British Baroque: Power and Illusion @ Tate Britain

British Baroque: Power and Illusion covers art and architecture (and gardens and gimmicks and sculpture) from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the death of Queen Anne in 1714. The big word in the title is Baroque but it’s a problematic term and by the end of the exhibition I was left wondering, in my noin-scholarly way, whether any of the art on display here actually qualifies for the description ‘Baroque’.

The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio (c.1674) The Royal Collection / HM Queen Elizabeth II

1. Dates

Traditionally the term Baroque denotes Power, Religious and Royal Power. Baroque art and architecture is big, heavy and imposing.

The Baroque is one of the major Periods of Western Art, preceded by the Renaissance and Mannerism and followed by the Rococo. The dates usually given are:

  • Early Renaissance 1400-1495
  • High Renaissance 1495-1520
  • Mannerism 1520-1600
  • the Baroque 1600-1740
  • Rococo 1730s-1760s
  • Neo-Classicism 1760-1830

The convention is to date the Baroque from the early 1600s, at least in Italy and on the Continent. It is a striking decision by the curators to delay it as late as 1660 for this exhibition, though you can see why – it makes the story a lot simpler.

Some outliers and pioneers may have been introducing ‘baroque’ styles into the English court in the 1620s and 1630s, but then all artistic and architectural endeavour was suspended during the great cataclysm of the British civil wars, which lasted:

  • from the rebellion in Scotland in 1637
  • through the civil wars in England (1642-48)
  • the execution of King Charles I in 1649
  • continued wars in Scotland and Ireland
  • the rule of Oliver Cromwell from 1653 till his death in 1658,
  • the collapse of the Parliamentarian regime 1658-59, and the triumphant restoration of Charles II in 1660

Quite obviously the commissioning of royal art and architecture was put on hold for the whole of this wartorn and then republican period.

Starting the exhibition in 1660 with the restoration of Charles II provides a neat, clean starting point to a period which was distinctive in music (Purcell), literature (Dryden, Restoration Comedy) and philosophy (John Locke), as well as architecture (Christopher Wren) and art (Peter Lely) – the subject covered in this exhibition.

Plus – England was always late. Stuck up here on the remote periphery of Europe, England was late to experience all the trends which originated in the Mediterranean heartland. Thus Renaissance art and literature was flourishing in Italy in the 1400s but we date ‘our’ Renaissance period from the 1530s or later. Literature students tend to equate it with the reign of Queen Elizabeth which started in 1558, getting on for 150 years after the Renaissance started in Italy, by which time the Italians had been all the way through the Renaissance, High Renaissance and Mannerism. During the 18th century the motor for artistic innovation moved to France and stayed there until, arguably, the First World War, maybe beyond.

Anyway, for centuries the Europeans were waaaay ahead of us Brits. Mind you we had something they didn’t have, which was an empire to set up and run.

2. The term ‘Baroque’

Its origin is obscure. It seems to derive from the Portuguese barocco meaning, ‘irregular pearl or stone’, i.e. a technical term in jewellery for a kind of pearl which was not perfectly round: for a pearl which was ugly and misshapen.

It seems that early uses of the term ‘baroque’ were all negative and described unnecessary complication and ugliness. The word was never used by the artists or architects working during the period; it wasn’t a self-conscious movement like Cubism.

Baroque is a term which was imposed long time later, late-eighteenth century or nineteenth century historians who, looking back, needed terms to assign to all the ‘period’s they wanted to divide art history into.

The Annunciation by Benedetto Gennari (1686) The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida

3. The origins of the baroque in the Counter-Reformation

Articles about the Baroque all point to its origins in the Councils of Trent, the organisational centre of the Counter-Reformation.

In 1517 Martin Luther had nailed his theses about theology to the door of his local church (in fact a traditional way to announce a theological debate). Luther called for a sweeping revolution in all aspects of European Catholicism, sweeping away scores of central dogmas and traditions and ceremonies which he regarded as later additions, corrupt folklore and legends and superstitions and inventions which had been grafted onto what was originally the pure and spartan teachings of Jesus as recorded in the four gospels.

Many German princes and north European kings took Luther’s teachings as an opportunity to throw off the shackles of Catholic rule from Italy, and within a generation a host of independent ‘Protestant’ churches and states had been established across northern Europe, not least in England where Henry VIII threw off the restrains of rule from Italy by an Italian pope and declared himself head of a newly-styled Church of England.

