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1819 The Shock of the Middle

This year, more than 1818 or 1820, or most other adjacent dates, can rightly be considered as a “key date” in British cultural history, lacking perhaps the stature of 1066, 1215, 1688, 1815, but resembling these by resonating in a way that other years simply don’t. Such is implicit in any number of classic history accounts: E.P. Thompson proclaimed in The Making of the English Working Class (1963) that Peterloo—the violent suppression of a mass public meeting in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, on 16 August 1819 was “Without question the formative experience in British political and social history.”1 Through Peterloo, class conflict gained real force and—importantly for art historians—visibility.2 For Dror Wahrman, 1819 represents a pivotal point not in the “actual” rise of the middle-class, as an economic force or “real world” social group, but in the idea of middle-classness, or, more precisely, a conflicted and compromised middleness.3 For the literary historian James Chandler, 1819 marks a moment of newly intensifying historical self-consciousness, the moment that a middle class attained a reflexive sense of that historical process, giving rise to the kind of annualised historical writing that his own book exemplifies and which, arguably, the present “chronicle” of Academy exhibitions extends.4 

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We might become more comfortable with this annualised approach when the idea of 1819 is extended beyond the empirical boundaries of the calendar year to be symbolic of a more extended moment. This has been the approach pursued by the literary historian John Gardner, who argues for the existence of an extended poetic project stretching over the years 1819–1821, from Peterloo, to the Cato Street Conspiracy (the foiled plot to assassinate the entire cabinet), and the outpouring of popular sympathy for the estranged and abused wife of the new king, George IV, Queen Caroline. In Gardner’s account, these years constitute a distinct period in which the stratification of poetry into “low” and “high” forms were confounded by the proliferation of cultural production.5 While Gardner’s focus, like the other commentators cited here, is on literary matters, the implications for art historians are intriguing and important.

We might want to make a case that there was an energy and activity in the world of art over that calendar year that corresponds with the record of textual output. In his early history of the Royal Academy, William Sandby detected in 1819 a year of change. He noted that the forty Academicians elected during Benjamin West’s presidency (1792–1820), amounted to “A complete change among the members” (the total number of Academicians being forty), while the last Exhibition held during West’s lifetime (1819), “retained some few specimens of the works of the early members of the Academy” but was, essentially, the showcase for a new generation.6 We might consider how the tumultuous year of 1819 provides a sense of momentousness which makes Turner’s England: Richmond, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday more than a picturesque view of a familiar landscape, but instead a grand (perhaps rather grandiose) statement about the nation as a whole.7 More concretely, we can point to several premières in 1819. George Clint exhibited his first major theatrical painting, of The Clandestine Marriage, and Charles Robert Leslie showed Sir Roger de Coverley Going to Church, accompanied by the Spectator, and Surrounded by his tenants—See Spectator, which was identified by his early biographer Tom Taylor as “an epoch in the painter’s career” and saw him first venturing into literary genre painting. It was in 1819 that Abraham Cooper showed the Battle of Marston Moor, the first of his historicist battle scenes, which provided the backbone of his professional success (Fig. 1). Together, these pictures point to the self-consciousness about artistic tradition which arose with the growing art market, but crucially with the old master exhibitions held at the British Institution from 1813. The forging of an “identity” for the British School in the early nineteenth century was founded upon revivalism, with its mobilisation of multiple time-frames, as noted by Whitney Davis:8 a 1766 play referencing Hogarth rendered in the style of the 1760s but representing actors of the present day; a 1644 battle rendered in the style of the 1680s. In British art of 1819, there was a distinct gravitational pull towards the middle which exerted itself differentially, but involved generally, a degree of generic hybridisation and a dependence on the authority of the past as well as a commitment to novelty—the “rival impulses and understandings” of the middle-brow in other words.9

I would argue that we see this at work, unexpectedly, in a picture from 1819 which might otherwise be characterised in terms of extreme novelty—Joseph Michael Gandy’s Jupiter Pluvius (Fig. 2). This was obviously indebted to the example of Turner’s epic landscapes of the 1800s, in particular emulating the chalky surface effects of the older artist, but with the architectural element “ramped up” considerably, the scale of the depicted buildings is increased to the point of disbelief, piled up in succession into the misty heights in a veritable illustration of the mathematical principles of the material sublime (put simply, “more is even more”).10 We have become very used to thinking about the appearance of works like this as marking the advent of a new popular optical culture, extended across and connecting the worlds of urban entertainment and high culture.11 This clearly is the case, in that these pictures draw on the extreme light effects of the magic lantern and phantasmagoria, and the extended perspective of the panoramas. But we might equally emphasise their “high artiness”—these are easel paintings, presented in the context of the most authoritative art exhibitions, with the artists making some efforts to draw attention to their high-culture aspirations. In Gandy’s case, he cited in the catalogue, actually quite unhelpfully, a dry passage from Pausanias, hardly a reader-friendly source and not at all illuminating, if the viewer make the effort to check the text. Gandy might better be understood as attempting a middle route incorporating both high cultural aspiration and vulgar spectacle, and in so doing, marking out new social and creative possibilities.12

  1. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, revised edn (Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1968 [1963]), 754.↩︎

  2. This is literally true with respect to “popular” print. See for instance, Louis James, Print and the People 1819–1851 (London: Allen Lane, 1976); and Brian Maidment, Comedy, Caricature, and the Social Order, 1820–50 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).↩︎

  3. On the impact of Peterloo, see Dror Wahrman, Imagining the Middle Class: The Political Representation of Class in Britain, c.1780–1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), esp. 200–214.↩︎

  4. James Chandler, England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), esp. 51–93.↩︎

  5. John Gardner, Poetry and Popular Protest: Peterloo, Cato Street and the Queen Caroline Controversy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). See also Malcolm Chase, 1820: Disorder and Stability in the United Kingdom (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).↩︎

  6. William Sandby, The History of the Royal Academy of Arts from its Foundation in 1768 to the Present Time , 2 vols (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, 1862), Vol. 1, 290 and 288.↩︎

  7. See Andrew Hemingway, Landscape Imagery and Urban Culture in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 241–245.↩︎

  8. Whitney Davis, “Foreword: The Interval of Revival”, in Ayla Lepine, Matt Lodder, and Rosalind McKever (eds), Revival: Memories, Identities, Utopias (London: Courtauld Books Online, 2015),↩︎

  9. Joan Shelley Rubin, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 32.↩︎

  10. See Martin Meisel, “The Material Sublime: John Martin, Byron, Turner, and the Theater”, in Karl Kroeber and William Walling (eds), Images of Romanticism: Verbal and Visual Affinities (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978), 211–232.↩︎

  11. On visual excitement and metropolitan culture in the Romantic period see, for instance, Ann Bermingham, “Urbanity and the Spectacle of Art”, in James Chandler and Kevin Gilmartin (eds), Romantic Metropolis: The Urban Scene of British Culture, 1780–1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 151–176; and Sophie Thomas, Romanticism and Visuality: Fragments, History, Spectacle (New York: Routledge, 2008).↩︎

  12. See Ralph O’Connor, The Earth on Show: Fossils and the Poetics of Popular Science, 1802–1856 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 263–323; also, Martin Myrone, “John Martin: Art, Taste and the Spectacle of Culture”, in Martin Myrone (ed.), John Martin: Apocalypse, exhibition catalogue (London: Tate Britain, 2011), 11–21.↩︎

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