PAINTINGS AND THE CONCEPTUALIZATION OF BRITISH SOCIETY
FROM 1750 TO 1850
Gregory R. Sahlen
B.S. Colorado State University, 1992
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
This thesis for the Master of Arts
Gregory R. Sahlen
has been approved
Sahlen, Gregory R. (M.A. History)
Paintings and the Conceptualization of British Society from 1750 to 1850
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Maijorie Levine-Clark
The purpose of this study is to demonstrate a possible interrelationship
between art and the rest of society in the mid-eighteenth century until the mid-
nineteenth century in Great Britain. Each chapter delineates patterns of social
thought, by deducing parallels between the ways people conceptualized their social
environment and the manner in which artists thought about art and painted. These
themes that run throughout society are individualism, competition, nature, and
My methodology consists of first reiterating the societal-wide shift in
customs and practices in Great Britain, such as wide spread democratic movements,
the social acceptance of capitalism and industrialism, the embracing of laissez faire
economics, the implementation of imperialism and colonialism, and the adoption of
nature as a guiding principle. These shifting realities of social practices and
customs affected the formation of prevailing social ideologies, Le. of the middle
class, as well as artistic thought. In this manner, artistic and social endeavors are
both concurrently subject to the same external phenomena and are ideologically
linked. Since ideologies are systems of beliefs, and systems are comprised of
interacting elements that comprise the whole system, it stands to reason that
ideologies possess a component structure that constitute the overall structure. It is
by breaking down ideologies into their most basic forms that the interrelationship of
discursive beliefs becomes evident, and that some seemingly unrelated belief
systems are in fact affiliated. The flexibility of this model avoids historiographical
traps associated with teleological interpretations, in which historical eras or art
movements seem to develop as mere phases in the inevitable unfolding of a process.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
I dedicate this thesis to my wife Cheryl, for her insight, unwavering support,
friendship, and most of all her love.
I would like to express gratitude to my thesis committee for their time and effort and
especially to my advisor Marjorie Levine-Clark whose patience and guidance made
this thesis possible.
1. INDIVIDUALISM............................... 1
5. CONCLUSION................................. 97
The nature of this study is a speculation on the connections between art and
society. Employing art as a tool for historical interpretation is not novel, yet art
traditionally holds an awkward position in historiographical investigation. Historical
analyses have traditionally ignored the functionality of art within a social context.
For example, Gareth Stedman Joness work Languages of Class concentrates on
political consciousness and stresses the political and discursive conditions in which
particular languages appear and vanish over time.1 While important, relying solely
on an investigation of political language is too narrow a focus for illuminating a
society, which also contains non-political aspects. Even works which rely upon
ideological interpretation, such as Harold Perkins book The Origins of Modem
English Society. 1780-1880. fail to integrate art into the historical analysis. For
example, Perkin states that English society was based upon ideals, and he
concentrates on changes in communications, science, commerce, colonial
expansion, psychology, revolutionary politics, increasing scale of warfare, [and]
moral advances.2 Perkin ignores the possibility that art and peoples perceptions of
1 Gareth Stedman Jones, Languages of Class. Studies in English Working Class History 1832-1982
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
2 Harold Perkin, The Origins of Modem English Society. 1780-1880 (London: Routledge & Kegan
Paul LTD, 1969), pg. 12.
art contain ideological content. Another limit of historiography is the strictly
tangential treatment of the relationship of art in a larger social setting. For example,
Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall in Family Fortunes treat romanticism as a
trend that found social acceptance due to an affinity to the emotionalism in society.3
In the above examples, historians have demonstrated a neglect of art as a
valuable interpretative tool. The nebulousness of art in historiography, as something
of acknowledged import and yet a tool of analysis that is largely ignored, begs the
question as to whether art has a specific function in society, and if so what function
does art hold? Is art a tool of commentary or merely something interesting to look
at? Does art possess value outside of a utilitarian interpretation or is it merely a
product of labor? Is the ideological content of art integrated with the formation of a
larger social idiom or merely a reactive aping of that larger social idiom? By
analyzing art in an integrated manner historians may begin to answer these
questions and to better understand an era as a whole.
Since the purpose of this study is not epistemological, two concepts must be
assumed as foundational. First, art is a necessary human expression, in which a
peoples thoughts, hopes, and ideas are expressed through a medium or modality.
According to Max Scheler, art shows us what we are experiencing. The history of
art may be seen therefore, as a series of expeditions against the intuitable world,
3 Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes, Men and Women of the English Middle
Class, 1780-1850 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pg. 111.
within and without, to subdue it for our comprehension; and that for a kind of
comprehension which no science could ever provide.4 Secondly, by labeling a
period as, say, the Romantic Period, an assumption is drawn to a teleological
progression, in which one period proceeds into another with the steady progress of
ideas culminating in a millenium. Rather than linear, ideas exist on multiple planes
and in the past and the present. They are available for constant reevaluation,
reinterpretation, denial or acceptance. As Arnold Hauser has concluded, every fact
is in a state of motion and subject to constant change of meaning.5 As such, my
study will draw a distinction between Romanticism, which has been classified as a
movement in the arts lasting from roughly 1750 to 1850, and what I am terming the
romantic sensibility, which is a manner of deriving inspiration and form. The term
romanticism then will be employed not as an independent movement in the arts,
but instead as a way of thinking. As such the term will be descriptive and will not
The forthcoming study will demonstrate the existence of four themes in
British society between 1750 and 1850. While much historiography has interpreted
the period in Great Britain as consisting mainly of discourses on individuality,
competitiveness, nature and rationalism, I have found that the eras thematic content
4 Max Scheler, The Nature of Sympathy (Hander, CN: 1970), pg. 252 3.
5 Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art: Vol III (London: Rutledge, 1951), pg. 161.
deviated from common historiographical consensus. Rather, the themes of
individualism, competition, and nature fractured, leading to the formation of the
theme of irrationality. These themes were obtained by integrating an analysis of
British paintings and the ways in which people thought about art and artists into a
larger social context. This context includes the various discourses on economic
interchange, race and gender relations. The development of the above four themes
throughout society essentially constitutes a pattern; a pattern that I believe sheds
light on how people understood their society. The time frame I have chosen not
only limits my scope but also contains historical meaning. In the field of art history,
1750 to 1850 (give or take 10 years) is commonly recognized as the Romantic era.
For British historians, these years roughly mark the development of the class system
as well as industrialism.
Social historians have argued that in Great Britain from 1750 to 1850, the
middle class adopted an ideal of individualism, while the working class embraced a
model of communalism, in order to gain citizenship. In this manner, historians
maintain that a dichotomy of middle-class individualism opposed a working-class
communalism. However, by contextually placing an examination of art, art
criticism, and the place held by the artist in society into a larger social framework, I
have realized the existence of a fractured conception of individualism in the era, the
two parts of which I term particular individualism and egalitarian individualism.
Therefore, a major component of the middle-class and working-class ideological
structures sprang from the same conceptual root, rather than as an inherent
dichotomy of middle-class individualism opposing working-class communalism.
Individualism means a belief that individual freedom is at least as important as the
welfare of the community or group. Those believing in egalitarian individualism
placed emphasis upon individual will, which they believed elevated all people to
equal status thereby benefiting society. Yet a belief in individualism also realizes
the qualities that distinguish one person from another. Proponents of particular
individualism concentrated on these differences, which lead to their exclusive
attention on their particular group. As such, the egalitarian individualists
concentrated on the broadest of similarities, while particular individualists
concentrated on narrowing differences. By establishing that particular and
egalitarian individualism existed in British painting, aesthetic theory, and peoples
attitudes toward art, and then drawing parallels to the social and political aspects of
society, a pattern becomes evident in British society. In politics, economics, and
religion, political economists, Anglican evangelicals and middle-class idealists
embraced particular individualism. Working-class theorists, radical political
activists and dissenting evangelicals, looked toward egalitarian individualism. That
the working class employed cooperative strategies as a vehicle for change is not in
doubt. I am arguing that using these tactics was not a means of expressing a belief
in communalism rather than individualism. Rather, both the middle class and the
working class held an ideal of individualism. It was only that the ideal fractured
into two competing versions.
In the study of political and economic discourses in British society,
historians have concerned themselves with the existence of individualism and
specifically its relationship to the middle class. In this manner the middle class has
been linked with a sense of entrepreneurial sprit which epitomized individualism,
as in Davidoff and Halls work Family Fortunes. The entrepreneur, idealized as a
self-made man, was free of patronage from the patrician class, and advocated no
formal education or advantages (such as birth) except for his own natural abilities to
make his way to wealth and status.1 Harold Perkin has demonstrated that the
political unfettering of commercial men from the patronage system took place
through the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the repeal of the Com Laws in 1846.2
Such parliamentary action, in Perkins analysis, points to the ruling elites growing
acceptance of the middle-class definition of independence and individualism.3
Redefining the concept of independence to include commercial activity made
possible the political and economic independence of larger numbers of individuals.
Modem British historians concern with individualism is grounded in its
ideological relationship to citizenship. Historians have shown that well into the
eighteenth century, the conceptualization of citizenship depended upon the British
aristocratic model of independence, which relied upon neo-classical ideals of
virtue.4 Also, according to the historian Anna Clark, independence through the
possession of landed property enabled a man to exercise a natural political
capacity free from government patronage and to put public concerns above private
1 Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes (New York: Routledge, 1987), pg. 199.
2 Harold Perkin, Origins of Modem English Society, 1780-1880 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
LTD, 1969), pg. 229-230
3 See also E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage Books,
1966); E.J. Hobsbawm, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (New York: Basic Books,
1964); Linda Colley, Britons. Forging the Nation (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1992);
David Cannadine, The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain (New York: Columbia University
4 Daniel Baugh, ed., Aristocratic Government and Society in the Eighteenth Century England (New
York: New Viewpoints, 1975), pg. 12-13. And Susan Kingsley Kent, Gender and Power. 1640-1990
(New York: Routlege, 1999), pg. 54.
interests.5 This defined masculine responsibility. In contrast, non-landed property
or mobile property, obtained through commercialism, rendered men artificial.
The historian William Wilcox, whose work is concerned with the British
aristocracy, tied this notion to the obtainment of gentility in that no one could
begin to climb toward gentility until he severed all active connection with trade and
bought a country estate.6 Historians such as Susan Kent and M.L. Bush have
argued that the aristocracy portrayed commercial pursuits as feminine frivolous,
luxurious and subject to appetites and passions. In the aristocratic model, these
traits could be manipulated or exploited by a corrupting sovereign thus diminishing
a persons potential for independence thereby leaving commercial men unfit to
participate in political life.7 In reality, because the aristocracy owned virtually all of
Britains real property, the portrayal of landed property as that which virtuously
enabled political involvement, rationalized the aristocratic monopoly of power.
With the ruling elites conceptualization of citizenship it is interesting that
the middling ranks chose to demonstrate their capability for political agency through
the expansion of the free market economy and competitive individualism, rather
sAnna Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches. Gender and the Making of the British Working Class
(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995), pg. 142. Also in Kent, Gender and Power, pg.
6 William B. Wilcox, The Age of the Aristocracy: 1688-1830 (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and
Company, 1976), pg. 68-69.
7 M.L. Bush, The English Aristocracy: A Comparative Synthesis (Dover, NH: Manchester University
Press 1984); Kent, Gender and Power, pg. 55.
than in the virtues of land ownership. Historians have demonstrated that
independence for a man of the middling ranks partially depended on an ability to
operate as an economic agent, who exhibited individualism through self-reliance.
Eric Hobsbawm has stated that the ideal of an individualist society suited [the
middling ranks], because they were men who no longer needed traditions. Their
efforts had raised them out of the rut.8 This emphasis on effort is represented
through the ideal of the entrepreneur. As Perkin states, if the worker was the horse
and the landlord the non-paying passenger, the entrepreneur was driver, conductor,
pathfinder, caterer, and provider of provender all rolled into one.9 Masculine
responsibility also encompassed the idea of self-reliance. According to Davidoff
and Hall, masculine responsibility was defined through the ability to protect ones
wife and children, not necessarily through physical, but financial protection.10
Conceptually then, for the middling ranks the public arena was affirmed as a mans
natural place in the world, and his ability to manipulate the economic environment
was central to his independence and his power in the private sphere.
The middle-class reinterpretation of individualism obviously relied upon the
ability to rid oneself of obligation. This rendering of individualism therefore
SE.J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire. The Making of Modem English Society. Vol. II 1750 to the
Present Dav (New York: Pantheon Books, 1968), pg. 65.
9 Perkin, The Origins of Modem Enelish Society (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul LTD, 1969), pg.
l0Ibid., pg. 229.
defined an individual as a particular type of person a man who had gained the
financial wherewithal to be self-reliant, who had gained this wherewithal by his own
efforts without benefit of birth, and as such demonstrates what I mean by particular
individualism. In a letter to the editor of Hibernia Magazine in 1810, the artist is
But he, in whose mind native thoughts arise, and form a body for
themselves; he, who sees not with the eye alone, but with the
understanding, and describes not with the tongue, but with the
mind.. .he is properly a man, and as such seldom appear, he is a god
By disavowing artistic precedent, an artist avoided the taint of dependency.
Therefore the artists originality freed him from subordination and thereby
demonstrated individualism. The elevation of the artist to god-like status in the
above quote is not only based upon self-reliance, but also on the exercising of his
mind an ability said to be possessed by all people. In this manner an artist
exemplified two different modes of individualism particular coupled with
egalitarian. The difference between the two forms of individualism lies in the
distinction between exclusivity and generality. The artists originality and ability to
be creative are attributes possessed by a relative few. By concentrating on these
scarce abilities as the source of manliness, differences are emphasized and
demonstrate particular individualism. In contrast, the general use of his mind, or
11 Hibernia Magazine. (Dublin: Hibernia Publishing Office, March, 1810), pg. 14.
reason, is a universal ability, which does not characterize the artist as special. This
demonstrates egalitarian individualism.