One aspect of the Protestant revolt was aesthetic. In rejecting the cults of saints and relics – the excessive worship of Mary Mother of God and a host of other Catholic traditions – the really revolutionary Protestants (nicknamed the Puritans) cleaned out their churches, smashing statues, defacing medieval paintings, burning wooden rood screens and so on in an orgy of iconoclasm.

Result: by the 1550s or so European Christianity existed in two forms, a stripped-down militant white-walled protestant form, and a defiantly gold candelabra-ed, smells and bells Catholicism with statues of saints and the crucified Christ and a blue-robed Mary cramming their churches.

So the Catholic authorities called a series of congresses at Trent (Trento in northern Italy) to thrash out just what they did agree on – in light of Protestant attacks to redefine every element of Catholic theology and practice, to create a new, stronger, more centralised ideology in what came to be known as the counter-Reformation.

Among a host of theological and administrative rules which were set down, emerged a belief that Catholic churches, Catholic aesthetics, should defy the know-nothing, philistine, iconoclastic, whitewash-everything protestants and build their churches on an even more elaborate scale. Catholic architecture should be enormous, characterised by domes soaring into heave and festooned with flocks of angels and risen Christs flying over the heads of the congregation. Every nook should be full of florid statues of saints in the agony of their martyrdoms, and the authorities encouraged a style where every fold of their robes and cloaks became more and more elaborate, intricate and charged with emotion.

Italian Catholicism deliberately set out to be as flamboyant, as big, as majestic and as over-awing as could be achieved in buildings, statuary and painting. This is the origins of the Baroque.

Examples of the Baroque: from top left: The interior of the church of Santa Maria, Rome; The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio; The Trevi Fountain in Rome, designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi and completed by Giuseppe Pannini in 1732.

4. Royal Power

Not surprisingly, kings liked this style. ‘Big, imposing, overpowering, yep that’s me’ was the thought of rulers all over Europe, who proceeded to commission artists and architects to copy this new, super-solid, massive and imposing architectural and artistic style in their realms, from Poland to the Palace of Westminster.

It’s important to remember that Charles II was very much alive during the events of the civil war and the Puritan Republic and where was he living? In the French court of Louis XIV (in fact the extended reign of Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King more than matches the entire period covered in this exhibition, he reigned from 1645 to 1715.)

Thus Charles didn’t just return in triumph to the palace of Westminster and all the rights and accoutrements of a king of England; he returned:

  • with his head full of European theories about the Divine Right of Kings
  • with the example of Louis XIV firmly in his mind about how to be such a king
  • and with his imagination packed with the architectural and artistic achievements of the French courtly builders and painters

It was under Louis XIV in the 1680s that the Palace of Versailles was redesigned and rebuilt to become the largest and grandest royal palace in Europe.

The British Baroque

So that’s a brief background to the ascent of the supposed Baroque style in Britain. But was it really Baroque? Here’s one of the thousands of definitions you can find on the internet:

The Baroque style is characterized by exaggerated motion and clear detail used to produce drama, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, and music. Baroque iconography was direct, obvious, and dramatic, intending to appeal above all to the senses and the emotions.

If the Baroque is anything it is dramatic, operatic and exuberant, grand gestures in enormous buildings, huge and heavy marble statues, imposing porticos. Histrionic is a good word.

But after a few sort-of grand paintings in the first room (such as The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio at the top of this review), the exhibition leads into a room of court beauties, a handful of Charles II’s many mistresses – and ‘grand’, ‘dramatic’ and ‘exuberant’ are not really the words which describe these paintings at all.

Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, probably Charles Fitzroy, as the Virgin and Child by Peter Lely (c.1664). National Portrait Gallery, London

There’s a nice pillar in this painting and, to those in the know about painterly symbolism, the Duchess of Villiers is wearing the bright red and blue traditionally associated in Renaissance painting with the Virgin Mary, but… It’s not really ‘grand’, ‘melodramatic’ or ‘histrionic’, is it? In fact Barbara’s snub nose, poky little mouth and bulbous eyes are more homely than grand and intimidating.

The seed of doubt whether the term ‘baroque’ really applies to the British art and architecture of the period is sown early and crops up throughout the rest of the exhibition.

