Up until the eighteenth century on the Continent, as well as in England, the various courts of Kings and Queens were the main centre for high culture. The superiority of any court was clearly visible in the architecture of its magnificent buildings, the woven designs of its precious tapestries and the exquisite collections of its paintings and porcelains.
They provided a backdrop for the high drama surrounding monarchs and their reign. However without a proper stage it was difficult to perform the traditional rituals of power. This happened for as long as it was large, visible and fashionable, filled with courtiers, hangers on and admirers.
Artist and designer Charles Le Brun depicted Louis XIV (1638 – 1715) on the ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors at the Chateau of Versailles as a person, rather than a deity.
Any good intentions Louis had in his youth and middle age, from time to time, were swept away by the sadness of old age.His revocation of the important Edict of Nantes in 1685 was a dastardly thing, badly done.
This landmark document, formerly put in place by French King Henry IV the Great in 1598, had granted religious toleration to Protestants living in the mainly Roman Catholic France.
It was a policy that had proved beneficial to France’s economic growth during the early part of Louis’ reign because the majority of artisans, who worked to produce the trappings of his reign, were Huguenot’s (Protestants).
The court of Louis the self-styled Sun King at Versailles, during the most fruitful time of his reign, had fulfilled everyone’s expectations mainly because Louis himself uniquely and cleverly managed its private and its public face. He and his brilliant 1st Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) concealed many of its faults and its sexual license behind a heroic façade.
This was in direct contrast to England, where in the second half of the seventeenth century after the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 the Whig junto, a self-appointed committee with political aims whose members constantly surrounded and supported the accession of the Hanoverian King, began gradually assumed positions of power.
They were busy distributing the resources of the crown in the form of places, pensions and perquisites while further circumscribing the very real powers of the monarch.
This would mean that by the second half of the eighteenth century they would be in complete control and the King at London finally being treated as a human being. While respected and looked up to, he could now only rule with the backing of parliament.
Once that had happened something quite unique began to take place. High culture, an integral aspect of the court began to move out of its narrow confines and into other diverse spaces within London, becoming an attribute of the people.
From palaces to coffee houses, from reading societies to debating clubs, assembly rooms, galleries and concert halls, over the next 60 years in England high culture became a partner of commerce. Art, literature, music and theatre was transformed into thriving and popular endeavours and enterprises.
That the first two Hanoverian Kings George 1 and George II actually disliked England and its people was neither here nor there. Before leaving to take up residence in London the first George calmed his Hanoverian subjects fears of the English chopping off his head by saying ‘I have nothing to fear – for the king killers are all my friends’.
By the time of the succession of the George II to the English throne in 1727 when asked to describe the character, habits and customs of the English a visiting Swiss Protestant, César de Saussure tackled the subject bravely in letter seven of his collection now entitled A Foreign View of England when he said…
…‘I do not think there is a people more prejudiced in their own favour…they look on foreigners in general with contempt and think nothing is as well done elsewhere as in their own country’ and he continued endeavouring to justify their self satisfied and smug attitude, ‘certainly many more things contribute to keep up this good opinion of themselves, their love for their nation, its wealth, its plenty and its liberty’.
In the countryside, where the majority of its nearly 6 million people lived it was still, according to a contemporary description, a country of ‘champion fields, sprawling common, waste and woodland‘.
In reality the marshland, bogs and moors were all very treacherous places and much of the land under cultivation was still tilled as in medieval times.
In the north the country was mostly barren due to the poverty of the soil, impassable mountains and scarcity of population and the roads, well they were truly vile. It is understandable that a man might spend his whole life and never go further than the village market.
The gurus of taste and style considered the fine arts, painting and sculpture, addressed the so called Pleasures of the Imagination individually, collectively and corporately.
Everyone wanted to experience great emotions of taste and become a voyeur of the interiors of city and country houses. Remarkably, with the right introductions, these could began to be arranged to suit your purpose.
When King George II died in October 1760 his 18 year old son George III came to the throne.
He was the first Hanoverian monarch to be born in England and to actually speak English at court as his first language, (not French, the language of diplomacy spoken by his father and grandfather before him).
As we can imagine patriotic fervour on his succession new no bounds.
Huge crowds welcomed the young King’s bride Charlotte of Mecklenburg to England and cheered them both at their coronation to the resounding sounds of the German composer George Friderick Handel’s fabulous composition Zadok the Priest, originally composed for his father and traditionally performed since during the sovereign’s anointing.
And all the people rejoic’d, and said:
God save the King! Long live the King!
May the King live for ever,
The times were briefly helped by a fine summer whose good harvests came from orchards whose trees were heavily laden with fruit and they became symbolic of a nation at ease. This was a moment that felt right for a new King, new projects and new adventures. And, at this point England’s high society considered itself the most civilised in Europe.
George III’s family, as it grew up in the public eye, setting an example for that of a life of domestic felicity, which was taken as a model of propriety by the population at large. A great contrast to his original role models George III was a thoroughly modern man. He lived very cosily in the snug bosom of his family.
He was the first ‘middling people’s monarch who distinguished his private residence from his public office. He and the Queen retired early, forbade their daughters to read romances and offered his equerries barley water as a refreshment.
He openly condemned his aristocratic subjects for their lack of piety, as well as exceedingly lax morals. Poor George, he was constantly lampooned by the press and the cartoonists at Punch for penny pinching sententiousness, which meant they were inclined to moralize far more than was merited, or appreciated.
Early in his reign, George III like most of his subjects, enjoyed delightful diversions and amusements. He became a patron to musicians, painters, the theatre, the opera and less frequently, to men of letters. However the value of his royal patronage did not lie in the rewards it gave but on the social cachet which could be parlayed into rich commissions.