The combination of the two modes of individualism in the identity of the
artist, allowed for a shift in the definition of manliness. An artist could not be
completely free from obligation because he often relied upon the patronage of others
to make a living. So the artist therefore had to be able to span the gap between
independence and dependence without damaging his identity as a man. An editorial
from an 1839 issue of the Art Union softens the patron/artist relationship: it is
greatly to undervalue patronage, to regard it only as a source from whence the
painter draws the means of existence, Leonardo Di Vinci dying in the arms of
Francis the First indicates something more than the cold relations of buyer and
seller.12 The unique ability to create seems to have outweighed the artists
financial dependence on patronage. The artist, then, occupied a unique place in
British society and in effect was portrayed as a superman due to his ability to
encompass both forms of individualism, which allowed him to straddle the line
between dependence and independence without sacrificing the requisite facade of
While the middle class has been portrayed as individualist, historiographical
accounts interpret the working class as embracing communalism. For instance, E.P.
12 The Artists and Amateurs Magazine, pg.161.
Thompsons landmark study, The Making of the English Working Class.13 portrays
working-class activists as heroically devising a working-class consciousness, based
upon a communal attitude. Studies such as Thompsons link the working class with
communalism by concentrating on the formation of Corresponding Societies, mass
riots, and Chartist activities, in which working-class people banded together in order
to achieve political independence. Because much of Thompsons work is based
upon analyzing the working-class common experiences, the working class was
characterized as communal. Hobsbawm also highlights the communal attributes of
the working class. When writing about trade unions he stated that they were
communities of friends in a desert of individuals.14 This characterization opposes
working-class communalism to middle-class individualism. That the working class
employed communal strategies as a vehicle for change is not in doubt. But there is
a question as to whether or not these communal practices expressed a communal
ideal in the working-class ideology.
There are examples as to the existence of individualism in a working-class
ideology even in Thompsons work, specifically in his notation that working-class
political activists believed in a natural right to independence, where the free bom
13 Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class.
14 Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire, pg. 69.
Englishman felt himself to be an individualist.15 Also, Thompson relies on
rationalism as a key to working-class political thought, which is also an example of
individualism. A second allusion to the presence of individualism in a working-
class context comes from Anna Clark. Clark states that the demand for political
inclusion was at first presented in a somewhat united front of middling rank and
plebian reformers, in that some radical middle-class reformers promised to speak
for and cooperate with laboring men. In these instances, reformers presented
political representation as a natural right to be extended to all able-bodied adult
males based upon a universal ability to reason, rather than on the basis of their
property-owning status.16 These glimpses suggest that the idea of individualism
was incorporated into attempts at winning the franchise in both middle-class and
working-class ideologies, thereby demonstrating a common conceptual root. This
point can be further explained by investigating peoples attitudes toward painting in
An ideal of egalitarian individualism existed in a larger social context as
well as in painting, which is evident in the romantic sensibility. Because the source
of creation in the romantic sensibility comes from inside the artist, the human mind
represented independence from the external world. In an editorial from Hibernia
15 Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, pg. 80.
16 Clark, Struggle For the Breeches, pg. 144.
Magazine from 1811, the editor stated that the exercises of either of the two
fascinating arts [painting and poetry] was an individual expression of the human
mind, which was indignant of restraint. The workings of the mind, specifically
represented as imagination and reason, originated in the individual and spurn [ed]
those trammels that would curb its impetuousness, or retard its endeavors, rejecting
the slow but sure advances of art.17 Art was considered solely the product of the
mind, an organ that defied restraint and represented both literally and
metaphorically the preeminence of the individuals ability to act independently. In
this manner, these attributes were unfettered by outside coercive influences. As
such the editors words are clearly reminiscent of the maxim freedom from
tyranny,18 as exemplified by Thomas Paines prose that in England, no parent or
master, nor all authority of parliament, omnipotent as it has called itself, can bind or
control the personal freedom of an individual.19 In both cases, emphasis is placed
upon freeing the individual from controlling influences. Ridding the individual of
these inhibiting conditions would then lead to advances in society and art
respectively. Through this analysis, it seems that freedom from restraint was the
impetus for egalitarian individualism. In this manner, at least at its root, egalitarian
17 Hibernia Magazine (Dublin: Hibernia Publishing Office, January, 1811), pg. 11.
18 For an in-depth analysis of this concept see Thompson, Making of the English Working Class.
19 Thomas Paine, Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pg. 56.
individualism is similar to that of particular individualism. The difference lies in
how adherents to the respective forms chose to express freedom from restrain.
Egalitarian individualism was accessible to a wider range of the populace because of
an assumption of reasons universality, while particular individualism only applied
to a relative few that fit the financial mold of the self-made man.
In addition to egalitarian individualism, particular individualism is also
evident in the ways in which artists interpreted subject matter, such as nature. Much
in the same way that middle-class men were able to assert a certain level of
independence through expressions of individual merit rather than of hierarchic
birthright, the artists embracing the romantic sensibility rejected hierarchical
examinations of nature by searching for very particular and individualized
interpretations of nature. The individualities contained in nature played a central
role in their understanding of the universe, and acted as their ultimate source of
inspiration and as a central subject for the depiction of individualism. For example,
the Art Journal in 1849 said of Constable, the careful treatment of the various
minute objects of the immediate foreground displays that attentive observation of
the individualities of nature, which was one of the characteristics of Constables
style.20 Constable strove for the most specific depictions of nature, but in a manner
that allowed for his own interpretations of the scene. In this way the artist expressed
20 The Ait Journal. Vol. XI (London: Virtue & Co., 1849), Pg. 159.
an individual interpretation of nature, and the individuality so prized in British
Constable was only one of many artists in the era that strove for depicting
the particularism of nature. In 1843, an editorial in the Artists Magazine highlights
this artistic goal by criticizing Pousssins landscapes: A person... who has always
been gratified by his representations of Italian scenery, has a very different
impression from such works after having become familiar with the scenes from
which they were painted. The supposed idealized conceptions of the painter are
lowered very much when it is seen and known that these are common and often
degraded portraits of localities.21 A second art review in 1836 from the Materialist
on Beatties painting Switzerland, echoes the above sentiment: With the
Hofbrucke, at Luzern, we were certainly disappointed as we have ourselves seen the
bridge from the other side, which is by far the most picturesque view.22 From
these accounts, it may seem clear that what contributed to a desire for depictions of
the particular individualities of nature in landscape painting was that more people
had actually seen these settings compared to in the past. However, aristocratic
Englishmen taking the Grand Tour had long visited foreign locales, which does not
seem to have contributed to the presence of particularistic landscapes. Secondly,
2'Artists And Amateurs Magazine, pg. 94.
22 The Materialist. Vol. IX (London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, September, 1836), pg. 136.
while the number of people visiting certain locales had increased, the idealized
landscapes in the style of Poussin and Claude were still very much in popular
consumer demand up until the middle of the nineteenth century.23 Instead, the
artists reliance upon particularistic depictions in landscape painting parallels a
similar adherence to particular individuality that pervaded society. In the July 1835
edition of the Materialist, a reader writing to the magazine explained that, The
general history of a country is like the picture of an extensive landscape, in which
only the more prominent features of the scene can be perceived. To acquire a
perfect acquaintance with the individual objects, the place must be visited and its
parts examined.24 So for the artist embracing the romantic sensibility the goal of
knowing nature, or truth through nature, was obtained through a precise
examination of its parts or individualities. Just as particular individualism was the
result of concentrating on individual differences in people, the concentration on the
specific aspects of nature resulted in particularization in landscape painting.
Further example of the existence of the dual forms of individualism is found
in the aesthetic theorization of Sir Joshua Reynolds in his Discourses. 1769-1790.
The forthcoming analysis of Reynoldss Discourses reveals what at first appears to
be a baffling contradiction related to aesthetic attitudes. However, the contradictory
23 Gerald Reitlinger, The Economics of Taste: The Rise and Fall of the Picture Market 1760-1960
(NY: Holt, Reinchart and Winston, 1961), pg. 19.
24 The Materialist Vol. VIII (London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, July 1835), pg. 154.
nature of the Discourses lies in Reynoldss confusion over how to express through
art, the dual ideas of individuality existing in society as a whole.
In his First Discourse. Reynolds advocates obedience to the rules of art, and
sets the models of the Great Masters as the artists guide. This coincides with what
Reynolds said at the opening of the British Royal Academy: [The Academy] will
be a repository for the great examples of the Art.. .By studying these authentick [sic]
models, that idea of excellence which is the result of the accumulated experience of
past ages may be at once acquired. He furthermore stated that those models,
which have passed through the appro-bation [sic] of ages, should be considered by
them as perfect and infallible Guides; as subjects for their imitation, not their
criticism.25 This idea of employing art masterpieces as models of perfection
reoccurs in Reynoldss Sixth Discourse. Here he states, by imitation only, are
variety and originality of invention [produced].26 For Reynolds, in these cases,
rationality was the medium through which the artist operated. Furthermore, copying
was the surest method of logically capturing the rational forms that he believed to
exist in the works of the old masters. These masterworks, according to the Third
Discourse, contained nature which was to be captured by imitating an ideal
25 Sir Joshua Reynolds A Discourse, Delivered at the Opening of the Royal Academy, January 2,
1769, in Anthony Janson, H.W. Janson, History of Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Publishers, 1997), pg. 643.
26 Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art (New York: Collier Books, 1961), pg. 99.
beauty.27 Reynoldss allusions to a rational method of producing art also point to
the artistic expression of egalitarian individualism. Reason, as an enabler of
individuality, was purportedly elemental in all individuals and when deployed
allowed the individual to operate independently. Similarities exist in Reynoldss
theory to the initial working-class impetus for political inclusion, whereby the
Painites of the 1790s believed citizenship to be an inherent right of all rational
beings. As Paine himself put it, government in a well-constituted republic,
requires no belief from man beyond what his reason authorizes.28
Other Discourses, however, reveal a sense of particular individualism for
Reynolds. In these examples, Reynolds waffled considerably from the examples
cited previously, by downgrading reason in favor of imagination and genius. For
example, in the Third Discourse. Reynolds states that there are no invariable rules
by which taste and genius may be acquired; in the Fourteenth, that the moment the
artist turns other artists into models he falls infinitely below them; and in the Third
Discourse, that the perfection of art did not consist of mere imitation.29 And in the
Thirteenth Discourse to the Royal Academy he stated, Art is not merely imitation,
27 Ibid., pg. 53.
28 Paine, Political Writings, pg. 137.
29 Joseph Burke, Hogarth and Reynolds: A Contrast in English Art Theory (The William Henry
Charlton Memorial Lecture, November, 1941; London: Oxford, 1943), pp. 23-24. Cited in Walter
John Hippie, Jr, The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque in IS* Century British Aesthetic
Theory (Carbondale, IL: The Southern Illinois University Press, 1957), pg. 135.
but under the direction of Imagination.30 As opposed to reason, which codified
reality based upon immutable principles, imagination produced a new reality, and
that reality, according to Reynolds, differed from everyday experience.31 For
Reynolds, the imagination was specifically different in all individuals and the very
demonstration of individuality. Rather than emphasizing the characteristic qualities
that link people together, such as reason in egalitarian individualism, the
imagination as a special quality differentiates between people. As such the
imagination was characteristically possessed by a certain people, namely artists.
Concentrating upon differences in people and separating those possessing special
attributes is the definition of particular individualism.
The seeming conflict in Reynoldss Discourses also presented itself in
Chartist ideology. Chartists claimed a universal political right of every human
being,32 based upon a persons ability to reason, which is indicative of an
egalitarian form of individualism. Yet, Chartists also embraced the concept of
property in skill, which came directly in competition with the concept of
egalitarian individualism within the Chartist movement. This concept of property in
skill defined the working-class masculine identity by excluding unskilled workers,
30 Reynolds, Discourses, pg. 204.
3lMoshe Barasch, Theories of Art. 2: From Winckelmann to Baudelaire (NY: Routledge, 2000), pg.
32 Petition Adopted at the Crown and Anchor Meeting, 1838, in Clark, Struggle for the Breeches.
especially women, through an apprenticeship system.33 Property in skill, because
it was based upon the sexual differentiation inherent in plebeian culture,34 actually
demonstrated a form of particular individualism. By the 1830s and 1840s, Chartists
struggled with incorporating the ideological fracture of individualism into a
working-class context much in the same way that Reynolds was struggling in his
aesthetic interpretation of the dual views of artistic individualism.
In addition to their presence in political and economic ideology, historians
have represented individualism and communalism as central to evangelical religious
practice and theology. The term evangelical is employed in this section to
encompass both dissenting practitioners outside the Anglican Church such as
Methodists and Baptists, and those within the Church, such as the Clapham Sect.
The forthcoming, albeit brief, examination of evangelical practice and theology, in
conjunction with an examination of peoples attitudes toward art, once again reveals
the presence of the fractured ideal of individualism, rather than an underlying
dichotomy of individualism/communalism in evangelical theology.
In describing evangelicalism in British society from the late eighteenth
century, Boyd Hilton enlisted the descriptive terms of moderate and extreme
33 Ibid., pg. 119-121.
34 Ibid., chapter 8. While a few radicals, such as Thomas Cooper, William Hodgson, and most
notably Mary Wollstonecraft, proposed the possibility of female citizenship, it never became a
evangelicalism.35 Moderate evangelicalism was a reform movement from within
the Anglican Church of England. The moderate evangelical emphasis, according to
Hilton, was on faith rather than forms of faith, where intermediaries such as
priests and sacraments were of relatively little significance.36 Hiltons description
of moderate evangelical emphasis on faith is contrasted by the Anglican Church,
which was an institution firmly entrenched in the nations collective life, and
possessing a prominent, central and official role.37 38 The Anglican Church was based
on the doctrinal purity found in ritual and sacraments, which are symbolic of faith
and which necessitate a central role for the clergy. Instead of relying upon
intermediaries, customs, and doctrines, moderate evangelicals placed a great deal of
emphasis upon personal salvation. According to Catherine Hall, the moderate
evangelical position of the Clapham Sect held that there was a crisis of morals in
England. They wished to transform the national morality through the
encouragement of a new seriousness and respectability in life. In other words,
it was only by living religiously as a daily rule of life rather than a question of
35 Boyd Hilton, The Age of Atonement. The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic
Thought. 1785-1865 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pg. 10.
36 Hilton, Age of Atonement pg. 9.
37 Sheridan Gilley, The Church of England in the Nineteenth Century, Industrialization, Empire.
Identity, pg. 291.
