John Barrell

John Barrell is emeritus professor of English at Queen Mary, University of London, and an honorary fellow of King’s College, Cambridge.

The Stream in the Sky: Thomas Telford

John Barrell, 22 March 2018

For the last​ eight or nine years I have been collecting – casually enough, and without the greedy fanaticism that has characterised my other short-term collecting crazes – the great Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford. To be more precise, when out driving, I have been going out of my way to visit engineering projects he was involved in designing or building. I came across...

‘The Meeting of the Waters’

John Barrell, 27 July 2017

In​ the course of a year beginning in late 2013, I found myself at five separate places called the Meeting of the Waters. The first was the confluence of the Greta and the Tees on the Rokeby estate in Teesdale, thought to have been named by Walter Scott after the song of that title by the Irish Romantic poet Thomas Moore. This was then the only place I knew of so named. Next came a...

A Smile at My Own Temerity: William Hogarth

John Barrell, 16 February 2017

The word​ ‘Hogarthian’ first appeared in print in 1744, in a translation of La Fontaine’s The Loves of Cupid and Psyche. By this time Hogarth had become well known, in particular, for the engraved versions of his graphic novels: the ‘progresses’, illustrating the lives of Tom Rakewell and Moll Hackabout, and Marriage à la Mode, the story of the disastrous...

Beyond the Cringe: British Art

John Barrell, 2 June 2016

David Solkin​’s new book is designed to replace Painting in Britain 1530-1790, a volume of the Pelican history of art by Ellis Waterhouse, which was first published in 1953 and appeared in five separate editions, the last in 1994, nine years after Waterhouse’s death. Waterhouse’s history was quickly recognised as a classic. To a large extent he made the subject he was...

At Tate Britain: Late Turner

John Barrell, 18 December 2014

After​ three or four hours in the Linbury Galleries at Tate Britain, examining, admiring, taking notes on the Late Turner exhibition (until 25 January), I wandered into the café to take the weight off my feet and to read the reviews I had downloaded from the exhibition website on my tablet. I had been careful not to read them until after my visit, but now I wanted to see if I could...

In Cardiff: Richard Wilson

John Barrell, 25 September 2014

The​ National Museum of Wales is currently staging a large loan exhibition of the Welsh ‘father of English landscape’, Richard Wilson, curated by Martin Postle and Robin Simon. It is a magnificent show, the first on this scale for more than thirty years. It will be at Cardiff until 26 October, and it is accompanied by a sumptuous catalogue, the fullest, most faithfully...

In April 1792, William Pitt, the ‘heaven-born minister’ as his Tory supporters liked to call him, made what we can now recognise as one of the first of many attempts to cast off the perception that the Tories are the nasty party. The slave trade, he told the Commons, was ‘the greatest practical evil that ever has afflicted the human race’, and a ‘stigma on our...

At Tate Britain: L.S. Lowry

John Barrell, 8 August 2013

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, curated by the American art historian Anne Wagner and her British husband T.J. Clark, is the most radical and exciting re-evaluation of a British artist I have ever encountered, and a thrilling display of how paint conveys ideas, time, place, building a self-contained world at once absorbing and convincing in its relation to lived experience. So, more or...

‘Temple of Apollo’ after Claude Lorrain by William Woollett (1760)

Among various unforgettable moments in a life much of which has been spent thinking about landscape in literature and the visual arts was a remark made ten years ago by Kirsty Wark in the programme which follows Newsnight on Fridays, in which she was chairing a discussion of the Gainsborough exhibition then at...

In September 2010, the home secretary was warned that her plans to cut police funding could undermine their ability to deal with the tensions that would result from the government’s austerity package. ‘The British public,’ she replied, ‘don’t simply resort to violent unrest in the face of challenging economic circumstances.’ Less than a year later,...

Over the last few months two publications have made it possible, as never before, to attempt to understand the enigmatic William Godwin, the author of one of the great novels of the 18th century and of the founding text in the philosophy of anarchism, the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, the father of Mary Shelley, and the friend or acquaintance of almost everyone on the liberal left over 50...

This exhibition is an attempt to represent the work of one of the most long lived of British artists, whose career began in the aftermath of Culloden in 1746, and ended only six years before the Battle of Waterloo. As a teenager, through the influence of his elder brother, Thomas, himself a gifted artist and architect, Paul Sandby was taken on as a military draftsman for the Board of...

