On 9 April 1792 Anna Margaretta Larpent rose at 7.30, a little earlier than her usual hour, ‘spent some time’, as she described it, ‘in self-examination’, and then read two chapters of that blistering critique of the British constitution, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, before sitting down to breakfast. During the morning she tutored her two teenage sons, John and George, who were on holiday from their school in Cheam. In a ritual that was to be repeated throughout the holidays, she and John read passages from an instructive and improving work, Sarah Trimmer’s Sacred History, a didactic anthology from the Scriptures written by a best-selling evangelical and advocate of Sunday schools. She taught George to spell, read and learn Latin. After their morning exercises all three left their house in Newman Street, in the West

End of London, to see the kangaroo on exhibit from Botany Bay. It was, wrote Larpent, ‘like a Hare, with hind legs of immense length[,] the front feet more like paws. It vaults six or eight feet high and gowes awkwardly in a Slower motion on the joint of the hind legs. It feeds on hay, is of a horse colour, its lower tooth broad, & with the power of opening or rather cleavering it in two. The meat of some shot by convicts like lean beef.’ After admiring this curiosity, the family proceeded to the Polygraphic Exhibition in Schomberg House on Pall Mall. Here they saw a display of a number of mechanical reproductions of oil paintings manufactured by the portrait painter and theatrical manager Joseph Booth. Anna Larpent and her husband sat down to dinner at about three o’clock. Then they both went to the Covent Garden Theatre to see Thomas Holcroft’s sentimental comedy The Road to Ruin, together with an afterpiece, Oscar and Malvina, which Larpent dismissed as an inconsequential but entertaining mess: ‘A Pantomimicall Jumble of Barbarous Customs, modern Nonsense the Music Scottish. Very pretty. the Pipes and Horn very pleasing & characteristic.’ This particular day, devoted to reading, instruction, natural history, art and the theatre,

was typical of Anna Larpent’s life in London. In the month of April 1792 in addition to Paine’s Rights of Man Larpent read Richardson’s Clarissa for the second time – ‘the stile is prolix, the manners obsolete, & I felt and fidgetted at the repetitions not being 15, yet surely it is wonderfully wrought’; the conservative monthly digest of new books, the Critical Review; a Goldoni play, probably in the original Italian, a language she knew well; Smellie’s Philosophy of Nature, which she considered poorly organized but of sufficient value to transcribe extracts for her children; a novel by Thomas Holcroft, Anna St Ives, dismissed as ‘sad stuff I cannot read on’; her father’s manuscript memoirs; and a new opera, Just in Time. She also visited an exhibition of Ozias Humphry’s ‘crayon pictures’, took in an opera, saw Sarah Siddons as Lady Randolph in Home’s tragedy Douglas – ‘I never was

more painfully delighted. Douglas is a charming Poem in itself – such admirable simplicity yet such classical taste – such beautiful description – & so well acted’ – attended a concert at Mrs Beaver’s, and listened while her husband and stepson read aloud to her from the newspapers and Sutherland’s Tour to Constantinople. Anna Larpent personified a cultured lady of late eighteenth-century London. She was

not an aristocrat but neither was she poor. Though she was busy with household duties and the education of her children, like many other moderately prosperous women (the family income was more than £400 a year) she had enough time and leisure to enjoy many of the metropolis’s cultural activities. But she did not view her recreations frivolously. She aspired to what she called ‘a refinement which can only be felt in the pure pleasure of intellectual pursuits’. The proof of this quest, the evidence that her frequent play-and concert-going, together with her assiduous reading, were edifying rather than amusing, is to be found in her journal (Figure 2.1). The seventeen volumes that survive, covering the years 1773-1828, contain not only a detailed chronicle of her activities but also a carefully and repeatedly drawn representation of herself as a cultured person. Though she certainly saw herself in other ways – as a Christian, a friend, a mother and a wife – her overriding concern in the diary was with her fashioning of a refined persona. Her version of the good life is one devoted to self-improvement through literature, the arts and learning. Anna Larpent had an unusual background. She had been born in 1758 in Turkey. Her

