THE EDINBURGH COMPANION TO ROMANTICISM AND THE ARTS by Maureen McCue and Sophie Thomas, eds., Reviewed by William Galperin

Eds. Maureen McCue and Sophie Thomas
(Edinburgh, 2023) xx + 548 pp.
Reviewed by William Galperin on 2023-05-19.

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A key question posed by this collection springs from its title. Romanticism and the Arts seems to promise a decidedly big tent, covering geographies and genres from eighteenth-century Germany as well as pre- and post-Revolutionary France along with Britain and other European sites, to say nothing of the Americas or of the various modes that the Romantic "Arts" can denote. It is perplexing to find, then, that this book turns out to examine almost none of these topics, but instead considers a Romanticism, or rather a period, that is strictly British without saying so up front.

Of course this way of defining Romanticism and the arts is not that perplexing. When we refer to the "arts," we think primarily of the visual arts. And when those of us in the humanities, and in literature especially, think of "Romanticism," we think mostly of British Romanticism because that's where Romanticism rose to prestige as a "period" defined less by its range of production than by a coterie of poets and poetry that became a division of knowledge unto itself, thanks to the fashions of literary history and the hegemony of English as a "discipline of disciplines" in the twentieth century. Nevertheless, it is hard to see just what kind of Romanticism grounds this book. Although institutionally based on a Romanticism whose correlate is consciousness or imagination or even revolution, this Romanticism is so submerged in a welter of historicism that it has no explanatory value apart from designating an interval best defined as Georgian/Regency-period Britain.

The contributors also sense this, responsibly referring to an artifact or a figure as "Romantic-era" before eventually dropping the "era" in compliance with the title's categorical imperative. These pages certainly provide a wealth of information about what Jonah Siegel calls "the culture of art" during the years in which Wordsworth and Coleridge lived and wrote. But the intersections of visual culture with anything distinctly "Romantic" are remarkably few. This is true not just of the canonical Romantics, whose bearing on visual culture (apart from their being caricatured) is arguably secondary, but also of William Blake, who pops up briefly here as an avatar of hearing (rather than seeing) and later as a precursor to graphic writing in the present. The volume also gives short shrift to certain visual artists who can be linked to either the moment or the movement. Turner shows up not as a visionary painter but as an illustrator of Walter Scott, and there is very little mention of John Constable, Benjamin Robert Haydon, or John Martin.

There is another way, of course, to look at all of this and it issues, again, from the particular kind of historicism and interdisciplinarity (the "history" of this or that) that the Companion throws a bear hug around. One may argue that the received sense of British Romanticism, on which so much has depended, demarcates a relatively small section of the "changing cultural landscape of the Romantic period" (3) so that Romanticism's privilege may owe less to the fact that "the ideologies of Romanticism exerted an increasingly dominant influence during that time" (as Jerome McGann once opined) than to the fact that the Romantics, by critical and institutional fiat, ended up on the winning side of history. The Companion, suffice it to say, is reticent on this matter for reasons I've already outlined. It chiefly considers how change during this period--a Romantic commonplace--"played out in the realm of the visual arts, and was mediated in contemporary print culture" (2). Still, the historical and materialist approach, especially regarding print and book history, is far from innocent and sternly reminds us (to quote McGann again) that "not every artistic production in the Romantic period is a Romantic one" (The Romantic Ideology [1983],19). Things are especially interesting, then, when materialism and Romanticism are kept in dialogue and when history (as it were) coexists with the philosophic and theoretical legacy of Romanticism, then and now.

Peter Otto's discussion of illusory spectacles, which reprises and consolidates his longer study of these displays in Multiplying Worlds (2011), is exemplary in showing how popular public entertainments such as the Panorama, the Diorama, and the Eidophusikon are quintessentially Romantic in their grasp or recognition of "a rapidly changing world where real, actual, and virtual realms cannot be disentangled" (287). In reviewing Otto's book, I was troubled by its entanglement of phenomenology and virtuality. However, in the present context (and in retrospect), Otto's exploration of the continuity between Romanticism and technologies of perception works refreshingly well. Something similar occurs at the collection's end, where Hila Shachar treats some screen adaptations of Romantic lives (and afterlives). Using the 2017 biopic Mary Shelley as a fulcrum, she shows how women filmmakers treat the (perennially Romantic) issues of "feminine desire, individuality and subjectivity . . . as at once tied to the domestic, but also alone" (500). This wide-ranging essay stretches from Edmund Burke to Julia Kristeva and Sophia Coppola. But like the recent generative work of Jacques Khalip and Orrin Wang, which is likewise bent on re-animating Romanticism through remediation, the essay works not because it reads the past through the lens of the present but for the opposite reason: because Romantic thinking--or thinking through Romanticism--can be endless.

