Comment faire parler un répertoire des spectacles de l’Ancien Régime?

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‘Répertoire général’ de la troupe française (1777), Rossijskij gosudarstvennyj istoričeskij arhiv (Archives historiques d’Etat de Russie).

L’heure est au big data dans les études du théâtre français de l’Ancien régime, de la Révolution et de l’ère napoléonienne. Les technologies de numérisation permettent de rassembler les données sur un répertoire, de les traiter quantitativement et de les rendre accessibles aux publics qui n’ont pas l’habitude des archives. Au moins trois projets collectifs mettent le souci d’analyse quantitative au cœur de leur investigation: Registres de la Comédie-Française, Therepsicore et French Theatre of the Napoleonic Era. Dans certains cas, comme dans l’étude de Rahul Markovits, la recherche du répertoire va au-delà du territoire français, en élargissant l’enquête jusqu’à ‘l’empire culturel’ français.[1]

‘Au XVIIIe siècle on ne joue pas une œuvre mais un répertoire’[2]: cette formule de Martine de Rougemont est souvent reprise par les historiens du théâtre. Or, les rapports entre les deux structures signifiantes, œuvre et répertoire, restent à éclairer. Certes, l’ensemble des œuvres disponibles pour la mise en scène, c’est-à-dire les textes et les emplois dont une troupe disposait à un moment précis, définissait l’offre d’un théâtre.[3] Mais, à ma connaissance, si les distinctions entre les troupes – de la Comédie-Française et du Théâtre Italien, par exemple – ont été formulées et intégrées dans la vie théâtrale de l’Ancien régime, la notion de ‘répertoire’ en tant qu’ensemble signifiant au sein d’une tradition théâtrale n’a été convoquée quant à elle que pendant la Révolution française. Quoi qu’il en soit, le traitement autonome de ce répertoire, c’est-à-dire en termes uniquement esthétiques (la part d’un tel genre) ou d’histoire littéraire (la part d’un tel auteur) paraît éminemment problématique.

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Dans mon livre Les Spectacles francophones à la cour de Russie (1743-1796): l’invention d’une société j’ai exploré les circulations théâtrales transnationales pour reconstituer un répertoire des pièces représentées en français dans un pays située à la périphérie de l’Europe. Une liste de 267 œuvres apparaît dans les appendices de mon étude. Cette liste alphabétique, qui recense l’ensemble des pièces françaises et francophones représentées à Saint-Pétersbourg ainsi que dans d’autres lieux de séjour de la cour a d’abord eu pour but d’accompagner une liste chronologique publiée dans le deuxième volume de ma thèse de doctorat.[4] A l’occasion de la sortie de ce livre, basé sur le premier volume de cette thèse, je souhaite mettre cet instrument de travail à la disposition de ceux qui s’intéressent à la constitution du quotidien théâtral dans l’Europe du XVIIIe siècle. Ce calendrier des spectacles met en avant l’aspect temporel de la vie théâtrale à la cour, ainsi que son inscription dans le cycle des cérémonies et des fêtes, politiques et religieuses.

La question qui me poursuit depuis le début de mon travail de thèse porte plus particulièrement sur les façons historiquement adéquates d’aborder quantitativement les répertoires dramatiques. Qu’est-ce que ces données chiffrées nous apprennent ? Est-il possible de tirer des conclusions ou, au moins, des renseignements de ces données de manière à aller au-delà de la présentation descriptive? Quels critères pourrait-on utiliser pour faire le lien entre une représentation théâtrale historiquement et socialement située et l’abstraction statistique? Dans mon livre je propose une tentative de réponse à ces questions en articulant la reconstitution du calendrier des spectacles et les premières analyses statistiques du corpus des pièces avec les contextualisations sociohistoriques. L’idée est pourtant d’inviter d’autres chercheurs à rejoindre une réflexion critique sur la portée épistémologique des données chiffrées et leur valeur argumentative – tout en utilisant les nouveaux instruments de travail.

– Alexeï Evstratov

[1] Rahul Markovits, Civiliser l’Europe. Politiques du théâtre français au XVIIIe siècle ([Paris], 2014).

[2] Martine de Rougement, Lа vie théâtrаle en Frаnce аu XVIIIe siècle (ParisGenève, 1988), p.54.