mother was a foreign diplomat’s daughter, fluent in several languages, while her father, Sir James Porter, was a self-made man of no formal education who nevertheless learned mathematics, Latin, French and Italian, wrote a much-praised History of Turkey, became a fellow of the Royal Society, and passed on to his daughter a passion for self-improvement. After the family’s return to England and the death of her two parents, Anna Porter married in 1782 a much older man, a widower named John Larpent, the son of a chief clerk in the Foreign Office, who held the post of Chief Inspector of Plays in the Office of the Lord Chamberlain. His task was to read and, where necessary, to censor the manuscript texts of all theatrical dramas before they were performed on the London stage. He was the last surviving censor in a country that otherwise enjoyed freedom of the press. He was aided in his duties by his wife, who had strong views on theatrical propriety. She was therefore able, in her own way, to shape dramas offered to the public. We know, for example, that Schiller’s Die Räuber, translated into English as The Robbers in 1792, was first banned and then radically rewritten in order to conform to the Larpents’ ideas of ‘safe’ drama. Anna Larpent’s social acquaintance was primarily with middle-to high-ranking public

servants and diplomats. Her father’s best friend, George Lewis Scott, who became her guardian after James Porter’s death, was a diplomat’s son, a brilliant amateur mathematician who had tutored George III before his accession to the throne. She was close to Joseph Planta, the Swiss diplomat who became keeper of manuscripts in the British Museum. Other friends included David Solander, a Swedish protégé of Linnaeus, who was also a keeper at the British Museum and who, like Reinhold and George Forster, had accompanied James Cook to the South Seas; Pasquale Paoli, the Corsican leader who was in exile in London; and the Vannecks, a rich London merchant family of Dutch descent. She had some acquaintance with aristocrats, particularly with the Bathurst family and the patrons of John Gay, the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry. (In 1777 she went to see Gay’s sequel to The Beggar’s Opera, Polly, with the aged duchess, reporting that ‘She heard it

with delight. She sang all the airs after the Actors – she told me a story about every song – how Gay wrote it such a night after supper at Amesbury, how he wanted a Rime, how she helped him out &c &c.’) But most of her friends were merely genteel. Yet what really mattered to her was intelligence. As she said about her friend the painter Allan Ramsay, she ‘liked the society generally of very clever people’. As Anna Larpent’s journal makes clear, attending a concert or visiting an exhibition

had ceased to be a special, isolated event, but was part of a cultural repertoire that shaped everyday life. With the gradual profusion of Georgian assembly rooms, plays, picture galleries, libraries, museums and pleasure gardens a full range of cultural resources was now available for those who wished to be refined. This growing public provision of culture was paralleled by a concern, explicitly reiterated in Anna Larpent’s diary, for private cultivation: the acquisition of such accomplishments as writing, drawing, playing music

and the development of good taste. These were the two contexts – one public, the other private, yet intertwined – for the emergence of a new identity as a public person of taste and refinement. As a young woman, Anna Larpent attended public assemblies, masquerades and balls at

Almack’s Assembly Rooms and at the Pantheon, the vast auditorium opened on Oxford Street in 1771. She was a frequent visitor to Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens near the Chelsea Hospital, spending six summer evenings taking tea, promenading and listening to the orchestra there in 1778, for example. Throughout her life she regularly attended the two main London theatres at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, visited the opera at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket or at the Pantheon, and subscribed to subscription concerts, supporting three different series in the 1790s. She almost never missed the annual Royal Academy painting exhibitions in Pall Mall and Somerset House, and usually returned to them several times. She was a habituée of the Shakespeare Gallery in Pall Mall, where John Boydell displayed paintings by British artists on subjects from Shakespeare’s plays, and a frequent visitor to the Poets’ Gallery in Fleet Street, which contained paintings based on the most famous lines of British verse. If Anna Larpent had sought such pleasures 100 years earlier, her choice would have

