Book Review: British Romanticism and the Reception of Italian Old Master Art 1793-1840

British Romanticism and the Reception of Italian Old Master Art, 1793-1840Maureen McCue
British Romanticism and the Reception of Italian Old Master Art 1793-1840
Farnham, UK/ Burlington VT: Ashgate, November 2014.
204 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4094-6832-5

How does one study the reception of art work? As we know from the work of Caroline Burdett (19 (2011) and others, in the early part of the twentieth century Vernon Lee scrutinised and recorded the physical responses to paintings of her lover Kit Anstruther-Thomson: a direct scrutiny of scrutiny’s effects that Lee then translated into words. Starting from this empirical position, Lee claimed in her 1912 Beauty and Ugliness that memories and associations caused unconscious changes in posture and breathing: the “reception” she sought to systematise and map was a bodily one. It scandalised contemporaries – the New York Times review is now notorious – but if the horrified critics of 1912 had been able to read Maureen McCue’s well-written study of how some of the major Romantics reacted to Italian Old Masters, they would have been able to appreciate how Lee’s emphasis on the physical had a very respectable genealogy in canonical poets and prose writers of the Romantic period.

Comprising four chapters with a substantial Introduction and a brief recapitulatory Conclusion, British Romanticism and the Reception of Italian Old Master Art 1793-1840 covers the tensions involved in appreciating Italian art from the early Renaissance and afterwards from the perspective of the mainly male educated middle classes in the first decades of the nineteenth century (“Old Masters” McCue helpfully defines as paintings from Giotto to Guido Reni). The volume also deals with the changing nature of the arbiters as well as the rules of taste, the effect of Old Masters on literary texts, especially by Shelley, Byron and Hazlitt, and above all on the poem Italy (1822 and revised substantially in 1830) by the fascinating and influential Dissenting banker and poet, Samuel Rogers, to which an entire chapter is devoted. Other authors several times referred to but quite briefly discussed include Mary Shelley, Madame de Staël, Lessing, Hazlitt’s contemporary the art critic P.G. Patmore, Anna Jameson, Lady Morgan, William Roscoe and Wordsworth. Much more unexpectedly, Pierce Egan the Elder, the author of the racy Life in London, receives a few interesting pages too.

The Venus de Medici, which provoked strng repsonses from Byron and Hazlitt, ina  Russian copy "Venus medici pushkin" by user:shakko (Own work). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
The Venus de Medici, which provoked strong responses from Byron and Hazlitt, in a Russian copy “Venus medici Pushkin”. Photo by user:shakko (Own work). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

McCue begins by anchoring the well-known idea that Italy came to be regarded as “a land of the imagination … a country which has all but become a work of art in itself” (p. 1) in the wake of the Napoleonic wars. England began to see itself as the protector of Italy and of its art treasures in the face of Napoleon’s depredations. The import of Italian art into London, which was considerable, could at this point be justified as an act of curatorship. Such raiding could also be sanctioned by acts of appreciation – of newly refined forms of perception as described and recommended by literary texts – and it is these latter that McCue is mostly concerned with. Her description of Hazlitt’s stress on “gusto” – the body’s response to an art work – prefigures Vernon Lee’s, though one need hardly look for a single point of origin, as Hazlitt’s focus on corporeal reaction was by no means unique. It also had, as McCue reminds us in her first chapter, a political dimension. For the aristocratic Grand Tourist in the eighteenth century, art had had a grand moral lesson that required a considerable education to appreciate: he needed to know both “the mechanical aspects of art, such as perspective and composition” (p. 27) and the usually Biblical or classical narrative subject matter. The approach was in other words resolutely intellectual. Attending to art’s direct effects on the body on the other hand had a decidedly political edge, for by moving the spotlight from the intellect to the body a role was given in aesthetic appreciation to those without the specialist education of the aristocrat. All the responder needed to do was verbalise as imaginatively as possible his or her feelings aroused by the art work. Art, in other words was, at least in theory, democratised.

That McCue does not entirely fall for this oversimplification (after all, Hazlitt did think one needed to be of unusual sensibility properly to appreciate art)  is one of the instructive pleasures of this volume. Instead, McCue foregrounds the commercial, religious and cultural interests that always inflect perception when it is filtered through words.
Although McCue devotes by far the greater number of words to male writers, the question of women’s perception of art is also raised at several points (the most sustained passage comprising a discussion of Anna Jameson’s Diary of an Ennuyée on pp. 72-76). This focus on men is a pity in these days of renewed attention to women’s writing. One looks in vain for discussion of L.E.L’s Improvisatrice or Hemans’ “Restoration of Works of Art to Italy” or “Properzia Rossi for example.

In any study of reception one must have a very clear idea of who is doing the receiving where, when and how. McCue’s study is split on this notion of the specificity of response in ways typical of older literary history. On the one hand she is very precise in that she assiduously employs the citational apparatus we were all taught as undergraduates, focussing on authors rather than publishers or periodicals. In this system we are told who wrote the words and when the volume in which the researcher found them was published. Attention to the actual material forms through which the reception of Old Masters was disseminated in the Romantic period would, however, have revealed some surprises.