Most contributors to this volume, however, effectively ignore the grip of British Romanticism, both as a dominant aesthetic/ideology in its time and as a theoretically-shaped discipline in ours. Though many essays foreground change, it is change within the broader context of the two long centuries to which Romanticism has been increasingly annexed. The opening section. "Perspectives." considers how the visual arts and culture fed knowledge of topics ranging from antiquarianism to ethnography and travel. Visual antiquarianism in the period (roughly 1770-1840 in this section) involved not only the "precise documentation" of ancient objects in prints and engravings (a big topic throughout) but also the "imaginative reconstruction" (30) of ancient worlds in larger forms, from stage design to spectacles such as the Panorama. In either case, as Katharina Boehm shows, this "convergence of the visual arts and antiquarian studies" (24) was broadly democratic in wresting the latter from its strictly elite precincts. Equally elite was the European Grand Tour, whose painted vistas became models, as Mary-Ann Constantine explains, for picturesque travel at home and for the appreciation of antiquities and landscapes that were more accessible as well as more interactive, staging "complex engagements with notions of self, society, and the natural world" (60). The visual arts were instrumental, too, in grappling with far-flung peoples and locales. Inhabitants of the indigenous Pacific, Kacie L. Willis shows, could either be assimilated to pictorial conventions closer to home (as in Reynolds's portrait of Omai, shown below) or empowered by Captain Cook to represent themselves and their encounters.

Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Omai. Oil on canvas,
1776. Collection of John Magnier.

Relatedly, as James Watt explains, the broadly construed Orient captivated all levels of society and, for better or for worse, was wholly appropriated.

Turning to pictorial theory, Katie Garner tackles Burke's claim that paintings and other visual images consistently fail to be sublime because their attempts to be terrifying are merely ludicrous. The Gothic, Garner argues, was a "cross-medial" (47) phenomenon. By linking "poetry, prose, drama [and] the visual arts," it portrayed "a world in which identity is threatened and fear is produced" through a persistent "instability of sign and signifier" (54). What Garner describes here (or echoes pace Burke) is a general predicament of language and representation. But the debates and anxieties she tracks through figures such as Hurd, Warton, and Percy are largely eighteenth-century developments and, like so much else in this collection, matters that transect or simply carry on in the period at issue.

The second and largest section, on "Exhibitions, Commerce and Culture," is necessarily wide ranging, both chronologically and socially, since exhibitions in particular signify privilege and ownership even while opening themselves to the public. Between these extremes (and beyond) there's a great deal to ponder. Joan Coutu details the high-end hoarding of the Lancashire gentleman Charles Townley, whose collection was aspirational, competitive, and the "embodiment" of a swaggering nation (127). Alison O'Byrne reconstructs the amalgam of urban planning and cultural refinement that brought the National Gallery to Trafalgar Square in London and a national monument in the style of the Parthenon (proposed but never finished) to Edinburgh. From Charlotte Boyce we also learn that something beyond patriotism was at stake in the mass production of Nelsonania. However readable as kitsch or low-rent nationalism, these artifacts commemorated the Admiral's "scarred and dismembered form" as well as his "non-aristocratic origins and ...identification with ordinary seamen" (152). Romanticism may be too strong or specific a term (although Boyce invokes it here) but Nelson's posthumous affect, like that of Lord Byron, combined many things: "anti-aristocratic critique," "loyalist affirmation" (152), "masculine emotion and fraternal love" (159) and, last but hardly least, heroic self-sacrifice.

