Ben Wilson

The romance of science

The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes Just what some- one who studied science should be called was mooted at the 1833 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. ‘Formerly the “learned” embraced in their wide grasp all the branches of the tree of knowledge, mathematicians as well as philologers, physical as

A sad arbiter of elegance

‘Do you call that thing a coat?’ Brummell sneered when the Duke of Bedford asked for an opinion on a new purchase. The dominance that Brummell held over the fashionable was absolute; his small house in Chesterfield Street was thronged with gentlemen, often including the Prince of Wales, eager to witness the dressing ritual of

Giacomo of all trades

One evening in November 1763 the splendidly named Sir Wellbore Ellis Agar passed a middle-aged Venetian man on Westminster Bridge who, he thought, looked a little glum. Sir Wellbore knew what the stranger needed: ‘a drink, a woman, beef and Yorkshire pudding’. And so he took the 38-year old Casanova to a tavern on Cockspur

Balance and counterbalance

Until the 1760s British statesmen had two empires to manage. One exercised the public imagination and awoke patriotic dreams: the colonies in America and the West Indies. The public frequently wished the other away — the Holy Roman Empire. Britain had been dragged into the morass of European politics from 1714 with the accession of

The politics of the plot

The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden by Tim Richardson The man ‘of Polite Imagination’, according to Joseph Addison, was able to delight in things lesser mortals might fail to appreciate, particularly the landscape. ‘It gives him indeed a kind of Property in everything he sees, and makes the most rude uncultivated Parts of

Love in a time of chaos

We are promised a true American love story, but the lovers of this romance do not so much make love as f***, even in their tenderest moments. The couple in question are Rosalie, Duchess de la Rochefoucauld and William Short, Thomas Jefferson’s adoptive son and secretary at the Paris embassy in the 1780s and ’90s.

Making a virtue out of necessity

John Evelyn would find our agonies about food all too familiar. He was impressed with the modern ‘miracles of art’ whereby plants were forced in hot beds and meats and fish were preserved for months or years; but nothing tasted better or was more wholesome than fresh ingredients. He was preoccupied by healthy diets, noting

Policies of masterly inactivity

In December 1743 George Bickham produced a caricature, The Late P-m-r M-n-r showing the face of the recently departed premier contorted into a great monstrous yawn — a yawn seemingly stretched to the limits of human endurance. The caption begins with an adaptation of lines from The Dunciad, which come just after the Empress of

A fox with a bit of hedgehog

Replace the commas in the subtitle of this book, ‘Thomas Young, the Anonymous Polymath who Proved Newton Wrong, Explained How We See, and Deciphered the Rosetta Stone Among Other Feats of Genius’, with exclamation marks, and it reads like the title of a Gillray cartoon or the patter of a circus huckster. The problem we

Pudding time for Whigs

Compared with the romance and legend of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, the ’15 is, as Daniel Szechi ruefully concedes, ‘a dowdier bird’. It has been ill-served by history, just as the Jacobites as a whole have been neglected by historians of the 18th century in favour of the broader trend of Britain’s march of

Keeping the best of order

The preceding volume in the New Oxford History of England, covering the years 1727-1783, described the people as ‘polite and commercial’. Boyd Hilton does not imbue their sons and daughters with Byronic qualities, as his title might suggest; rather, it expresses the extreme volatility of the period. In the 1820s 60 per cent of the

Brothers and sisters in revolt

After a family quarrel in 1717, George I ordered his son and heir’s imprisonment in the Tower. His ministers had to explain that in England not even a king could dispense with habeas corpus. The King considered bundling the future George II on to a man-of-war bound for the West Indian plantations, but reluctantly conceded