The eighteenth century was unquestionably a period in which the arts thrived in Britain, but high culture was nothing new to Europe, particularly in the wake of the Renaissance and Rococo. What made this period and indeed this book special was the exodus of culture from the court to the street. This is Brewer's principal theme; the marriage of mercantilism and mass cultural appeal. The arts had always been the plaything of the monarch and the aristocracy and the artists reliant on them for patronage. Beyond church and court there were few examples to be found, excepting anomalies such as Elizabethan theatre. The reasons for it's explosion were manifold as Brewer elaborates. Literacy rates were on the up, a phenomenon that was intertwined with increasing urbanisation, more schools opened their doors, and cities were the ideal breeding ground for literacy in an age of increasing public works. Although Almanacks and religious pamphlets were stiil the staple fare, the 'Grub Street' publishing industry was flourishing, and although, as the name suggests, impecunious authors and unscrupulous publishers were very much in evidence, a wider readership was fuelling the flowering industry. Libraries were a phenomenon of the eighteenth century, for while print works were increasingly widespread books were expensive. The advent of the library with an annual fee less than the price of a single volume in one swoop fanned the the fire of literary appreciation. Brewer delves also into the painting world : the London of Hogarth that was so familiar to the common man and the foundation and patronage of the Royal Academy. Again the new commercialism is drawn as a major growth factor, for merchants and the wealthy bourgois became the new patrons, eager to commemorate their financial glory. Garrick and Drury Lane; the world of the stage is the other focus of Brewer's attentions who uses the three principal arts to chart the explosion not of high, but popular culture in the climate of an industrialising and mercantile Britain on the verge of Empire. His hands on approach to the period leaves the reader with a sense of a very real age and a very real London brought alive through Brewers' warm, empathic portrait and spectacular illustrations. His final section deviates from his depiction of the age through the principal art forms. Almost apologetically in a book that so lovingly brings that London alive, he provides a survey of provincial Britain and the permeation of culture into the shires. By comparing and contrasting tastes and events we are left with a more robust picture, that of Britain as a whole.
The book is magesterially written, dripping with fascinating anecdotes, and bringing into play figures great and small of Hogarth and Johnson's London. Laced with almost an illustration per two pages also reflecting all angles of the cultural scene, this book is the unmissable history both of eighteenth century culture, and changing social values in a changing age. Unmissable
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars John Brewer's Pleasures of the Imagination 7 July 1998
By - Published on
From the first page to the last, John Brewer's recent study of the eighteenth century English culture is itself a "pleasure of the imagination". Offering a synoptic interpretation of the lettered -- and unlettered -- culture of Enlightenment England, Brewer invites his readers to the Turk's Head Inn, where the Great Cham of literature, Samuel Johnson, presided over his philosophic family, including such luminaries as Edmund Burke, James Boswell and Oliver Goldsmith. In addition, Brewer exposes us to the shrewd politics and repartee behind the scenes of the Drury Lane playhouse -- where the renowned actor and theater manger, David Garrick, modified the plays of Shakesphere in order to popularize "the Bard" for the average Londoner, hoping to maintain the interest of a crude, but critical, audience. Brewer ranges freely between contemporary memoirs and philosophical tracts -- describing not only the pomp and pretence of the intellectual elite, such as the epicurean dilitantes (who praised the phallus and spurned the Christian sacraments), but also the painters, musicians, and rustic "sages" (both male and female), whose studied affectations combined with their genuine sentiments make their biographical accounts so enjoyable. Brewer's format is redolent of Simon Schama, and is as witty and entertaining to read. The illustrations are admirably selected, and help to make the narrative even more dynamic. Considering the excessive drivle that passes for social history nowadays, it's so refreshinig to read a scholar who is not only intimately familiar with the literature of the era, but himself a gifted prose stylist.
15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Commerce and Culture in 18th Century England 4 Oct 2002
By Chanandler Bong - Published on
In this unusual approach to cultural history, John Brewer seeks to explain how "practical and technical improvements and commercial practices of the modern world" led to "the rise of fine arts and of social refinement" in 19th century England. The successful result is a work that emphasizes processes of cultural dissemination, such as nascent exhibiting societies for the visual arts and the increasingly dynamic publishing and bookselling trades. Likewise, individual creators of culture are studied not as "isolated geniuses," but rather to determine their role in shaping cultural institutions.
Brewer's first chapter thoroughly grounds his argument in the 17th century, which is impressive in a work primarily concerned with the 18th century. Before the execution of Charles I, English high culture was firmly ensconced in the court; however, the events of the next century gradually moved the center of culture from the court to the city. Cromwell's Puritan regime de-emphasized the visual arts; Charles II was too financially poor and his court too morally corrupt to support a cultural revival; William and Mary lacked both the strong desire for a court atmosphere and an ornate palace in which to create one. The Georges sporadically supported culture, but they did so beyond the confines of the court: by this time the coffee houses and clubs of London had irreversibly filled the cultural vacuum left by the decline of the court.
The chapters that follow examine the relationships among commerce, cultural pursuits, and social and moral values. These intersections of private and public, and the idea of "politeness" they generated, serve to unify Brewer's discussions of print, paint, and performance culture. For example, in the realm of print, commercial changes such as the end of perpetual copyright and declining pre-publication censorship, coupled with rising literacy, created a larger reading audience and a larger, more affordable selection of available books. The resulting shift from intensive to extensive reading is symptomatic of a new form of cultural consumption, one often imagined to originate much more recently.
Brewer concludes by using the contrasts among London, the provincial cities, and the countryside to derive the new role of Nature in English culture. The advent of tourism seemed to value nature for its distance from commercial culture, yet tourist destinations were never the most wild areas: tourists sought the boundaries between culture and nature, places where they could see sites resembling familiar landscape paintings. At the same time, tourism indirectly spread the very culture it nominally aimed to escape. Improving roads and communications provided channels through which culture, as well as tourists, traveled.
Pleasures of the Imagination convincingly portrays the effects of commercial and social changes in 18th century England upon the cultural environment. Brewer's argument and evidence both merit close reading and confound attempts to present such a brief summary as this. Finally, the book is quite approachable, with well-flowing prose and countless illustrations.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Birth of Modern Art 6 Sep 2011
By S. Pactor - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
It's simply a fact that English Culture in the 18th century created our modern ideas about Art and Artists. The 18th century is the time in which the idea of "high art" developed, the time when the modern traditions of literature, art and theater were established, and, most importantly, the time in which wide swathes of people in England gained the time and money to indulgence their fondness for "leisure."