[3] D’après le Trésor de la Langue Française Informatisé, Voltaire emploie le terme en 1769, pour désigner ‘liste des pièces que les comédiens jouent chaque semaine’. En 1798, le dictionnaire de l’Académie Française fixe une autre notion : ‘liste des pièces restées en cours de représentation à un théâtre’ (http://atilf.atilf.fr/dendien/scripts/tlfiv5/advanced.exe?8;s=2824323900;).

[4] Alexeï Evstratov, Le Théâtre francophone à Saint-Pétersbourg sous le règne de Catherine II (1762-1796). Organisation, circulation et symboliques des spectacles dramatiques, thèse de doctorat, vol. 2 (Paris, 2012), p.17-192.

OCV update: Focus on Louis XIV

Bonne rentrée! This September marks a milestone for the OCV team as we publish the final chapters of our critical edition of Voltaire’s Siècle de Louis XIV (OCV, vol.13D), in which Voltaire explores the cultural history of the reign, including chapters on religious conflict and sectarianism as well as on achievements in the scientific, artistic and literary spheres. This volume completes the critical edition of the narrative of this monumental work, representing over 1500 pages of Voltaire’s text and editorial notes. The general editor, Diego Venturino, has meticulously pieced together Voltaire’s sources and analysed the context in which he worked and the way he sifted evidence to provide a revealing and comprehensive account of Voltaire’s historical method. We’re very happy with how handsome they look on our shelf, as well as proud of the diligence and hard work that has gone into making them just as magnificent on the inside.

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We were also really pleased this summer to launch an update to our explorer’s guide to Louis XIV. We wanted to provide a resource which would enable the scholarly research in the books to reach a wider audience, as well as giving some of the background to one of the most remarkable monarchs in European history. When the BBC series Versailles hit our screens earlier in the summer, we thought it would be interesting to explore some of the characters and events featured in the series from the viewpoint, not so much of ‘were they really like that?’ but ‘what did Voltaire have to say about them?’. It’s striking how many of the eye-catching incidents can be traced back to him, and we’ve enjoyed exploring how much further some of the hints provided by Voltaire and other historians have been stretched by the mischievous programme-makers.

As joint ‘secretaries’ of the edition, both working part-time and fitting in family commitments around our work on Voltaire, Pippa Faucheux and I have been particularly pleased that we’ve been able to keep the continuity over the summer, working closely with our valued collaborators, including general editor Professor Venturino and our partners at the Palace of Versailles, as well as our indexer, typesetters and printers in the UK. We’re now excited about moving on to get to grips with the fascinating ‘Catalogue des écrivains’, the Who’s Who of Louis XIV’s world that launches the reader into the narrative of the Siècle, for publication in spring 2017 (OCV, vol.12).

– Alison Oliver

A propos des Œuvres complètes ou comment tout a commencé

La toute récente réunion du Conseil scientifique des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, qui eut lieu à la Sorbonne le 16 juin 2016, est à l’origine de ces réminiscences de Jeroom Vercruysse sur les débuts du projet:

Après un après-midi de travail lors du congrès de la SIEDS de Saint-Andrews (1967), René Pomeau me glissa dans l’oreille: ‘Venez avec moi, Besterman veut nous voir’. Que nous voulait-il? Je connaissais le personnage, il avait publié mon premier article en 1959 et ma thèse l’année précédente. Nous voilà dans un salon de l’Université où nous rencontrâmes Jean Ehrard, Owen Taylor et Samuel Taylor. Besterman, que j’avais déjà rencontré plusieurs fois, ne dérogea pas à ses habitudes quelquefois assez brusques. ‘Messieurs,’ nous dit-il, ‘êtes-vous d’accord pour entreprendre une édition complète et critique des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire?’ La réponse fut unanime, ‘oui’. Un verre de sherry confirma le propos.

Il ne restait plus qu’à réaliser ce projet dont certains collègues avaient déjà rêvé. Mais nous étions loin, moi surtout, le cadet (j’avais 31 ans), d’entrevoir l’ampleur, la durée et la difficulté de l’entreprise. Aujourd’hui, près de 50 années plus tard, la fin du tunnel est en vue. Mais que de chemin parcouru, de difficultés surmontées! Un mois après le congrès nous fûmes invités au célèbre Reform Club de Londres. En hôte parfait, Besterman nous régala d’un repas dans un salon de ce club si fameux. Et nous tînmes ensuite notre première réunion du Comité scientifique que nous étions devenus. Œuvres complètes, critiques, cela allait de soi. Dans quel ordre devaient paraître les futurs volumes? Quelle ligne de conduite serait suivie pour préparer les textes?

