If we had to choose a colour that epitomizes the period of historical events that encompasses the time span of our romantics and revolutionaries from 1760 – 1830 it would have to be ‘red’, the colour of passion, which not only symbolizes romantic love but also revolutionary blood.
The late 18th and early 19th century in England, Europe and America was a period of extraordinary political change, of revolution, scientific discovery, dazzling artistry, literary excellence, military milestones and plenty of social scandal.
From the dandyism of Beau Brummell to the romantic exploits of Don Juan from the abolition of the slave trade to Catholic emancipation this era had an engaging cast of characters.
The disappearance of the powdered wig in the early 1790’s marked a revolution in polite society and in London wild hairstyles exploded onto the Georgian scene. They included the central curl, crimped or cropped locks of long, lanky languishing dukes and dandies.
‘The only stable state is the one in which all men are equal before the law’
This period was dominated by men so it seems appropriate to start by viewing the dashing portrait of Spencer, 2nd Marquess of Northampton. It was painted by Scottish artist Sir Henry Raeburn.
This ‘romantic’ work was exhibited at the Royal Academy at London in 1821.
Born in 1790 by the time he was 30 Lord Northampton was a respected connoisseur of the arts and literature, particularly poetry.
As President of the Royal Society in 1838 he worked tirelessly with British politician William Wilberforce to ensure the abolition of the slave trade, as well as campaigning for law reform.
His portrait by Raeburn, one of the era’s distinguished painters is a fine example of the new style of portrait ‘realism’. Its bold, simple approach reveals an enduring structure of both character and experience. The subject himself is a man history may not have celebrated very much.
However in his own quiet way he contributed to its growth, intellectually, socially and practically. There is an intensity that leads us to believe the Marquess is a vividly romantic personality, a quiet brooding style of hero.
His pose is very contained. His hands folded. The tightly wrapped cape creates an enclosed silhouette, one that lends dramatic effect to the white of his collar and cravat as well as the brilliant red of his cloak lining.
Red was and has seemingly always been, London’s most favoured colour.
It was the colour of Roman tiles that paved the houses of first century city of Londinium, and the colour of the original wall surrounding London, which was built from red sandstone.
It was used to make crosses on the doors of houses in the Middle Ages when plague invaded households and worn by Henry VI and his nobles when they made a triumphant entry into London in 1432 and the warring factions of York and Lancaster were united as Henry married Elizabeth of York.
This union was symbolized in the Tudor rose, which flaunted both red and white petals.
Most of all for Londoners red was the metaphor for the great fire of 1666, the formative event in London’s life, which set in concrete London’s identification with the colour red.
From the buckets you filled with water to quell the flames, to the engines the firemen used and the coats they wore, everything was red. Paradoxically, the greatest effect the great fire of London had was to promote the advancement of science.
The Royal Society established in London in 1660 prompted members to find ‘scientific’ or ‘objective’ causes for such violent events so that such pestilences and conflagrations might be averted in the future.
The pensioners at Chelsea Hospital all wore red, and still do. It was the colour of the royal mail box that allowed fast and easy communication between friends and foes.
Eighteenth century maps of London marked street improvements and indicated the areas of the ‘well to do’ or wealthy, in red. It drew authors, publishers, poets and those seeking their fortune. Those with any pretensions to being one of the ton lived for the pleasure of a London Season.
For them it was more than a place of streets and house, rackety districts and aristocratic quarters; its uniqueness was that it was a focus of aspiration and the seat of the imagination for many eighteenth century Britons.
Londoners saw anyone living in the country as demi human or even boobies… commenting that who indeed could possible ‘live in one of those temples of dullness called country seats, where yawns are the form of worship’.
The answer was that a great many could and did, and surprise, surprise actually enjoyed it, even though they were around 15% of the population.
At the heart of it all, London was a great centre for pleasure. Out in the provinces Assembly Rooms were all the go for cards and concerts and ‘come as you fancy’ dress parties.
