The Greek author Lucian tells of a lusty, young aristocrat who fell for a statue of Aphrodite and, willing it to be real, attempted to defile it. He had only the experience of other boys to go on and fell short when it came to the anatomy of women; congress was a hopeless failure and he hurled himself to his death. But statues in Lucian are not all silent in their allure. James Joyce has the hero of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, fascinated by the marble buttocks of Venus and such Pygmalion-like desire has a long aesthetic history. Wanting the art object to come to life is a museum fantasy that recurs repeatedly in western literature and it is a strong theme in The London Magazine of the 1820s. Here, statues abound, leaping to life, though they are more political than sexual.
One of the magazine’s most famous essays is an account in 1822 of the Elgin Marbles by the critic William Hazlitt, which stands out as an extraordinary description of those statues and, indeed, transcends them to make a case for the humanizing potential of art more generally. Hazlitt and Benjamin Robert Haydon were leading voices in an argument that surrounded the value of the Elgin Marbles. For all the debate about the rectitude of their having been taken off the Parthenon in the first place, it seems almost incredible now when no one doubts the importance of the statues in the history of western art, that on their arrival in Britain, they were dismissed by the leading aesthetic mandarin of the time as worthless copies made in the time of Hadrian. History hasn’t dealt favourably with Richard Payne Knight, whose taste — or lack of it — now appears to be quaint if not simply bizarre. But at the time, Hazlitt saw himself writing in opposition to the reactionary conservativism of an orthodoxy rooted the poIite values of the eighteenth century that had fought keep the works outside the British Museum. He felt that he was standing up instead for a newer set of artistic values that found Romantic power in those massive, decaying forms.
Horace Smith is the author of the leading article in the issue of March 1821, which identities one of the marbles as Theseus and is accompanied by a splendid engraving of it. ‘Mutilated and disfigured as is,’ he writes, ‘I never approach this majestic statue without feeling an indescribable awe, leading me, almost unconsciously, to take off my hat, and look at it with silent reverence, as if l stood in the presence of some superior being.’ The article is self-consciously rather coy and its slightly callow veneration of the statue is much more marked than anything in Hazlitt’s tough, technical essay. But Smith’s obvious sense of wonder before the work of art is a familiar emotional theme in the magazine’s many essays on art and culture. Its readers were obviously hungry for material relating to current exhibitions and shows, as well as theatre and music, and this kind of sentimental criticism was popular. But the essay, also betrays an odd sense of anxiety or uncertainty, as though neither he nor his age is quite up to the task of appreciating just how marvellous these statues really are. There is something of an obsession with antiquity in the magazine and it exposes a wider anxiety in this period that even as Britain expanded its empires, its position as a cultural authority could never rival that of earlier eras.
Complaint about the shoddy standards of contemporary culture is of course a pretty time-honoured theme but the writers of The London weren’t conservative traditionalists invoking in fustian the spirit of the past but radical liberals, conscious of living in a culture that had changed very distinctly since the end of the eighteenth century. The decade of the 1820s is a rather forgotten moment in British cultural history. The great poets of the previous generation, Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had their finest work long behind them; none of the second generation, Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, was to live long. In political terms, these are the last years of a worn out Conservative administration, one dissected forcefully by Disraeli in the opening part of his novel, Sybil. The challenges of the wars in Europe had thrown up a new role for Britain that necessitated change and there was a widespread feeling that electoral reform was needed but this, and Catholic emancipation, were to come only in the 1830s. The London Magazine, especially in the period immediately after its revival in 1820 under the dynamic editorship of John Scott, provides us with extraordinary insight into the intellectual and artistic on of the age and one has the sense of a culture that was in vibrant dialogue with both Europe and its expanding empire, but not yet entirely confident with itself as an imperial power.
A few years before writing his essay on the Elgin Marbles, Horace Smith had taken part in a competition organized by the influential writer and publisher, Leigh Hunt, in which he was asked to produce a poem in response to a new acquisition of the British Museum, an Egyptian statue of the pharaoh, Ramesses II. His rival was Shelley, whose famous sonnet ‘Ozymandias’ remains a potent warning to would-be imperialists of the transience of all empires. Smith’s own poem takes much the same line only he is more specific in imagining a post-imperial London, wasted away into wilds:
We wonder, — and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chase,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
This anxiety isn’t fully representative of the ‘spirit of the age’ as Hazlitt calls his series of literary portraits published in The London; there are optimistic voices too. Indeed Smith himself often sounds rather remorselessly jolly in his essays, the anxiety jarring with the wit in another piece on the same Egyptian statue, ‘Memnon’s Head,’ published a month before his essay on the Theseus. This is an extraordinary bit of writing to which I’ve returned repeatedly since discovering it on a dark winter afternoon in the Bodleian library and it takes us back to Lucian, with whom I began.
The pharaoh’s head known ever since as the ‘Younger Memnon’, a later copy of a larger original, famous in antiquity was excavated and removed from a site at Thebes bv the Anglo-Italian Giovanni Belzoni, and became the subject of a good deal of interest in London following its exhibition and the publication in 1820 of the explorer’s account of his discovery. It’s putting it rather mildly to say that Belzoni was an unusual character: an ex-circus strongman and rampant self-publicist, he had perfected techniques for the removal of ancient statuary and, with this particular sculpture, executed his master trick. John Scott reviewed his popular narrative with its description of the logistics of the project in The London in January 1821, a month before Smith’s essay. His audience was familiar with the statue and Smith wastes no time on description. Instead, he begins by telling his readers about a claim of Lucian that the original sculpture had supernatural powers and could speak in the voice of an oracle. He goes on:
Unless I have been grossly deceived by imagination, I have good grounds for maintaining, that the Head, now in the British Museum, is endued with qualities quite as inexplicable, as any that have been attributed to its more enormous namesake.— I had taken my seat before it yesterday afternoon, for the purpose of drawing a sketch, occasionally pursuing my work, and occasionally lost in reveries upon the vicissitudes of fate this mighty monument had experienced, until I became unconscious of the lapse of time, and, just as the shades of evening began to gather round the room, I discovered that every visitor had retired, and that I was left quite alone with the gigantic Head! There was something awful, if not alarming, in the first surprise excited by the discovery; and I must confess, that I felt a slight inclination to quicken my steps to the door. Shame, however, withheld me;—and as I made a point of proving to myself, that I was superior to such childish impressions, I resumed my seat, and examined my sketch, with an affectation of nonchalance. On again looking up to the Bust, it appeared to me that an air of living animation had spread over its Nubian features, which had obviously arranged themselves into a smile.
