The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Science and Culture in the 18th Century

Category: 18th century

During the eighteenth century science and culture reflected the tremendous changes which took place in the economic and political life of English society. By the end of the century the most important aspects of feudalism had vanished from the English economic and social scene.

Science at this period was in a favourable position and many notable developments took place not only in the field of industrial science but also in medicine, physics, mathematics, astronomy, etc. Isaac Newton (1642 — 1726) observed and showed the complex movement of the celestial bodies! His gravitational theory had a tremendous impact on natural science and the ota cosmology theory supported by the theologians was doomed. Newton proved that on the basis of his theory it was possible not only to calculate the moon’s revolution round the earth, its orbit but its velocity as well. Newton’s name became associated with scientific determinism which gave a powerful fillip to scientific research in the 18th century.

It was in the 18th century that the English classical school of bourgeois political economy emerged. V. I. Lenin noted the positive role or the English bourgeois school of political economy as one of the sources of Marxism. Adam Smith (1723—90) was one of the most prominent representatives of English classical political economy. His work Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations published in 1776 was an outstanding event in the theory of economic science and won him world recognition. In his treatise Adam Smith emphasized that free trade was the basis of the welfare of nations. Trade in his viewpoint served as a mechanism in the division of labour. Being an advocate of free trade Smith criticized the old theory of mercantilism which he considered to be inappropriate.

Regarding labour as the basic source of wealth Smith attached great importance to the relations between the producers of this wealth. However, he failed to recognize the division of society into exploiters and the exploited. Adam Smith was a staunch supporter of capitalism and considered that economic laws were natural and inherent of the human being. Despite these limitations which were later criticized by Karl Marx Adam Smith contributed by his theory to the investigation of capitalist production being as V. I. Lenin regarded him the great ideologist of the advanced bourgeoisie.

Of the philosophers of the 18th century we are to note David Hume. In 1748 he published his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, a book which was quite well-known among the educated circles of society. He agreed with Berkeley in his approach towards the materialists, however, he simultaneously considered that there was lack of evidence for Berkeley’s world of ideas.

The 18th century was the age of classicism both in architecture and art. The English court and the ruling oligarchy had cultivated a fancy for the antique which they considered to be symbols of wealth and good taste.

Of the architects of the time most well-known were James Gibbs and the Adam brothers. Having studied in Rome, Gibbs admired the baroque element in Wren and continued the tradition of the great master. Most typical of his creations were the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London built between 1722 and 1726 and the Radcliffe Camera at Oxford built between 1739 and 1749.

Robert and James Adam were much adventurous, their style being a modified compound of many others. The biggest venture of the Adam brothers was the Adelphi in London, a long terrace of houses built over Roman arches and vaults facing the Thames. The elegant and delicate Adam style was immensely influential, and led to the neoclassic design of the great potter Josiah Wedgwood.

In the eighteenth century it was commonly established that architecture should follow the ancient rules, as established by the Romans, codified by the sixteenth century Italian Palladio, and practised by the English Inigo Jones. The call was back to the classical simplicity of Jones. Attention was paid to interior decoration. In this respect we may also mention the names of William Kent and Thomas Chippendale. The latter was a celebrated cabinet-maker producing beautiful, elegant and remarkably comfortable furniture. His famous Chippendale chairs with their characteristic forms of elegance are still well-known today and one may see them in many of the buildings of the 18th century.

Sculpture in the 18th century was also influenced by the antique. Many of the houses of the rich were adorned with classical sculptures.

This great interest in the antique led English scientists and artists to Greece. The British ambassador there Elgin ordered sketches and copies of antique sculptures. It was not long that he managed to get permission to take some pieces of ancient sculpture home. Eventually England seized a great number of outstanding antiquities, including twelve statues of the Parphenon, many beautiful friezes. In 1816 Parliament passed a special Bill making the Elgin marbles from the Acropolis of Athens state property and conveying them to the newly established British Museum.

In the eighteenth century the English drama is associated with the name of David Garrick (1717—79), an actor and playwright. Sarah Siddons (1755—1831) also adorned the stage. However, David Garrick was the greatest of all.

He is rightfully considered as the founder of realism in the history of the English theatre. He performed successfully in comedy, tragedy, and in romantic plays. His contribution to the art of staging was known as character acting. His acting was realistic, simple and very expressive. Due to his character acting there was a revival of interest in the plays of Shakespeare.. However, most important was the fact that he made the theatre an ‘acting company’ where strict discipline prevailed. The English theatre of this period was fortunate to stage the plays of two outstanding playwrights Oliver Goldstmith (P1730-74) and Sheridan (1751-1816). Goldsmith’s plays The Good Natur’d Man in which he exposed the loose morals of the rich and She Stoops to Conquer, as well as the plays of Sheridan The Rivals, with the immortal Mrs Malaprop, A Trip to Scarborough, and The School for Scandal meant a revival of the drama.