Dephlogisticated: Dr Beddoes

John Barrell, 19 November 2009

In 1794 Robert Watt, an Edinburgh wine merchant, together with a few associates, was arrested for allegedly framing a plot to seize the Edinburgh post office, the banks and the castle, and to issue a demand that George III dismiss the government of William Pitt and make peace with the French Republic. Just before the arrests, an English medical student studying in Edinburgh, John Edmonds...

The Positions He Takes: Hitchens on Paine

John Barrell, 30 November 2006

If any radical, misled by George Galloway’s description of Hitchens as ‘a drink-soaked former Trotskyite popinjay’, should suggest that this book was written out of vanity, he would surely be mistaken. A vain man would have taken care to write a better book than this: more original, more accurate, less damaging to his own estimation of himself, less somniferously inert.

Unwarranted: John Wilkes Betrayed

John Barrell, 6 July 2006

The last time I wrote for the LRB, I mentioned a speech made by Tim Collins, the then shadow education secretary, calling for a review of the teaching of history in schools. ‘Nothing is more important to the survival of the British nation,’ he had declared, ‘than an understanding among its young of our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles, foreign and domestic,...

In a speech given early last month, Michael Howard shared his thoughts on education with the Welsh Conservative Party Conference in Cardiff. He was mainly concerned with the problem of discipline. ‘Guess which class children are most likely to misbehave in?’ The answer turned out to be Citizenship. And which subject would best teach children ‘respect for authority and the...

The Reptile Oculist

John Barrell, 1 April 2004

John Taylor, the journalist, newspaper editor and poet, was born in 1757. His grandfather, the legendary ‘Chevalier’ Taylor, had been oculist to George II, and afterwards, so his grandson assures us, to ‘every crowned head in Europe’. He was as famous for his womanising as for his knowledge of ophthalmology, but most famous, perhaps, for his habit of prefacing every...

Divided We Grow: When Pitt Panicked

John Barrell, 5 June 2003

The London Corresponding Society was founded early in 1792 by a group of tradesmen who met in a pub off the Strand. The Society was to educate its members – expected to be artisans, mechanics, shopkeepers – about politics and history, and would function as a pressure group to persuade the Government to adopt the ‘Duke of Richmond’s plan’, the twin reforms of...

The popularity of what is known as ‘literary biography’ suggests that there is a large audience eager to read about literature, but one that is not to be persuaded that the works of their favourite authors can be understood only in the detailed historical context in which they were produced, or only in reference to some elaborate theory of writing or reading, or only in comparison...

Lever-Arch Inquisitor

John Barrell, 29 October 1998

When Raphael Samuel died, the second volume of his projected trilogy Theatres of Memory was left unfinished. Some of the longer essays it was intended to contain were unwritten or unannotated or barely begun. The list of contents was still provisional, and the editors have assembled this book mainly by reconstructing Samuel’s shifting intentions, partly by guessing at them. There is a section of his short articles on history in the National Curriculum, one of which suggests 1066 and All That as the appropriate textbook for a John MacGregor version of the history syllabus; another (mainly) on visiting heritage sites, which seems to belong to the first volume; another (mainly) on the politics of Britain in the Eighties, including two pleasingly irritable essays from 1982 on the emergence of the SDP which (I am writing during the New Labour Party Conference) have lost nothing of their bite after 16 years.

Putting Down the Rising

John Barrell, 22 February 1996

Early 19th-century Edinburgh had a lot less time for James Hogg than for the Ettrick Shepherd, the literary persona created partly by Hogg himself, partly by the tight circle that ran Blackwood’s Magazine. Comic, bibulous, full of naive folk-wisdom, easy to patronise, the Ettrick Shepherd was invented as a souvenir of the pastoral Lowlands, a survival whose presence among one of the Edinburgh literary élites could represent both the continuity of modern Scots culture and the impolite past it had left behind. The Ettrick Shepherd, though perhaps more pliable, certainly more reassuringly conservative than Burns had been, could not always be relied on to play this part, and had occasionally to be reminded of his place by editors, reviewers, even by himself. But he was much more comfortable to be with than James Hogg, the author of obsessive, experimental fictions which either satirised or ignored the decencies of polite letters. To some degree even these could be bowdlerised and domesticated, as many of them were in the Victorian collections of Hogg’s fiction published after his death, and passed off as written by ‘the Ettrick Shepherd’. But one in particular, and for my money the best of them – The Three Perils of Woman – was immediately recognised as irredeemable by its first reviewers, and until last year had never been reprinted.’’

