Art in The Edinburgh Review.

Author:Jones, Tom Devonshire
Position:Critical essay

Little attention has been given to the 'art talk' to be heard The Edinburgh Review (1802-1929). This quarterly took in a wide range of art subjects in its conversation with a readership that by 1818 had already grown to nearly 14,000. Although primarily concerned with politics, economics and literature, the Edinburgh, arriving in its blue and yellow Whig livery, gradually came to include the arts, and always with the same original and large views that characterised its core articles. Brilliance shone even at its start, as its three young and little known originators risked and won such: Francis Jeffrey, a Scottish advocate, as yet almost briefless, following education at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, was to become a Scottish Judge and an MP; Sydney Smith, a distinguished Wykehamist and Oxonian and a cleric, a moral philosopher and wit, constantly attracted the epithet 'humane'; and Henry Brougham, newly called to the Scottish bar, was a future Lord Chancellor.


Their education was of course classical, and as such was in tune with the recently completed Edinburgh New Town architecture's doubly symmetrical gridiron plan; the 'Modern Athens' buildings on Calton Hill had to wait for the new century's third decade, when the Napoleonic wars became a thing of the past. Never insular in its compass, the Edinburgh, in its art concerns as in others, was fully aware of other languages and continents as well as past centuries. Its concerns for education were to ensure it also looked to the future. Its contributors can be seen to be taking their place in the sweep of Continental criticism following Diderot in France and Kant in Germany. But if a mere 15 princely subscribers formed the elite audience of Diderot's Salons, the Edinburgh's circulation ensured the arts a fast growing readership. (The statistics given above for the Edinburgh do not take in the large number of editions that many of its volumes ran to, with Vol 1 receiving 10 and Vol 2 seven. The first number contained some 29 articles in its 252 pages.) The average number of articles each quarter came to 11, and two numbers bound into each volume contained a substantial 500 or 600 pages. With vigorous critical editing came independence of the publishing trade.

The excitement and robustness of the Edinburgh's concern for political enlightenment and social reform (the word 'electric' was used of it early), the first such successful review of its kind, gave Whig politics an organ loud and clear: the Tory opposition, much incensed, was to launch its own would-be corrective in 1809 with The Quarterly Review. The two reviews frequently came into rivalry;, racing to be first to publish a review, for instance, of the successive parts of Ruskin's Modern Painters (1843-60) as their eagerly awaited publication dates arrived. Leslie Stephen's 'knot of clever lads', five in number, who had met in October 1802, to plot the Edinburgh into existence did so at an average age of no more than twenty-six. Few of the men and women invited to review in the arts were professional in the area, and the writing is accordingly fresh and entertaining--never far off is the modern interest in the artist's life stow.

The following brief introduction to the Edinburgh's art content gives examples of articles dealing with the works of or books about painters, sculptors and architects, followed by a selection of articles about art in general.

One of the earliest articles on painters focuses on Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) in Vol 3 (July 1803) and a further one in Vol 54 (September 1831). A charming account survives of the Edinburgh's publisher's scout as he is sent down to London to trawl the bookshops and publishers' offices in search of subject matter: he reports his sparky interview with Fuseli, finding him 'the most conceited, self-sufficient quiz I ever saw, but clever and well-read--he defied and despised all opinions, abused Walter Scott as no poet and The Edinburgh Review etc. etc.' The flavour of this thirsty encounter comes across as the scout moves his author towards the reviewer's trap: 'I annoyed him by attacking a vulnerable part, and contradicted everything he said all the evening after, and threatened to review his Dictionary of Painters [1805 and 1810] ... at this he grew much more polite and agreeable; at length we parted decent good friends.' Fuseli's Lectures to the Royal Academy which he published 1801-20 were influential, as had been his 1765 translation of Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks from Winckelmann's German original In his aspiration to the sublime and the grotesque, as well as the historical and the literary, Fuseli was characteristic of his time and well suited to the Edinburgh readership.

Editorial awareness of Continental developments turned to Italy for the Indagine fisica sui Colori of Giambattista Venturi (who built on Newton) to bring the optics and colour theory into connection with the painter's palette (Vol 6, April 1805), as would later the accounts of Goethe's colour theories (Vol 72, October 1840). Stendhal sees Florence, Naples and Rome as reviewed in Vol 28 (August 1817), but music is his first love, and although he relishes the Correggios in Parma, the art appreciation is found to be 'a bit formulaic and conventional'. Crossing some of the same terrain, Henry Sass, then a student of the Royal Academy, has written a disappointing account of his journey (Vol 30, September 1818), dismissing Raphael's Stanze and the Sistine Chapel, and dwelling too long on the damp and bulging walls, the ferocious Neapolitan robbers, and the book is anyway full of misprints and errors.

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