Dancing, music, drums, masquerades or card parties were held regularly. Theatre too thrived in the provinces, growing more rapidly after 1750, their growth all over the country.
The era of revolutionaries and romantics was also about continuing themes from ancient Greece and Rome for that of liberty, religion and justice.
Liberty was all bout the freedom to think or act without being constrained by necessity or force; freedom from captivity or slavery; and of the political, social and economic rights that belong to citizens of any state, or to all people.
Liberty was then, and is now, the most potent of all western ideas and ideals and its theory should be constantly challenged. It was also about elevating creativity as a means of critical authority.
Many wanted to free art from those who wanted to put rules in place to restrict its production. It sought to validate strong emotion as an authentic source for an aesthetic experience, providing new ways for people to perceive the nature, beauty and creativity of the world they lived in.
It was an age of poets and their poetry, philosophers and their thoughts, playwrights, authors and their words, as well as the fashions, passions and perceptions of London and its people.
Authors like Jane Austen and her family, who lived during this time, more than likely fell into a category of middling people, a term coined by literary wit, social commentator, and son of England’s first Prime Minister Horace Walpole.
On his return from the continent in 1741 he said “I have before discovered that there was nowhere but in England the distinction of being middling people. I perceive now that there is peculiar to us middling houses; how snug they are”
During the eighteenth century in England a new class of people emerged, the country gentry. They actively supported the ruling and upper classes by cultivating an ambiance of politeness, a keen, though delicate sensibility, which was always balanced by displaying a great deal of practical common sense.
Their gentrification was reflected in how they dressed, dined, performed and were entertained, in a fine selection of social settings.
They rotated from the socially competitive atmosphere of London’s elegant drawing rooms to the cheerful gaiety of Bath’s assembly’s room and onto the more robust attractions of popular coastal resorts like Brighton, which were after 1792 also frequented by George, the Prince Regent and his entourage.
They strove for aesthetic perfection urged on by their awareness of the ‘antique’, while striving to emulate the ideal – classical perfection. The classical ideal flowed over into the landscape and small temples, originally designed as refuges from the hot Mediterranean sun, became focal points of beauty set as they were in a natural setting ordered from the centuries famous gardener, Capability Brown.
Archibald Alison, a Scottish retired cleric of the Church of England, first coined the phrase the pleasures of the imagination. Like many others of his generation he indulged himself by writing elegant fragments and well turned sermons. He seemingly enjoyed a pleasant country life in Shropshire and Hampshire, prior to moving back to Edinburgh in 1800 to benefit his son’s education.
Alison was just a one person who was part of a large movement of people, a groundswell inspired by the works of enlightened writers. They were all busily expressing their own views through writing essays, hoping they would influence the leading figures of the so-called European enlightenment.
To understand why this movement became so influential during the eighteenth century, it is important to revisit sixteenth century French Humanist Michel de Montaigne who asked a single question over and over again in his essays: “What do I know?”
By this he meant that we have no right to impose on others dogmas, which rest on cultural habit, rather than on the understanding of an absolute truth. Powerfully influenced by the discovery of thriving non-Christian cultures in places as far off as Brazil, he argued morals may be to some degree relative.
Who were Europeans to insist Brazilian cannibals, who merely consume dead human flesh instead of wasting it, are morally inferior to Europeans who persecute and oppress those of whom they disapprove?
This shift toward cultural relativism, though based on only a scant understanding of newly discovered races of people, would continue to have a profound effect on European thought right through to the present day.
Just as their predecessors had used the tools of antiquity to gain unprecedented freedom of inquiry enlightened thinkers used examples of other cultures to reshape not only their philosophies, but their own societies.
This line of thought paved the way for the justification of a French Revolution. If we cannot be certain our values were God-given, then we have no right to impose our ideas by force on others. Inquisitors, popes, and kings alike in this train of thought, had no business enforcing adherence to particular religious or philosophical beliefs. It is one of the great paradoxes of history that radical doubt was necessary to arrive at a new sort of certainty, one that was labeled scientific.