The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio at the top of this review is certainly an elaborate allegorical composition and contains a neat pyramid of tumbling sea nymphs and sea goddesses and so on, but the figure the whole composition leads you to… Charles II’s black moustachioed face of an old debauchee… to me it completely lacks awe and grandeur and dignity.

To me Charles looks a bit of a twerp, as if his face has been photoshopped onto a foreign fantasia.

There’s a moment in the room devoted to architecture where we learn about the murals the painter Sir James Thornhill was commissioned to create to decorate the dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent new St Paul’s Cathedral. They are a series of large murals depicting scenes from the life of St Paul, so far so good. But then we learn that he rendered them in black and white in order to be restrained and dignified and to suit the Protestant atmosphere of what was, in effect, the world’s first Protestant cathedral.

Restrained? That’s like saying we’re going to an all-night Brazilian samba party and we’re going to drink lemonade and dance the waltz.

It is completely against the spirit of the Baroque. The baroque is drama and opera and huge flights of angels soaring up into vast church domes. But that isn’t the English spirit at all. The English spirit then as now is faaar more sensible and restrained and undemonstrative.

This was highlighted by the simple lack of religious imagery throughout the show. Of the exhibition’s ten rooms, only one is devoted to religious imagery and that one is virtually empty. The only interesting thing in it is a wonderful carved wooden cover for a font by Grinling Gibbons which is all Italianate grapes and leaves, with a few winged putti holding up the swags, but there’s nothing Christian about it. Certainly none of the agony and ecstasy and religious melodrama of the Italian Baroque.

Font cover from All Hallows by the Tower church, London, by Grinling Gibbons, carefully avoiding all religious imagery whatsoever

Instead, what comes over is how British and foreign painters domesticated the brash Italian style for a culture which is far more indoors, domestic and family-orientated.

The Children of John Taylor of Bifrons Park by John Closterman (1696) National Portrait Gallery, London

There’s as much in the exhibition about the late 17th century fashion for trompe l-oeil optical illusions in paint as there is for Christian imagery – for the melodrama, the agony in the garden, the upturned eyes of adoring angels and the flurried cloaks of muscular saints.

A quick review

Here’s a quick overview of the ten rooms and my highlights:

Room 1 – Restoration

Artists who returned with King Charles and became associated with his reign included Peter Lely, the King’s Principal Painter; Samuel Cooper, his official miniaturist; and the mural painter, Antonio Verrio.

Miniaturist? Yes there are a number of miniature portraits of Charles and leading courtiers. Couldn’t help thinking that the entire concept of a miniature is the exact opposite of the Baroque spirit.

Room 2 – The Restoration Court

Classy but surprisingly restrained full length portraits of half a dozen of Charles’s mistresses and assorted courtiers, including John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the rudest poet in English, one of whose poems begins:

Much wine had passed, with grave discourse
Of who fucks who, and who does worse
(Such as you usually do hear
From those that diet at the Bear),
When I, who still take care to see
Drunkenness relieved by lechery,
Went out into St. James’s Park
To cool my head and fire my heart.
But though St. James has th’ honor on ‘t,
‘Tis consecrate to prick and cunt…

What is really striking about these portraits is nothing to do with power and Magnificence, and everything to do with the extremely stylised depictions of their faces. They all look the same. All the women have the same rounded faces, long noses, white skin relieved by heavily rouged cheeks and, above all, the same rather slitty and very bulbous eyes, the overlids and underlids of the eyes deliberately shadowed to create a sense of an unhealthy prominence of the eyeball.

Two Ladies of the Lake Family by Sir Peter Lely (c.1660) Tate

Room 3 – The religious interior

As I’ve mentioned, a thin collection. Some surviving paintings and wall paintings from he Catholic chapels in London, at St James’s Palace and Somerset House, where the Catholic consorts Catherine of Braganza (Charles’s wife) and Mary of Modena (James II’s wife) enjoyed freedom of worship, provided a focal point for the Catholic community.

Room 4 – Illusion and Deception

Much more fun, much more interesting, and much more English, is this room full of fashionable trompe l-oeil optical illusions including a series of paintings by Edward Collier of items apparently pinned to a real wooden board or held in place by tape, which appear astonishingly lifelike and three-dimensional.