38 Catherine Hall, The Early Formation of Victorian Domestic Ideology, Gender and History in
Western Europe, ed. Robert Shoemaker and Mary Vincent (London: Arnold, 1998), pg. 183.
doctrinal purity, that one could get beneath the forms of ceremony and discover
In essence, moderate evangelical practice shunned the temporal world of
doctrine in favor of inner faith. An obvious similarity exists between this penchant
for religious introspection and subjectivity in romantic sensibility. Relying heavily
on the inner perceptions of the individual artist, romantic sensibility stressed the
importance of individual ability and inspiration, and often turned its back on the
external world to celebrate the expression of inner ideas.40 An excerpt from the
Artists and Amateurs Magazine from 1843 demonstrates the emphasis on
introspection. The editorial considered it important to compel the artist to turn
toward the resources of his own mind, and his powers of invention, to bring out
whatever of feeling or thought that belongs to him, and rouse him from his habits of
trusting entirely to the resources of his palette. The editor further suggested to the
artist to turn to the stores of your imagination, and the creative faculties of your
soul; to appeal to your feelings, and the collective resource of your past experience,
and your present impressions.41 The references to artistic individuality and agency
are unmistakable in the above passages. In essence the artist was completely
39 Ibid, pg. 182.
40 This is based on ideas derived from the chapter on Romanticism in Mark Gelertner, Sources of
Architectural Form: A Critical History of Western Design Theory (Manchester UK: Manchester
University Press, 1995).
41 The Artists and Amateurs Magazine, pg. 18 and 20.
responsible for psychologically interpreting the subject matter, in terms of the
tendency of imagination to extend and extrapolate observed tendencies.42 The
penchant for the artist to rely upon his personal resources, such as the imagination,
which was said to be unique to the artist, is reminiscent of the moderate
evangelicals reliance on personal salvation, which was reflected in their belief in
the individuality of the soul. Both of these displays of individuality are similar to
the middle-class tenet of self-help in that dependency was shunned in favor of self-
sufficiency, and further buttresses the developing patterns of belief in particular
Further example of the historiographical portrayal of moderate evangelicals as
individualistic is found in Hilton. As he wrote, what distinguished evangelicals
was the emphasis they gave to particular doctrines, such as the belief that Christ
died for all mens sins, ensuring a universal redemption though not of course
universal salvation.43 For the moderates, salvation was only accomplished through
a prescription of daily rules of life. According to Hall, this regimen of personal
introspection not only avoided sin but also pointed the way to respectability and
therefore salvation. In the case of the moderates, salvation was based upon an
individualistic approach, where a personal process of belief and self-betterment
42 Hippie, The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Pictureseaue pg. 90-91.
43 Hilton, The Age of Atonement, pg. 9.
counteracted sin.44 Additionally, the very nature of sin for moderate evangelicals
was contained within a theology reliant upon individualism. As Hilton
demonstrates, moderate evangelicals claimed that the food shortage of 1800 was the
probable and predictable consequence of specific wrong behavior on the part of
individuals.45 Hilton contrasts this view of catastrophic events to the more extreme
attitude, which he argues placed the onus of catastrophe on society as a whole.46 In
this manner, the contrast of moderate to extreme evangelicalism in Hiltons analysis
delineates an individualistic attitude toward sin opposing a communal one.
Moderate evangelical belief did not possess a monopoly on religious
individualism. Rather, moderate evangelicalism contained a specific form of
individualism, for its theological underpinnings reflect particular individualism. By
turning to an investigation of landscape painting, a better understanding of this point
can be obtained. During the roughly one hundred-year focus of this study, landscape
fascinated the minds of artists, philosophers and students of literature. Most
importantly, landscape painting depicted natural subject matter as faithfully as
possible. In contrast to the previous era of classicism that sought an idealized
depiction of nature, preferring to gloss-over what were believed to be irrelevancies,
44 Hall, The Early Formation of Victorian Domestic Ideology, pg. 182-183.
45 Hilton, The Age of Atonement pg. 15.
the romantic concentration on natures individualities was an exposition of
particularism in the artists interpretation of the landscape as subject matter.
The result was that landscape painting changed from merely the backdrop for the
subject of man to a subject unto itself. For the romantic painter, the particular
individualities of nature, which had in previous eras been considered irrelevancies,
became the lifes blood of the painters work. This attitude is obvious in an art
review from the Gentlemans Magazine and Historical Chronicle from 1832. The
review states that Mr. Robert Burford has in this picture presented us with one of
the most romantic scenes in Great Britain. The painting is then described as an
extensive panorama that affords a view of the luxuriant and romantic Corse of
Stirling, a plain of nearly 40 miles, watered by the windings of the Forth; studded
with various places of natural or historical interest, (or which are immortalized in
the poetry of Scott) and are bounded by the giant mountains of the Highlands.47
Here the reviewer praises Burfords depiction of a Scottish landscape because of the
accuracy of his portrayal down to the specific depiction of the 40-mile plain.
The requisite specificity in the portrayal of landscapes is similar to the
specific nature of sin in moderate evangelicalism in two ways. First, artists sought
to depict the natural environment in the most specific manner because of the
importance they placed upon nature. In the romantic sensibility, nature was the
47The Gentlemans Magazine and Historical Chronicle. Vol. CII (London: JB Nichols and Son,
1832), pg. 553.
guide to the soul and contained morality and spirituality,48 which is echoed in the
evangelical reliance upon the soul. Secondly, specificity in the depiction of nature
in landscape paintings demonstrates particular individualism, in that specific
portrayal not only depicts the individuality of nature, but also concentrates on the
differences of each landscape. Specificity, whether that meant in the accurate
depiction of the Forth river, or in attitudes toward the origin of sin, concentrates on
distinct differences. As such, specific depiction of natures spirituality and the
specific origins of sin in moderate evangelical ideas of salvation both demonstrate
Historians typically portray extreme evangelicalism in one of two ways.
Methodism for example has been interpreted as either reflective of the independence
of the working-class or as, to quote Thompson, a religion of an odiously
subservient character.49 Thompsons characterization is based upon a perceived
fatalism inherent in extreme evangelical religion. This assumption is based upon
the extreme evangelical theology that Justification came only to those individuals
willing to accept and have faith in Christs Atonement on the cross, and give
themselves up to that belief. In Thompsons analysis, this perceived inevitability in
48 Moshe Barasch, Theories of Ait. 2: from Winckelmann to Baudelaire (New York: Routledge,
2000), pg. 319; V.C. Knoepflmacher and G.B. Tennyson, G.B., eds, Nature and the Victorian
Imagination (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1977), pg. XXI.
49 Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, pg. 41.
such theological tenets equates to feelings of working-class political impotency.
Conversely, other historians have placed extreme evangelicalism within a larger
ideological framework. Using Methodism as an example of extreme
evangelicalism, Perkin states that it existed outside of the Anglican Church, was the
typical religion of the working class, and at least early on was a religion with
practically no dogma, clergy or organization.50 In this manner, Methodism
represented freedom from any taint of dependency.
A different approach to interpreting extreme evangelicalism within a broader
context is evident in Deborah Valenzes study Prophetic Sons and Daughters.
Valenze states that concentrating on politics to explain religious practice renders
many studies of extreme evangelicalism incomplete.51 By assuming that religion for
the working class was a breeding ground of political radicalism, in which members
of the working class expressed their political inclinations for independence, one
ignores a larger social network of ideological factors. By linking religion to a wider
context of economic and ideological change, Valenze de-emphasizes the
characterization that extreme evangelicalism opposed its moderate counterpart in a
50 Perkin, The Origins of Modem English Society, pg. 202.
51 Deborah Valenze, Prophetic Sons and Daughters: Female Preaching and Popular Religion in
Industrial England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), see the introduction.
The extreme evangelical sects, which concentrated on the equality of the
soul of all persons in the eyes of God, exhibited a more egalitarian form of
individualism, similar to a Painite belief based upon universal equality. This claim
is demonstrable by drawing a parallel to art. Artists were shifting away from the
attitude that painting was merely a way of mirroring the mechanisms of the
universe. Instead, painters concentrated upon their inner perceptions. In this case,
self-reliance through contemplation and self-examination took precedence over
institutional traditions. So too, the very structure of the extreme evangelical sects
exhibited egalitarian individualism, in that men of little or no social standing were
able to gamer power within the church. Also, women were able to vote on church-
matters, and for a time the Methodist congregations had women preachers.
Valenze credits the presence of women preachers to the existence of domestic
industry, which provided a base of support and power.52 53 However, the presence
of a belief in egalitarian individualism cannot be overlooked. Many working-class
churchgoers left the Anglican Church in favor of radical sectarian religion, partially
due to the charging of pew rents by the Established Church, with Methodists for
example electing to preach in the open fields.54 By bringing the church to the
52 Clark, Struggle for the Breeches, pg. 92-93. Valenze, Prophetic Sons and Daughters, pg. 278.
53 Valenze, Prophetic Sons and Daughters, pg. 278.
54 Clark, Struggle for the Breeches, pg. 92.
people, so to speak, the more extreme factions of evangelicalism solicited an
egalitarian attitude towards their faith. Furthermore, Wilcox states that
Methodism meant that God was not a set of precepts or an abstraction, but a Person
concerned with redeeming everyone of His creatures,55 and points to the idea of
equality of the soul.
Extreme evangelicalism, in order to uphold a belief in individualism, de-
emphasized the Anglican reliance upon institutionalized religion. Similarly, the
artists embracing the romantic sensibility demonstrated a belief in the importance of
individualism, through a reexamination of the rules set forth by the classical
tradition. This reexamination was not a rebellion against classicism for rebellions
sake, but a rebellion against the inability of classicism to capture the periods ideal
of individuality. In 1832 George Hamilton, a self-proclaimed writer on art,
exemplified one attitude toward individuality when he compared Gainsborough,
Wilson, and Turner to Claude Lorraine. Alike in originality alone, and only
imitating Claude in indefatigably referring to Nature for their guide and authority,
their productions have that stamp of individuality, that impress of mind, which
proves the painter has looked at the common prototype with the eye of a master, and
55 Wilcox, The Age of the Aristocracy, pg. 68-69.
boldly thought for himself.56 Like an extreme evangelical who shunned
institutionalism in favor of a localized religion and self-reliant interpretation of
faith, Hamilton expresses the desire to rely upon the abilities of the artist rather than
following the example of a classical archetype.
As has been demonstrated, the theme of individualism, expressed through
the various incarnations of independence, merit, and democracy, was evident in
British society from 1750 to 1850. But individualism was not a cohesive concept.
An investigation of the attitudes that people held toward the creation of paintings in
the era reveals that the romantic sensibility expressed a fracturing of individualism
into particular and egalitarian individualism. As such, the aesthetic concepts
demonstrate that the artists of the era, more than merely revolting against the
classical tradition, expressed a fractured conceptualization of individualism also
manifest in politics, economics, and theology. Most strikingly, this discovery calls
into question the historiographical practice of linking the working class to
communalism and the middle class to individualism.
56 George Hamilton, The English School: A Series of the Most Approved Productions in Painting and
Sculpture. Executed by British Artists From the Davs of Hogarth to the Present Time. Vol. 1
(London: Charles Tilt, 1832), unknown page number (the entire volume was not numbered).
In the previous chapter, I argued that the historiography of the period 1750
to 1850 depicts a dichotomous relationship of individualism/communalism in
British society predicated upon the notion of class conflict. In this line of historical
thought, individualism corresponded to the middle class and communalism
corresponded to the working class. Nonetheless, an examination of art and art
criticism when linked to economic and political attitudes revealed that British
society contained a fractured ideal of individualism. This division into particular
individualism and egalitarian individualism demonstrates that the middle and
working classes shared a common conceptual root.
In addition to the dichotomous relationship of individualism/communalism,
historians also depict class conflict through economic tensions between middle-class
capital and aristocratic land-ownership, or between capital and working-class labor.
Because of this link to capitalism, it may at first sound trite to write of the existence
of a theme of competition in Great Britain between 1750 and 1850. But rather than
the common historiographical portrayal of competition as either a descriptor of class
tensions, or as the middle classs decisive weapon of the class struggle,57 as
57 Perkin, The Origins of Modem English Society, pg. 225.
Perkin calls it, competition was not mutually exclusive. Instead, competition was
what I term, a binary concept. Like different sides of the same coin, the concept of
competition had two distinct but related positions. On one side of the metaphorical
coin, competition, due to a relationship to merit, helped to elevate the social
standing of its proponents and acted as a leveler. On the converse, competition
justified the elimination of competitors and the suppression of others who were
viewed as inferior. Such a claim cuts across class, gender and race lines, and is
verifiable through the ideas and practices associated with personal competition,
competition for jobs, nationalism, imperialism, and colonialism. Similarly, this
binary concept of competition is evident in attitudes toward the patronage of British
art, the elevation of the artists social position, changes in artistic technique, and the
depiction of natures power in paintings.
Generally speaking, historians do not perceive competition as a binary
concept. Instead competition is seen as either a boon for the middle class, in which
social status was obtained through a demonstration of merit, or conversely by labor
historians as a means to suppressing the working class. One line of
historiographical analysis of competition holds that a new social order was built by
advocating the notion of unencumbered competition, or as Perkin called this
strategy, the free class competition of the new society.58 In The Origins of
58 Ibid., pg. 33.
Modem English Society. 1780-1880. Perkin demonstrates that competition was
central to the formation of a middle class idiom. Perkin holds that while capital
became the real wealth of the country, surpassing landed interests, capital alone
could not displace the aristocratic agricultural ideal.59 Instead, inherent in the very
idea of capital and inseparable from it, was competition, which did for capital what
patronage did for property in the old society: buttress its selection to positions of
power, wealth and prestige, and filled those positions which capital alone could not
fill.60 In this manner, the portrayal of capital as active property, due to the fact
that its nature required constant attention to keep it in being,61 characterized the
capitalist as an active person. In contrast, the aristocracy were characterized as
useless parasites, who contributed little to society and abused their indefensible
wealth and power. In Perkins analysis, the middle class used capital as a tool to
oppose the aristocracy and landed property. These characterizations, according to
Perkin, allowed the commercial classes to employ capital and competition to define
merit, which mirrored the aristocratic ideal associated with military prowess.