OCV team

La réunion du Conseil scientifique des Œuvres complètes du 16 juin 2016. Assis, de gauche à droite: Marie-Hélène Cotoni, Christiane Mervaud, Jeroom Vercruysse; debout, de gauche à droite: Gérard Laudin, Gerhardt Stenger, Nicholas Cronk, John R. Iverson, Sylvain Menant, Russell Goulbourne, François Moureau.

Il suffit de prendre en main l’un des derniers tomes parus: il ressemble comme une goutte d’eau au premier sorti des presses. De nombreuses allées et venues entre Bruxelles, Genève, Londres et Paris (sans oublier les réunions tenues au cours des congrès des Lumières successifs), un courrier abondant, tout cela marcha le plus tranquillement du monde. Le premier volume publié fut La Henriade, dont O. Taylor avait déjà fourni une édition critique dans les Studies on Voltaire; il la révisa, l’adapta aux normes convenues et l’entreprise prit la route. Besterman me confia La Pucelle d’Orléans qui, débarrassée de ses oripeaux séculaires, vit le jour en 1971. Entre-temps chacun des membres du Conseil apporta son écot à l’entreprise. Mais il apparut très vite qu’il fallait recourir à d’autres dix-huitiémistes afin d’assurer la préparation et la publication de textes si divers. Ce ne fut guère une entreprise aisée pour tous les éditeurs, particulièrement pour ceux qui se chargèrent des ‘grands machins’.

Besterman me ‘colla’ les Œuvres alphabétiques. Bien. Je me mis au travail, mais je dus également trouver des collaborateurs qualifiés. Le Comité étendit ses compétences, augmenta ses effectifs, se renouvela car malheureusement il eut à déplorer des décès et des retraits. Une fois les textes attribués, le Comité dut, au fur et à mesure de l’arrivée des copies, procéder à des relectures, formuler des critiques et des suggestions souvent délicates, recourir à de nouvelles compétences. Des milliers de pages passèrent de mains en mains. Tout cela se passa dans une entente parfaite, jamais un mot plus vif que d’autres ne fut prononcé, et près d’un demi-siècle plus tard, je constate que le Conseil scientifique élargi assure toujours bénévolement ses devoirs avec soin, avec compétence et avec rigueur. Nous envisageons la sortie des derniers volumes vers 2020. Plût aux dieux que je sois encore là pour dire simplement ‘enfin’! Utinam dis placet!

– Jeroom Vercruysse, professeur émérite Vrije Universiteit, Bruxelles

Poetry in the digital age: the Digital Miscellanies Index and eighteenth-century culture

For most of us, reading for pleasure usually means getting stuck into some fiction or non-fiction. Poetry is a less common diversion, but we still have an appetite for poems to dip into, to find solace in, to memorise and share. And we can choose from an array of collections that promote poetry as an everyday companion, a form of therapy, and a tradition of national interest. For readers looking for peace of mind, The Emergency Poet: An Anti-Stress Poetry Anthology offers comfort, while the popular twin collections of Poems That Make Grown Men (or Women) Cry present a cult of sensibility for the modern age.

It was in the eighteenth century that poetry collections like these became a staple of literary publishing in Britain. The tradition of printed collections of English poetry stretches back to the sixteenth century, with Songes and Sonettes (1557), an edition of short lyric poems compiled by the publisher Richard Tottel, generally regarded as the foundation of English Renaissance poetry and the most important early printed collection of English verse. But it was not until the eighteenth century that collections of poems by several hands, with prose as a secondary feature, became one of the most common forms in which British readers encountered poetry. Like their modern counterparts, eighteenth-century editors and publishers sought to gain a foothold in a crowded market by targeting specific audiences and promoting the benefits of reading poetry. Some produced didactic collections for young people (Poems for Young Ladies); others pitched their collections to lovers in need of poetic inspiration (The Lover’s Manual); and many more set their sights on a local audience (The Oxford Sausage).

Poems for Young Ladies

Poems for Young Ladies (1767), edited by the poet Oliver Goldsmith.

