Dan Jones

A society celebrating itself

The years between the middle of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th century, argues Holger Hoock, ‘saw Britain evolve from a substantial international power yet relative artistic backwater into a global naval, commercial and imperial superpower as well as a leading cultural power in Europe.

The years between the middle of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th century, argues Holger Hoock, ‘saw Britain evolve from a substantial international power yet relative artistic backwater into a global naval, commercial and imperial superpower as well as a leading cultural power in Europe.

The years between the middle of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th century, argues Holger Hoock, ‘saw Britain evolve from a substantial international power yet relative artistic backwater into a global naval, commercial and imperial superpower as well as a leading cultural power in Europe. These developments … were not unrelated.’

Wowsers. That’s one heck of an assertion, and it is no wonder Hoock uses the slightly weasly formulation ‘not unrelated’. But let’s try and work it through. During the years in question, and through a combination of state and royal sponsorship and private patronage, what Hoock calls ‘the culture of power’ and ‘the power of culture’ became intricately intertwined. The Hanoverians and early Victorians had a jolly lot of war and conquest to be getting on with, and the bods in charge were by and large pleased to be doing it. As a result, they made it a vital and selfconscious part of the British imperial project (my term, not Hoock’s) to create a broad, celebratory cultural framework to support it.

Thus the narratives of the loss of the American colonies, war with Napoleon, the continuity of the monarchy and Indian rule all fed into one another and gained coherence through the forging of a dazzlingly patriotic national cultural identity. This was expressed through art, architecture, music, pageant, theatre and exhibitions. Recurrent themes were warfare, heroism, Christian valour, patriotic sacrifice, and the triumphant march of British history. Great treasures — the most famous being the Parthenon (Elgin) marbles — were plundered from around the globe and displayed to an enthusiastic public.

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