Rather than proving oneself on the field of battle, the commercial classes
demonstrated superior ability in the realm of business.
59 Ibid., pg. 222.
60 Ibid., pg. 223.
61 Ibid., pg. 223.
As evidence of the middle classs use of competition as a definer of merit,
Perkin cites free trade in politics, commerce, labor, and land. For Perkin, the
reform of the House of Commons represented free trade in politics, the abolition
of the Com Laws symbolized free trade in commerce, the overturning of the
Combination Acts epitomized free trade in labor, and free trade in land was
evident in reform of the laws of primogeniture.62 In this analysis, free trade meant
more than merely the ensuring of unobstructed competition of capitalists in
commercial enterprise, but was an ideological construct created to undermine the
aristocratic monopoly of power. Placing themselves in opposition to landed
gentlemen in this manner capitalists demonstrated, at least conceptually, their
worthiness as rivals for social power, and it is this conception of competition to
which Perkin adheres. In this portrait of British society, competition applicable
within an ideological framework, was the great leveler and helped to prop-up the
middle class as rivals, or at least opened up the possibility of rivalry, with the
aristocracy for social standing. But as we shall see, this version of competition is
merely one side of the coin, as it were.
For Oliver Macdonagh, political reform in British society was also related to
a framework of competition. In Early Victorian Government Macdonagh states the
62 Ibid., pg. 229-230. While the overturning of the Combination Acts mainly benefited the worker,
Perkin is concerned with the abolition of all State interference between employer and (adult)
corollary principles of whiggism were the allowance of economic licensure to the
trading classes, the abolition of state regulation of manufacture, commerce and
conditions of employment, and absolute freedom of contract. He then juxtaposes
whiggism to the Tory positions of local government run by the ancien regime.63
Macdonaghs viewpoint asserts that the liberal attitude consisted essentially in
removing obstacles and repealing existing legislation64 based upon the new
science of economics. As such, Macdonagh argues that the liberal platform of
political reform was essentially based upon a fundamental belief in laissez faire, not
only in business but also in society as a whole. More specifically, it was this
rudimentary belief in removing the obstacles to competition that was central to the
formation of an industrial society.
In contrast to Perkin or Macdonagh, Catherine Hall and Leonore Davidoff
have tempered the assertions that competition pervaded society. They point out that
contrary to some ideas about entrepreneurship, business and economic pursuits did
not always dominate mens consciousness and that many religiously committed
men feared that business concerns were usurping their energies and attentions.65
According to Davidoff and Hall, evidence that the search for capital was not the
63 Oliver Macdonagh, Early Victorian Government. 1780-1830 (New York: Holmes and Meier
Publishers, 1977), pg. 13-21.
M Ibid., pg. 16.
65 Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, pg. 207.
overriding concern of the middle class is found in many attitudes including that of a
Congregational Suffolk brewer and an Essex Unitarian.66 Also in Thomas
Gisboms writing at the end of the 18th century, Enquiry into the Duties of Men in
the Higher and Middle Classes of Society, much anxiety was displayed about the
proper place of business in mens lives.67 Moreover, Davidoff and Hall argue that
the desire for family security and religious piety were predominant concerns. They
depict a tension between the masculine persona which emerged within the middle
class as organized around a mans determination and skill in manipulating the
economic environment68 and the aforementioned religiosity. Whereas Perkin
points to the Protestant work ethic, which he states was not unconducive to success
in business,69 in Davidoff and Halls story, competitive commercialism was
softened by a belief in the power of religious forces.
The above historians depict competition as either central to the
commercialization of society, or at the very least partly integrated into the
commercial classs consciousness. Labor history, on the other hand, has
67 Ibid., pg. 112.
Ibid., pg. 229.
69 Perkin, The Origins of Modem English Society, pg. 14.
demonstrated that competition was the source of economic distress.70 Gareth
Stedman Jones in Languages of Class stressed that working-class radicals viewed
competition as excessive and the root of selfish, inhuman activity. Radicals
proposed to replace competition by co-operation among workers, to form one large
union which would breach the monopoly position of the capitalists.71 72 In Joness
analysis, competition from the working-class perspective was not seen as a logical
means of social progress, but a way of taking advantage of others and a mode of
unequal exchange. What is more Jones states that competition, as represented by
political economy, was not seen as the ideology of a class, but a false, selfish and
inhuman view of human nature which had captured the support of many masters,
but which the journeymans counter-case might successfully undermine. In this
manner, Jones does not classify competition as an ideology, but merely a
suppressive act. Anna Clark on the other hand has argued that laissez faire was part
of an ideology which ran counter to that of artisans. In Clarks analysis, the struggle
between the powerful artillery of laissez faire on one hand and moral economy on
the other represents a battle of ideologies, which led to the inclusion of domesticity
70 Stedman Jones, languages of Class, pg. 117; Sonya Rose, Limited Livelihoods, Gender and Class
in Nineteenth-Century England (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992), pg. 100.
71 Ibid,, pg. 58.
72 Ibid., pg. 117.
as a key element in artisanal rhetoric surrounding the breadwinner wage. Here
Clark demonstrates that part of the working-class ideology, as seen in a push for the
breadwinner wage, was linked to the desire of male artisans to eliminate the
competition for jobs with females. What is more, Clarks analysis depicts the
working class as far from the co-operative group of Joness story, in that womens
exclusion marked working-class proposals for political and economic inclusion, an
aspect not included in Jones.
Each of the above historians maintains, either overtly or not, that
competition held a single meaning. In Perkins study, competition was an integral
ideological component of the entrepreneurial ideal, while Macdonagh argued that
economic competition was directly linked to political competition. Davidoff and
Hall hint that the social pervasiveness of commercial competitive practices was
somewhat exaggerated based upon the centrality of religion and family. Jones
contends competition was unrelated to ideology and merely a suppressive economic
practice of the middle class, while Anna Clark demonstrates competition was a
powerful ideological construct that influenced artisans rhetorical and practical
rebuttals to the middle class. But it is possible that competition had a variety of
meanings, which an analysis of the portrayal of nature in British paintings can
illustrate. Paintings from the era in question depicted the relationship between
nature and humanity either as symbiotic or with nature dominating humanity. The 73
73 Clark, Struggle For the Breeches, pg. 197-199.
art historian William Vaughn suggests that nature was dualistic and that each artist,
in seeking to present this heightened awareness [of nature], showed a leaning
towards one of two polarities; either to intensify or to overwhelm.74 The end result
for Vaughn was the depiction of the paradox of nature, or two repellent poles.
Instead of merely depicting polarity, these portrayals of humanity and nature
demonstrate a varying relationship that metaphorically elucidates the variable
meanings of concepts such as competition.
A symbiotic relationship demonstrates the beauty of humanity and nature
existing together in harmony. A fine example of a harmonious relationship is
depicted in John Cromes Slate Quarries painted in 1804-6. In this mountain scene
of Cumberland, Crome uses muted tones and imbues a sense of familiarity into his
painting, which creates an immense calmness and serenity pervasive of the entire
work. Constable, who portrayed idyllic settings in which man and nature were one,
demonstrates further example of the symbioses of nature and humanity. The placid
untroubled view of the English countryside the subject of many of his paintings -
is evident in the Haywain. Here a farmer in a cart fording a stream asserts that
nature includes him as it does the dog, the cottage, the stream, the distant park, and
the scattered clouds. This scene displays the oneness with nature where man is not
Vaughn, Romantic Ait, pg. 136.
the observer, but a participant in the landscapes being.75 Another example of a
symbiotic relationship are Turners early works such as The Thames near Walton
Bridges, or William Collinss Borrowdale, Cumberland. The latter painting
depicts a quiet, gentle scene with children playing on the banks of a brook,
completely at ease in their natural surroundings.
While competition is not directly addressed in paintings with symbiotic
subject matter, it is conspicuous by its absence. Natural symbiosis in paintings
suggests natural harmony similar to the classical economic proposition that there
was a natural harmony of economic interests that could be achieved by removing all
artificial obstacles to competition. In this manner, political economists sought a
symbiotic relationship between the endeavors of humankind and nature. Oddly
enough, these paintings of natural symbiosis also parallel the radical working-class
ethos that co-operation among workers and masters would increase productivity and
inevitably lead to society-wide progress. These two interpretations do not actually
contradict one another, as they would seemingly do at first glance, because they
both share a common yearning for harmony in society. One seeks harmony through
competition, and the other through elimination of competition. In this manner,
harmony has a binary meaning, as does competition.
On the other hand, nature in paintings was also represented as a dominant
force. Painters displayed humanity and nature in an adversarial relationship, in
75 Janson and Janson, History of Art, pg. 689.
which humanity struggled to carve a niche in the environment. In this vein, the
conceptualization of nature as a nearly unconquerable entity represented a true test
of a mans fortitude while simultaneously objectifying feelings of powerlessness.
By various means, artists put the idea on canvas that nature was a dominating force.
The reduction of the scale of people in relation to natural subjects, such as
mountains, relegated people as merely one aspect of the composition. This
demonstrated the power of nature in relation to humanity simply through
comparisons of size. Relatedly, paintings of ruins point to the impotency of
constructing buildings in the face of powerful nature, or time the destroyer, versus
humankind the builder.76 Also illustrations of shipwrecks elicit feelings that
humanity, even aided by machines, is at the mercy of nature.
Examples of humanity at odds with nature in paintings are Turners
Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps in which the Carthaginian army is at the
mercy of the whipping wind, driving snow and immense mountains. Also
demonstrative of humanitys clash against nature is Francis Danbys The Deluge
from 1840, in which a throng of people struggles up a small rock outcropping
against violent currents of upswept water. This scene not only depicts a heroic
struggle against the formidable powers of nature, but also the limited success of
humanity against great power. Therefore humanitys varying ability to manipulate
76 Newton, Romantic Rebellion, pg. 105.
the natural environment in the painting in a real sense parallels a persons varying
ability to manipulate the economic, political, and social environment. The painting
of the natural environment as exceedingly difficult to conquer or obtain echoed the
social representations of heroism associated with the financial risks involved in a
business enterprise and the working and middle classs struggle for political and
social independence from the aristocracy. Yet the demonstration of the power of
nature in paintings also materialized feelings of frustration and powerlessness,
which was evident in the working classs frustration with what they considered
excessive competition for jobs and wages. The varying depictions of the motif of
humanity versus nature, which vacillated between a struggle against nature or nature
as a nurturing entity, demonstrates the binary meaning of natural competition in
paintings. Developing social parallels to these varying depictions of nature in
paintings further demonstrates the very real possibility that the concept of
competition held varying connotations in society as well.
Imperialism and colonialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are
often described as a competition between nations for trade and land. Ronald
Hyams book Britains Imperial Century demonstrates this point. Hyam states that
two levels of motives for imperialism existed, an official mind at the government
level, and the local and overseas level of private individuals.77 The official level of
77 Hyam, Britains Imperial Century. 1815-1914. a study of Empire and Expansion (London: Barnes
and Noble Books, 1976), pg. 37-52.
British imperialism had a two-fold strategy. The first objective at the British official
level of imperialism was the protection of national interests in the form of
imperialistic land gains. In this sense, imperialism took the form of defensive
expansion against other imperial powers. Moreover, this expansion created a
captive buying public for British capitalism, expressed as the hope of pushing
British goods up a great river highway into populous regions.78 These economic
expectations and commercial opportunities were background factors for a second
position in the official level, which was the requisite spreading of civilization to
non-European peoples. Hyam states that the British concept of civilization was
based upon racial and gender stereotypes. The characterization of non-European
people as effeminate, less intelligent, lazy, and incapable of ruling themselves in an
enlightened manner existed because of a perceived natural incompetence based on
superficial racial differences. Catherine Hall corroborates this line of thought. In
White. Male and Middle Class. Hall writes that British missionaries presented
themselves as manly men and domesticated virtuous women. They attempted to
change the culture of their imperial holdings into a Christian, civilized, capitalist,
free-labour, economy with democratic institutions; in other words, into a country
based on their version of the British model.79
78 Ibid., pg. 23.
79 Catherine Hall, White Male and Middle Class. Explorations in Feminism and History (New York:
Routlege, 1992), pg. 210-211.
Susan Blakes essay A Womans Trek: What Difference Does Gender
Make is similar to Hyams model. Blake draws a picture of British imperialism as
consisting of the manifold concerns of private investors, traders, missionaries, and
adventurers, what Hyam would call the individual level of imperialism. Blake
writes that central to imperialism was an interpersonal competition. Implicit in this
interpersonal competition was a particular sense of testing ones self. A typical
British subject in foreign lands during the age of empire exhibited a public identity.
This identity was tied up in a sense of empire and gender roles. The male foreign
traveler, typically from the ranks of the upper middle class and possessing schooling
opportunities, maintained a sense of role, whether official or self claimed, in the
work of empire. The female traveler on the other hand was a peripheral image of
empire. In short, the entire ideal of the male traveler was tied up in a sense of
empire and a public identity, while the female traveler had no place within the
masculine world of empire and as such had no public identity. Blake then states that
because women were excluded from empire they traveled for travels sake, whereas
a male traveler had purpose to exercise power over and to test oneself against the
terrain, wild animals, and the perceived unworthiness of the native men. Not only
was this purposefulness a test of manhood, but the very power of empire, which 80
80 Susan Blake, A Womans Trek: What Difference Does Gender Make, Napur Chaudhuri and
Margaret Strobel, eds., Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance (Bloomington,
IN: Indiana University Press, 1992), pg. 2.
reinforced its racist, classist, and masculine makeup. These narratives of
imperialism, perhaps inadvertently, demonstrate that for men competition elevated
ones social position and ones ego by both propping oneself up and knocking
others down. That imperialism was a form of competition, and that competition was
a binary concept is made even more evident through parallels to how people thought
of art and in aesthetic philosophy.