Recognizing the 18th century as an important time in the development of modern art is one thing, understanding the role it actually played is quite another. Critical perspectives on the 18th century are often shaped by later developments distorting the vision of the critic- most especially the Romantic inspired cult of Artist as genius, and 19th century Marxism. Brewer's The Pleasures of the Imagination serves as a stern, contemporary refutation of many mushy headed ideas about the development of Art in Modern society.

Brewer's method is to survey 18th century developments in the Arts, in England and tie them to pre-existing and developing institutions in order to demonstrate what came before the explosion in Artistic activity during the 18th century. The main sections of Pleasures deal with the rise of the novel, the development of 18th century painting, and the arts of "public performance": theater, opera and concert music. After his survey of artisitic development in the 18th century, Brewer turns to the relationship between the center and it's periphery (London and the other area of England) in order to show the way in which "city culture" developed outside of the city.

Perhaps the theme from Pleasures that would be most astonishing to readers of this blog (or perhaps not astonishing at all) is the manner in which, in all art forms, the AUDIENCE preceded the ARTIST. Take the novel- a 18th century English invention if ever there was one. Literature existed in 17th century England, but the novel did not. What happened? Well, at the end of the 17th century in London, there were people who made their living printing and selling books- let's call them "booksellers"- there were also people who made their living writing- let's call them "hacks." During the first part of the 18th century, there was explosive growth in the population of London itself, and a corresponding rise in demand for printed matter: sermons, almanacs, information about public affairs, poetry.

The early novel writers were ALREADY involved in the world of literature. For example, Brewers uses Samuel Richardson, who might well, along with Daniel DeFoe might be considered the "inventor" of the novel. Richardson was a succesful printer, who wrote his first novel at the age of 50. The result, Pamela, was a work that Richardson knew there was an audience for- he knew because he made books for them. Likewise, DeFoe was what you would call a "hack" and his early novel's were sensational in the vein of the criminal biographies and adventure narratives that people were already buying.

Thus the novel, at it's very inception, was perceived as something that people should want to buy, and the audience for the novel already existed- they were just buying other forms of literature. Once the value in the novel as a new form of literature was perceived by writers, they wasted no time establishing a secondary body of literature that we call "criticism." Most of this criticism happened among writers themselves, with an uneasy and unclear relationship to the larger, buying, "public." This pattern of development- happening early in the 18th century- was to occur again and again through the 18th, 19th and 20th century.

Certainly, painting offers an even broader, more distinct example of Audience preceding Artist. At the beginning of the 18th century, painting was something that, for Englishmen, happened in Italy, two hundred years ago. Contemporary English painters were of little regard, and they were certainly not the peoe ple who decided what painting was worthwhile. This task- the task of discrimination and of what we call "taste" was the province of the "connessiour" and later, the "collector." Beginning in the 18th century, more and more wealthy English gentleman (and fewer ladies) took the Grand Tour, where they travelled to Italy with the express purpose of cultivating their artistic tastes.

They returned to England, and acting like the powerful players in Society they actually were, went about disseminating their views about Painting in private and in public. This took the form of clubs, journals and partnerships with the government to share their taste with the population. All of this activity only gradually let to domestic painting being recognized as "worthy" on a level with the Renaissance masters, and even by the end of the 18th century, it was a battle that was far from over. 18th century painting is an example of an at times artist-less Audience and it provides a neat counter example to the more common pattern of working artists developing a new artisitc genre for an existing Audience.

Finally, Brewer comes to the "performing" arts- Theater, Opera and Concert Music. Here, the argument of Audience preceding Artist is easy to make, simply based on the manner in which these forms were slaves to Audience opinion (even, when in the case of Opera, the audience was an audience of one: The King of England.) Indeed, the great successes of 18th century theater and concert music were men (Garrick and Handel) who created works of art that had huge secondary associations among the wider population. Garrick was the man who created the "cult" of Shakespeare, Handel the man who created the music for 18th century church going Britons.

In all areas, the idea of the detached Aritst, living apart from society in some sort of self-imposed isolation is showng to be a false ideas propogated by romantic theorists of the 18th and 19th century. False then, false now- without the Audience, Artists don't exist.
5.0 out of 5 stars English Enlightenment 7 May 2014
By The Sassy Countess - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I read this for a class, but I am glad that I did. It was worth every word. I found it very informational.
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