In short the British monarch operated as a private patron now, not as a national one and this was a great change. There was clearly a motif to this act and its aims were very simply laid out in a long dedication in 1762 by Lord Kames in his Elements of Criticism to George III. pardon me but shortened here so we don’t doze off.
The Fine Arts have ever been encouraged by wise Princes, not simply for private amusement, but for their beneficial influence in society…and it ends... the Fine Arts; riches employed, instead of encouraging vice, will excite both public and private virtues.
Lord Kames believed that culture was important as a means of controlling and legitimating commercial society. A cynic might say that he saw the pursuit of art as a means of justifying an accumulation of wealth. However in defining the fine arts in relation to the world of commerce, not the realm of kingship, he was endeavouring to make his point.
Phillip Reinagle painted Mrs Congreve and her children in their fashionable London Drawing Room in 1782. The furniture and mirrors in the room are influenced by the designs of cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale and architect Robert Adam. Both were involved in reviving the classical influence on architecture, interiors and objet d’art. Everything in the room from the paintings to the chairs, mirrors, porcelain and textiles is of sheer quality, in both design and manufacture. The carpet is highly desirable, probably being an early example of what generically became known as Axminster, named for the town where carpet weaver Thomas Whitty set up shop in 1755 and produced simply splendid woven carpets of superior design and quality.
London by now was the largest city in Western Europe with 750,000 inhabitants. (Edinburgh at the same time had 57,000 and Dublin 90,000) and offered a different quality of life. Nowhere else in Britain was so urban; no other city so exciting and so sensationally shocking!
Variety, energy, noise, colour, enthusiasm – you could go for a walk and gape at the antics of the beau monde out for an evening’s fun at Vauxhall, Gardens, which occupied about 12 acres across the Thames from Westminster Abbey.
Class distinction did not apply at Vauxhall and fashionable ‘men of the ton’ thought that while it was slightly scary it also seemed very glamorous. Meanwhile rascals, ruffians, pimps and prostitutes saw it as a place where they could earn a lucrative living, and did so. Those who were neither haute nor bas, but somewhere in the middle found that it was definitely a place of excitement.
There were wonderful walks, through triumphal arches, erected in 1752 so you could enact your own Roman odyssey. There was something for everyone at Vauxhall. Musical Bushes were a great lark. As you strolled by they emitted music, due to a band concealed in a nearby hole in the ground. Sadly when it rained the hole filled with water and this happened so often that finally it had to be abandoned.
At Vauxhall the orchestra after this experience preferred to play Handel’s popular Water Music on the dry stage of the Rotunda, where concerts of songs, sonate and concerti lasting four hours were frequently given.
You could also go up the river to Ranelagh Gardens where the Rotunda there was thought by contemporaries to compare favourably with the Pantheon at Rome. That much admired relic of antiquity had survived the centuries and was inspected by every Grand Tourist during the eighteenth century.
Its London copy was a place where everyone promenaded about to see and be seen and the great English writer, critic and renowned conversationalist Dr. Samuel Johnson said Ranelagh produced ‘an expansion and gay sensation’ such as he had never experienced anywhere else before.
Visiting European musicians came to London a great deal during the eighteenth century, including the great Italian castrato Farinelli who arrived in London in 1734 to perform opera. Librettist Paolo Rolli commented: “Farinelli has surprised me so much that I feel as though I had hitherto heard only a small part of the human voice, and now have heard it all. He has besides, the most amiable and polite manners …”. Some fans were more unrestrained: one titled lady was so carried away that, from a theatre box, she famously exclaimed: “One God, one Farinelli!”.
It certainly must have been wonderful to be in London when, on June 19th 1764, the remarkable child prodigy from Austria 8 year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart gave a concert playing his own compositions on the harpsichord and organ.
The young genius and his father and sister stayed in London for just over one year, not departing until 17 September 1765. While residing in Chelsea at London the young Mozart wrote a set of sonatas K10 – 15 dedicating them to Queen Charlotte for which she sent him fifty guineas that compared with what Farinelli earned, some 5000 pounds, appears somewhat meagre.
An account of their first appearance on the 28 May 1764 relates how Wolfgang together with his father and sister spent 3 hours with the King and Queen, who treated them so warmly they could not believe they were in the ‘presence of the king and queen of England’.
‘What we have experienced here surpasses everything’ his father reported in a letter home. A week later Wolfgang, his father and sister were walking in St. James’s Park when the King and Queen drove by.
Again they were astonished, that while differently dressed, the King and Queen actually recognized them.
The King, from all accounts, threw open the carriage window and put his head out of the window laughing out loud while greeting them ‘ both with his head and hands’ wrote the elder Mozart, particularly Master Wolfgang.
They were given 24 guineas for performing privately for George, Charlotte, the family and friends.
On the 19th May they spent a further four hours with their majesties performing for a small group that included two princes, the brother of the King and brother of the Queen, receiving another 2 guineas on going away.
On the 5th of June the King gave a benefit. He placed before the young genius a selection of pieces of music by Bach, Carl F. Abel, a virtuoso viola da gamba player and composer who had arrived in London in 1757, as well as works by Handel.
This concert was most fashionably patronized and was very profitable. Mozart, it was reported, played all the selections on the King’s organ in such a manner that everyone was enchanted. Wolfgang also accompanied the Queen in a duet playing an air and then brilliantly improvised on one of Handel’s airs, playing a melody so beautiful that it astonished everybody.
The Georgian era (1714 – 1830) in England from monarchs to middling people and Mozart was, to coin a ‘Georgian phrase’ a truly ‘great gaze’.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013
* Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) preeminent leader of Indian nationalism in British ruled India