Monday 29 December 2008

Towards a popular conception of the world in 1780.

The text of a contribution to a panel on popular conceptions of the world, for the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference in Oxford, January 2009.

Imagine for a moment living on Long Lane in London, just north of Smithfields Market, in the Spring of 1780, in a furnished, rented room. This is the kind of accommodation shared by the vast majority of working Londoners and recently described by Peter Guillery. [The Small House in Eighteenth-century London (Yale University Press, 2004).] The house you live in is a hundred years old, and made of oak and brick. The windows are small casements and the fire place is rudimentary, creating a barrier to more complex forms of domestic cooking, and forcing you to participate in a local round of public eating. Your room is in a vernacular building, and the dominant colours are the browns of distemper, the off-whites of lime wash, and the darkening hews of unpainted wood. There is the occasional flash of brass, but most of your everyday objects are dull pewter and tin, wood and earthenware. The only strong colours you are likely to live with are found in your clothes – in the flash of a printed bit of cotton, in the red of a neckerchief, in the grey-white of your worn linen. The house you live in is probably like that rented by Francis Place ten years later:

...very dark and dirty... built with timber, lath and plaster; ... filled with rats, mice and bugs.[Mary Thale, ed., The Autobiography of Francis Place (1771-1854), (CUP, 1972), p.107.]

Your working life is similarly old fashioned, built around a small scale process of production and exchange; probably tied to a local hinterland of supply. In other words, for the vast majority of Londoners in 1780 life was embedded within a familiar frame, within a cultural and material economics that must have seemed simply ‘natural’.

But, if in that Spring of 1780 you walked just a few yards from that room, out the door and past the lowing pens of Smithfield, towards Newgate Street, where the new prison was just finishing, you would have been confronted by something else. And the point is simply that while most eighteenth-century Londoners lived in a vernacular city of dull browns and natural hues, and worked in a hand-made world of complex, but decentralised craft, authority was being new built around them in forms of white neo-classicism. What had been a medieval gate – Newgate – of warn shapes and familiar statues, a symbol of community, that marked the boundary between a safe city collective, and a more frightening external world, had been rebuilt over the preceding decade into a massive, white stone edifice, its portals and doors picked out with a ubiquitous black cast iron. The building was three hundred yards long, and walking past this, the longest single street-frontage in London, a newly distant and powerful state authority must have welled up in your heart. In buildings like this – but most especially in Newgate Prison itself – was created a new urban landscape of authority that every pedestrian Londoner needed to interpret and navigate in a new way.

But if authority and power were demonstrated through the use of a neo-classical architectural palate, and an ever growing weight of cast iron, its meanings must have seemed to stretch in every direction.

In the cold baroque of Wren and Hawksmoor’s churches, once again, authority was built in a different colour – in Portland stone and cast iron. The decision in 1714 to spend £11,600 to encircle St Paul’s within a black cast iron paling, topped with spear heads – privatising and monopolising the traditional medieval church yard, the civic centre of London - was simply the first brutal act in the process of creating a new landscape of power. [E. Graeme Robertson and Joan Robertson, Cast Iron Decoration: A World Survey, (Thames and Hudson, 1977; 1994 edn), p.16.]

And what is most significant about this rebuilding of authority is that it seamlessly spread from actual government and religious buildings, to the houses of the simply rich. To walk through a stuccoed London square, with its bright white, mock stone exteriors, its sunken areas encased, not just in cast iron, but by mid-century onwards, by cast iron in the form of spears and daggers; was to be confronted by a ruling class newly comfortable with its own authority, willing to use the signs of state power, to claim a more personal variety.

In other words, a changing world view that necessarily accommodated to new forms of authority was created as late eighteenth Londoners wandered through their city. Class and state authority were re-made of bricks and stone and iron. So when we think of that subtle process of class formation, and its changing conceptions of the world, we need to think about it not just as an intellectual process, but as a physical one as well.

And of course, this new-built environment of class division extended to the smallest of items. In the late 1770s, as black refugees from American slavery flooded into London, with the scars of a brutal system cut in to their very flesh; each product of slavery, each mahogany chest and the contents of each inlaid snuff-box, must have gradually taken on an ever more powerful meaning that claimed for its owners authority over an Atlantic-wide empire.

Peter Linebaugh has written about the symbolism of keys and locks for working Londoners, but it seems to me that the world of meaning and symbol extends to almost every object.[The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century, (2nd edn, Verso, 2006), pp.366-8.] A mahogany picture frame was redolent of a system of colonialism that extended across four continents – and was just then, in 1780, in wild and military dispute on all of them. Cotton spoke of an exotic empire and brutal heathens; tobacco and coffee, of the brutalities of slavery, and cast iron and stone, of a new found system of industrial production.

All I am really trying to suggest is that the evolution of a popular conception of the world was, particularly in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, embedded within a physical framing whose signs could be held in your hand, and whose visage fronted every street.

And that therefore, when we try to understand the contents of popular politics, of events such as the Gordon Riots in June 1780, we need to see them not simply as expressions of a stated ideology but as physical engagements with a world full of meaning.

That Newgate Prison formed an early object of assault and destruction is just the most obvious fragment of a process that spread to every level of activity. To ‘pull down’ a house – as the Gordon Rioters did with Lord Manfield’s – was to tear out its sash windows (a symbol of modernity and power that even Jane Austen recognised a few years later in Northanger Abbey); was to burn the mahogany furniture (and smell its distinctive smoke – so different from that of oak and ash and elm); was to make a bonfire of identifiable symbols of authority. To pull down Lord Mansfield's house, was not just to comment upon his role Chief Justice, but to manipulate a coherent series of symbols of state and Imperial authority, made flesh in the objects themselves. A political bonfire of the sort lit by the Gordon Rioters, smelt and sounded, not like a bonfire of celebration (made of oak and broad leafed woods), but instead crackled with the sick sound of burning lacquer, and smelt of mahogany built authority.

In other words conceptions of the world are found as much in the palm of your hand and the memory of smoke in your nostrils, as in the expressed content of your library.