been much more limited. Though the number of theatres did not increase during the century – except for a brief period in the 1730s when government control of them was challenged – the number of seats grew. In the late seventeenth century there were two royal patent theatres, Drury Lane and Dorset Garden, but only one of them was active between 1682 and 1695; both were intimate places with a capacity of about 400, designed to accommodate an audience of courtiers and their friends. By the 1730s the largest theatres – the King’s in the Haymarket, devoted to opera, and the Covent Garden Theatre, which John Rich had built on the proceeds of the success of The Beggar’s Opera – could each hold 1,400. But these auditoria were dwarfed by the theatres newly built at the end of the century. New Covent Garden, described by Larpent as ‘much improved, commodious. light. Elegant. Chearful. The Boxes and Galleries so contrived that there are no pillars to obstruct the view – it forms an amphitheatre in tiers’, had a capacity of 2,500. The new Drury Lane was even bigger, holding 3,600 (Figures 2.2 and 2.3). Similarly, the music rooms visited by Larpent were much larger than earlier in the

century. Musical life in 1700 was dominated by two concert halls – Hickford’s Rooms in Panton Street and York Buildings off the Strand – and by three subscription concert series. In the 1720s and 1730s the enlargement of Hickford’s Rooms, the foundation of the Academy of Ancient Music devoted to the performance of Byrd, Palestrina, Tallis and Purcell as well as some contemporary composers, and the establishment of outdoor orchestras in London pleasure gardens were signs of musical vigour, but it was not until George III’s reign that large houses were opened. The first performances at the Pantheon on Oxford Street – described by the musical historian Charles Burney as ‘the most elegant structure in Europe, if not on the globe’ (he was not a disinterested party, being one of the Pantheon’s investors) – were held in 1771 (Figure 2.4). Four years later the Hanover Square Rooms, which were able to seat more than 900 listeners, began its illustrious career as the most important London music hall. From the 1760s, when the German composers Johann Christian Bach and Carl Abel began them, a succession of professional concert series drew to London well-known musicians from all over Europe, including Haydn and Mozart. By the end of the century the city offered opera, choral and

instrumental concerts of both professionals and amateurs, as well as music performed as part of the programme of London theatres. It was possible to attend a major musical event every night of the week. The Public Advertiser for 7 January 1791 informed its readers of opera performances on Tuesday and Saturday, a professional concert at Hanover Square on Monday, the Concert of Antient Music in Tottenham Street on Wednesday, and further performances at the Pantheon on Thursday and by Haydn on Friday. It was even possible to hear music on Sundays, when public entertainments were banned, by attending a nobleman’s private subscription concert. The Handel festivals, begun in London in 1784 on what was believed to be the 100th anniversary of his birth, and later copied in the provinces, created a new sort of musical spectacle which brought together amateurs and professionals, provincials and Londoners, huge orchestras, large choirs and big audiences, making music not only fashionable but stirringly patriotic (Figure 2.5). A similar transformation occurred in the visual arts. In 1700 paintings were displayed in

auction rooms and coffee houses before they were sold, a few artists’ studios contained pictures designed to show off their owners’ taste, and it was possible to visit one or two private aristocratic collections, if one could secure an introduction. But there were no exhibits of art open to the general public. Apart from the pictures in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and the grander paintings that Hogarth and his fellow artists donated for public display at the London Foundling Hospital, there was little public art before the establishment of exhibiting societies and the Royal Academy in the 1760s. The success of these public shows, especially after the opening of the Royal Academy’s rooms in Somerset House, prompted a spate of commercial projects, including Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, Macklin’s Poets’ Gallery and Henry Fuseli’s Milton Gallery, all of which displayed

paintings and sold prints illustrating the greatest works of English literature. In these same years picture-going became fashionable, the newspapers carried extensive reviews of the exhibits, and individual artists organized their own exhibitions. In 1780, the year that Somerset House opened to the public, Anna Larpent visited the Royal Academy exhibition twice in its opening few weeks, as well as attending three other art exhibits, including one devoted to her favourite painter, Angelika Kauffmann. Like many of her contemporaries, Larpent also made occasional visits to London’s

pleasure gardens. She preferred the sober and respectable venue of Ranelagh to the livelier but more popular atmosphere at Vauxhall, which she described as ‘a most disagreeable place’ after her first visit there in 1780. But she would not have visited such gardens at all earlier in the century. Before the 1730s pleasure gardens were regarded as dangerous, disreputable and therefore unfashionable. Loitering and lurching young bucks, boisterous after a hard night’s drinking, young ladies of the town seeking customers in the garden’s shades, alleys and arbours: those who frequented pleasure gardens were neither polite nor respectable. Yet over the decades this changed. A succession of entrepreneurs, of whom the most famous was the proprietor of Vauxhall, Jonathan Tyers, began to offer genteel entertainments and to purge the gardens of undesirable elements (Figure 2.6). They built orchestras and organs, hired musicians, opened places to eat and to sit, and commissioned sculptors and artists to shape a pleasant but edifying environment (Figures 2.7 and 2.8). Tyers’s success spawned imitators. New gardens opened at

Marylebone in 1737-38 (Figure 2.9), and in 1742 the epitome of the fashionable garden opened in Chelsea at Ranelagh. These were the most famous of the many pleasure gardens that ringed London’s suburbs. In Spa Fields, Sadler’s and Bagnigge Wells, Bermondsey, Chelsea and Lambeth, at Cuper’s Gardens and even in low-life Wapping, proprietors offered orchestras and vocalists, picture galleries, illuminated transparencies and fireworks, sculpture and jugglers, dancing and equestrian performances (Figure 2.10). Ranelagh was the most expensive – admission was 2/6d., more than double Vauxhall’s fee – and claimed to be more exclusive. Its garden was dominated by a vast rotunda whose interior was ringed with fifty-two boxes (Figure 2.11). An orchestra and organist played music while fashionable men and women promenaded round the floor. Regular concerts were held in the summer – Mozart performed there on the harpsichord and organ on 24 June 1764 – and in the 1790s it was the site of several fashionable masquerades. The pleasure garden, though its proprietors did not always succeed in ensuring the respectability that they so ardently wanted, remained an essential part of London’s fashionable year until well into the nineteenth century. The theatres and concert halls of the West End, the artists’ studios in Covent Garden,

the picture galleries on Pall Mall, the exhibitions at Somerset House and the pleasure gardens of London’s suburbs became part of an established itinerary of cultural pleasures, creating the expectation that a person of refinement and fashion would be acquainted with them all. When the Southampton bookseller Thomas Baker produced a gentleman’s appointment book, A Royal Engagement Pocket Atlas, in the 1780s, its frontispiece of engagements referred to Almack’s and Vauxhall Gardens, while its endpiece had a putto, female

figure and satyr together holding a scroll marked ‘Masquerade Pantheon Ranelagh Ridotto Coterie Opera Festina Bootles Fete Champet [sic] Play’ (Figure 2.12). Such places and activities, the diary implied, were an essential part of the social calendar. As we have seen, the authors of guidebooks and the engravers of pictures helped to

shape the notion that cultural life in London consisted of a series of connected activities – theatre-going and exhibition-visiting, listening to concerts and reading literature – that comprised fashionable life. But this sentiment was also repeatedly expressed in private diaries and journals. In the diaries of London residents such as the novelist Frances Burney and Johnson’s friend Hester Thrale, the journals of provincial gentlemen like the Chichester composer John Marsh, the ebullient record of the Scot James Boswell, the daily jottings of foreigners like the American merchant Samuel Curwen, exiled in London between 1775 and 1784, and the young German novelist Sophie von la Roche, who visited England in the 1780s, and even in the ungrammatical and poorly written account of a farmer like John Yeoman we find the same itinerary repeated: Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres, a trip to Ranelagh or Vauxhall during the summer, attendance at the Royal Academy and other picture shows, visits to coffee houses, a tour

of the British Museum, the occasional concert and forays to circulating libraries and booksellers. Naturally, the private journals reflect the predilections of their authors. Larpent had