H. Purcell is considered to be the creator of the English national style. Though he lived in the second half of the 17th century, he became widely famous in the 18th century. About 1690 he produced the music of the first English opera Dido and Aeneas, his best-known work. He also wrote the incidental music for many plays and much church music. TheGermanborn composer Handel (1685—1759) is known as the great master of baroque music. For many years Handel ruled the English musical world. Many of his works are still widely-known in England to this very day.

Under the influence of Purcell music was experiencing change. Though the opera was still strongly influenced by the Italian and French operas the ordinary English music-lover revolted against these influences demanding works which he could comprehend. The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay and Dr Pepusch first staged in 1728 took London by storm. It broke all records for it was the first and much the best of the ballad-operas which primarily attacked the corruption of the English prime-minister Walpole and the Whigs and also made fun of the Italian opera.

English painting of the eighteenth century is represented by a brilliant gallaxy of such names as William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and William Blake.

They all experienced the initial influence of such outstanding foreigners as the Flemish Anthony Van Dyck, the German Hans Holbein who were attracted to paint for the court and the aristocratic ascendancy by lavish rewards and honours.

Hogarth (1697 — 1764) was the supreme painter of the first half of the 18th century, and from him we can learn more about London life of the period than from any other source.

Hogarth refused to copy the old masters and introduced his own method described by his contemporaries as the ‘modern moral subject’ which was didactic in content. He undoubtedly played a major role in the development of realism in English art.

Hogarth won fame when at the age of thirty he painted a number of versions of one of the scenes of the Beggar’s Opera, and in them first displayed his genius and originality, for they were something quite new in British art. The ‘conversation piece’, a family or group of friends, had recently come into fashion, but Hogarth, in the baroque manner dramatized it. However, he soon went a stage further by inventing his own drama in the six pictures, The Harlot’s Progress, followed by a similar series, The Rake’s Progress, and some ten years later by his masterpiece of satirical observation, Marriage a la Mode, in which he makes a devastating criticism of the immorality and hypocrisy of the aristocracy. His Elections, written in the fifties, exposed the English political system.

Hogarth was never a fashionable portrait painter, yet that he was one of the greatest of all English masters of the art can be seen from the brilliant sketch, A Shrimp Girl and others like Captain Coram. All these were revolutionary works: portraits of humble people, painted not for money but for the sheer joy of painting those whom he found interesting or admired. Hogarth’s realism affected the development of English arO\

L In 1768 the Royal Academy was founded in England to promote and encourage the development of arts with Joshua Reynolds (1723 — 92) as its first President. Though he studied the Italian masters for three years in Italy he did not copy the Grand Style. In 1753 on returning from Italy he created his first portrait Commodore Keppel. With it Reynolds made his reputation.

Unlike Hogarth Reynolds made portraits of the prominent people of his time. His best creations are The Tragic Muse which is the portrait of the famous actress Sarah Siddons, The Strawberry Girl and Master Bunbury.

The monumental manner of Reynolds was very different from that of Gainsborough (1727—88), who never went to Italy. Reynolds was a townsman, Gainsborough a countryman whose heart was in landscape and who turned to portraiture from necessity, working in fashionable Bath from 1759 to 1774. Reynolds is an epic painter, Gainsborough — lyrical.

Gainsborough was well acquainted with the musical and artistic world. This explains the numerous portraits created by the artist of actors, musicians, writers. His portrait of Master Buttal, known as the Blue Boy is one of the best. His study in blues gave his works a sense of lightness and lyricism. His landscape paintings Watering Place, Return from the Market gave nature a new prominence which was a novelty in the world of art for nature was traditionally treated as a background study. Such a new approach to nature influenced the works of John Constable and Joseph Turner.

William Blake (1757 —1827), poet and artist, though born in the middle of the 18th century was least characteristic of the trends of the century. An individualist, he belonged to no school and, rejecting the cult of reason, pursued the visions of his own mythology in both poetry and painting. Blake wrote in fact in the radical tradition of Bunyan and Milton, coupled with the enthusiasm for the French revolution and hatred of the factory system. His most widely known poems are lyrics such as The Little Black Boy, The Chimney Sweep, the matchless Sunflower and The Tiger, a poem that nobody but he could have written. He also wrote long mythological epics of a prophetic and symbolic nature. Blake was very much devoted to Michaelangelo and this devotion was expressed in his impressive illustrations. The keynote of his work is protest against the wrongs of early capitalism and a prophetic call for the regeneration of society.

