A glimpse of Enlightenment

17 March 2008

Jess Bowie gets the scoop on tourism, science and harlotry in the Age of Reason

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If you thought 1700-1800 was a bit of a dud century for Britain (or at least not nearly as exciting as the TV adaptation of Moll Flanders made out), the Fitzwilliam’s current exhibition will change all that. By way of paintings, prints, drawings, rare books, and sculpture, From Reason to Revolution takes you on a whistle-stop tour through the eighteenth century, and leaves you an enlightened connoisseur of this fascinating period.

In this exceptionally well-compiled exhibition, international exploration, the slave trade, and responses to the revolutions in America and France are all explored alongside works of art which engage with huge advances in science and industry. The exhibition also gives the Fitzwilliam a chance to show off its impressive stock–nearly everything on show is from the museum’s permanent collection.

The opening section is devoted to the Grand Tour–a journey that thousands of Europeans made to the ancient sites of Italy and Greece, and a staple part of the life of young aristocrats, artists and architects. Portraits of well-to-do Grand Tourists abound, as do caricatures of those who did not take the trip as seriously as they ought, regarding it more as a continental romp than an opportunity for self-improvement. Nearby is an amusing collection of Grand Tour souvenir fans, adorned with the major attractions, designed to impress the folks back home. (You can almost imagine some powdered aristocrat declaiming, ‘My friend went on the Grand Tour and all he bought me was this crummy fan’.)

Also represented is that curious genre of painting–the capriccio. These essentially consist of all the different ruins the artist can think of, lumped together in an imagined landscape. To modern eyes it is always entertaining to see the Acropolis, the Colosseum and the Pyramids all within metres of each other, with nymphs and swains happily going about their business in the foreground. But these fantastical paintings were no laughing matter in the 1700s, and they went down a treat with British Grand Tourists.

On the scientific side, mezzotints like Experiment with an Air Pump depict with almost photographic clarity the kinds of experiments undertaken by natural philosophers of the time. Here, a group gathers round a scientist while he prepares to resurrect a cockatoo, slumped inside a glass orb. The onlookers’ expressions convey a mixture of interest and grave concern, highlighting the undercurrent of doubt which accompanied such scientific developments, and the power they gave man to play God.

On a brighter note, there is the opportunity to see some of George Stubbs’s rare juvenilia-a set of illustrations for a textbook on midwifery, whose techniques, as anyone who has read Tristram Shandy will remember, were hotly debated in the period. Alongside Stubbs’s diagrams are instructions: “After reaching into the Womb, the Operator must turn the Child half round (as it were upon an Axis, the end of which may be said to go out at the Head and Anus)…” Rather alarmingly, this was cutting-edge medical technology at the time.

William Hogarth gets a good showing too, with etchings from A Harlot’s Progress, and a set of his ‘Before and After’ paintings on display. These moralising images satirise the notion of polite courtship: whereas ‘Before’ depicts a persuasive and attentive male wooing a young maid, ‘After’ shows the same couple in a state of dishevelment, after fulfilling their desires: the man has become weary and uninterested, the once-coy female looks desperate. Ah ladies, it was ever thus.

If that’s not enough in the way of moral instruction, you can get another whack of Hogarthian didacticism in his famous engraving Gin Lane, produced as propaganda at the height of the ‘London Gin Craze’ of 1751. The picture is accompanied by several lines of verse ramming home the sinfulness of the drink: “Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught/ Makes human Race a Prey. / It enters by a deadly Draught / And steals our Life away.” Fair enough, but try telling that to the denizens of Cambridge on a Saturday night.

The final section of the exhibition, devoted to exploration, exploitation and revolution, juxtaposes more delicious examples of eighteenth-century kitsch–this time faux-Chinese vases–with the narratives of freed slaves, which acted as powerful catalysts in the abolition movement. Blake’s dazzling yet eerily apocalyptic illustrations for America: a Prophecy sit alongside Goya’s first print series.

Indeed, Goya’s celebrated etching of 1799, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, rounds off the exhibition perfectly. This macabre image reflects the climate of fear created by the French Terror that had sent so many to the guillotine, but also parodies the so-called Age of Reason as a whole. It suggests that even the most enlightened of us cannot always avoid the unleashing of irrational monsters.