Susanna Avery-Quash and Martin Myrone take a longer view in their respective treatments of public art galleries, exhibitions, and the academy that fostered them. Avery-Quash tracks the migration from private to public in the way elite homes (and their collections) were suddenly open to the public and in the establishment, by turns, of permanent public galleries, notably the National Gallery in 1824. Myrone plausibly (and, again, all-too-rarely here) pairs the sudden "flourishing of public shows" (188) with the individual, indeed Romantic, experience of attending them (crowds notwithstanding) and with the "vibrant diversity" of artistic work (192) that the Royal Academy promulgated in contrast to academies elsewhere, such as France. Relieved (for the most part) of any fealty to state or royal traditions, or as it happened any "practical training in architecture, engraving, painting or sculpture" (196), "the most experimental and innovative" (198) artists of the time--Turner, Constable, Fuseli, de Loutherberg--were, unlike their counterparts abroad, legitimate academicians though Turner, it must be noted, became "experimental" by turns.

The Academy also figures significantly in the contributions by Peter Funnell and Heather McPherson. Funnell traces the academy's development under Reynolds's successor, Thomas Lawrence, who was also a portrait painter, and under whose auspices the portrait and the celebrity portrait especially was "by far the dominant genre at RA exhibitions and attracted a considerable number of artists" (204-05). According to Funnell, Byron--the echt celebrity at this moment--was preoccupied "with the way he looked, in terms of his physical appearance and dress" and thus with how he looked in portraits like the famous one by Richard Westall, "regarded as the epitome of the Romantic poet, its melancholic pose intensified by the rock background and stormy sky." According to at least one commentator quoted by Funnell, this portrait was instrumental in "romanticising" the British portrait overall (213-14). The British portrait speaks also, then, to a current of individuality (however celebrated) that would have been worth exploring.

McPherson takes up the influence of the theater on academic painting, which "incorporated elements of costume, gesture, and lighting . . . reminiscent of the stage" (221). Reciprocally, we are told, painters like Fuseli "repeatedly" painted "spectacular dramatic subjects" (222) and de Loutherberg was known for his scenic designs. Nowhere was the affinity between stage and canvas more pronounced than in the theatrical portrait itself, notably those of Sarah Siddons by Reynolds (who portrayed her as the tragic muse) and by his successor Lawrence, who elected to portray her in a more domestic setting. This movement from history and allegory to "private character" (229) says something about art and about the period as a whole, especially after Reynolds. McPherson's point, however, is that this is not a development necessarily from public to private (or from "theatricality," in Michael Fried's formulation, to "absorption") so much as evidence of their coexistence.

James Grande has interesting, if counterintuitive, things to say about William Blake's soundscape. Given all that we know about Blake's version of the "sister arts," Grande's expatiation on the poet's "auditory vision"--with its multiplicity of sounds and melodies from ballads, hymns, and popular music generally--is ear-opening. This essay leads the way to Sarah Zimmerman's reconstruction of the lecture room, where the sensorium figures in the audiovisuality and immersiveness that generally came to characterize the lecture space. Depending on the subject, this space "became even more strikingly multisensory, engaging smell, touch and even taste" (265). All in all, the Romantic-era lecture was uniquely impactful and, in contrast to the "real illusions" discussed by Otto, a true spectacle.

The Companion's third section, "Circulations: Print Culture and the Arts," reflects the continued influence of book history. Jillian Heydt-Stevenson explores the interaction between the Romantic (chiefly Gothic) novel and Romantic-era art, ranging from Radcliffe's incorporation of artistic, specifically Claudean, principles to Scott's deployment of the picturesque. In addition, Heydt-Stevenson explains, many novels featured illustrations as guides to interpretation. But when Elizabeth Lebrun portrayed Madame de Staël as the heroine of her novel Corinne (see below), the author rejected this "interpretation" as too prettified and simplistic.

Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Madame de Staël as Corinne at Cape Miseno
(1807-09). Geneva, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire de la Ville de Genève.