English literature of the 18th century may be characterized as the literature of Enlightenment.- V. I. Lenin observed that the Enlighteners were inspired by bitter hatred of serfdom in all aspects of life. In his estimation they were passionate protagonists of education, self-government and freedom. They defended the cause of the popular masses. The ideological platform of the Enlighteners was quite contradictory. This was natural for they reflected the contradictory nature of the newly-emerged bourgeoisie.

The English Enlighteners believed that education could remodel society and transform the individual. However, this was an illusion very far from actual life. Many of the Enlighteners eventually saw their limitations and the great gap between their illusions and harsh reality.

The moderate wing of the English Enlighteners supported the ruling Establishment and advocated limited evolutionary reforms of cosmetic nature. This wing was represented by Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Alexander Pope, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson.

The radical wing of writers such as Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith demanded essential social changes and called for radical action to defend the broad masses of workers who were subject to ruthless exploitation.

Daniel Defoe (1660—1731) by his outstanding Robinson Crusoe (1719) paved the way for the development of the realistic novel in English literature:. His writings surprised a public used to the impossible situations of romance and Defoe was accused of lying, because Robinson Crusoe while actually a work of fiction, gave all the appearance of truth. Robinson Crusoe was so successful that he followed it with Captain Singleton in which the scene shifts to Africa, Moll Flanders, and A Journal of the Plague Year, a reconstruction of the Great Plague of 1665, again written in the first person, although he was only five in that year. Daniel Defoe is fairly considered to have been the ‘father of English journalism’ for his brilliant, exquisite and extremely simple language.

In many of his satirical essays and articles he criticized intolerance both political and religious, the vices of the aristocracy and the poor morals of the ruling oligarchy.

Samuel Richardson (1689—1761) by his moralistic novels in letters, Pamela and Clarissa Horlowe contributed to the realistic novel of the Enlighteners, These are typical moralistic novels aimed at achieving ultimate perfection of English bourgeois society.

A vivid contrast to these deliberations is the life and writings of/Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), one of the very greatest masters of English prose. He was born in an Irish attorney’s family and received a brilliant education at Oxford, becoming an outstanding satirist of his time. He gained prominence by his A Tale of a Tub (1697), which is a satirical account of the religious quarrels of Catholics, Anglicans and Dissenters. In A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to their Parents, written in 1729 he exposes the inhumane attitude of the British authorities to the Irish people by suggesting that Irish babies should be fattened like cattle to be killed and then consumed like meat by the English customers roasted or boiled.

Swift’s realism is that of the ironic satirist, reduced to despair and eventually to madness by the contradictions which he, with the clear vision of a genius, can see in society, but to which the ranks of the complacent bourgeoisie remain blind. In his world-famous novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726) he denounces the evils of bourgeois society with unabating passion and conviction unprecedented for his time.

Henry Fielding (1707—54) was another outstanding representative of the radical wing of the Enlighteners. He came of an impoverished aristocratic family and had to earn his living. Such a background influenced his views and convictions. He was both playwright and novelist criticizing the ruling oligarchy, the loose morals of the aristocracy, corruption, hypocrisy and humbug. The C of fee-House Politician (1730), Don Quixote in England (1734) and other plays are most typical in this respect. The Life of Mr Jonathan Wild the Great (1743) was a disguised reference to the career of the notorious Whig prime minister Sir Robert Walpole.

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) was in fact the climax of Fielding’s career. It was the first great novel in English and contributed to the development of the modern realistic novel.

By the end of the eighteenth century the illusions of the Enlighteners’ optimistic approach to different aspects of English social life were shattered by the harsh realities of growing social discrepancies and injustice widely encouraged and practised by the ruling elite. This could not but find reflection in literature: sentimentalism and romanticism developed in English literature as a reaction to the failures of Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth century.

Laurence Sterne (1713—68) was the most prominent of the sentimentalists. His brilliantly eccentric Tristram Shandy (1759—67) and A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768) most vividly expressed the emotional approach to life and an unconscious protest against the current rule of reason. Oliver Goldsmith (?1730— 74) in his The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) written with an Irish charm, evoked feelings of compassion for those who were subjected to the harsh treatment of life.

Early Romanticism was another result of the disillusionment with Enlightenment. However, it emerged at the end of the century among conservative writers and was rather explicitly expressed in the ‘Gothic novel’. The scene of the novel of this kind was set in the Middle Ages, in weird castles against a depressing background.

In this context the optimistic, emotional, full of earth and sun poetry of Robert Burns (1759—96) was a sharp contrast to the medieval horrors of the Gothic novel. Robert Burns’s poetry transcended all national boundaries for it reflected the spirit of the independence-loving man of toil and his love of life.

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