The Argument from Design

John Barrell, 24 August 1995

The five videotapes of Simon Schama’s BBC 2 series Landscape and Memory must have been sent to me in a wrapping all too suspiciously plain. They never arrived, nicked, we presume, by a postal worker with a thing for blue movies. I like to think he wasn’t too disappointed. There was a lot more drapery than he could have wished or expected: in each of the programmes I remembered to record myself, the entire studio had been wrapped in muslin or bunting, by a designer whose notions of landscape art were mainly derived from Christo’s. But the energy, the excitement, the passion of Schama’s performance were beyond anything that the average nine-to-five professional porn star can usually manage (or so I gather).

The view from the street

John Barrell, 7 April 1994

In the early Eighties, the main debate – though quarrel might be the better word – among historians of British art in its ‘great century’, from Hogarth to Turner, was about landscape. But whatever the differences between them, the most vocal participants in this debate were all finally on the same side, arguing with a largely silent (either stunned or indifferent) opposition to establish that there was a politics of landscape painting, that it needed to be understood in the context of landownership, agricultural improvement, the management of the rural poor, the changing economic relation between town and country and so on. By the late Eighties that argument had apparently been won, and as the victors began to extend the field of their inquiry to portraiture, history painting, the conversation piece, so they began to fall out among themselves. Perhaps the main issue at stake was how to explain the apparent mismatch between the theories of painting most influential on 18th-century connoisseurs and critics, committed to the promotion of a public art of manly virtue and idealised forms, and the predominantly private, informal, even (as the century got older) feminised works which actually got produced.’

Grateful Dead

John Barrell, 22 April 1993

If anyone living in London around 1800 did not know Martin van Butchell by sight, Butchell himself was not to blame, for he used the most elaborate means to make himself conspicuous. At a time when almost no one but Jews wore beards, Butchell wore a long one – ‘full eight inches long’ – and insisted that women thought clean-shaven men were ‘incomplete’. He was in the habit of carrying a large white bone – it was, he claimed, a Tahitian club, invaluable for beating off anyone who sought to molest him. He rode round town on a white pony, painted sometimes with purple and black spots, sometimes purple all over. Butchell was an empiric who specialised in curing anal fistulae without surgery or the use of caustics or poultices; he also claimed to be able to cure impotence in men and barren ness in women. He displayed the embalmed body of his first wife in the parlour of his house in Mount Street. Every so often he look an entire column of the Morning Post to puff his practice, and his advertisements, written in an asthmatic, staccato prose with almost as many dashes as words, were an extraordinary and entertaining mixture of shameless boasting, radical politics, and testimonials from grateful patients whose every spelling mistake was faithfully preserved.’

When will he suspect?

John Barrell, 19 November 1992

I don’t quite know what to say about Angels and Insects. It consists of a pair of novellas, ‘Morpho Eugenia’ and ‘The Conjugial Angel’, which, like Possession, are set in Victorian England, and written in a free imitation of mid-19th-century literary English. My doubts are the obvious ones. It’s not that I can’t make up my mind about whether or not the work they do, of re-creation and creative imitation, is well done – much of the time it’s very well done, as well as I can imagine it could be. But even when it is, I’m not sure of the point of doing it, or of doing it more than once (just to see if it can be done). The idea behind these novellas seems to be something like the converse of the adage that if a thing is worth doing it’s worth doing well: if a thing can be done well, it must be worth doing. But the more successfully Byatt re-creates the Victorian novel of ideas, the more she persuades us of the irredeemable pastness of the past she re-creates, and the more the ideas she deals with, of determinism, individual freedom, the nature of life after death, seem to announce that these are no longer our concerns, at least not in this way, in these contexts, in these words and forms. The book seemed far more remote from me than any Victorian fiction, partly no doubt because of my awareness of the factitiousness of the enterprise, but also because that awareness was continually reinforced by the inevitable factitiousness of the style, which becomes Victorian at the cost of using too many formulas and too few resources, like Latin prose written by a thoroughly competent Latinist.’

Blame it on the French

John Barrell, 8 October 1992

Linda Colley’s new book is an attempt to discover and analyse the ingredients of British national identity as it was forged in the 18th century – ‘forged’ in the double sense of made up (for communities are imagined and imaginary things) and fashioned in the fire of battle. It is also an attempt to recover and understand the patriotism of ‘ordinary British people’, a patriotism she refuses to regard simply in terms of ideology, or as the result, for many, of variously mediated and unmediated forms of coercion, or as a primarily irrational response by the British to the experience of finding themselves members of the new nation created by the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. For Colley, such accounts of popular patriotism are the products of a massive retrospective condescension; they also fail to recognise that patriotism could be as much a force for political change as for conservatism.’