The cultivation of the British publics taste for art in the late eighteenth and
into the nineteenth centuries was not motivated by altruism. Rather, it was a matter
of competition, in which Great Britain as a nation could equal or eclipse its rivals in
the appreciation and production of art. Henri Fuseli in The Examiner in 1810,
warned of the consequences of neglecting the arts, by citing past ages: [art]
declined with the loss of independence (in Greece),.. .the efficient cause of their
decline is founded on the habits and manners of a nation, its attachment to trifles, its
decay of public spirit.81 Therefore, in order to avoid the mistakes of the past,
according to a letter to the editor in the same issue of The Examiner, [the] future
fame of England in the race which she is running with other nations that protect the
arts.. .is to form a National Gallery. To form a rival to the Louvre.82 The
connection to nationalism in a larger social context is obvious. Just as social
81 The Examiner. Vol. Ill (London: William Pickering, Sunday February 15, 1810), pg. 157.
standing necessitated the demonstration of personal achievement, the overall
prestige of Britain hinged upon collective national accomplishments, as
demonstrated in the central belief that a country as notable as Great Britain should
have art of equal greatness. To this end, the manufacture of competition took
place through the fostering of rivalry with other nations. The contrasting of abilities
of contemporary British artists to French artists, in statements such as, .. .though
France boasts her David, he is far inferior to the fertility and energy of our West83 84
from The Examiner of 1808, exemplifies the point.
Competition ideologically elevated domestic painters to equal footing with
or above foreign painters, and demonstrates a parallel development to the
manufacture of imperialistic rivalry among nations. For example, in 1842 Peel
stated that during the Napoleonic Wars Britain had commanded the supply of
nations, but that in the 1840s the continued peace created more extensive and
formidable competition from foreign manufacturers. Along the same lines,
Macaulay said in 1842 that the repeal of the Com Laws would allow Britain to
supply the whole world with manufactures and have almost a monopoly of the
trade of the world.85 Both Peel and Macaulay realized the economic threats to
83 The National Gallery, London formed in 1824, according Linda Colley, Britons, pg. 174.
84 The Examiner. Sunday January 10, 1808, pg. 28 and 29.
85 Hyam, Britains Imperial Century, pg. 30-31.
British trade encountered as a result of foreign competition, and in that sense their
statements reflect a nationalistic competitiveness, in which British economic
concerns were tantamount to national concerns. Nationalism then, when coupled
with industrialization and its concomitant individual competition, harbored notions
of competition between nations to secure capital and markets. Competition fostered
an us versus them mentality and justified both the national goals of securing
trade for Great Britain and economically annihilating the foreign competition in the
Aesthetically, because of its ability to excite and stimulate the imagination,
competition became a central component in the romantic sensibility. As such,
topics that connoted imperialism and far off places, with their competitive
implications, enjoyed wide spread appeal. For example, The Englishmans
Magazine in reviewing the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1831 wrote,
Daniel, with the Eastern scenes, has taken a strong hold of our
regard. The burning sun, the umbrella-like shrubs, the green and
broad-leafed woods, browsed on by wild elephants, the haunt of the
tiger and the snake, all speak of India, there is a fair share of
imagination too, about him, a rare quality and a welcome one in art.
The reviewer also commented on another artist, Allan has long been a favorite of
ours, he is fond of nature, is a close observer, has a touch of the poet in him, and,
moreover, deals in scenes of eastern loveliness, which excite new sensations, and
are therefore welcome.86 87 It is immaterial in this case whether either the artists or
the reviewer had actually traveled abroad to see these scenes, for it is the
connotations of the eastern colonies that are important. Just as testing oneself
against nature was central to the identity of the masculine imperialistic adventurer,
so was the exciting of the imagination for the artist. As the adventurer cut his way
through the jungles and brush, the artist had to clear a pathway, as it were, through
a vast and hitherto unexplored country in his mind in order to discover his genius.
According to the British Quarterly Review from 1845, it was the artists possession
of this more daring and gifted genius, as exemplified by a Hogarth, perchance, or
a Flaxman, or a Reynolds, who in solitary vigour has cleaved a path through the
uncertain vista into the goodly prospect beyond.88 The elevation of genius as a
particular quality associated with artists is evident in an anonymous letter from The
Director from 1807, which ran,
From the remotest periods of history, genius has boldly asserted its
prerogative, has preserved its ascendancy in the minds of men, has
vindicated its claims, and, as it has provoked admiration, or induced
delight, has proudly challenged encouragement, and obtained
86 The Englishmans Magazine. Vol. II (London: Edward Moxon, April 1831), pg. 321 and 322.
87 British Quarterly Review, pg. 466.
88 British Quarterly Review, pg. 466.
89 The Director. Vol. I (William Savage and Bedford Bury, 1807), pg. 134.
The word genius has its etymological roots in Latin as a tutelary spirit similar to a
guardian angel.90 However this quotation portrays genius as an immortal entity unto
itself that resides in the minds of artists and is solely responsible for greatness of
doing. Therefore the use of the word genius connotes a great power of mind as it
applied to an ability to create. As in the case of commercial pursuits, the idea of
genius contained connotations of reward in recognition of success, thereby placing
one in a position of dominance over those who followed. Genius ideologically
separated one artist from another, and through its associations with competition,
relegated those with less genius to positions of inferiority. Comparably, the British
conceptions of eastern culture had by the middle of the eighteenth century morphed
into an arrogant belief in the superiority of British culture due to the accumulation
of vast wealth. The perceived inferiority of Asians and Africans was based upon
presumptions of industrialism equating to advanced civilization. This tenuous
and fallacious belief necessitated constant reinforcement evident in self-tests against
other people and nature, as well as well as brutally forcing it upon others.91
This examination of the concept of competition as expressed by attitudes
toward the patronage of British art, the elevation of the artists social position,
90 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Third Edition, (Boston, MA: Hougton
Mifflin Company, 1996).
91 Hyam cites the destruction of the cultures of Java in 1812 and Kandy in 1818 at the hands of the
changes in artistic technique, and the depiction of natures power in paintings
demonstrates that competition justified ones standing in society. By observing the
objectification of the conception of competition, especially evident in the depiction
of natures power in paintings, helps to explain that the representation of
accomplishments in the face of overwhelming odds further buttressed the
justification for ones social position. By depicting the obstacles to success as
overwhelmingly difficult to overcome, one automatically elevated ones
accomplishments. Whether employed by the entrepreneur, the imperialist, or the
artist the proof of prowess, especially when compared to others, ideologically
reinforced the concept of earning a lofty social position. As the editor of The
Artists and Amateurs Magazine from 1843, E.V. Rippingille stated, the life of
every artist who has made his way to eminence had been as it were one continual
course of competition. His eminence is a proof of his having already tested and
compared with others, and of his having succeeded where his competitors have
failed. In this sense, the bolstering of artistic genius through competition is similar
to the buttressing of capital with competition in commercial society, or competition
as test of manliness for the imperialistic adventurer. In each case, competition
justified the social positions of the capitalist, imperialist, and the professional artist,
in which the latter takes possession of his rank as a matter of right, to which none
else has a claim. The place held by such a man may be considered as assigned to
him by nature.92 Competition, whether in business, on the field of battle or in the
field of art, demonstrated the value placed upon the besting of another, and as such
was a justification for ones social standing. In this manner, the concept of
competition held that that eminence was a just reward for surviving the competitions
of life as well as justified the suppression, oppression, and in some cases destruction
of those deemed as other and as failures.
92 The Artists and Amateurs Magazine, pg. 14.
Thus far, I have suggested that the themes of individualism and competition,
which have been understood as central to the ideological structure of the era under
investigation, were less than cohesive. Individualism fractured into two separate but
related concepts, and the binary conceptualization of competition was upheld as two
sides of the same coin, at once elevating social standing and justifying the
suppression of competitors. These findings imply that between the years of 1750
and 1850, Great Britain was not quite the picture of rationality that has been
interpreted by historians or portrayed by contemporaries. Because rationality is said
to yield mathematical exactness and absolutely certain conclusions including
immutable laws, the variability, incohesiveness, contradiction, and inconsistency
present in these themes suggests the era was something other than rational. A third
theme, nature, has been at the center of the historiographical interpretation of a
rational British society. Nature in the nineteenth century, as in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, shaped attitudes toward the seemingly disparate topics of
commercialism, economic theory, gender relations, class relations, and racial
differences. But rather than the cohesive and rational understanding of
Enlightenment nature, this chapter demonstrates that British society between 1750
and 1850 contained a disjointed construction of nature. One interpretation of nature,
which I will term idealized nature, was largely theoretical and was based upon
Enlightenment constructions of natural law. The second interpretation of nature,
which I will term experiential nature, was based upon particular knowledge gained
through the severely limited and subjective perspective of experience. These two
interpretations did not compete against one another per se, but rather coexisted and
were used in combination with one another. Similarly, artists esteemed nature as
the apex of existence, while their investigation into nature was subjective and based
upon experience. The combination of subjectivity and objectivity in the
interpretation of nature resulted in the representation of nature in paintings as a
paradox. This incoherence in the concept of nature can be demonstrated through
artistic attitudes toward nature, including the interpretation of experience, the search
for a moral truth in nature, the duality of the sublime, and the use of natural light
and color as basic elements of design. By linking the artistic interpretations of
nature to a similar manifestation in society, I will demonstrate that the combined
interpretations of nature in British society from 1750 to 1850 created paradoxes that
allowed for societal double standards, evident between men and women, social
classes, and races.
The concept of nature is at the center of many scholarly works, and writers
of all disciplines have attempted to account for its changing conceptualizations
throughout history. In Nature into Art. Carl Woodring states that the idea of natural
law in the eighteenth century was directly related to the Enlightenment concept of
nature, which was derived from an inductive investigation.93 In Woodrings
analysis, the idea of nature as rational was grounded in scientific discovery such as
Newtonian physics. Furthermore society underwent a fundamental change from this
Newtonian theorization to a Humean understanding of nature, which was conversely
based on intuitive method.94 Whereas both inductive and intuitive methods rely
upon experience, the intuitive goes beyond cognitive experience by discounting
conscious reasoning. The intuitive approach, like in Humes theories, favors
personal experience. In terms of an approach to nature, those employing
intuitiveness believed that nature could not be fully understood through inductive
observations, but that natural ideals were merely known.95 In this way Woodring
delineates that Hume shattered the epistemological and ethical sequence of each
individuals seeking and finding pleasurable truth through the utilization of reason
by self interest.96 As such the idea of nature in Woodrings analysis progressed
over time from an inductive interpretation to an intuitive interpretation with Hume
as a demarcation point.
93 Woodring, Nature into Art, pg. 57.
94 Ibid., chapter three.
95 Ibid., pg. 58.
96 Ibid., pg. 57.
Historians too are concerned with nature and how this concept related to the
formation of social structures. One type of historiographical interpretation has
attempted to demonstrate that the implementation of the abstract principles of the
Enlightenment was partial and contradictory. In these analyses, the Enlightenment
concept of natural law, which held that all men were free and equal in a state of
nature, was implemented in such a fashion that it constrained the ways in which
people were allowed to function socially and politically. This underlying premise is
also evident in many disparate works including Peter Hulme and Ludmilla
Jordanovas The Enlightenment and Its Shadows.97 Clarks Struggle for the
Breeches. Family Fortunes by Davidoff and Hall, Stedman Joness essay
Rethinking Chartism, and Sonya Roses Limited Livelihoods. Each of the above
works contains examples that demonstrate the contradiction between the ideals of
natural rights and their implementation in a social framework. For example,
Davidoff and Hall have demonstrated that the idealization of the entrepreneur as the
epitome of masculinity was to become a central part of claims to legitimate
middle-class leadership.98 As such, Davidoff and Hall developed a picture of the
independent entrepreneur as believing himself representative of a mans natural
97 Peter Hulme and Ludmilla Jordanova, eds., The Enlightenment and Its Shadows (London and New
York: Routledge, 1990).
98 Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, pg. 199.
place in an industrial society based upon the virtues inherent in natural law." Yet
Davidoff and Hall state that the entrepreneurs equation of masculine honour with
independence, was contradictory when implemented because the nineteenth-
century concept of manhood had political as much as sexual connotations.99 100 In
this interpretation, the model of the entrepreneur was often put forward as being
natural to men in the same way that homemaking, wife and motherhood were seen
as natural to women. This [model], however was clearly a product of experience, of
the creation of economic, legal and social forms which reinforced masculine
responsibility and authority in the expanding economic sphere.101 Davidoff and
Hall delineate that the characterization of masculinity and femininity as natural
categorizations was based upon experiential extrapolations and that this
characterization of nature was merely an act of legitimization and not a
demonstration of how people understood the workings of nature.
I am arguing that the British interpretation of nature was based upon an
idealized understanding of nature subsisting alongside an experiential understanding
of nature. To further explain this intermingling, I will turn to an analysis of British
painting. British romantic painters inherited the Enlightenments idealization of
99 Refer back to Chapter I for an explanatory analysis of the link of natural law to the entrepreneur.
100 Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, pg. 199.
101 Ibid., pg. 215.
nature, but not the belief that nature was a wholly rational system based upon
universal principles. Instead of accepting that nature could be explained simply
through physical examination, artists emphasized an emotional attachment to the
scene in which nature was to be experienced and then interpreted by the artist. By
highlighting natures emotive qualities, nature retained its eminence in the romantic
sensibility, yet allowed for experience to dictate what constituted the ideal of nature.
Therefore, nature as a subject was theoretically idealized, but nature as an object
was based upon an experiential analysis.
Two examples that elucidate the romantic attitude toward nature are the
painting practices of Turner and Constable. While they were great rivals and
demonstrated individual technical achievement, each artist approached nature in a
similar fashion; as an essentially personal experience. Turners Rain, Steam, and
Speed The Great Western Railway from 1844, demonstrates the contemplation of
particular experience. Turner painted Rain, Steam, and Speed from memory after
having stuck his head out of a window of a moving train during a rainstorm.102
While his contemplation resulted in his interpretation of that particular exp erience,
nature still existed in his mind as an ideal. This is evident in Turners use of rain, an
idealized natural phenomenon, to articulate the experience of traveling at a
102 Janson and Janson, History of Ait pg. 691.
relatively great speed by train. Turner Constable too relied upon interpretation of
experience coupled with the idealization of nature in his paintings. Every Constable
landscape has an underlying idealization of nature, but not idealized depictions, for
his paintings contain a great deal of specificity and subjectivity. Rather, each scene
objectifies Constables perception that perfection lay in nature, evident in the
conviction with which he painted the natural surroundings. To look at a Constable
piece, one feels the reverence with which he held nature while simultaneously
realizing that the depiction of nature is totally subjective. Each scene contained
Constables interpretation of the landscape, and we see that scene through his eyes
and believe him, even though it perhaps did not look quite this way in reality.103
So too were the experiential interpretations of the entrepreneur an equally
convincing depiction of nature. People believed in the accuracy in the portrayal of
entrepreneurs as natural even though they, like Constables landscapes, did not
look quite this way in reality. As in the case of Constable, who held nature as an
ideal while simultaneously interpreting nature in a subjective manner, the middle
class idealized the entrepreneur as natural based upon their subjective interpretation.
