In praise of burning pianos

How are non-conformists assimilated within the cloistered walls of tradition? Richard Wagner supplied the best answer to the age-old question in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, when Hans Sachs, the cobbler-poet, reconciles youthful ardour with the wisdom bestowed by experience. Learn from the masters, he tells the townsfolk, if you want to start afresh. It was a lesson absorbed by all the great modernists. Stravinsky, Joyce, Eliot, Picasso, Kandinsky and the rest of the gang understood thoroughly what had come before. Alas, it is a lesson as yet unlearned by Kate Molleson, whose pleading on behalf of ten musical misfits is unlikely to ‘open our ears’, despite her best intentions. For

Homage to Joseph Johnson, the radical 18th-century publisher

There’s no excuse for dullness, especially when writing about a life as eventful as Joseph Johnson’s, the publisher and bookseller who worked with Mary Wollstonecraft, Joseph Priestley, William Cowper, Erasmus Darwin and Wordsworth and Coleridge, among others. I opened this book expecting it to lift the veil on dinner with Joseph Johnson, but the title’s a misnomer. (Other than a brief introductory passage, Johnson’s weekly dinners are mentioned only in passing.) Descriptions of his relationships with Wollstonecraft and Cowper are perhaps the most successful parts of Daisy Hay’s book, but elsewhere it is under-researched and under-written. This becomes evident early on when she writes about the Gordon Riots. Among the

Was Josiah Wedgwood really a radical?

No wonder Josiah Wedgwood, the 18th-century master potter, was a darling of the Victorians. From W.E. Gladstone to Samuel Smiles of Self-Help fame, they admired this industrious, inventive, uxorious and religious man as a harbinger of their own age. It surely helped that his story, if not exactly one of rags to riches, was certainly a tale of triumph over adversity. His biggest obstacle was one he did his best to conceal from a carefully constructed public image. Though Joshua Reynolds painted his portrait and George Stubbs did a family study showing Josiah, his wife Sarah and their seven children in the grounds of his country house, Etruria Hall, neither