The March of Intellect

Heath, The March of Intellect 3

While searching through the archives for nineteenth-century satirical prints, I stumbled upon this fantastic image produced by Robert Seymour. It’s a satire against corruption, depicting an giant automaton that represents the London University (later University College London, my alma mater!), sweeping aside corrupt lawyers, greedy clerics and the disappointing crown. Part of a longer series entitled The March of Intellect, or the March of the Mind (done by William Heath, largely satirizing the notion of rationalist progress), this particular caricature points to the radical founding of the London University in 1826, the first institution in England to provide education to anyone regardless of race, sex, class or religion (including Jews, Catholics and non-Anglicans). This was considered radical educational reform at a time when membership in the Church of England and a considerable sum of money were required for entry into Oxford or Cambridge.

The idea of the university was inspired by the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, who promoted wider access to higher education (and Bentham’s surreal Auto-Icon now sits in the South Cloisters of the main university building). Founded by the Whig politician and reformer, Henry Brougham, the London University was also later associated with the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (wittily nicknamed the Steam Intellect Society by Thomas Love Peacock), which promoted the expansion of education to all classes. By using widely-distributed cheap publications (thin pamphlets on various scientific subjects or practical matters), the SDUK ‘offered education self-help to the masses in the years before universal schooling’. The Society also had a Library of Useful Knowledge, a Library of Entertaining Knowledge, and the widely popular Penny Magazine. Though attacked by Tories and those associated with the Church, and satirized by caricaturists (as in the image above), both the London University and the SDUK opened up higher education and contributed to the nineteenth-century reforms to which we are all indebted. Three cheers for the March of Intellect!

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The March of Bricks & Mortar

The March of Bricks & Mortar

My primary research project focuses on the modern city as a cultural and material phenomenon – specifically London in the early 19th century. Much of the London that still exists today is in fact ‘Romantic’ in the sense that many areas, buildings or monuments find their origin in the early 1800s – these include Regent’s Park and Regent Street; Hyde Park Corner & the Arch on Constitution Hill; Trafalgar Square; the National Gallery; Bloomsbury;  the (new) British Museum;  and the Royal Opera House. ‘Construction’ enjoyed the spotlight on the stage in the Romantic era. When the German prince, Hermann Puckler-Muskau, visited England for the second time in 1826, he remarked on England’s ‘universal rage for building’, which saw the acceleration of urban development and the advancement of architecture as a trade and profession.

But expansion was not always looked upon favourably. The disappearance of green spaces was one obvious consequence of urban sprawl. George Cruikshank’s popular 1829 print, ‘London Going Out of Town, or the March of Bricks and Mortar’ (see above) is a well-known critique of the urban developments that were encroaching upon the countryside surrounding London. The print shows an army of robotic bricklayers that have chimney pots for heads and picks and shovels for limbs, advancing towards rural Hampstead, building rows of grim factory-like houses on the way, and forcing trees and haystacks to flee for their lives. One tree cries out ‘Ah, I am mortarly wounded!’ Flying rocks and invasive black smoke also threaten the survival of the rural landscape. Urban sprawl meant not only that green spaces were gradually eroded but that familiar places would be irrevocably changed by these developments. The place that was once familiar is no more; as Baudelaire writes of Paris, ‘Le vieux Paris n’est plus (la forme d’une ville/ Change plus vite, helas! que le coeur d’un mortel)’.

Of course, this kind of critique of urban sprawl and nostalgia for the countryside is not new. London remains relatively green, in spite of Cruikshank’s critique/ warning, and the urban developments of London have come to be loved by the people. However, other cities might not be able to say the same. Today’s problem of urbanization is no longer confined to large metropolitan regions such as London, and the army is no longer composed of bricks and mortar, but concrete and steel. Everywhere we see uniform houses being constructed along new roads, skyscrapers reaching ever newer heights, promoting a vision of  prosperous, advanced modern world – a vision that is usually consumed voraciously. This is most evident in Asia – a subject for another post. But we must ask ourselves whether such developments, both in terms of the cityscape and social infrastructure, come at a great cost, something of which the Romantics knew only too well.

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