Collections like these shaped the ways in which poetry was written and read throughout the eighteenth century. Yet until recently relatively little was known about their contents. Thanks to the Digital Miscellanies Index (DMI), this is no longer the case. The DMI provides a searchable record of the contents of over 1,600 collections of poems by several hands published over the course of the eighteenth century. These books are sometimes referred to as anthologies, as most poetry collections are today. But the word anthology, derived from the Greek for ‘a gathering of flowers’, has connotations that sit uneasily with many eighteenth-century poetry collections. Few collections produced in this period claimed to present the best of English poetry, a rationale often seen as characteristic of anthologies (collections that cull the flowers of the poetic tradition). As a result, several scholars, myself included, prefer the term miscellany. Derived from the Latin miscellanea, meaning a ‘hotchpotch’ of foodstuffs, it captures the dominant characteristic of most eighteenth-century collections: variety. A typical miscellany offers a varied feast of poems to entertain readers with varied tastes and personalities.

The DMI was launched in 2013, following three years of development and data collection carried out by a team based at the University of Oxford. Led by Abigail Williams and Jennifer Batt, the project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust. In 2014, another Leverhulme grant set in motion the second phase of the project. One of the aims of this phase, to be completed in 2017, is to harness the data now accessible via the DMI to shed new light on how miscellanies evolved, how they packaged and popularised poetry, and on the habits of their readers. At the same time, we are working with the Bodleian’s Digital Libraries team to develop the DMI into a more flexible and wide-ranging resource, and last month we celebrated a milestone on this road. The thirty-strong audience at Lines of Connection, a conference I co-organised as part of the project, were among the first to see the DMI’s new search interface, which replaces the beta site created in 2013.

The Book of Fun

The Book of Fun (1759), a miscellany dominated by seventeenth-century verse.

The new search platform is much more than a digital facelift for the DMI. It provides access to a database undergoing expansion: the latest version includes new records for miscellanies published between 1680 and 1699, and future updates will extend the DMI ’s coverage further back to Tottel’s foundational Songes and Sonettes. The redeveloped interface also enables users to explore the data in new ways. Keyword and phrase searching is quicker and more extensive with the new basic search function. There is also the option to filter the records using a number of facets, which display and rank the data in ways that suggest key trends and lines of enquiry. For instance, clicking on ‘Poem’ under ‘Content Type’, then selecting the ‘Related People’ facet, reveals a list of almost one hundred of the most prominent authors in the database, ranked according to the number of poems attributed to them. At the top of the list is John Dryden, with around 1,500 poems; the highest ranked French author is Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, with over 120 poems in English translation (the DMI does not record appearances of poems in foreign languages). Although these figures should not be seen as straightforward indications of popularity, they remind us that many of the most widely read poets of the eighteenth century were those who had been active in the late seventeenth century. In his imitation of Horace’s epistle to Augustus (written 1737), Alexander Pope observed that the verse of his seventeenth-century predecessors was scattered ‘Like twinkling stars the Miscellanies o’er’. The DMI has made it possible to see these stars, and the sky around them, more clearly.

– Carly Watson

The shadow world of the Encyclopédie’s planches

As part of the methodology option ‘History of the Book’ for the Masters in Enlightenment course, students were asked to present some part of their research on a blog. We felt that student Thea Goldring’s research project concerning the Encyclopédie planches would be of interest to the readers of the Voltaire Foundation’s collaborative blog. Thea is going on to Harvard to start a PhD in Art History this autumn.

As scholars increasingly recognize the didactic function of the Encyclopédie’s planches and recast the texts and their images as a single working whole, it is important to acknowledge the problematic nature of these images. In the face of growing acceptance of the planches as visual arguments, this post seeks to recover some of the epistemological knots that entangle such readings.

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Fig. 1: ‘Tapisserie basse-lisse des Gobelins,’ planche 1ère, Encyclopédie, xxvi, ARTFL

When the planches were completed in 1772, Diderot’s originally envisioned 1000 illustrations had grown to 2,569 engravings filling eleven volumes. Across this sprawl, Diderot’s hand is clearly discernable in the systemization of the planches’s spatial arrangements.[1] The planches fall into three categories: plates that establish a unified pictorial space across an entire page (Fig.1); plates that contain multiple pictorial spaces divided by clear framing, normally with a vignette/tableau above and a ‘blank’ or ‘schematic’ space below (Fig.2); and plates in which a ‘blank space,’ containing undefined and unrelated pictorial areas, extends over an entire page (Fig.3). The planches adopt a system in which certain spaces (the three-dimensional vignettes) maintain consistent perspective, scale, and modelling, while others (the schematic spaces) vary these qualities for didactic ends. By embracing multiple pictorial fields, the plates may use perspective and/or modelling but also clarify any didactic confusion resulting from these pictorial effects in the schematic areas, and also provide detailed views of the parts, while simultaneously displaying these parts as a working whole in the vignettes.

