J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Sunday, January 15, 2023

“The highest dispenser of human fame, Mr. Johnson’s pocket book”

In late 1777, around the time the British historian Catharine Macaulay was visiting France for her health, she appeared in an engraving.

Macaulay was a celebrity, so she had been depicted in many engravings—some admiring, some satirical. But this picture was unusual.

It was a group portrait titled The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain, drawn by Richard Samuel and engraved by someone named Walker. It appeared as a foldout in The Ladies New and Polite Pocket Memorandum-Book, for the Year of Our Lord 1778, published in London by Joseph Johnson.

The print showed nine women in vaguely classical costume engaged in different arts: music, painting, and so on. The caption below identified those women as:
Miss Carter, Mrs. Barbauld, Mrs. Angelica Kauffman, on the Right hand; Mrs. Sheridan, in the Middle; Mrs. Lenox, Mrs. Macaulay, Miss More, Mrs. Montague, and Mrs. Griffith, on the Left hand.
These were all British women who had gained fame for some kind of writing, painting, or musical performances.

Samuel completed a painting based on the same composition and exhibited it at the Royal Academy in 1779. As shown above, it now belongs to Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.

As portraiture, however, those pictures aren’t very good. Without the engraving’s caption, it would be impossible to connect the nine figures in the painting to the actual writers and artists. On 23 November, one of those women, poet and translator Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806), wrote to another, Blue Stockings Society hostess Elizabeth Montagu (1720–1800):
O Dear, O dear, how pretty we look, and what brave things has Mr. Johnson said of us! Indeed, my dear friend, I am just as sensible to present fame as you can be. Your Virgils and your Horaces may talk what they will of posterity, but I think it is much better to be celebrated by the men, women, and children, among whom one is actually living and looking.

One thing is very particularly agreeable to my vanity, to say nothing about my heart, that it seems to be a decided point, that you and I are always to figure in the literary world together, and that from the classical poet, the water drinking rhymes, to the highest dispenser of human fame, Mr. Johnson’s pocket book, it is perfectly well understood, that we are to make our appearance in the same piece. I am mortified, however, that we do not in this last display of our persons and talents stand in the same corner.

As I am told we do not, for to say truth, by the mere testimony of my own eyes, I cannot very exactly tell which is you, and which is I, and which is any body else. But this must arise from the deficiency of my sight, for some of the good people of Deal, I am told, affirm my picture to be excessively like.
As for Catharine Macaulay, she had an unusual face, already captured in those many engravings and at least one statue. By this date she was in her late forties, a widow, not in good health. But the figure of Clio, Muse of History, holding a scroll toward the center of the pictures doesn’t exhibit any of those personal features.

Still, this image reflects Macaulay’s place in British culture at the start of 1778. She was not only a celebrated historian, but she was being held up as the nation’s answer to the Muse of History herself.

And then it all came crashing down.

TOMORROW: A step too far.

No comments: