Much of my work focuses on how more and more people in Britain in the eighteenth century sought to improve technological processes and create more valuable products, thereby becoming innovators. They each received, in my view, an improving mentality: everywhere, and anywhere, they saw room for improvement. But I’m often asked whether innovators also tried to improve fields other than technology.
The answer is certainly yes. Take William Fairbairn, later an inventor of machinery. Fairbairn, when just a teenager, developed a crush on a girl in a nearby village and tried to reverse-engineer the correspondence published in a magazine between two lovers, so as to better flirt with her. He worked methodically, reading a published letter, sketching out a reply, and then comparing it to the reply that was published. Thus, he later recounted, he tried to make romance “subservient to the means of improvement”.
Another favourite example is that of William Cecil, inventor of a working internal combustion engine (as early as 1820), as well as of telescopes, animal traps, ear trumpets, and a tool for drawing teeth. But Cecil’s non-technological improvements were to his work as a vicar. He tried to improve the quality of hymns, for which he compiled detailed lists of tunes, and for which he devised a system to classify their quality:
A) a style pure, grave, ecclesiastical (first rate / very good / good)
B) a style solid, lively, and popular (very good / good / common)
C) a style lax, vulgar or secular (popular and pleasing / passable / inferior)
The work of a clergyman does not seem amenable to improvement. After all, improvement implies that there is a known function that may be performed better. It is goal-oriented. A machine, for example, may work faster, more precisely, more consistently, more durably, at a larger scale, or at a cheaper cost. When applied to technology, what counts as improvement is usually quite obvious.
The quality of hymns, on the other hand, seems too subjective. People differ as to what counts as being “better”. The problem applies to literature, to poetry, or to art. There is technique, to be sure — the precision of a brushstroke, the consistent mixing of a colour — but the overall quality of a work may be assessed by too many different standards, some of them perhaps contradictory. Improvement cannot easily be distinguished from mere variation.
Nonetheless, this problem did not stop people from trying. The portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (self-portrait above), in a series of lectures to the Royal Academy of Arts, which he founded, set out an ambitious program for how art was to be improved. The basic foundation was technique, the mechanical dexterity that was necessary to the implementation of designs. But it was in the second and third steps that Reynolds began to grapple with the problem of what counts as improvement.
He recommended that artists “amass a stock of ideas, to be combined and varied as occasion may require”. Thus, the new artist was to build up an arsenal of ideas that could later be relied upon when striving for forms that were better: “Invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory”.
But this collection of ideas had another, more important purpose: only by learning from old masters would new artists be able to form a sense of what was more perfect. The aim was to draw together “those perfections which lie scattered among various masters”, to “know and combine excellence”, so as to be “united in one general idea”. Reynolds did not recommend any particular forms or flourishes — the idea or sense of what was better had to be acquired tacitly , by “long and laborious comparison”.
Yet he did set out some guidelines for how and what to study. New artists were not simply to copy others, but to learn how to select and discern what was better about them. And new artists would learn best from the old masters, not the recent: “the duration and stability of their fame is sufficient to evince that it has not been suspended upon the slender thread of fashion and caprice, but bound to the human heart by every tie of sympathetic approbation”. Study of the old masters was the way to cut through the temporary fads, to get to the heart of what timelessly and universally captures the imagination.
After long and careful study, the artist would appear inspired — “supposed to have ascended the celestial regions, to furnish his mind with this perfect idea of beauty”. Only then, according to Reynolds’s program, could the artist finally recognise what counts as an improvement. Only then could art be improved.
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