The Georgian craze for popular history

Loyd Grossman reveals how 18th-century Britons of all classes fell in love with radical portrayals of the past...

The Death of General Wolfe

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Benjamin West’s painting The Death of General Wolfe (shown above) was the popular hit of the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition of 1771. The actor David Garrick delighted exhibition-goers one morning by posing in front of West’s picture and enacting his view of how the general died. Newspapers reported how the ageing and infirm former prime minister William Pitt contemplated the picture for a long time before declaring that “there was too much dejection not only in the dying hero’s face, but in the faces of the surrounding officers, who… as Englishmen should forget all traces of private misfortunes, when they had so grandly conquered for their country”.

On busy days, more than a thousand people would visit the exhibition. By the time it closed, 22,485 catalogues had been sold. Wolfe was the most talked-about picture of the most successful art exhibition yet held in London.

General James Wolfe was Britain’s greatest imperial martyr – the 32‑year‑old having been killed achieving victory at the battle of Quebec in 1759, which effectively delivered control of French Canada to Britain. West’s bold depiction of his death electrified the public. A subsequent engraving of the painting became one of the most widely distributed images of the entire 18th century.

The significance of Wolfe’s success was due both to the appeal of its subject and to West’s innovative treatment of it. In the hierarchical world of 18th-century culture, artists’ choice of subject matter, and how they went about depicting it, was rigidly circumscribed.

Academic theory declared that the highest form of art was history painting, with its repertoire of subjects chosen from the Bible, mythology or ancient history. Even contemporary subjects were to be treated as if they emerged from the classical past.

Unsurprisingly, when George III was told that West proposed to paint Wolfe and his comrades in contemporary dress, he remarked that it was “thought very ridiculous to exhibit heroes in coats, breeches, and cock’d hats”. Undaunted, West did just that and also painted the fallen hero in the pose of the dead Christ, familiar from centuries of pictures of the Lamentation in churches across Europe.

West used the language of the highest and most sacred form of art to elevate a great contemporary event to the status of epic drama. The result has been characterised as “the revolution in history painting”, but it was much more than that: Wolfe was the first great visual expression of a revolution in historical consciousness, which transformed the way that men and women of the 18th century thought about the past and the present.

The historical nation

The flurry of programmes on television, the rise of the celebrity-historian, the books at the top of the bestseller lists… all demonstrate that history has never been so popular. But our present-day history boom has its roots in the 18th century. As one of the star historians of the period, David Hume, joyfully proclaimed in 1770: “This is the historical age and this the historical nation.”

So why did history become so popular in the 18th century? There is no single answer, but it helps to first look at what became known as the ‘Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns’. This was a bitter ideological war waged in France and England, which asked whether the intellectual achievements of modern men and women could ever equal those of the ancient poets, playwrights, statesmen and philosophers.

It was a great leap forward when someone like the author James Boswell could declare: “I do sincerely think that this age is better than ancient times.” Such assertions are at the very basis of what we can call a modern attitude or, as the 20th-century French philosopher Michel Foucault put it, “the will to heroise the present”. Implicit in this, is a belief that the great events of the modern day are not just news, but history.

The war between Britain and France, industrialisation, the rapid growth of cities and the ‘rise’ of the middle class had all stimulated a public hunger for history that could make sense of the rapid and often bewildering changes that were affecting the lives of 18th-century Britons. That demand was to be satisfied by the development of a new type of history writing, ‘philosophical history’.

The first mass-market historian in Britain was the Huguenot soldier of fortune Paul de Rapin de Thoyras, whose History of England, published from 1725 as a shilling-an-instalment part-work, was such a success that a newspaper reported “no book in our language had ever more buyers or readers”. But sadly Rapin’s work was as dull as it was accessible.

It was the sparkling prose of David Hume that really ignited the 18th-century history boom. Compare these two accounts of the execution of Charles I. Rapin wrote how, “the king suffered death with great constancy, and without showing the least signs of weakness or amazement”. Where Rapin plodded, Hume soared, writing that the executioner “held up to the spectators the head streaming with blood, and cried aloud, This is the head of a traitor!… Never monarch, in the full triumph of success and victory, was more dear to his people, than his misfortunes and magnanimity, his patience and piety, had rendered this unhappy prince.”