Moments later, the statue begins to speak to him in perfect pentameters and, to a reader familiar with Smith’s other work, it comes as little surprise that the resultant poem is an appeal to the British to do away with the arrogance of imperial design lest London be subjected to the same fate as the ancient empires. It’s a very strange contribution — part short story, part poem — but there is no sense of a critical opinion characterized by cold, disinterested objectivity. Smith, having settled to the task of objective imitation, finds himself withdrawn into reverie, losing any sense of time, place or self. He wakes to find himself in the world of the artist-critic’s dream — the private moment in solitary contemplation of the artefact but this in turn produces an anxious solicitude, in which his own mute wonder is displaced by the voice of the very object of his contemplation. The attitude towards the art of the past is curiously vexed, suggesting that it can be at once both supremely compelling and profoundly disturbing. And while we might be inclined to be a little patronizing towards Smith with his quirky, naive story, it does contribute to a sense that any reader will develop that The London was a publication that took aesthetic matters very seriously indeed.
This is revealed more darkly in events that were shortly to take place. John Scott, who started the publication in 1820 by reviving an obsolete title from the eighteenth century, contributed with The London to a literary scene that was already thriving with numerous periodicals that dealt with the cultural events of the day. Most prominent in this period were two reviews, the Quarterly and the Edinburgh, which were strongly marked by their respective Tory and Whig credentials. A principle on The London that Scott was determined to enforce was that the magazine shouldn’t be politically partisan and that his writers, a wonderful gathering of talents including Charles Lamb and Thomas De Quincey, should be allowed freedom of expression. These are marvellous ideals but culture is, of course, inevitably political and in championing the young poet, John Keats, the editor found himself drawn into a larger and more costly battle. Keats was associated with the radical circles of Leigh Hunt, who had long been the butt of attacks from writers on the right for his criticism of the Regency establishment and his avowedly revolutionary sentiments. With the publication of his early poems, Keats found himself tarnished by the association and subject to the same kinds of charge that had been levelled against his mentor. Whatever one makes of the early, rather immature poems, there can be little doubt that the reviews in the Tory press were unfair and often personally insulting, most especially those in Blackwood’s Magazine, a rival of The London.
It isn’t the most glorious moment in critical history but journalism is frequently unfair and it’s probably best to rise above it. Scott, however, was unyieldingly dedicated to his principles and refused to let the matter rest. In a series of editorials beginning in May 1820 and continuing throughout the year, Scott sharply counterattacked, charging Blackwood’s with impropriety and bias. A sham apology only drove him on further with the suggestion of financial irregularity in the rival camp:
It is a common trick with the pickpockets in the streets, to profess great interest in the misfortune of the person they have just knocked down and plundered:—the very rascals who have struck him from behind, and filched his watch from his fob, will come round in his face, to pity and pat him — with their mouths full of asseverations against the roguery and cruelty of the outrage of which he has been the victim.
There is little doubt that the sequence of events that followed could have been avoided. John Gibson Lockhart, the editor of Blackwood’s, sought a retraction to no avail and after a Byzantine sequence of communications that are hard to unravel, Scott found himself forced into a duel with Lockhart’s London agent, Jonathan Christie. The pair met at nine o’clock in the evening at Chalk Farm outside London on 16 February 1821, with James Traill as a second for Christie and P G Patmore, a noted art critic and determined advocate of Keats in The London, for Scott. Christie did not fire on the first attempt in accordance with the honour code, but on the second, after a mix-up between the seconds, he shot, as he thought, in self-defence, the ball striking Scott above the right hip and passing through his guts into the left. It caused profuse bleeding and Scott was returned to his rooms at York Street in Covent Garden, where he lay weakening gradually towards his inevitable death eleven days later on 27 February 1821. He is buried nearby in the vault of St Martin’s in the Fields.
It is horrifying to think of him waiting for death to come through those awful, long days, a fate that would not face his killer for another fifty-five years. Scott, like Keats, wasn’t destined to become a Victorian sage; he remains, like his magazine, a figure from the Regency, essential to the character of the Romantic period. And although The London continued on into the second half of the decade, it never quite maintained the exceptional quality of the issues produced under Scott and in the period immediately following his death. The article about Memnon’s head with its curious, artistically driven but deeply moralising reflections had appeared only a few weeks earlier. Given the events at Chalk Farm on that grim, winter night, it’s pretty remarkable that the publication continued at all and that it did has much to do with Scott’s earlier editorial zeal. The duel forces us to read the magazine with a renewed awareness of the seriousness with which this group of writers took the matter of aesthetic judgement and, at a time when we are asked continually to advocate relativism in matters of taste and to eschew judgements of quality, this is perhaps no bad thing.
This essay first appeared in The London Magazine Dec 2008/Jan/Feb 2009. Matthew Scott is the current Reviews Editor at TLM.
Transcribed by Ludo Cinelli.