However, the disparity between the coherent pictorial effects in the vignettes and their relative confusion in the schematic areas complicates a viewer’s didactic use of the images. The inconsistencies in light effects between the tableaux and schematic spaces that pervade the planches are especially problematic. For example, upper vignettes often depict enclosed rooms which are always filled with directional light that floods in from prominent windows. In contrast, the cast shadows in the schematic areas, if present at all, seem to emanate from the objects themselves. There is never a clear light source, for, while the cast shadows may consistently point in one direction, there is no variation in length or strength to indicate an actual point of origin. The divergent use of shadows between the two pictorial spaces creates severe visual inconsistencies between them, which in turn confuse the relationship between the information communicated by each.

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Fig. 2: ‘Aiguillier,’ planche 1ère, Encyclopédie, xviii, ARTFL

Shadows may seem like a very insubstantial detail to focus on. However, at the time these visual markers were at the center of epistemological debates such as the Molyneux problem, which considered how shadows communicate weight and volume. In simplest terms, the Molyneux problem asked whether seeing the shadows on a sphere or cube provides enough information to communicate a sense of three-dimensionality without having previously associated certain patterns of shadows with volume through touch.[2]

The confusion of information offered by the juxtaposed tableaux and schematic spaces primarily concerns the haptic sense. Touch is an integral part of the tableaux spaces, and the vignettes often depict people manipulating objects.[3] In contrast in the ‘blank spaces’, the haptic interactions represented above lose their meaning. The viewer can no longer pick up the tools because they are not sitting on a surface, cannot pull down on a bucket hanging by a rope because it has no tension, cannot wield any of the hammers because the hammer head is no heavier than its shaft. The haptic expectations and interactions established by the upper tableaux are unfailingly refuted by the inconsistent or absent pictorial signifiers in the schematic areas.

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Fig. 3: ‘Faiseur de métier à bas,’ planche III, Encyclopédie, xix, ARTFL

In the eighteenth century such a confusion of haptic information was no small matter. For Condillac, in his Traité des sensations (1754), touch both affirms the existence of the exterior world and also ‘apprend aux autres sens à juger des objets extérieurs’.[4] Touch, not sight, provides understanding about exterior reality.[5] As Kate Tunstall’s analysis of Lettre sur les aveugles and its Addition demonstrates, Diderot also assigned primacy to touch not sight.[6] A consideration of touch is certainly present in Diderot’s EncyclopédieProspectus’: ‘Il a donc fallu plusieurs fois se procurer les machines, les construire, mettre la main à l’œuvre […] et faire soi-même de mauvais ouvrages pour apprendre aux autres comment on en fait de bons’.[7] Diderot had to interact with objects manually to understand them, the exact experience that the schematic areas of the planches deny. If Diderot, like many of his fellow philosophes, subscribed to the view that haptic experiences are necessary to comprehend the exterior world, how can didactic function of the plates, which offer either no or inconsistent haptic markers, survive?

Dividing the images into two spaces, one of which had no cohesive pictorial space and the other of which describes with consistent pictorial effects such as modelling, introduced a fissure into the planches. In light of the philosophical context, these distinct parts of the plates present irreconcilably different types of information. While viewers could understand and relate their experience to objects depicted in the tableau, those in the schematic space were out of reach and unknowable. Given this split, how then is one to understand the didactic usefulness of the planches? If singular planches undermine their own epistemological value, one might look for a unified didactic argument in the illustrations in their multitude and it is in the interconnections between plates that perhaps scholars should direct their attention.

– Thea Goldring

[1] Madeleine Pinault-Sørensen, L’Encyclopédie (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1993), p. 72.

[2] Laura Berchielli, ‘Color, space and figure in Locke: an interpretation of the Molyneux problem,’ Journal of the history of philosophy xl, i (2002), p.47-65.

[3] Joanna Stalnaker, The Unfinished Enlightenment. Description in the Age of the encyclopedia (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2010), p.61.