Hume played his audience like a violin. “The first quality of an historian is to be true and impartial,” he wrote to his friend William Mure. “The next to be interesting. If you do not say that I have done both parties justice; and if Mrs Mure be not sorry for poor King Charles, I shall burn all my papers and return to philosophy.” Hume never returned to philosophy: history’s rewards were too great.

The mastery of prose and a gift for emotional engagement were not the only winning talents of the philosophical historians.Whereas most history writing from Thucydides onwards was more or less intended to be a how-to guide for the ruling classes – providing lessons in statesmanship, diplomacy and moral leadership – the philosophical historians painted with a broad brush. They expanded the scope of history away from a narrow concentration on dynastic and political intrigue and battles fought. Voltaire – like Hume, a philosopher turned historian – was perhaps the chief inspiration in this regard, setting out the stall of philosophical history in his famous opening lines of Le Siecle de Louis XIV: “It is not just the life of Louis XIV that one claims to write; one is proposing a greater object… to depict to posterity not the actions of a single man, but the mind of mankind…”

Such an approach powerfully appealed to a new, bigger public of book buyers and readers. A knowledge of history was being transformed from a practical guide for the elite to a necessary middle-class attribute.

The infallible public

Philosophical historians welcomed this new audience with open arms, believing that they liberated them from the often fickle and capricious demands of regal and aristocratic patrons on whom so many men and women of letters had depended for their living. “The people is far less often mistaken in its choice than the prince,” Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract. The successful radical historian Catharine Macaulay rejoiced that: “Individuals may err, but the public judgment is infallible.”

An eager new audience bought the works of the often conservative Hume as well as the always controversial Macaulay. “It has ever been, and I believe, ever will be the bane of this country… to rush into unnecessary and expensive wars; to give up all the fruits of very dear-bought conquests in the patching up of hasty treaties of peace,” the latter wrote, “and when the nation is just on the point of emerging out of the poverty which war produces, the paroxysms of Quixote rage return…” Macaulay’s forthright views brought fame and fortune: George III bought her books for his library, and when she visited America, George Washington entertained her.

It was in the annus mirabilis of 1776, year of the Declaration of American Independence and the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, that a new kid came to town. The first volume of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was a monumental work whose enduring fame has sadly led us to neglect the achievements of its author’s predecessors.

Although long surpassed in terms of research, the writings of Hume, Macaulay and William Robertson are still joyful and inspiring as well as testaments to the age in which the love of history first became a popular pursuit.


Four past masters

When these historians put pen to paper, the Georgians sat up and took notice…

Voltaire (1694–1778)
Voltaire, whose real name was François-Marie Arouet, valued style and audience appeal as much as scholarship, and incorporated social and cultural history into the age-old tradition of political narrative. Voltaire’s Essai sur les Moeurs (1756) was the first call-to-action of philosophical history, but the three years he spent in political exile in England helped to mould his approach to history writing. Voltaire’s Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) increased his already considerable fame earned as a playwright, wit and radical thinker.

David Hume (1711–76)
Hume is now more widely regarded as a philosopher than a historian. However, his philosophical writings were not a commercial success. Thanks to the income from his History of England (1754–61), Hume was able to remark that he “was become not only independent, but opulent”. How influenced Hume was by Voltaire remains open to question. He observed that Voltaire “cannot be depended on with regard to facts; but his general views are sometimes sound, & always entertaining”.

Catharine Macaulay (1731–91)
‘The republican virago’, Macaulay was one of the most original voices of the 18th century. A leading member of the so-called bluestocking group of female intellectuals, her career was tainted by what was then regarded as personal scandal. Her platonic relationship with the clergyman Thomas Wilson led him to install a controversial life-size statue of her in his church, St Stephen Walbrook. She was later shunned by society following her marriage to a ship’s surgeon 26 years her junior.

William Robertson (1721–93)
Clergyman and principal of Edinburgh University, Robertson was at the centre of the Scottish Enlightenment, a friend and colleague of Hume, fellow historian Edward Gibbon and moral philosopher Adam Smith. Like Hume, Robertson combined immense research with a flair for melodrama. His History of the Reign of Charles V (1769) presented a majestic overview of European history, which made him perhaps the most internationally celebrated British historian.

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Loyd Grossman is an entrepreneur, historian and broadcaster.