Returning to received Romanticism in his excellent discussion of James Gillray and George Cruikshank, Ian Haywood links caricature--including Gillray's anti-Jacobin salvos--to print culture in the period generally, including radical print. Haywood foregrounds Gillray's "New Morality," a panorama of 1798 that attacks Burke's "atheistical fanaticism" at one extreme and--at the other-- Coleridge, Southey, and Lamb, who are "clustered around the Giant Cornucopia of Ignorance" (318):

James Gillray, New Morality. Etching. Anti-Jacobin Magazine and Review (1798). © The Trustees of the British Museum

Although Gillray aimed to diminish the Romantics as "merely elevated hacks," Haywood finds the print saluting their relevance as artists "within the wider matrix of newspapers, periodicals, novels, pamphlets and polemics" (319). None of this is spectacularly new knowledge. But it challenges those who claim that Romantic writing, however concerned, is marginalized by irrelevance or, worse, vitiated by apostasy. There was apostasy, of course, notably by Robert Southey, who was grist for caricaturists across the political spectrum, especially following his "Vision of Judgement" (describing George's III's entry into heaven), which attacked Byron as satanic and was famously satirized by the latter in a poem of the same title. Byron's "Vision" has long been part of the Romantic canon. But only in retrospect has it drawn the kind of readership promptly achieved by William Hone's sendup of Southey in "New Vision of Judgment" (1821), which was illustrated by George Cruikshank:

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Caricature is about distinctly flat (or flattened) rather than round characters, and illustrations such as Charles Williams's caricature of Byron, "A Noble Poet Scratching up His Ideas" (January 1823, see below),

© The Trustees of the British Museum

take dead aim not only at the Romantic ideology but also at what Romanticism signified over and against the caricaturists' attempt to diminish it. Thus, Haywood's recovery of Romanticism, here and elsewhere, has the backhanded virtue of reestablishing its importance (note: I didn't say centrality) in also marking the challenge that roundness or interiority posed to a world, and to a mode of representation, where everything was necessarily diminished.

Print culture flourished in a variety of forms, from actual prints and printshops, to illustrated magazines and volumes of verse, to illustrations that were clearly influenced by print culture even as they circulated differently. Reflecting on the selling and distribution of prints and engravings, both as reproductions and "art form[s] in [their own right" (337), Maureen McCue highlights two kinds of viewing "publics": those who gathered outside print shop windows (a popular subject for prints), where they could view art at no cost, and those who could afford to venture inside, which qualified them as art lovers. But the boundaries separating these two "publics" were porous, and overall, McCue argues, "the popularity of prints" during this period "speaks to the keen desire for art felt throughout Britain" (353). She quotes Hazlitt: "good prints are. . . better than bad pictures; and prints generally speaking are better than pictures; for we have more prints of good pictures than of bad ones" (qtd. 354). Furthermore, Susan Matthews notes that "luxury editions" of verse, such as Edward Young's Night-Thoughts (with illustrations by Blake) and, more characteristically, Scott's works as illustrated by Turner (which doubled as travel literature), paradoxically served to democratize "elite culture," providing "the greatest possible amount of knowledge . . . in the least possible expense of time" (370).

By contrast, Lady Diana Beauclerk's watercolors accompanying the Faerie Queen were an elite project by a member of the elite even though Beauclerk saw herself as a working professional artist, particularly after her husband's death. The profession of art and elite status were not mutually exclusive; they converge in Reynolds, whom Beauclerk knew along with many other important people such as Gibbon, Burke, Walpole, and Boswell. But for a woman, who could easily be deemed a dabbler, Beauclerk's turn to Spenser and to the figure of Britomart was allegorical in a distinctly personal register. As Laura Engel argues, this move let Beauclerk fashion an "archive" of self and family "within Spenser's world" (387). An even grander allegorical project was undertaken by Angelica Kauffman, a founding member of the Royal Academy. In certain paintings she portrayed herself as "a personified allegory of design" (395) or, as Thora Brylowe elaborates, "as the universal in the particular, the personified embodiment of her profession" (397). Unlike Beauclerk, who was comfortably ensconced at Walpole's Strawberry Hill, Kauffman was a true commercial artist, acutely aware of the opportunities of print and illustrated books, all of which gave new meaning and life to the sister arts.