[4] Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, Œuvres complètes de Condillac: Traité des sensations iv (Paris, Dufart, 1803), p.11.

[5] Jessica Riskin, Science in the Age of Sensibility: the sentimental empiricists of the French Enlightenment (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2002), p.43.

[6] Kate E. Tunstall, Blindness and Enlightenment: an essay (New York, Continuum, 2011).

[7] ‘Prospectus,’ in Encyclopédie (emphasis mine).

French dog! ’: interpreting insults on the streets of London

In light of the recent events and the emergence of questions around British openness (or lack thereof) towards a cosmopolitan culture and foreign nationals, it is interesting to step back in time and observe what kind of reception foreign visitors to England enjoyed in the past. Even for the most anglophile early modern visitor, three aspects of any trip often remained problematic. First, the terrible physical discomfort of crossing the Channel. As the gallant poet Le Pays would have it, it is preferable to look at the sea in a painting than in real life, when one is in danger of joining in the choir producing a ‘symphony of hiccups’ on board. Then there is the ‘gastronomic’ shock of English cooking; and, last but not least, the insults foreign travellers (and French people in particular) systematically received from many locals, mostly from the lower classes, and particularly in London.

‘Sal Dab giving Monsieur a receipt in full’, 1776. Courtesy of Yale Centre for British Art. Variations on this same illustration – a Frenchmen having a fistfight with a fishwife in Billingsgate – are known from the 1750s. For a male version, see the illustration ‘The Frenchman in London’, 1770, in the Horace Walpole Library: http://images.library.yale.edu/walpoleweb/oneitem.asp?imageId=lwlpr02995 It is not known whether the illustrations are based on an actual event.

‘Sal Dab giving Monsieur a receipt in full’, 1776. Courtesy of Yale Centre for British Art. Variations on this same illustration – a Frenchmen having a fistfight with a fishwife in Billingsgate – are known from the 1750s. For a male version, see the illustration ‘The Frenchman in London’, 1770, in the Lewis Walpole Library. It is not known whether the illustrations are based on an actual event.

The most traditional insult, ‘French Dog!’, actually seems to go back all the way to the period of the Avignon schism. The author of the first French travelogue on England in 1558, Estienne Perlin, complained that he was often called ‘or son ou vilain fils de p.tain’. Huguenot visitor Misson de Valbourg, who fled France in 1685 and then sketched an idealised image of England as a land of hope and freedom, provided a much more favourable portrayal of the English. Still, he felt compelled to add that this positive image accurately describes only those who ‘hadn’t always been rotting in England’, but have seen something of the world. Voltaire was insulted on the street, but carefully avoids discussing this experience in the Lettres philosophiques. Montesquieu’s posthumously published ‘Notes sur l’Angleterre’ features some comments regarding unpleasant attitudes on the part of locals. These words inspired some scholars to categorize this text as anglophobic – no doubt an excessive statement, as many other opinions he expresses in the same text were clearly positive.

For French visitors who were not particularly favourable to England, xenophobic insults were a convenient tool to prove that the English notion of ‘freedom’, even though it seemed attractive in theory, was nothing but arrogance. Others attempted to explain the differences between the attitudes of what many of them perceived as the ‘mob’ on the one hand, and the excellent welcome they received from the often strongly francophile local elites on the other; they suggested that there might be ‘two nations’ living side by side in England. This led some to conclude that the true national character could only be found amongst the elites; others suggested that the brutality of the ‘mob’ in fact represented quintessential Englishness, the elites having been civilised by their contact with Continental culture. From the 1760s onwards, following Rousseau’s ideas (such as those in his chapter on travels in Emile), a new approach arose, which saw the true national character residing in the popular classes, but only when far away from the negative impact of large cities: thus, ‘true English people’ reside in the countryside.

During the last decades of the Ancien Régime, a new interpretation emerged for the insults encountered in the streets. In some ways parallel to Edmund Dziembowski’s suggestion that French anti-English feelings and propaganda could have contributed to the creation of a French national identity, some French visitors suggested that English xenophobia, however unpleasant an experience, could be a noteworthy (and even positive?) phenomenon. In his book Observations sur Londre celebrated by the Royal Censor as an ‘eternal antidote against the depraved and contagious morals of our so-called Philosophers’ for deconstructing the myth of English superiority, Lacombe suggested that the disappearance of xenophobic insults is a sign of England’s downfall, as these were manifestations of a powerful, true national character.