In the second half of the eighteenth century a good scientist wasn’t just dabbling with test tubes or looking at the sky. He willingly and patiently tested all assumptions as he was challenging traditional opinions with an aim at coming closer to the truth. The strength of science then maybe at its best when it is aware of its limitations, when it is aware that knowledge is always growing and always subject to change – never absolute.
By our retired cleric’s way of thinking knowledge depended on evidence and reason. Archibald Alison’s Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste were published in Edinburgh in 1790 and were destined to impress and influence many in the years to come..
For centuries in Europe Continental monarchs ruled absolutely, whereas in England, for both good, and not so good reasons, the King’s council had over the centuries gradually circumscribed monarchical power by parliamentary institution.
By the last forty years of the eighteenth century the English system of government with a controlled monarchical head, two houses of parliament and a voting system had gained the admiration of most, liberal minded European philosophers and considered great thinkers. However, if you read accounts of the parliament of the day it seems a wonder democracy managed to flourish at all.
A Swiss Pastor, who bribed his way into the House of Commons with a bottle of, undoubtedly red wine, reported ‘that Members of Parliament wore no special dress and…came in boots and greatcoats and kept their hats on.’ Scandalous behaviour.
Many an MP ‘lay prone upon a bench eating oranges or cracking nuts during a debate’. Bad speakers were laughed out of the chamber while good ones were heard in ‘perfect silence’ and approved of by calls of ‘hear him’. Real democracy in action for the pastor was a frightening thing. He was completely horrified by much ‘open abuse ‘ and the rude remarks that its members indulged in.
He did testify later however ‘that the lowest and meanest members of society take an interest in everything of a public nature, whether high or low, rich or poor. It was to be admired that a carter, commoner, ‘nay an Englishman has his rights and privileges defined and knows exactly what is going on as well as his King or the King’s ministers’.
Noted French author of Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694 – 1778), after a short spell in the Bastille for daring to challenge a French nobleman, lived in England from 1726 to 1729 where he was totally astonished by its people’s many freedoms.
He found it completely amazing that Englishmen were able to virtually say and publish what they liked without fear of prison or exile; he was further astounded there was no torture or arbitrary imprisonment; and that noblemen and priests were not exempt from certain taxes.
In England he discovered it was the poor who enjoyed exemption from taxation, whereas at the same time in France it was the rich. On top of all of that he discovered that different religious sects were allowed to flourish. Protestant non conformists were allowed to gather in their own places for worship and become teachers etc.
They were subject to swearing certain oaths and declarations that they would not act against the crown or Parliament but they took that in their stride. Any further restrictions in place for Roman Catholics were finally removed in England by 1829.
The wider expertise and experience Voltaire gained while in England meant his works and ideas became the embodiment of the European ‘enlightenment’. Although he died some time before it, he irrevocably laid the foundations for a French revolution in the minds of his peers.
The romantics and revolutionaries was all about politics, poetry, passion and for gaining enlightenment.
The so-called Enlightenment is one of those rare historical movements that managed to name itself. Certain thinkers and writers, primarily in London and Paris, believed they were far more enlightened than their compatriots. So armed with only their own self confidence they set out to enlighten everyone else.
They believed human reason could be used to combat ignorance, superstition, and tyranny and build a better world. Their principal targets were religion (embodied in France in the Catholic Church) and the domination of society by a hereditary aristocracy (Europe and England).
By the 1790s in England those who wanted to escape the ongoing influence of a classical antiquity were arguing that it was indeed pointless to follow ancient ways in a modern world. There were continual changes afoot in England and on the Continent and a growing awareness and realization that one would need to acquire flexibility in order to move with the times and avoid revolution a subject dawning on many a noble mind.
Thomas Sheridan, when defending the ‘manifest superiority’ of the English language explained: ‘the true way of imitating the wisdom of our forefathers is, not to tread exactly in their steps, and to do the same things in the same manner; but to act in such a way as we might with reason suppose they would, did they live in these days, and things were so situated as they are at present’
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2010 – 2012
*Ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle