CHAPTER XVII

The Arts in England

I. THE ARTISTS

THE words art and artist, which in guild days had been applied to any craft or craftsman, changed their meaning in the eighteenth century as crafts and guilds were replaced by industries and workingmen; now they were applied to the practice and practitioners of music, decoration, ceramics, drawing, engraving, painting, sculpture, and architecture. Likewise the word genius, which had signified some innate and characteristic quality, or some supernatural spirit, now increasingly denoted a transcendent native ability, or its possessors; like miracle and act of God, it became a convenient substitute for a natural and specific explanation of an unusual person or event.

The transition to industry, commerce, and city life brought a further decline in aristocratic patronage of art; however, we must note that moneyed men supported Wordsworth and Coleridge, and Lord Egremont opened his manor house at Petworth to Turner as a refuge from London. George III had helped to establish (1768) the Royal Academy of Art with a gift of five thousand pounds and handsome quarters in Somerset House. Its forty members were not made automatically immortals like their French models, but they were raised to the gentry with the title of (e) squire, and though their new dignity could not be passed on to their offspring, it helped to improve the social standing of major artists in Britain. The Academy organized classes in anatomy, drawing, painting, sculpture, and architecture. Inevitably an institution supported by a conservative monarch became a citadel of tradition and respectability. Innovative artists denounced it, and became so numerous, and won such acclaim, that in 1805 some nobles and bankers financed the organization of the British Institution for the Development of the Fine Arts, which held periodic exhibitions, awarded prizes, and provided a lively competition for the Royal Academy. Guided, angered, and nourished by these rival forces, British art produced excellent works in every field.

No; music was an exception; it was barren of memorable compositions in this period. England was keenly conscious of this dearth, and made up for it in some measure by generous appreciation of composers coming to her from the Continent; so she gave Haydn a warm welcome in 1790 and again in 1794. The Royal Philharmonic Society was founded in 1813, survived the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, two Napoleons, and two World Wars, and still exists as one element of permanence in an incalculable flux.

The minor arts flourished without flair. They continued to produce elegant but sturdy furniture, powerful or fanciful metalware, quietly beautiful ceramics. Benjamin Smith molded iron into an ornate candelabrum for presentation by the city of London to the Duke of Wellington.1 John Flaxman, besides making classical designs for Wedgwood pottery, fashioned the famous Trafalgar Cup to commemorate Nelson’s victory,2 and he was both sculptor and architect of the massive monument to Nelson in St. Paul’s.

Sculpture, however, was almost a minor art in England, perhaps because it favored a nudity uncongenial to the national climate and morality. In 1801 Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, while serving as British envoy to the Porte, persuaded the Turkish authorities in Athens to let him remove from the Acropolis “any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon.” Interpreting this like a lord, Lord Elgin removed the great frieze of the Parthenon, and many marble busts, and transported them, in ship after ship, 1803–12, to England. He was denounced by Byron and others as a rapacious vandal, but he was vindicated by a committee of Parliament, and the “Elgin marbles” were bought by the nation for £ 35,000 (much less than Elgin paid for them), and were deposited in the British Museum.3

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