Make the music mute

John Barrell, 9 July 1992

Peter Ackroyd’s new novel is partly a narrative, partly a series of rhapsodies and meditations on the nature of English culture, written in the styles of various great authors. It is an important and a depressing book, its importance more or less in direct proportion to the depth of the gloom it sheds. With luck we may one day look back on it as the last ‘English’ novel.

Back of Beyond

John Barrell, 9 April 1992

‘If one thinks of appearances as a frontier, one might say that painters search for messages which cross the frontier: messages which come from the back of the visible. And this, not because all painters are Platonists, but because they look so hard.’ Throughout this very varied book, and especially when writing on art, John Berger invites us to acknowledge the absolutes and universals which, he insists, lie behind the surfaces of things. He doesn’t have a great deal to say about those absolutes, and asks us to be content with terms like the essential, the invisible, the sacred or the real, as if the words themselves, floating free of any discernible theology or metaphysics, can answer the questions they raise by the simple urgency with which they are uttered. For me they can’t: and yet I found myself hurrying through these essays, eating them up, as if I really believed they could feed the hunger they created. The greater my disbelief, the more often it was suspended. For at his very best Berger can describe a painting, can evoke the aura emanating from the objects it represents, with such eloquence that he can inspire us, or me at least, with universal longings.

Diary: On Allon White

John Barrell, 29 August 1991

The autobiographical fragment by Allon White entitled ‘Too close to the bone’, which was published in 1989 in the London Review of Books, has just been republished by the LRB, this time in book form. Allon taught at the University of Sussex until he died in 1988 at the age of 37. He was the author of The Uses of Obscurity and (with Peter Stallybrass) The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. A collection of fugitive pieces, Carnival, Hysteria and Writing, will be published by Oxford next year with an introduction by Stuart Hall, with whom Allon studied at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.

Constable’s Plenty

John Barrell, 15 August 1991

The catalogue of the Constable exhibition which opened at the Tate in June is probably the glossiest, the heaviest, the most unwieldy volume ever to accompany an exhibition of the work of a British artist. It is also one of the dullest. Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams have resisted the tendency of the last fifteen years or so by which the catalogues of major exhibitions have often been presented as major interpretative studies of the artist and his times. Constable is a catalogue, nothing more. It maximises our knowledge of the facts of Constable’s work and minimises their significance. The matter of interpretation – the attempt to understand the works in the context of the world in which they were produced – is briefly addressed in the introduction, which represents all ‘readings’ of Constable’s work as either ‘literary’ or ‘sociological’ and as incapable (therefore) of being incorporated into ‘the main body of Constable scholarship’. The proper concerns of that scholarship are displayed in the catalogue entries themselves: admirably careful to identify the places represented, the date of each work, its relation with other works in Constable’s oeuvre, and no less careful to repel and refuse – though not to argue against – interpretations advanced by other scholars and critics.’

Gone to earth

John Barrell, 30 March 1989

The post-war saloon-bar modernisation programme began in the era of Macmillan and the Affluent Society. Like most such programmes in England, its main intention was to resist the modern: the character of a pub, or so the landlord would tirelessly reassure his regulars, was not going to be changed, just ‘brought out’, much as monosodium glutamate brings out the true flavour of food. It soon emerged, however, that every saloon bar in England shared the same character, founded on one simple contradiction. To a generation of interior designers for whom to modernise was the same thing as to antiquate, it was a place where everything was to be simultaneously out of date and up to it, pre- and post-industrial. Saloon-bar repro, undistressed and innocent of all intent to lie about its age, was a thoroughly economical way of signifying at one and the same time the venerably antique and the brand new. The twofold character of the bar was signalled also by the repeated opposition of the Dull and the Bright, the relentless contrast of dark wood and recently burnished metal. Tables stained in Jacobean oak were topped with easy-wipe, machine-dimpled copper. Wall-studs were newly exposed or newly installed, painted or stained black, and smothered with freshly-minted brass. On every wall the traditional black-and-gold plastic of Hogarth frames was screwed to the flock wallpaper. Ah, those would be the days, if they were no longer with us!

What we think about painting

John Barrell, 25 June 1987

‘At the very end of the 18th century and in the first years of the 19th, when the Imperial Republic of Venice had finally crumbled and the city itself was being handed backwards and forwards like a playing card between France and Austria, an exceedingly old Frenchman known as the Baron d’Hancarville used to enthral the guests who assembled regularly at the Salon, not far from the Rialto, of Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi, something of a blue-stocking, but above all one of the most famous society hostesses in Europe, at different times the friend of Byron, Foscolo and Canova.’ In this manner, Francis Haskell begins the third of his selected essays, written over the last twenty years and brought together in this volume. It is a manner which seems to parody, in its relentless accumulation of the circumstantial, a lost genre of writing, the late 19th-century ‘imaginary portrait’. And it reminds us immediately of what has always been so distinctive about his work: the sympathetic attention to patrons, collectors, connoisseurs and scholars whom more orthodox art historians, concerned more exclusively with the art-object, have consigned to oblivion; and the narrative style which manages to impart an extraordinary amount of detailed information while seeming to represent each essay as a short story. His writing can be read as an attempt to close the gap between historical scholarship and belles-lettres.


