Book review: The Pleasures of the Imagination by John Brewer

John Brewer’s The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century documents the 18th century creating of “high culture”.  However, this creation is not reported as a formal aesthetic decision, supervised by an aloof elite of aristocrats and dilettantes. Instead what Brewer displays is the complex social and commercial interaction between artists and their patrons, amidst a turbulent world of engravers, printers, critisc and pamphleteers, each exploiting new artistic techniques and subject matter for commercial or political gain.

18th century middle-class characters in a period cartoon

Brewer unveils the intricate conventions of politeness and etiquette that fluorished in 18th century Britain, deconstructing the codes of dress, gesture and performance that orchestrated the behaviour of groups gathered in public gardens, galleries and theatres. He also invites the reader into the more rarefied sites of the English court and the country house.

However, this history refuses to skate on the layers of high society, chaperoning the reader into the sub-cultures of satire, savage journalism and forgery that were the life-blood of 18th century artisitic markets. It is this artistic dialogue between the polite and the scandalous, the refined and the rakish, that Brewer’s history records with relish.

Although this book carries a focused argument about the development of the century’s aesthetic and artistic cultures, its thematic arrangement and liberal use of high quality images ensures that it is a history that can be dipped into pleasurably  as well as read with scholarly intent. The reader can visit its pages in the manner of a curious tourist or obsessive collector, and obtain equal pleasure there.