DA The Guardian
James Fenton on the creation of canons
Some things that you imagine could never be pinned down can be fixed with extraordinary accuracy, although whether it is true that Petrarch was the first recorded individual to climb a mountain for its own sake I do not know. The late Francis Haskell reckoned that the idea of old masters (great painters of a past era whose works were classics of their kind) grew up in Italy during the late 16th century, and was given official sanction by a Florentine decree of 1602 that banned the export from Florence of any major work by any one of 18 named artists
The list given in the decree provides a handy example of a canon. It includes Michelangelo, Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, Leonardo, Bronzino, Titian, Correggio and Parmigianino. The first approbatory use of the term old master, however, belongs to a much later age. It can be found in a Christie's auction catalogue of February 1777: "Superb Collection of Pictures ... and Capital Drawings by Old Masters, the property of Signor Biondi, going abroad." Full acceptance of the expression belongs to the 1790s.
The first retrospective exhibition of a living painter's work - a loan exhibition in the modern sense, borrowing paintings from private collections - was devoted to the landscape artist Joseph Vernet in Paris in 1783. Although it was opened by the Comte d'Artois, the brother of the king, it was largely ignored by the press and, amazingly, by the artist himself, who never visited it and never even refers to it in his private diaries. It was supposed to have been a great honour - unprecedented since the days of Raphael - but it is possible that Vernet, by then a rather repetitive painter, was horrified at the thought of his shortcomings being so brutally exposed.
Resistance to the idea of paying tribute to great artists of the past was always strong among English painters, and it was not until 1813 that Sir Joshua Reynolds's memory was celebrated by an exhibition. He had died in 1792. Never before, Haskell tells us in The Ephemeral Museum, in any country, had the achievements of a past master been honoured in this way. But the Royal Academy refused to lend to the show on the grounds that "the plan of exhibiting a collection of pictures by Sir J Reynolds at the British Institution during the Exhibition of the Royal Academy [would be] invidious towards artists of the present day".
In printed literature, the first canonical series of texts were those of the Greek and Latin writers, the "Classics". Modern series of classics of various languages, such as Penguin Classics or Oxford World's Classics, belong to a tradition almost as old as western printing. The first pocket-sized volumes, renowned for their beautiful, clear print and reliable texts, were printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice starting in 1501 with texts of Virgil, Juvenal and Persius. The idea was to hold them in the hand and learn them by heart.
That kind of printing remained exemplary for centuries afterwards. The Dutch publishers, the Elzevirs, worked in this tradition. Between 1625 and 1649, they brought out a series of tiny books devoted to the various republics in history. There were 35 of them, and each volume gave details of the history, topography and economy of each republic. This was the first inexpensive series, the equivalent of the modern quality university press paperback.
I'm relying now on a new account by Thomas F Bonnell of the publishing of the classics of English poetry, The Most Disreputable Trade (Oxford). Here we find confirmed the view that the first English author to have his works published as if he were a classic was Ben Jonson in 1616. Shakespeare followed in 1623 with the First Folio. Next, in 1647, came Beaumont and Fletcher.
These were isolated examples of luxury printing. It would have been very hard - in some cases impossible - to put together a "library" of English poetry either in the 17th or in the early 18th century. The texts had not been printed or kept in print. Nor was it possible, given the restrictive practices of copyright, for a publisher to do for English poetry what Manutius or the Elzevirs had done for the classics: to publish the whole canon in a series.
Nonetheless, the idea grew up that there was such a modern canon, expressed in visual form in the busts and statues that were used to adorn libraries, and in such monuments as William Kent's Temple of British Worthies at Stowe (from about 1735), in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, and in paintings and engravings.
It was time to invent English literature - but to whom should we give that honour? One authority says it should go to the publisher Jacob Tonson (1655/6-1736) for his reprints of Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton, and his cultivation of Dryden. Another suggests that the generations of Dryden and Pope were felt in their day to have invented English literature. A slightly later date, however, since we are talking about knowing precisely when something happened, has plausibility.
February 22 1774 is when the House of Lords delivered a ruling that brought to an end the idea of "perpetual property", and in effect brought authors such as Shakespeare and Milton out of copyright, and opened the floodgates to cheap editions. However, Bonnell, in his highly detailed study, says this is exaggerated. The cheap editions began a little earlier, not in London, but in Glasgow. Robert and Andrew Foulis were the pioneers in 1765, followed by William Creech in Edinburgh in 1773.
This puts us in mind of the title of a work by the Scottish poet Robert Crawford: The Scottish Invention of English Literature (a good title, like The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: when one thinks up such a title, it's worth writing the book to go with it). It was in Scottish universities in the 18th century that the study of English literature began, and it was in Scotland that the multi-volume series of pocket-sized English poets were instituted, from which the Penguin, Everyman and Oxford World's Classics are directly descended. English literature was invented, in 1765, by "the Glasgow Elzevirs".