chapter  11
51 Pages

Borrowing, copying and collecting

In the eighteenth century the pleasures excited by art and literature were celebrated in the intimate language we today more usually associate with describing people’s relations to their family and friends. Favourite works of literature were ‘companions’ and ‘friends’, a journal was ‘a conversation’ with oneself. Addison’s man of taste ‘can converse with a picture, and find an agreeable companion in a Statue’. Jonathan Richardson argued that ‘By conversing with the Works of the Best Masters our Imaginations are impregnated with Great, and Beautiful Images.’ An ‘amateur’ was someone who loved art. The relationship was at once unashamedly aesthetic, deeply personal and politely sociable. As English culture expanded so intimacy came under increasing pressure. The

sheer quantity of information, the number of publications to read, pictures to see and performances to attend – not to mention the critical commentary that surrounded them – put a strain on the ideal of the refined person, well versed in the arts and imaginative literature and their most fashionable manifestations. Though this tension could not destroy the closeness that a person of taste felt for individual works of art, the realms in which one shared one’s pleasures had become so extensive that one could only know a few of them. Comprehensive knowledge seemed to be impossible, for the farther a person of taste explored, the more distant he became from the intimacy he desired. As William Oldys, the antiquarian, biographer, compiler and collector of miscellaneous information, complained:

The vast Number of Books which the Pen and Press have produced, has made all Lovers of Literature desirous of knowing by some compendious Methods, what has been written in the several Sciences to which they have appropriated their Studies: And this Desire grows more importunate, as the Difficulty encreases of satisfying it; the Works of the Learned multiplying so much beyond the Accounts that are given of them.