The Monument of the Great Fire of London (Wikimedia Commons). The inscriptions attributing the origin of the fire to a Popish plot were erased under James II, then re-engraved under William III; they finally disappeared in 1830.

The Monument of the Great Fire of London (Wikimedia Commons). The inscriptions attributing the origin of the fire to a Popish plot were erased under James II, then re-engraved under William III; they finally disappeared in 1830.

The unpleasant English attitudes that many foreign visitors encountered, and often reported, became for the French public part of a set of well-established ideas, related to the practice of a travel to England. As I have argued in Philosophies du voyage: visiter l’Angleterre aux 17e-18e siècles, the systematic study of the variations in the interpretation of such ideas allows for a better understanding of the complexities and uses of this travel phenomenon. The same event or the same place (such as the Monument of the Great Fire of London and its inscriptions) could receive radically different presentations depending on the personal profile, agenda and experiences of the visitor.

– Dr Gábor Gelléri, Aberystwyth University

See also https://cultureoftravel.wordpress.com

 

The Man Behind England’s Green and Pleasant Land – Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in and around Oxfordshire

Bodleian Library Exhibition

Bodleian Library Exhibition (Oliver Cox)

This summer a small exhibition in the Blackwell Hall of the Weston Library on Broad Street, Oxford, will tell the story of The English Garden: Views and Visitors. It also marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of the man behind England’s green and pleasant land, the landscape designer and entrepreneur Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

What Shakespeare has done for English letters, so Brown has done for English landscape. Yet we know what Shakespeare created was fiction; even if his fiction was so convincing that when we think of Richard III or Henry V, we think firstly of Shakespeare’s characters, rather than the historical record. With Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the story is slightly different as his landscapes look so natural that it is hard to see the hand of the artist at work at all. Perhaps Brown’s success has been such that he has almost damned himself to historical obscurity through creating a product so good, subsequent generations of visitors have given nature herself the credit.

2016 gives us the opportunity to re-assert the balance, and bring Brown into the popular pantheon of English artistic heroes.

The county of Oxfordshire is pretty much where it all started for Capability Brown. Thirteen miles north of Oxford lies Kiddington Hall. This is where Capability Brown appeared, aged 23 in 1739, with introductions from his former employer, the Northumbrian landowner Sir William Lorraine. Kiddington’s owner, Sir Charles Browne, gave this other Brown his first big break in the south of England. Lancelot was involved in the formation of the lawns and lake in front of the house. The lake’s source was the River Glyme, which he would return to some twenty years later in his career to create the magnificent lake at Blenheim Palace.

View from South Portico at Stowe

View from South Portico at Stowe (Oliver Cox)

Two years later, Brown found himself twenty-five miles north east of the city of dreaming spires as the new Head Gardener of Stowe. By 1741 this landscape was already one of the most famous in Europe. Jacques Rigaud’s fifteen engravings, published in July 1739, ensured that Stowe’s landscape was broadcast far beyond Buckinghamshire. In the far corner of Lord Cobham’s estate at Stowe, Brown started work on creating an ideal valley, through which Cobham’s visitors could walk and imagine themselves as the poets of Classical antiquity. Excavating approximately 24,000 cubic yards of earth, Brown’s male and female labourers were creating landscape on the largest scale.

Brown’s long career, stretching for the next forty-two years until his death in 1783, is significant for a huge range of factors. Most importantly he codified the idea of the ‘natural’ in landscape design. The new exhibition at Compton Verney, celebrating Brown’s work there for the 14th Baron Willoughby de Broke from 1768, efficiently captures his style.

Compton Verney, viewed across Brown’s Lake

Compton Verney, viewed across Brown’s Lake (Oliver Cox)

Brown’s landscapes were typically simple, uncluttered and restrained, generally comprising sweeping pasture bordered with tree clumps, perimeter shelter-belts and screens of trees. He swept away the formal parterres and the classically-inspired allusions of the previous age, but also planted thousands of trees – predominantly oak, ash and elm. The resultant landscape was perfectly designed to encourage those 18th-century pursuits of hunting, shooting and carriage-riding.

In 2016, Brown’s image of England – appearing at the beginning of every episode of Downton Abbey thanks to his work at Highclere Castle – has achieved an unprecedented global reach.

– Oliver Cox