Heroes

Pat Rogers

  • Hume and the Heroic Portrait: Studies in 18th-Century Imagery by Edgar Wind, edited by Jaynie Anderson
    Oxford, 139 pp, £29.50, May 1986, ISBN 0 19 817371 7
  • Augustan Studies: Essays in honour of Irvin Ehrenpreis edited by Douglas Lane Patey and Timothy Keegan
    University of Delaware Press, 270 pp, £24.50, May 1986, ISBN 0 87413 272 X
  • The 18th Century: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1700-1789 by James Sambrook
    Longman, 290 pp, £15.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 582 49306 4

Sated with hermeneutics, weary of metacriticism? No head for the heights of abstraction – vertigo hits you as soon as you set foot on the gossamer constructions of current art theory? You get ringing in your ears when you read Norman Bryson, and fear you have caught Ménière’s disease off the page? Do not despair. There is a remedy. The second posthumous volume of Edgar Wind’s essays outdoes even its sumptuous predecessor in intellectual glitter and academic burnishing. Only 120 large pages of text, but they come with 124 plates; in the ratio of historical weight to linear extent they must constitute the densest object in the universe of books. If a more searching scholarly examination of mainstream European ideas has been published in this country during the 1980s, then I have missed it.

Although Wind was chiefly known as a Renaissance specialist, it was his longish essay ‘Humanitätsidee und heroisiertes Porträt des 18. Jahrhunderts’ which helped to make his name just before he came to the Warburg Institute in 1933. At the centre of this essay, and of the new volume, is the figure of Joshua Reynolds: again, if one does not immediately connect Wind with Reynolds, it should be pointed out that in the relevant entry in the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, Wind supplies more items than any other secondary authority. Some of these items are fairly slight, but even a short note on Blake and Reynolds, dating from 1957, makes a sharp and persuasive impact. One brief study, entitled ‘ “Borrowed Attitudes” in Reynolds and Hogarth’ (1938), is already a classic, though certain details can be challenged. Its central assertions remain suggestive and fecund: ‘Reynolds’s imagination lost some of its freedom and self-assurance when it ascended from the intermediate to the grand style. As long as he was translating the sublime into the fashionable, he was inventive and sure of his ground: when he reversed the process and attempted to raise the fashionable into the sublime, he became less certain of his powers and therefore more servile in his copying.’

Among the remaining essays, there is a pair which hinge on West and Copley, both of which bring out the crucial importance of West’s picture of the death of Wolfe. We knew well enough that this was a watershed in art history, but Wind shows us why, in much greater detail and in a richer historical context. James Thornhill’s comparatively little-known versions of ‘modern’ life are tellingly invoked. Then there is an amazingly learned search for the sources of David’s Oath of the Horatii. The trail leads through Gluck, Garrick, the ballet-master Noverre, Lavoisier, Beaumarchais and (less of a displaced person now, than when Wind was writing in 1941) Salieri. It is nard to imagine a reader with any developed interest in Enlightenment culture who would not find this study at once fascinating and illuminating. Once more, time has brought a few scholarly revenges, and in this case, on somewhat technical grounds, Anita Brookner has questioned Wind’s theory of balletic influence. But the appeal of the essay lies not so much in its precise destination as in the vistas opened out along the route.

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