a professional interest in the theatre, Marsh preferred concerts, Curwen liked to attend lectures on science and aesthetics, Sophie von la Roche loved pictures and shopping, while John Yeoman sought out catch and glee clubs where he could join in the singing. Yet they all shared a sense that they had embarked on a voyage of discovery which was plotted by the same landmarks of metropolitan culture. Neither the diaries nor the guides and prints treated cultural activities in isolation. On the one hand they were part of a larger itinerary which included London’s great sites – its palaces, private houses and public buildings; on the other, they were part of the London season, the occasion on which the fashionable world was on public display. At the theatre, in the pleasure garden, the exhibition room, the assembly room, even the lecture hall and the rooms of certain learned societies audiences made publicly visible their wealth, status, social and sexual charms. (This was one of their sources of attraction for the tourist.) The ostensible reason for a person’s presence – seeing the play, attending an auction, visiting an artist’s studio, listening to a concert – was often subordinate to a more powerful set of social imperatives. The audiences were not passive but incorporated culture as part of their own social performance. As the Theatrical

Monitor of 1768 complained, ‘During the time of the representation of a play, the quality in the boxes are totally employed in finding out, and beckoning to their acquaintances, male and female; they criticize on fashions, whisper cross the benches, make significant nods, and give hints of this and that, and t’other body.’ Cultural performances were deeply implicated in the flamboyantly hedonistic life of

fashionable society. Linked in a social calendar that included balls and masquerades, gambling for high stakes and the tittle-tattle of polite conversation, they were the occasion for courtship, seduction and the pleasures of the flesh (Figure 2.13). As Anna Larpent wrote in her journal after an evening at the Pantheon in the spring of 1774, ‘There is an emptiness, a lightness in all public places which I dislike, & which too, I dread liking since methinks it must warp the soul take it from nobler pursuits, from the contemplation of my God, my Duty.’ Larpent’s diary is full of such sentiments. Even as she followed the social round, she

complained about its ‘hurry, dissipation, nonsense’. ‘I wonder’, she wrote, ‘at the mad multitude who hunt London dissipation … How horrid is the life of (too many) people of fashion, one might imagine they forgot they had souls.’ Yet this did not prevent her from

pursuing these pleasures: ‘I was at two balls in a week concerts & dissipation in proportion a surfeit.’ On a summer visit to the country she reflected on the contrast between rural tranquillity and the fevered activity of London: ‘In town I find a hurry affecting my spirits, an assemblage of frequently disgusting vain, circumstances that may lead to vanity to error fatigue interruption.’ These criticisms were the clichés of the day, echoed in the journals of other young

women launched on the tide of the London season. They belong to the long litany of complaint about theatre-and concert-going, assemblies and masquerades, pleasure gardens and public exhibitions. These pursuits could be justified (some more easily than others), but it was by no means obvious that they were virtuous and uplifting. They needed to be defended, to be legitimized not only in the eyes of outsiders but, as Anna Larpent’s journal shows, by their audiences. Though some were deeply pious Christians who shunned public entertainments, and some libertines who dreamed only of pleasure, most of polite society fell somewhere in between. They were like Larpent, attending both masquerades and sermons. The criticism of refined pleasures and the anxiety of play-and concert-goers like Anna

Larpent shaped the debate about English culture throughout the century. Commercialized culture had repeatedly to be defended against several accusations, not least that polite amusements provided a fig leaf of respectability to cover the naked pursuit of what the critic Bernard Mandeville called ‘Lust and Vanity’, and that such dissipation produced an effeminate people ‘ensoftened by Pleasure, Vice and Prodigality’. Culture was too luxurious, too effeminate and too foreign. We need to examine these accusations in more detail, not least because only then can we appreciate how cultural pursuits were praised and defended. In 1761 Thomas Cole, a preacher at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, a church within a

stone’s throw of two theatres and many more brothels, published a series of sermons against ‘Luxury, Infidelity and Enthusiasm’. He began with a tirade against fashionable London life:

An ostentatious extravagance is continually displaying itself in every part of this voluptuous city, and amongst all ranks and conditions of men. An emulous endeavour to outvie each other in the elegant accommodations of life, seems to be, not only the ruling ambition of a few, but the main ambition of a vast majority; the characteristick, and almost universal passion of the age. There is scarce any one, but seems to be ashamed, as it were, of living within the compass of his own proper sphere, be it either great or small.