Splendour and Squalor: Eighteenth-Century British Culture

Dr Mary Newbould

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The eighteenth century witnessed a phenomenal cultural boom across the arts. More than ever before, writers, artists, sculptors, architects, and landscape gardeners engaged in fruitful creative dialogue to produce a dazzling array of new artistic ventures that permanently shaped British culture throughout this period, and which have left a lasting impact on the visible cultural landscape of Britain today. This course explores these interactions through examining a rich and diverse array of literature and visual culture, and situating it within emerging aesthetic discourses and the wider historical contexts of the ‘long’ eighteenth century: from the late 1600s to the early 1800s, from Enlightenment to Romanticism.

Splendour characterises countless examples of eighteenth-century British culture. Many of the most significant architectural buildings, texts, paintings, and landscaped gardens that we associate with Britain were produced during this period. A flourishing awareness of how these different ‘Sister Arts’ might interact was richly informed by developing theories of ‘ways of seeing’ ‒ the relationship between optical vision and the visual imagination ‒ and how this might be represented in different artistic forms. Artists working in all media reignited existing classical notions surrounding how word and image interact that spoke to a new era in which the workings of the individual’s imagination, and the visual nature of innate ideas, were re-presented in exciting new combinations of artistic media as never before.

The eighteenth century saw not only increased intellectual mobility between ideas, tastes, and styles, but also physical movement between different countries and their varying aesthetic tastes. This was a period of growing interest in travel abroad in increasingly daring ways. The ‘Grand Tour’ provided a major part of the cultural education of Britain’s wealthiest individuals, who would transport the ideas and tastes they had experienced abroad to transform the great country houses and landscape gardens they owned upon their return home – and the numerous texts and images that such significant properties inspired. Their splendour demonstrates with powerful magnificence the cultural aspirations, ‘high’ tastes, and creative ingenuity of this period through the lively interaction of the Sister Arts.

However, if Britain was visibly changed by these testaments to wealth, the eighteenth century was also vibrantly characterised by cultural activities and artefacts that seem entirely opposed to them: those which present not splendour, but squalor. This course juxtaposes the seemingly dominant testimony to decorous eighteenth-century taste visible in ‘high’ art with the numerous texts, images, and cultural activities which present a very different picture of Britain and British life in this period. From the cramped streets of London that enabled the Great Fire of 1666 to spread with such rapidity, to the squalid vice-ridden pockets of the city captured in William Hogarth’s intriguingly detailed graphic satires depicting high- and low-life jostling together, to the theatrical entertainments, street performances, and satirical prints mocking politicians and the royal family: this course explores how diverse British ‘culture’ was during this period, and the important – and entertaining – counter-cultural discourse it provides to enrich our sense of this engaging period’s rich cultural diversity. It provides an engaging insight into one of the most significant periods of change in Britain’s literature, culture, politics, and society, which still exert visible impact in the present day.

Course Aimed At: Undergraduate students with an interest in literature, the visual arts, cultural history, and interdisciplinary studies. The eighteenth century is often taught in a linear way, focussing separately on literature, art history, cultural studies, philosophy, and so forth: this course adopts an interdisciplinary approach which combines all of these approaches to the period, and so will appeal to students who major or minor in any of these subject-areas. It will also appeal to students who don’t major or minor in these areas, by offering a comprehensive but accessible overview of British culture across this period, whilst also allowing numerous opportunities to encounter and develop specific skills-sets, such as textual and visual analysis. It will give all students an unprecedented insight into Britain during one of the most significant periods of change in its literature, culture, politics, and society, in a way that will enrich their study abroad time in the UK.

Pre-Requisite Knowledge Required: No specific knowledge is required beyond a basic familiarity with reading literary texts and images.

Transferable Knowledge and Skills: This course will enrich your knowledge of British culture across the ‘long’ eighteenth century through examining a range of literary and artistic activities. It will help you to analyse texts and images in close detail, but also to compare and contrast art-forms across boundaries of discipline and medium. You will develop your verbal presentation skills as we discuss your responses to the material we encounter together in class, and you will enhance your ability to write structured and focused essays which balance contextual knowledge with close analysis of texts, images, and other expressions of Britain’s diverse culture in this period.


Final Essay (2,500 – 3,000 words): 50%

Final Exam: 50%

Student Contact Time

Lectures: 12 x 75 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminars: 8 x 75 minutes (total 10 hours)