John Hill, Exhibition Room, Somerset House, from Ackerman, The Microcosm of London, 1808
John Hill, Exhibition Room, Somerset House, from Ackerman, The Microcosm of London, 1808

First of all, despite titling her volume “British Romanticism”, Britain turns out to mean “England”. There is no differentiation between Scotland and England (and certainly not Wales or Ireland). In fact, what “British” means predominantly is London, for it was there that all of the primary texts that McCue discusses were published. There is no reference to material published in newspapers or periodicals outside London, not even to that alternative centre of early-nineteenth-century periodical culture, Edinburgh. McCue does seem aware of this at times, but the metropolitan orientation of the volume could have been made more explicit, not necessarily in the title, but in the Introduction (which is in many other ways excellent).

The trouble is that while McCue several times claims she is alive to the importance of the “periodical press” and “print culture”, she doesn’t follow this through. The index lists 29 occurrences of these two terms but, alas, what the page numbers in the index refer to are just occurrences rather than discussions or methodological procedures. In short, “periodicals” and “print culture” are gestured towards. They are not ways of thinking about material that are truly activated (see for example the description of annuals on pages 133-4 derived from a secondary source rather than perusal of the texts themselves). In order to understand the who, what, where and why of reception, I should have liked so much to know, for instance, exactly where and when the Hazlitt essays repeatedly quoted were originally published, and what the significance of those places of publication were. We may be told that Hazlitt’s Sketches of the Principal Picture Galleries in England (1824) were originally published in the London Magazine and the New Monthly over 1822-1823 (see p. 85), but nothing is made of the different and overlapping readerships of those periodicals. The bibliography indeed only lists Howe’s Complete Works of William Hazlitt in 21 volumes.

McCue is well aware that the art periodical was just forming in the period the book covers. Yet detailed examination of that early art press would have added considerably to her argument, and not least helped to specify the audience that was being affected by the new ways of seeing that her volume so ably describes. If Charles Taylor’s Artist’s Repository and Drawing Magazine (1785–95), only just falls within its historical purview, the volume could have considered the Artist (1807–09), the Annals of the Fine Arts (1816–20 – this gets the briefest mention), the Magazine of the Fine Arts (1821) or the Library of the Fine Arts (1831–34). The hugely influential Rudolph Ackermann is referred to in passing twice, but careful perusal of his lavishly illustrated and beautifully printed Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions, Manufactures, &c (1809–29) would have helped a good deal in specifying the audience for, say, Rogers’s Italy (see the discussion of it in Ackermann’s Repository, 1 August 1828, pp. 94-97 – a volume available online). Attention to pricing, distribution and circulation of such materials might have contributed to the avoidance of vague terms such as a “significantly wider public” for art (p. 130). For where did this public live? What else did it read? What was its demographic profile? The problem lies perhaps in the restricted secondary material consulted on romantic and nineteenth-century periodicals. The important work of Parker, Stewart, Simonson and Higgins are cited, it is true, but it is a pity that their subtle thinking about periodicals and print culture is not really mobilised.

A final point which situates my own response to this volume as that of a periodicals specialist in 2015 who has access to fast broadband and to major electronic resources which to most lie behind hefty paywalls: there is little visible use in the volume of online resources beyond a few bibliographical references to Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. There is no sign at all of the several methodologies that Digital Humanities have alerted us to over the past few years, such as quantitative distant reading or data visualisation (all of which, when used judiciously, can help gauge and specify who may be receiving what, when, where and how). This to me is a great pity, as such methodologies seem to point to one of the futures of reception studies. Claims to representing an entire culture, such as Britain 1793-1840, based on a few texts by authors who are on the whole institutionally sanctioned (or at least recognised), a procedure that we can trace back to the Enlightenment, is becoming increasingly untenable.

If the previous paragraphs sound very critical, they are only meant to identify my situation vis-à-vis the volume more precisely, and as a result my reception of it. If one accepts the validity of the book’s methodological procedures – those of a largely pre-digital and traditional literary study of how encounters with Italian Old Master Art by mainly well-known authors were translated into words – I happily affirm that this is, without doubt, an eminently readable, well-argued and fine example, replete with aperçus useful for anyone interested in romantic period aesthetics. To that extent, I recommend it. Unfairly, I know, I clench my fists, frown and bite my lip for it to be more, since I feel it could have been. Vernon Lee would no doubt have a field day if she could scrutinise me now. More importantly, though, let’s see where McCue takes us in future.

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Andrew King

Andrew King is Professor of English Literature and Literary Studies at the University of Greenwich. He has always been interested in how and why certain texts are kept for posterity and others disappear. His first degree was in classical and medieval Latin, and he has MAs in Medieval Studies and English. He completed his PhD in English at Birkbeck, supervised by Laurel Brake. He taught for many years at Universities overseas, though immediately before he came to Greenwich in May 2012, taught at Canterbury Christ Church University. His official profile can be found at

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