The entrepreneur therefore became reality as seen through the eyes of the middle
103 Ibid., pg. 689.
The above construction of nature, in which experience piggybacked on the
idealization of nature, created paradoxes in society. One such example is the
portrayal of the entrepreneur as naturally virtuous. As Adam Smith commented, the
natural virtue of the entrepreneur was tenuous. Smith noted that businessmen were
capable of constant machinations against consumers and their workers,104 which is
obvious when considering their techniques of maximizing profits at the expense of
wages and fair hiring practices. However, because the entrepreneur demonstrated
independence (and therefore natural virtue) the machinations of business could be
justified as natural. As such, entrepreneurs depended upon the idealization of
natural virtue, as demonstrated through independence, to explain away their
unsavory business practices as their natural right based upon their experience of
running an enterprise. Therefore the natural place of the entrepreneur was
paradoxical, at once virtuous and conniving.
Political economy is a second example of historians interpretive reliance
upon a single understanding of nature in British society. Most historians emphasize
laissez faire in the analysis of political economy, thereby portraying political
economists as idealizing the markets natural propensity to right itself based on the
assumption that the operations of humankind would follow the mathematical
predictability of the natural universe. This portrayal of political economy as
104 Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, part I, pg. 67, 148, and 265.
abdicating complete governmental disengagement from the economy in order to
allow the market to follow the dictates of nature, has led historians to point to
contradictions inherent in the practice of economics in the era. Because of these
contradictions, historians have played up the angle, as per Gareth Stedman Jones,
that political economy was seen as a false, selfish and inhuman view of human
nature.105 Perkin takes note of contradictions in political economy when he states
that McCulloch and Senior overrode the entrepreneurial principle of the free
market in labour as applied to children in factories and women in mines.106 For
Perkin, this contradiction was merely the struggle between his paternalist and
entrepreneurial ideals. Anna Clark mentions the contradictions of political economy
and middle-class morality in Nassau Seniors claims that in textile districts men
could benefit from the labor of their wives and children, while admitting that
working women and children could cause moral and domestic inconvenience.107 108
And Eric Hobsbawm noted contradictions between political economy and the ideal
of laissez faire when he wrote even firm believers in Free Trade like John Stuart
Mill accepted the legitimacy of discriminating in favour of infant industries.
105 Jones, Languages of Class, pg. 117.
106 Perkin, The Origins of Modem English Society, pg. 268.
107 Clark, Struggle for the Breeches, pg. 216.
108 Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire, pg. 113.
Because laissez faire has been linked to a fundamental reliance upon natural
law, the above demonstrations of inconsistency present political economists and the
precept of laissez faire as contradictory. But perhaps a more useful understanding
of political economy is that it, like British society at large, was paradoxical. An
explanation of this paradox created through the commingling of experiential nature
with idealized nature is also evident in the artists concern with the sublime in
paintings. In the romantic sensibilitys objectification of nature, the sublime
communicated duality either the prospect of hope or an element of threat through
an examination of scale, space, distance and motion and the way these excite the
imagination.109 In this manner the sublime could capture both pain and pleasure by
exceeding the demands of taste and the harmonic judgment of the beautiful,
entangling as the beautiful does not, both pain and pleasure.110 For example,
Turner translates feelings of fear and gratification through the sublime in his The
Seventh Plague of Egypt, as described by George Hamilton in his The English
School from 1832:
The appalling visitation here described has furnished the painter
with materials for a picture of a sublime character and he has
wrought them into form with a masters hand. The ministering
elements are busy in their work of devastation, the hail descends in
109 Barasch, Theories of Art. Volume 2. pg. 82. Barasch states that vastness has always been
conceived as one of the constitutive elements of the sublime.
110 Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell, eds., Politics and Aesthetics in the Arts (Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press, 2000), pg. 81.
sheets, lightnings flash, and fires run along the ground, trees are
uprooted and man and beast fall before the destroying blast..11
Turner depicts nature, as the tool of God destroying in frightening fashion, yet the
notion behind the devastation is Gods protection of his chosen people from their
enemies. In this sense, the sublime captured the paradox of nature; the seemingly
incompatible elements of destruction and protection. Most importantly is
Hamiltons reaction to the painting. Not only does Hamilton applaud Turners skill,
but he also unquestionably accepts this paradox of nature.
The contradictions inherent in the alternatively fierce and nurturing elements
of nature parallel the seemingly contradictory elements of policy and economic
objectives in political economy. The paradox of political economy stems from the
simultaneous enlistment of idealized nature, in setting policy objectives, and
experiential nature, in setting economic objectives. Policy objectives are concerned
with setting up and maintaining an overall framework, or fiscal order for society.
Economic objectives refer to the day-to-day economic concerns, such as the
maintenance of full employment or a high rate of economic growth.111 112 Policy
objectives were believed to be immutable, while economic objectives could be
manipulated in order to meet the overarching policy objective. In both painting and
111 Hamilton, The English School. Vol. 2, pg. 139.
1,2 A. W. Coats, ed., The Classical Economists and Economic Policy (London: Methuen & CO LTD,
1971), pg. 6; T.W. Hutchison, Positive Economics and Policy Objectives (London, 1964), pg. 125.
political economy, paradoxes were accepted as natural, which allowed for
exceptions to the rules of the natural order.
The central historical argument surrounding laissez faire is whether or not an
age of nonintervention existed in Great Britain. I am arguing that many historians
have misconceptions of laissez faire and take the term too literally, and as such any
classical economist who advocated the slightest modicum of intervention is seen as
hypocritical or contradictory. Laissez faire in the classical economic understanding
of the word did not advocate rite reduction of state intervention as an end in itself.113
For example, Adam Smith believed in a free market economy, where people buy
and exchange goods without restriction and employers and workers negotiate pay
and working conditions without government regulation. He thought that this
process was favorable to all people and that the state should let it continue. But
Smith also charted other broad objectives including the role of government in
carrying out the overall objective, outlined above. Government was to protect
society from foreign powers as well as protect every member of society from the
oppression of every member of it. And government was to erect certain public
works and institutions to aid society in achieving its goals.114 It is the broad and
113 Coats, The Classical Economists and Economic Policy, pg. 6.
1,4 Smith, Wealth of Nations, part I, pg. 383.
largely metaphorical context of this last set of objectives, which allowed for the
classical economists interpretations.
According to AW. Coats in The Classical Economists and Economic Policy.
political economists admitted in relation to laissez faire, many exceptions to the
general rule of government non-intervention. These exceptions were allowable in
economic thought because Smiths successors focused their attention on economic
objectives because they were in fundamental agreement about policy objectives.113
The policy objectives (chief among them what Smith advocated as the maximization
of individual freedom within a framework of law and order) were accepted as
theoretical idealizations. Policy objectives then may be linked to an idealized
conception of nature, in that the policy objective of maximizing individual freedom
mirrored the centrality and immutability of nature. The economic objectives could
be re-evaluated or revised based upon experience, and upon the assumption that
modification would allow for the obtainment of the policy objective. Economic
objectives may then be likened to experiential nature because of the subjectivity
involved in the decision making process. In this way, both interpretations of nature,
one based upon idealizations and the other on experience, coexisted within the same
framework and were used simultaneously to advocate for this concept of laissez
faire. The contradictions that historians often see in political economy stem from 115
115 Coats, The Classical Economists and Economic Policy, pg. 10.
attempts of political economists to enact their economic objectives in relation to the
policy objective. In theory, these should have represented a mere fine-tuning in
order to achieve the policy objective. But as is the case with any human endeavor
peoples ulterior motives, incompetence, or general miscalculations may obstruct
In addition to its primacy in the scholarly conversations on political
economy and laissez faire, the concept of nature during the era under investigation
has been central to the historicizing of gender during roughly the last twenty years.
For instance, Davidoff and Hall have demonstrated that the middling ranks
attempted to draw a distinction between themselves and both the aristocracy and the
working class by enlisting an ideal of domesticity, which was shaped by a
combination of moral themes with scientific reasoning and commercial appeal.116
In this manner, Davidoff and Hall have demonstrated that domesticity was based
upon the separation of the home, as a naturally loving and safe environment, from
the outside world, as a naturally hostile and amoral environment. The association of
the home with morality, coupled with the fret that most middle-class families did
not need the woman of the house to provide supplemental income thereby freeing
her from work outside the home, cast the role of women as guardians to the family's
116 Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, pg. 27.
morality in the home. In this manner, the association of women with the home led
to their natural classification as wives and mothers.117 While women were
associated with the private sphere of the home, men became analogous to the public
sphere, where they exercised a natural ability to reason. By the 1830s and 1840s the
middle class represented this picture of gender as naturally contained within the
separate spheres of private and public.118 Furthermore, for DavidofF and Hall, in
this historiographic portrayal, women were cast as natural and men as
rational119 120 Rationality was depicted as an attribute inherent in masculinity that
analyzed a feminized Nature, and was therefore hierarchically above nature.
As such Davidoff and Hall conclude that just as rationality was constructed as
controlling nature, men wanted to control women,121 and attempted this control by
opposing nature to rationality. These ulterior motives for categorizing women as
natural according to some historiographical accounts, allowed for the dualistic
representation of women. As Deborah Epstein Nord has shown, a woman came to
be naturally associated with both virtue and weakness. Moreover, this duality
117 Ibid, pg 450.
118 Ibid, pg 149; Catherine Hall, White. Male anH MiHHle Class Explorations in Feminism and
History (New York: Routledge, 1992), pg 88.
119 Note: what is "naturally" attributed to women has changed historically, while women being
associated with nature and men with culture goes back to the ancient Greeks.
120 Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, pg 26.
m Ibid, pg 451.
polarized women as either an angel at home or a debauched, fallen woman outride
of the home.122 And Leonore DavidofF points out that women were considered as
naturally weak and susceptible to the immorality of the outride world, yet
simultaneously categorized as the moral regenerators of the nation.123
In The Struggle For The Breeches. Anna Clark also analyzes gender and
domesticity, and demonstrates how they related to the eras conceptualization of
nature. In Clarks study, the notion of domesticity was used in an effort to unite the
working class by demanding access to the public sphere for working men and
protection in the private realm for their women.124 Furthermore for Clark, the
working-class adoption of domesticity represented attempts at quieting the middle-
class and political-economic view that the middle class was self-controlled and
virtuous and the working class [was] animalistic and depraved.125 By linking the
working class with nature and the middle class to rationality, Clark echoes Davidoff
and Halls characterization of rationality controlling nature.
The historiographical portrayal of domesticity as a system of rationality
opposing nature and the connection of man to rationality and woman to nature is
122 Deborah Epstein Nerd, Walking the Victorian Streets: Women. Representation, and the City
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), pg 37.
123 Lenore Davidoff, Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class (New York:
Routledge, 1995), pg 74.
124 Anna Clark, stnipplp for the Breeches, pg. 177
125 Ibid., pg 180.
perhaps inaccurate. I am not arguing that men did not try to control women or that
the middle-class discourses were not gendered, but that in the era under review
gender relations mirrored the ways in which people conceptualized nature.
Rationality did not oppose nature, but together in one system an idealized concept of
nature coexisted alongside of an experiential concept of nature. An example of this
simultaneous and dual interpretation of nature is present in an investigation of the
artists derivations of morality.
For the romantically inclined painters, nature was idealized as the source of
morality, but only through the artists experiences was that morality realized. As
the art historian William Vaughn points out, the contemplation of nature provided
the deepest moments of self-discovery, in which the romantics could find in such
experiences the knowledge not just of a moral law, but also of the divine.126
Virtually every British painter in the era demonstrated a personal way of looking at
the world in which the concentration on inward energy defined the outward reality.
More specifically, in landscape painting, the landscape represented a feeling for
nature for the romantic, a search for a moral truth. Landseers Loch Avon and the
Cairngorm Mountains for example, demonstrates the phenomenon of depicting a
subjective truth through a personal identification with the subject. This simple
scene comprised of a tranquil Scottish lake surrounded by craggy mountains is
126 William Vaughn, Romantic Art (London; Oxford University Press, 1978), pg. 134.
infused with the artists personal enthusiasm for the subject. It is painted with
sincerity and exactness, bom of an intimate knowledge of the area that transmits his
feelings of personal attachment to the scene. By relaying his perspective of the
scene through a transference of his feelings, Landseer provides a subjective idea of
truth (morality, virtue, or God) revealed in nature. The artists interpretation of the
scene is a purposeful and rational endeavor that also uses his personal experiences
associated with feelings to search out the morality in nature. This system is neither
purely idealized nor purely based upon subjectivity, but a combination of the two in
which an ideal is found through a subjective investigation of experience.
The search for a moral truth within nature in the romantic sensibility is
similar to the middle-class reliance on domesticity to express morality. Just as the
artist idealized nature as the source of morality so did the middle-class idiom.
However in each case, that idealized morality was only uncovered through
experience. For the artist, a moral truth was uncovered by realizing a personal
identification with the subject, in which the artist infused experiences into the
landscape. In domesticity, morality was held as an ideal that was said to exist in
nature. Yet it was only by infusing an experiential understanding of the world into
that idealized picture of nature that morality was uncovered. That experience
informed middle-class men that women were most often in the home, and therefore
were naturally suited to that environment. This coupled with the established ideal
that the home was a natural vault of morality, cast women as the moral regenerators
of virtue. The fact that the experiential view of nature held ulterior motives, such as
the suppression of women and the desire to metaphorically separate from the
working class, explains how the middle-class belief in the natural differences in the
roles of men and women presented a paradox for people in British society.