John Barrell, 2 April 1981

A family listening as their father reads them the Bible; a philosopher poring over a book; an artist, who turns his back on us as he draws; a secretary absorbed in taking dictation, and another absorbed instead in listening to the figure who dictates; a sleeping hermit. These figures, all of them represented in paintings exhibited in the Paris Salons of the 1750s, all share the same oubli de soi, are all engaged in ‘absorptive’ states which create the fiction that we, the spectators, are not there: in forgetting themselves, they forget us too. In proportion as the picture thus excludes the fictive spectator, it gives the actual spectator a greater access to the world of the painting, which becomes the more real precisely because it has apparently not been painted to be observed, but simply is, independent of the observer. The art of the Salons of the 1750s, argues Michael Fried, is much preoccupied by such images of absorption, a preoccupation which was registered and admired by contemporary critics: but the very fact that it was thus registered made the problem of establishing the reality of the image, by the illusion of negating the spectator’s presence, increasingly difficult, and so increasingly urgent to solve. Accordingly, in the 1760s and after, painters in France became less concerned to depict states of concentration, often in private and intimate contexts, and turned instead to the representation of ‘grandly pathetic action and expression’. But the basic, ‘ontological’, nature of their concern, with the relation of object and beholder, did not change, as the character of their paintings became increasingly dramatic, yet anti-theatrical in the sense defined by Diderot in his criticism of French theatre and his suggestion that it should learn – from painting – that as soon as an actor turns to address the audience, we can no longer believe in the reality of what we are witnessing.

Gainsborough’s Woodmen

John Barrell, 18 December 1980

Gainsborough’s ‘Woodman carrying faggots’


Cow Pie

30 November 2006

John Barrell writes: Jennifer Verner claims that I made an error of fact only in the case of John Frost. Hitchens said he was ‘secretary of the London Corresponding Society’. I said he was too posh to have been a member of that society, whose secretary was the shoemaker Thomas Hardy. Verner replies that Hitchens was using the word ‘secretary’ in a sense described by the OED...


15 August 1991

‘The argument,’ says Jon Bate (Letters, 12 September), of his Romantic Ecology, ‘was that it might now be useful to read Wordsworth with the grain … instead of against it.’ It might well be: but first Professor Bate has to show us how he knows which way the grain runs in Wordsworth’s writing, and why he is so sure that his intentions and Wordsworth’s are the...

In the 1790s revolutionaries on both sides of the Channel abandoned wigs and powder for hair worn au naturel. The English jacobin John Thelwall, tried for treason in 1794, cut his short in the...

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Great Palladium: treason

James Epstein, 7 September 2000

According to the English statute of treasons drawn up in 1351, it was an offence to ‘compass or imagine the death of our lord the king’. The meaning of these strange words was already...

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Into the Gulf

Rosemary Hill, 17 December 1992

No one ever failed more completely to be the hero of his own life than the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, for whom heroism was an obsession. He used his own head as a model for Christ, Solomon,...

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Elizabeth’s Chamber

Frank Kermode, 9 May 1991

De Quincey, who declared in his Suspiria that remembered dreams were ‘dark reflections from eternities below all life’, would not have been surprised that modern critical analysts try...

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Chris Baldick, 10 November 1988

Academic publishers in Britain are relying increasingly upon the series of monographs, a form which permits the development of brand loyalty and which allows a few excellent literary...

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A Republic of Taste

Thomas Crow, 19 March 1987

We inhabit at present a culture that assigns absolute priority to the simple existence of an art object over anything we might find to think or say about it. The latest overnight phenomenon in...

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Literature and the Left

Marilyn Butler, 18 August 1983

It is a surprise to find Raymond Williams, in the year of his retirement as Professor of Drama at Cambridge, editing a series called ‘Literature in History’. In a writing career that...

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Solitary Reapers

Christopher Salvesen, 5 June 1980

How salutary to feel guilty about enjoying paintings of the English landscape and peasantry. One aim of Dr Barrell’s book is to animate out suspicions about the difference between the...

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