Subsequent chapters on illustrated magazines and scrapbooks describe the many ways art circulated, particularly in its migration from high art to more commercial representations such as the fashion plates featured in the Lady's Magazine. These plates may have jibed uneasily with the magazine's frontispiece featuring Minerva, but according to Jennie Batchelor, they were meant to discriminate between "fashion for `Fashion's Sake'" and fashion that was "culturally sanctioned" (422). Although the melding wasn't seamless, fashion took its place with the magazine's other content--foreign affairs, botany, physiology and zoology--and with accounts of events such as the trial of Jane Leigh Perrot (Jane Austen's aunt) for shoplifting: accounts which (as I discovered in researching Austen) described exactly what she wore. Another enthusiasm were women's scrapbooks, whose assemblages frequently included illustrations of "hyper-feminine gypsy beggars" (439). These images, notes Susan Matthews, presented a "conflicted fantasy of feminine agency and commodification" insofar as scrap collecting was a form of "mendicity" however ironized. At the same time, Matthews says, the "invitation" to contribute to another's scrapbook--one thinks of Emma's Harriet Smith here--proceeded in a different direction and was "predicated" rather "on an ideal of hospitality and friendliness" expressing female solidarity amid "the associated threat of societal norms" (447).

Alison Chapman provides another take on illustrated poetry in the nineteenth century. Focusing on the Turner-illustrated edition of Samuel Rogers' Italy (an important precursor, in her view, to Victorian illustrated poetry), Chapman argues that, in editions such as this one, where visual "`embellishments' were essential to the book's appeal, . . . reading and viewing become intertwined" (454). Also looking ahead, Jason Whitaker observes that illustrated broadsides like Cruikshank's send up of Byron's self-serving "Fare Thee Well"

George Cruikshank, Fare Thee Well. Etching. Published by J. Johnston, 1816. © The Trustees of the British Museum

(in the wake of his separation from Lady Byron) were "compressed stor[ies]" and "only tangential to what we know as comic books" whereas Blake's illuminated works reflect "the principles of sequential art" that now govern comics and that, to no surprise, are routinely cited and honored in twentieth-century graphic narratives (478-80). Finally, no discussion of Romantic-period anachronism or appropriation would be complete without mention of Regency-era nostalgia as construed through fashion, notably in the cinematic adaptations of Jane Austen. It is not only our present-day fascination with Regency style, however "jumbled," that is at stake here. As Hilary Davidson shows, the Regency period was itself a site of exotic fantasy regarding, among others, the life and dress of personages such as Mary Queen of Scots, whose style was emulated and glamorized in Austen's time. The afterlife of the period we call Romantic turns out, therefore, to have been the life of the Regency moment as well and something of a through-line.

Davidson makes another point, however, that's equally germane, both to her discussion and to the Companion overall. It involves the question or problem of adjacency as illustrated, for example, in the distinction she makes "between upper- and lower-case R 'romantic'":

For my purposes, Romanticism refers to the cultural movement this volume is concerned comprises a concern with nature and the natural, and related emotions in response, but also with the fantastic and the imaginative. This manifested particularly in an interest in times unlike the present day, including antiquarianism, general historicism and the Gothic, as well as the wild . . . represented in myriad forms. The traits `romantic' encompasses here mean the more dilute common usage in the recent century or so. Although still concerned with passion, beauty, imagination, sentiment and a yearning for the past, the focus is more on affection, escapism, idealized love and positive emotions, losing much of the awe, terror and tragedy found in Romantic solitude and the sublime (503).

Although still on board with this volume's claim that it is about Romanticism in a received or recognizable formation ("solitude and the sublime"), Davidson shows that adjacency, in this instance, is not exactly metonymic. The simple substitution of an r for an R, lower-case for upper-case, marks a difference that turns out, in fact, to be considerable.

This also applies to the Companion overall, wherein the "cultural movement" at issue--a compendium of developments in Britain over a long period--is vaster and more various than the "movement" long enshrined in literature departments and anthologies. With its focus now on other matters--the Royal Academy, exhibitions, portraiture, print culture in a myriad of forms (including and especially prints, engravings and cartoons), celebrity, and a women's culture suspended between domesticity and Tory feminism, etc.--the Companion potently reminds us that culture moves in ways and by turns that are not always self-legitimating, whether that "self" is the "sublime" one in texts ranging from The Prelude to Frankenstein, or ourselves and our protocols for understanding art as a personal and social manifestation. By playing along with British Romanticism, then--rather than against it (frequently in the guise of interdisciplinarity), the editors and a fair a number of the contributors have missed a key opportunity to say something--and to say it explicitly--that's been long overdue.

William Galperin is Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers University.