While the relationships between class, gender, and nature have occupied a
central place in historiography, natures role in shaping attitudes toward racial
makeup has also captured the attention of historians. Most studies of British
attitudes toward race center upon the abolitionist movement. In a broad context,
historians tend to argue that abolition was either the result of the universal belief in
the rights of men, a product of religious impulse, or an economic necessity. Starting
with the first of the three, this line of historiographical interpretation portrays the
abolitionist movement in the late eighteenth century as based upon a belief in
natural law, as in Harold Perkins theorization that the basis behind abolition echoed
free trade. Free trade according to Perkin was an expression of the
entrepreneurial ideal, which held that paternalism, whether in politics, labor,
religion, or land restricted a persons natural rights. He quotes a passage from the
F.dinhurgh Review which purported that slavery was unjustified because it restricted
a persons natural right to the free use of his own bodily strength and exertion.
Linda Colley also writes that the anti-slavery campaign in the late eighteenth 127
127 Perkin, Origins of Modem English Society, pg. 229-230.
century was based upon the concept of universal freedom and a welcome
opportunity to reaffirm the British libertarian heritage.128 Relatedly, James Walvin
argues that it was the complex political chemistry which contributed to abolition
and emancipation.129 Furthermore, in the years after the war, as in 1791-1792, the
abolitionist cause was helped by being carried along by the wider political debate
about rights. In that slavery was seen to subsume many of the other political
arguments about rights; it was, in fact, the most extreme form of a denial of
rights.130 131 These interpretations base abolition upon a widely held ideal of nature:
that all humans are indeed innately free and that slavery is an act against nature.
A second type of interpretation of abolition in Great Britain centers on the
religious impulse of the nation. Roger Anstey connects religious dissent, and
particularly Wesleyans, to the anti-slavery movement by demonstrating that for
the Evangelical, slavery stood particularly condemned This is
because they apprehended salvation not least through the concept of
redemption, and when they related the role of redemption, in its
existential, individual application, to Gods great redemptive purpose
as made known in the Old Testament, they saw that, historically,
tion was release from physical bondage as well as from
128 Colley, Britons, pg 354.
129 James Walvin, The Public Campaign in England Against Slavery, 1787-1834, The Abolition of
the Atlantic Slave Trade ftripins and Effects in Europe. Africa and die Americas. David Eltis and
James Walvin, eds. (Madison, WS: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1981), pg 63. Italics are
130 Ibid., pg 69.
131 Roger Anstey, Religion and British Slave Emancipation, Ibid, pg 40.
For Anstey, two other aspects of Methodism influenced abolition: the work of
missionaries and the formation of the dissenting Anti-Slavery Society, which
allowed for the mobilization of Methodist abolitionist support.132 Catherine Hall on
the other hand has demonstrated that emancipation was based upon evangelical
sentiment and on the differentiation of races. Hall states that missionaries in the
West Indies saw themselves as privileged narrators and presented themselves as
manly men and domesticated virtuous women rather than suffering and victimized
slaves.133 This idealization of race cast people of different races into a natural
hierarchy that characterized people of color as inferior and led to pity.134 Along the
same lines, Boxer and Quataert point out that the Birmingham Ladies Society, a
philanthropic group of women dedicated to moral reform,
drew heavily on the religious principle that all people are children of
God [and] assumed as a corollary that blacks were younger brothers
and sisters who must be educated and led by their older white
siblings. Englishwomen would be educators as well as liberators,
providing the colonies with models of respectability against which to
measure native behavior.135
132 Ibid., pg. 46.
133 Ibid., pg. 210.
134 Hall. White. Male, and Middle Class, pg. 213.
135 Marilyn J. Boxer and Jean H. Quataert, Connecting Spheres: European Women in a Globalizing
World. 1500 to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pg. 136. Also appears in
Hall. White. Male ..pg. 208-214.
All three studies demonstrate that the evangelical positions on abolition were purely
idealized interpretations of the world. But as opposed to Ansley, who argues that it
was the ideal of redemption carried out by Methodists that led to abolition, Hall and
Boxer and Quataert argue that it was an ideal of the inferiority of people of color,
which was the most powerful argument against slavery.
The third type of interpretation of abolition maintains that the slave trade
was abolished because of its economic unfeasibility. The prototype for this type of
argument is Eric Williamss Capitalism and Slavery, in which he argued that
abolition was basically the outcome of the economic interest of British industrialists
in ending a costly encumbrance.136 Hyam, who also puts forth that economic reality
eventually led to the emancipation of slaves, tempers this position somewhat. He
states that it would be difficult to argue that the humanitarian element was a mere
charade.137 138 However, he also points out that stances based upon universal human
rights, while instrumental in the abolition of slavery, did little to emancipate the
slaves. As evidence Hyam cites the fact that emancipation in the British colonies
did not occur until 1834-1840, and as such the rationalization of slavery as an
economic necessity outweighed its moral considerations. Hyam instead argues
136 Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press,
1944), pp. 136 and 178.
137 Hyam, Britains Imperial Century, pg. 40.
138 Ibid., pg. 40.
that it was only when slavery was proven to be financially unsound that it was
outlawed in the West Indies. But this line of thought is flawed, for it can be argued
that Western Indian financial decline was the result, rather than the cause of
I am arguing that it was the ways in which people conceptualized nature, and
therefore racial difference, that greatly influenced the antislavery movement. As I
demonstrated above in the section regarding gender, the concept of nature was
dualistic. In British society, as in the realm of art, nature was an ideal that
simultaneously coexisted alongside an interpretation of nature based upon
experience. This commingling of ideal and experience also has a parallel in the
British artists use of natural light and color. During the period of 1750 to 1850
artists enlisted the use of color, rather than form, as a primary aesthetic mechanism.
What is more, colors were to be those found under natural light. In an 1843 edition
of The Artists and Amateurs Magazine, one writer comments of Turner, here is
an artist attempting to make pictures which shall be all LIGHT and COLOUR, and
adopting a mode of execution which he intends shall represent the wild variety of
nature generally, clouds, waves, tress, and so on.140 And John Ruskin writing
139 Seymour Drescher, Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition ( Pittsburgh, PA:
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977); Howard Temperly, Ideology of Antislavery, The Abolition
of the Atlantic Slave Trade, pg. 24.
140 The Artists and Amateurs Magazine, pg. 93. Capitalization is from original text.
under the pseudonym the Author of Modem Painters, in the same edition of The
Artists and Amateurs Magazine states, To what public, do the works of Turner
append? To those only, we reply, who have profound and disciplined acquaintance
with nature, ardent poetical feeling, and a keen eye for colour.141 In other words,
Ruskin believed that Turners paintings are best suited to those people who have an
understanding of the ideal of nature coupled with specific experience dealing with
the concept of color.
As with color, the depiction of light in British painting in the era under
review was to be as natural as possible. For example, John Constable relied heavily
upon the use of natural light in his paintings. Although Constable painted the final
versions in his studio, he prepared to paint them by making oil studies based on
sketches from nature.142 These sketches formed the basis for his concern with a
scenes intangible qualities conditions of light, sky and atmosphere rather than
the concrete details of the scene. Furthermore, this use of natural light elicited a
sense of divinity for Constable. In an 1849 edition of the Art Journal, the editor
quoted Constable regarding his concern with natural light:
On the 8th of April, 1835, Constable writes thus to a friend
concerning it, I have got my picture into a very beautiful state; I
have kept only brightness without my spottiness, and have preserved
God Almightys daylight, which is enjoyed by all mankind,
141 Ibid., pg. 283.
142 Janson and Janson, History of Art, pg. 689.
excepting only the lovers of old dirty canvases, perished pictures at a
1000 guineas each, cart grease, tar, and snuff of candle.143
The desire to capture light as it appeared in nature is different from the classical
tradition in which light was universally painted in the same manner, over a dark
undercoat. For Constable and his contemporaries, the more natural the portrayal of
light, the nearer one felt to nature. Constable idealized light as the work of
godliness and yet he always painted his scenes at a later time after contemplating the
experience. In this manner paintings were the artists translations of the ideal. This
dual approach to nature evident in artists use of light and color was also at the root
of the British attitude toward race and the antislavery movement.
The ideal of race that the British held in their collective mind, during the
years of the abolitionist movement, was that people of color were inferior to
Europeans. Some historians demonstrate that attitudes toward racial difference
underwent a change from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth. According to
historians such as Hyam and Londa Schiebinger, for the first half of the eighteenth
century the British exhibited a belief in the universality, homogeneity, and common
ancestry of humanity. Hyam points out that this belief in the congruity of
humankind was evidenced by a disbelief that skin color had any special
significance, an idealized notion of the noble savage, and a respect for non-
European civilizations, especially Chinese and Indian. Along the same lines,
143 The Art Journal (London:Virtue and CO. 1849), v. XI. Pg. 159.
Schiebinger states that environmentalists of the [eighteenth century] thought that
physical differences resulted from the effects of diverse environments acting on an
otherwise uniform human nature. If bodies differed simply in response to the
environment, then all peoples were made of the same raw material and had the same
potential for intellectual and moral achievement.144 By the nineteenth century,
Hyam states that the universal was exchanged for a cultural arrogance and a belief
in the differentiation between races.145 In this interpretation, the turn of the
nineteenth century witnessed a change in the idealization of humanity, which was
based upon the universality of nature, to an emphasis on differences between races.
Differentiation between races simultaneously developed alongside a new
arrogant and assuming racial ideal. This ideal grew out of the economic benefits of
industrialization and its correlated power, and was directed at those people not
fortunate enough to posses the British model of civilization. Even though the
abolition movement had a wide base of public support in Great Britain, direct
contact with the evils of slavery was limited. Antislavery sentiment was based upon
second hand accounts and religious and theoretical idealizations and not on first
hand knowledge. So the experiences that shaped this movement were almost
144 Londa Schiebinger, Natures Body: Gender in the Making of Modem Science (Boston: Beacon
Press, 1993), pg. 138.
145 Hyam, Britains Imperial Century, pg. 37.
entirely based upon an interpretation of foreign culture and other races seen through
the eyes of an industrialized nation. This particular ideal of civilization then was
based on cultural arrogance, which manifested itself in demonstrations of pity and
attitudes that inferior cultures and races were in need of saving. This was the
engine of abolition.
Nature and the consideration of what constituted nature shaped attitudes and
the roles that men, women, class and race played from 1750 to 1850. This claim is
demonstrated in the artistic interpretation of nature. While the artists active in the
era had inherited the Enlightenments admiration of nature, their interpretation of
nature differed. Rather than consider nature as a guiding light of rationality, artists
believed nature to be a vessel for the containment of emotion, which became the
new ideal of nature. Furthermore artists undertook an investigation of nature
through the subjective exploration of experience. In this way, the idealized
interpretation of nature coexisted with the experiential interpretation of nature. At
first the existence of the two approaches to nature seems unlikely, not because of an
adversarial relationship but because of a basic incompatibility. They seem
incompatible because an ideal is typically overturned through experience. But in
political economy, experience, as represented by economic objective, was employed
in order to obtain the ideal of the policy objective. And in the cases of abolition and
gender roles, the experience proved the ideal, because of the limited nature of
those particular experiences.
The previous chapters have suggested that a good deal of historiography
depicts the themes of individualism, competition, and nature as the underpinnings of
a rational eighteenth and nineteenth century British society. Moreover, as the
greatest adherents to this ideological system, the middle classes based their identity
upon the supposition of a rational and morally-sanctioned life. However, this final
chapter will demonstrate that the eras dominant ideological system resembled very
little in the way of rationality. By investigating painting in the context of the larger
cultural framework, it becomes apparent there existed a nexus of irrationalism in the
parallels between many social practices and doctrines, and artistic practices and
aesthetic doctrines. Irrationality in the context of this paper means the inability or
failure to express reason or sound judgment and a dependence upon emotion over
reason. And it is this element that artists recognized in British society from 1750 to
1850. The subject matter of many paintings exhibited the artists feelings of
timelessness both a longing for the past and a desire for a national future.146 This
attitude ran counter to the rational understanding of the universe as a measurable
146 The concept of timelessness is covered in works such as Romantic Art in Britain: Paintings and
Drawings 1760-1860 (Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1968) and Hauser, The Social
History of Art.
and predictable machine. In addition, the subjectivity found in the individual, the
aesthetic qualities of the emotions, the prevalence of fantastic portrayal, and a
concern with the qualities of color rather than form were all attributes of the
paintings produced in this era. When compared to the rationalism of the classical
tradition, these attributes are irrational and mirror a development in the larger social
context. Social practices and abstract ideas such as debt and credit, commercialism,
luxury, and religious emotionalism, which had been previously considered irrational
in British society, experienced a widespread acceptance in the period 1750 to 1850.
The prevalence of these social practices, coupled with the fact that the middle-class
justifications of their ideological systems were merely inversions of aristocratic
doctrines, created inconsistencies and contradictions in society. In this manner, a
rational society was not a reality but an imagined fiction constructed as a means of
legitimizing the middle-class and commercialism.
As we saw in Chapters I and II, historians have attempted to demonstrate
that the middle-class use of the concepts individualism and competition was a
means of counteracting the negative connotations of commercialism, by
demonstrating freedom from obligation and a rational world-outlook. While
historians have recognized, as Perkin put it, that capital was the well spring of the
economic machine,147 obtaining capital was an exceedingly difficult task.
147 Perkin, The Origins of Modem English Society, pg. 222.
According to Davidoff and Hall, capital and credit were mainly raised from personal
sources, for it was kinship and family which provided the most reliable source of
finance, both initial capital and credit facilities.148 Further example of the rise of
commercialism and its dependence upon credit is provided in the correspondingly
large increase in the formation of banks during the era,149 which represented an
explosion in the demand for credit. Linda Colley has argued that credit relied upon
a rational system of confidence, confidence that interest payments will be made at
the correct level and at the correct time, and confidence that debts will ultimately be
repaid.150 And Susan Kent has echoed the sentiment that debt solely rested on the
hope that all members of society could be counted upon to pay the debts they owed,
rather than on what had previously been considered the reliability, physicality and
perpetuity of land.151 Therefore, historians have delineated that the heart of
commercial operations was the Bill of Exchange and the Promissory Note, both of
which rested on assumptions of others creditworthiness152 and rational responses.
148 Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, pg. 250.
149 Ibid., pg. 240. The authors state that in Suffolk there had only been five banks in existence in
1780, but by the 1820s a network of several important banking firms materialized.
