Commerce governed by luxury

During the eighteenth century the concept of luxury in a modern commercial society meant luxury was anything that was not a necessity and enjoying luxurious excess was a way to embrace modern comfort, convenience, sociability, splendid taste, aesthetics, and refinement.With improvements in transport and manufacturing technology, opportunities for buying and selling became faster and more efficient than ever before and with the rapid growth of towns and cities, shopping became an important part of everyday life. Social status was conveyed by visible displays of consumer goods and fashion and eventually luxury gradually lost its former associations with corruption and came to include production, trade, and the refining influence of extreme commodities. Entertainment through wining and dining remained fashionable among the wealthy and even the poorest members of society were able to partake in most forms of lavish entertainment. Most eighteenth century cities had shops and taverns where meals could be bought cheaply and drinks such as coffee and alcoholic beverages could be consumed. The newly transportable world of extravagant goods to cities concluded the unimportance of a commercial society and individuals were given honor and status according to the clothes they wore and the sophisticated items they possessed.

The association of luxury and trade opened a much broader debate of commercial expansion and consumer society and luxury was increasingly seen in terms of economic advantage for Britain.  National industry and the wealth of the nation lay in its ability to increase the quantity of necessaries and conveniences which its labor could produce or exchange relative to its population.  Hume held luxury as a refinement in the gratification of the senses and an incentive to the expansion of commerce which would make available to all persons not just the necessaries of life, but its conveniences. The consumer incentives offered by world trade provided the drive to domestic economic development.   According to Hume in his essay, Of Refinement of the Arts: “The increase and consumption of all the commodities, which serve to be ornament and pleasure of life, are advantageous to society; because, at the same time what they multiply those innocent gratifications to individuals, they are a kind of storehouse of labour, which, in the exigencies of state, may be turned to public service” (272).   This statement promotes the belief that luxury nourished commerce and industry and helped to make the poor rich through various forms of work including agriculture and trade, creating a middle class in Britain for the first time, which made the gap between the classes more narrow.  Indulgence was not just about goods, but about social behavior and it was progressively perceived as a sociable activity, fashioned by cities and shared in by the middling and upper classes of society.

While in London our class was able to visit Sir John Soane’s Museum which was formerly the home of the neo-classical architect Sir John Soane. The museum is in the Holborn area of central London, near Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It holds many drawings and models of Soane’s projects and the collections of paintings, drawings, and relics that he accumulated.  The domed ceiling of the Breakfast Room, inset with convex mirrors, has influenced architects from around the world and the Library-Dining Room reflects the influence of Etruscan tombs and perhaps even gothic design in its repertoire of small pendants like those in fan vaulting.

The Study holds a collection of Roman architectural fragments and the two external courtyards, the Monument Court and Monk’s Yard contain an array of architectural fragments. This lovely but small museum gives visitors the opportunity to see the diverse collections of Sir John Soane and the rather amazing buildings which he remodeled to house them. The collections are exactly as he left them in the 18th century, beautifully presented in a rather cluttered fashion.  The collection is luxurious in the fact that the museum represents his exquisite and eccentric taste. Every corner, nook, and cranny has been filled with trinkets, artifacts, fragments of Gothic architecture, and paintings.  Incomprehensible things have been done to the internal layout of the house to create unexpected passageways and galleries, illuminated by skylights and a multitude of mirrors.  Soane took pleasure in collecting different historical pieces and creating beauty, while others concerned with indulgences were focused on living luxuriously and fulfilling personal pleasures and desires.

Eighteenth century Edinburgh also has excellent examples of extravagance which were in full swing during the Enlightenment Period. Modern day Georgian House, was completed in 1796 and was purchased for £1,800 by John Lamont to serve as his townhouse to be used during the social season. Even though John Lamont was a relatively rich man, due to his extravagant lifestyle his financial troubles began to add up and in 1817 he sold Georgian house for £3,000, giving up on his inner-city pursuits. Georgian House has been restored to exemplify what the house would have looked like when the Lamont family occupied it during the late eighteenth century.

The Drawing Room is located at the front of the house, overlooking Charlotte Square garden and it runs the full width of the house. It is where the family would have entertained guests on a more lavish scale and there are many fine paintings on the walls, some by well-known artists. The room is also equipped with a neo-classical marble fireplace which enhances the extravagance of the entertaining space. As it is located in Edinburgh’s new town, this stylish late eighteenth century Georgian town home is characteristic of the area’s architectural style and represents the need the wealthy of Edinburgh had to emerge from the slums of old town into a more spacious setting.

In Smollett’s account, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, his character Bramble has this to say of the Edinburghians: “I have discovered among them uncommon pains taken to display their fine linen, of which…they have a great plenty, their furniture, plate, housekeeping, and variety of wines…are profuse…A burgher of Edinburgh, not content to vie with a citizen of London, who has ten times his fortune, must excel him in the expense as well as elegance of his entertainments” (234). Smollett is drawing attention to the weakness of vanity, which was a real distress during the enlightenment because of the pursuit of luxuries. Edinburgh is also described as being full of people and carriages; all who want to pass through to experience the luxury and exchange of goods it has to offer.

In From a Picture of England, German historian Johann W. de Archenholtz states: “If … the natural consequences of luxury and superabundance of wealth, were to be reformed, the effects would be very pernicious to the trade and commerce of a country” (598). This opinion gained popularity as the age of reason matured; discontinuing the want of expensive comforts was more commonly believed to be detrimental to the prosperity of a country’s economic condition. If one looks at it in this light, luxury is the use men make of wealth and industry to assure themselves of a pleasing existence; however, it is not simply an economic marvel, but the central moral and political issue of modernity.


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