150 Colley, Britons, pg. 67.
151 Kent, Gender and Power, pg. 57
152 Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, pg. 208.
Yet in these analyses, there seems to be unarticulated contradictions in the
relationship between the ideal of commercialism and the practical need for credit.
Commercialism was upheld as the epitome of individualism, independence, self-
help, and masculinity and yet a commercial enterprise depended heavily upon
credit, which is essentially a demonstration of obligation. In order to legitimize
commercialism, the associations of credit with obligation and dependence had to be
glossed over. An inquiry into the romantic painters search for inner reality and
their interpretation of external reality as irrational will shed light upon this
contradiction. The art historian Marcel Brion states that the romantic artist
preferred far above absolute objectivity, a poetic transmogrification of reality.153
In Brions interpretation of Romanticism, he equates the prevalence for fantastical
depiction of subject matter to the creation of a new and different reality as a means
of escaping the tumultuousness that artists saw in society. But perhaps it is more
accurate to state that the fantastic, peculiar, or dreamlike qualities of the paintings
were an unveiling of the irrational elements of which society was wrought. As an
example of the fantastic depiction of reality, one need not look further than Henry
Fuseli who explored the world of the irrational and the bizarre. In The Nightmare
from 1781 Fuseli painted a little demon perched on a woman sprawled out upon a
couch. Bursting into the scene in the background is a glowing horse head. Art
153 Marcel Brion, Art of the Romantic Era (New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1966), pg.
historians interpretations of this painting differ, from a literal explanation of a still
sleeping woman tormented by some terrible dream,154 to the depiction of Fuselis
feelings of unrequited love.155 More importantly, the portrayal is one of altering the
dreamlike beauty of the scene into a frightening interpretation of a distorted reality.
The reality may have been love lost or merely as the title suggests a woman having
a nightmare, but the interpretation of that reality was accomplished through a
fantastical depiction of the world as an irrational and disturbing dream.
Like the above example of Fuseli, many landscape paintings possessed a
dreamlike quality, with an inclination towards the supernatural and the fantastic in
their depiction of nature. That is not to say that these landscapes were unrealistic,
but that they possessed a surreal-like characteristic.156 John Martins Joshua
commanding the sun to stand still upon Gideon, from 1816 exemplifies the
painting of landscape as surrealistic. This supernatural melodrama can be
appreciated for its fantastical depiction of natural phenomena, sweeping landscape,
154 Horst de la Croix and Richard G. Tansey, Art Through the Ages. Volume II Renaissance and
Modem Art (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1986), pg. 799.
155 Janson and Janson, History of Art, pg. 686.
156 The surreal is a state of mind that transcends boundaries and categories and reaches a level of pure
perception, pure understanding, thus allowing for the penetration of the world of appearances. This
definition of surrealism is taken from Lee Mckay Johnson, Metaphor of Painting: Essays on
Baudelaire. Ruskin. Proust, and Pater. (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Research Press,
1980), pg. 28.
and vastness of dimension. Taken together, an emotional response to the scene is
instantaneous, in which associations with the untouchable or unobtainable elicit
feelings of irrelevance to reality.
The distorted depictions of reality in many paintings from the era, such as in
the works of Fuseli or Martin, can be seen to objectify the artists perceptions of
society, in which the ideologies and practices bore little resemblance to the ideals
they were purported to uphold. Operating as an economic agent in commercial
society was idealized as the rational mans way to individualism, and partially
dependent upon the ability to exhibit self-reliance. Yet the reality of commercial
society was that it was overtly associated with credit and debt, which are inherently
based upon obligation. Credit and personal debt are not inherently irrational. But
the web of dependency and obligation connecting the procurement of capital to the
commercial enterprise an enterprise that was ironically to demonstrate ones
independence is. Furthermore, even though masculine responsibility partially
depended upon an ability to financially protect ones wife and children, the securing
of capital contradicts this ideal based upon the fact that women provided a
substantial source of capital for the familys enterprise.157 Stated simply, the reality
of commercialism was a distorted image of the ideal of masculine independence.
157 Davidoff and Hall Family Fortunes, pg. 278. The authors state that personal sources of capital
included female members of the family, for women could make up a substantial proportion of those
with financial resources.
When investigating commercialism in the era, historians have traditionally
focused on the consuming habits of the middle class. Linda Colley, for one, has
attempted to show that commerce and consumption were the foundation of Britains
greatness and identity while land ownership was still the main source of power and
prestige. Colley writes that this seeming paradox was no paradox at all. It was
partly based on the fact that the status of land and landed men was so great and so
secure, that peers, members of parliament, ministers of state and even monarchs
were prepared to adopt such an approving attitude toward the contribution made by
trade. John Brewer has shown that a consumer boom after 1750 in which the
middling ranks, whose numbers soared by the mid 1700s and made up at least a
quarter of Englands population, furnished their homes with consumer goods not
found in aristocratic homes fifty years earlier.158 159 Relatedly, Harold Perkin
maintains that the basis behind the consumer boom was consumer demand and an
increase in the supply of luxury goods. The demand for such items as tea from the
Far East, spices from the Near East, sugar from the West Indies, coffee and tobacco
from the Americas, coupled with industrial innovations that made available the
latest clothing fashions in textiles, and cutlery, buckles, cookware, and other
158 Colley, Britons, pg. 62.
,59John Brewer, Commercialization and Politics Neil McKendrick, J. Brewer and J.H. Plumb eds.,
The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth Century England ( 1982),
pg. 24. Brewer estimates that by the early nineteenth century, the population with family incomes of
from Â£50 to Â£400 a year increased from 15 to 25 per cent.
metalwork led to their mass consumption.160 As with Brewers analysis, Perkin
maintains that industrialization was based upon the creation of needs and a
concomitant mass consumption based upon emulation of ones social betters, when
he states if consumer demand, then, was the key to the Industrial Revolution, social
emulation was the key to consumer demand.161 This idea of social emulation is
reiterated by Davidoff and Hall, who state that many goods and services were
consumed by the middle class itself, its consumption patterns sometimes leading, at
other times following that of the gentry.162 These common sense approaches
identify that a middle-class culture was at least partly based upon manufacture and
trade, and that the buying and selling of goods not only created financial
wherewithal but also their social position.
Referring back to Chapter I, one must keep in mind the ideological barriers
erected by the aristocracy against trade, in which commercial pursuits were
portrayed as frivolous, luxurious and subject to appetites and passions. In the
aristocratic model, these traits left commercial men open for exploitation thus
diminishing a persons potential for independence and casting commercial men as
unfit to participate in political life. As such, a mans involvement in commercialism
160 Perkin. The Oripins of Modem English Society, pg. 91-93,95-97.
161 Ibid., pg. 96.
142 Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, pg. 196.
ideologically placed him in a precarious position socially, which forced
entrepreneurs to erect an ideological rebuttal. This retort was based upon
distinguishing between luxury and consumption and associating the supposed
passions of luxury with the aristocracy and the professed practicality of
consumption with the middle classes. By examining a parallel between the
changing attitudes toward luxury and the artistic concern with the significance and
essence of color in paintings, it is evident that discourses surrounding luxury
became inverted based on a middle-class reinterpretation of the aristocratic trope.
Attempts to understand color and to uncover the emotional meanings
allegedly inherent in hues were a common feature in the artistic culture of the
period.163 Color was considered a key factor in expressing the nearly indescribable
emotional aspect of nature, and in order to capture on canvas their feelings for
nature, romantic painters replaced line and form with light and color as basic
elements of design. The amorphous qualities of color captured the emotion and
pure perception sought in the romantic sensibility, while the tangibility of line and
form was less important. Turner is a fine example of an artist of the period who
possessed a mastery of the nearly indescribable qualities of color and how they
could relay an emotional message. In 1839 the Art Union magazine wrote, Turner,
R.A. exhibits his gorgeous work, The Fountain of Fallacy. It is wonderfully
163 Colors role in the romantic sensibility is found in many scholarly works such as Brennan,
Wordsworth. Turner and Romantic Landscape and Barasch, Theories of Art. Volume 2.
painted, we must add it is also wonderfully incoherent.164 By incoherence, the
commentator refers to Turners reliance upon color rather than line (or form), to
obtain an intangible essence of feeling. Terms such as amorphous and incoherent
are not only wonderfully descriptive of the qualities of color, but also speak to its
symmetry with emotion, for light and color enabled the emotive delineation of the
romantic sensibility.165 Looking toward Turner again in his Slave Ship, color
captured that which line or form could not. The subject of the painting, a ship tossed
by the sea, is relegated to the background, while the ocean, an undefined mass of
dark swirling colors, is emphasized. Mirroring the threatening ocean are the
brighter yellows and oranges of the sky, so that one can hardly decipher where the
sea ends and the sky begins. An intense emotional message is achieved in this
painting. Pessimism abounds as displayed through feelings of humanitys
impotence when faced by the more powerful nature, but more importantly the
employment of color projects an apocalyptic quality throughout the entire painting.
Slave Ship is not an overt moral statement, but instead transmits an emotional
message for the spectator to interpret in his or her own fashion.
Color, which captures the irrational and intangible world of emotion and
subjectivity, is like the varying and discursive qualities of luxury, which the
164 Art Union, pg. 7.
165 Brennan, Wordsworth. Turner and Romantic Landscape, pg. 23.
aristocracy had positioned in the irrational and intangible world of sensuality,
gluttony, hedonism, appetite, desire and passion in British society. Color not only
captures such intangible ideas, but also represents the reliance on intangible and
incoherent concepts in society at the time. Like the emotional messages conveyed
by color, ideas such as luxury lacked a definite structure, so that the permeability of
luxurys discourses allowed for its reinterpretation. By the late eighteenth century,
the middling ranks began characterizing the aristocracy as licentious, effeminate,
lazy, luxurious, and generally disinterested in commercial pursuits.166 This was
essentially an inversion of the aristocratic trope on commercialism, which was used
to divert attention away from the commercial system and its dependence on
indulgence. The middle class categorized luxury as different than consumption,
even though luxury and consumption are based upon the same principle the
obtainment of that which is more than necessary. It is only that with consumption
emphasis is on the quantity of goods and luxury emphasizes the quality or scarcity
of goods. Regardless, they both are based upon indulgence. The blurring of the
lines between class ideologies, seen in concepts such as luxury and consumption
finds a parallel in the embracing of color by artists. Color is amorphous; it lacks
structure and definition, and succeeds in capturing and eliciting those things that are
166 Clark, Struggle for the Breeches, pg. 7, 91, 155; Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, pg.21; Hall,
The Early Formation..., pg. 183; Perkin, Origins of Modem English Society, pg. 225.
equally without form such as emotion. Comparatively, there was little distinction
between the conceptualizations of luxury and consumption. The flaccidity of
meaning of these ideas, ideas central to the identity of the aristocracy and the middle
class, demonstrates the shapeless and fluctuant character of class identity and
reliance upon the irrational.
In Chapter ID, I outlined the historiographical conceptualization of separate
spheres, which linked the commercial society to rationalism. Historians such as
Leonore Davidoff have demonstrated that the rationalization of commercialism was
accomplished by splitting the public world of the market off from morality and
virtue. As such, public society operated machinelike outside of morality thereby
placing virtue in the private sector.167 The public sphere, which included politics
and commerce, was then characterized as amoral, while the private sphere,
consisting of the home and family was considered a moral safe haven. Chapter in
furthermore profiled that historians who are concerned with gender have delineated
that domesticity not only came to be understood in terms of essential and universal
attributes of male and female,168 but also relegated women to the private realm
while associating men with rational pursuits of the public world.
It is my contention that the creation of public and private as separate
167 Lenore Davidoff, Adam Spoke Firstpg. 89.
168 Boxer and Quataert, Connecting Spheres, pg. 144.
spheres also had irrational implications. The irrational is demonstrated by the
manner in which the middling ranks justified commercialism through the
contradictory nature of domesticity which set up impossible paradoxes evident in
the subjugation of women and the working classes. As I established in Chapter HI,
the paradoxes inherent in domesticity paralleled the paradoxes of nature evident in
the exaltation of the sublime in art. And as I shall demonstrate, the sublime may be
considered an aspect of irrationality in painting during the period, as well as a
means of illuminating the theme of irrationality in British society.
In the romantic sensibility, the sublime was obtained by establishing a mood,
rather than recording an appearance. More specifically, the sublime made a formal
image of an idea or feeling and created an intelligible and eloquent piece of work to
translate that idea or feeling by interpreting natural phenomena into personal
terms.169 By doing so, the artist created a state in which fear coexisted with
pleasure; or as Edmund Burke wrote, sublimity is tranquility tinged with terror.170
One illustration of the sublime is related in the magazine The Materialist in 1835.
The writer describes the admixture of melancholy, astonishment, fear as well as
admiration as sublime.171 In this manner, the sublime communicated that the
169 Newton, Romantic Rebellion, pg. 55 and 34.
170 Edmund Burke A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and
Beautiful, 1757, part i., pg. 17.
171 The Materialist. July 1835, pg. 51.
prospect of hope or the elements of threat were different sides of the same coin.
Burke too argued that people delight in the real distresses of others; hence there is
no spectacle we so eagerly pursue as that of some uncommon and grievous
calamity.. .[which] always touches with delight. He goes on to explain,
now, whatever, either on good or upon bad grounds, tends to raise a
man in his own opinion, produces a sort of welling and triumph that
is extremely grateful to the human mind; and this welling is never
more perceived, nor operates with more force, than when without
danger we are conversant with terrible objects, the mind always
claiming to itself some part of the dignity and importance of the
things which it contemplates.172 173
Before Burke no aesthetician had found the fearful, considered by itself, a source of
In my opinion, it is not incidental that the examination of the aesthetics of
the sublime occurred during this era, for British society was filled with paradoxes.
One such paradox is domesticity, which contradictorily rendered women as morally
superior and yet as utterly un-political, emotional, physically weak and intellectually
inferior. The sublime articulates paradox by encapsulating the seemingly
contradictory combination of pain and pleasure. It is not that domesticity was a
combination of pain and pleasure, but that both domesticity and the sublime
172 Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry ... , part i. pg. 17.
173 Hippie. The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Pictureseaue in 18th Century British Aesthetic
Theory (Carbondale, IL: The Southern Illinois University Press, 1957), pg. 88.