There’s an elaborate peepshow by Samuel van Hoogstraten: you look through a little pinhole to the side and see what looks like a realistic intrior of a house with rooms giving off in front of you and to the side. There’s Chatsworth’s famous violin painted as if hanging on the back of a door, and the hyper-real flower paintings of Simon Verelst which looked so real that they fooled the diarist Samuel Pepys.

A Vase of Flowers by Simon Verelst (1669)

Room 5 – Wren and Baroque architecture

Here, in the magnificent churches designed by Christopher Wren and his student Nicholas Hawksmoor, with the Queens House and other buildings built at Greenwich and plans to rebuild Whitehall Palace after it burned down, and the country houses designed by the later John Vanbrugh, you approach something like the continental Baroque in scale and ambiton.

But as the story of Sir James Thornhill’s murals indicates, a European style which has been restrained, watered down and made sensible.

Room 6 – Country mansions and courtly gardens

How Hampton Court was remodelled to be more like Versailles and William III’s grand Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, Chatsworth and Bleinheim, the grandest of grand English country houses.

Paintings of huge, geometric, symmetric formal gardens.

Room 7 – Painted interiors

This was maybe my favourite room. It contains a photo of the vast and sumptuous mural on the ceiling of the dining room at Old Greenwich Palace, and is lined by preparatory paintings of other vast mythological murals by the likes of Antonio Verrio and Louis Chéron and Sir James Thornhill.

Apparently it was the arrival of seasoned muralist Verrio in England in 1672 which sparked a new fashion for grandiose murals, and it’s in these (essentially private) murals, vast compositions awash with Greek mythical or allegorical figures, that you get closest to saying the English had a Baroque period or style.

Lower Hall ceiling of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich by Sir James Thornhill

But what I really liked was the preparatory sketches. There’s a handful of sketches and some works in huge sketchbooks, in which Thornhill sketches out his initial designs and compositions for various murals.

What I liked about them is that these rough sketches often had more energy, vim and dynamism that the finished works.

In particular, the human shapes and faces are rough outlines and, somehow, have more character and vibrancy than the smooth finished oil paintings, in many of which Thornhill has had to defer to the peculiar contemporary style of painting restoration faces.

His sketches are fun, mad profusions of tumbling cartoon characters. This one shows a grand mythological scene which was clearly designed to cover the wall of a staircase (hence the 45 degree angle at the left): at the bottom right Venus is being born from the waves; watched from the left by Neptune King of the oceans holding his triton; and above her a frothing scramble of other gods and goddesses.

A Ceiling and Wall Decoration (circa 1715-25) by Sir James Thornhill

Room 8 – Beauty

A striking and inventive piece of curating in which the Tate has taken seven of eight massive, full-length portrait paintings of English society beauties and made an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the kind of grand drawing room they would have adorned. They’re selections from two series of paintings:

  • The Hampton Court Beauties, a set of eight full-length portraits, commissioned by Mary II in 1690–1
  • The Petworth Beauties, commissioned by the 6th Duke and Duchess of Somerset for their country mansion Petworth House

n a way, though, the real star of the room is the huge heavy wood furniture, adorned with gold clasps and legs modelled from what appear to pregnant black woman (!?) and which are bearing a set of massive Chinese vases. There are candelabra o the walls and one can only wish the curators had had the courage of their convictions and turned the main lights off and installed replica candles so we really could have seen what paintings like this would have looked like most of the time back in the 1690s.

Room 9 – Triumph and glory

Critics could easily complain doesn’t really describe or explain the complicated and momentous political events of the years 1660 to 1700, which saw not just the restoration of Charles II, but:

  • Charles’s death in 1685 and the succession of his brother, as James II
  • The rebellion of Charles’s eldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, who raised an army in the West Country, before being crushed by James’s army.
  • The so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 when James announced that he was going to raise his son by his second wife Mary of Modena a a Catholic i.e. the next in line to the English throne would definitely be a Catholic. At this point a cabal of leading aristocrats decided to overthrown James and invited William Prince of Orange (a state in the Low Country) to come and be King of Britain, using the fig leaf that Mary was the eldest daughter of James II, the king she helped to overthrow.
  • William went on to defeat the Irish at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689, a defeat/victory which is commemorated to this day in Northern Ireland.
  • And the creation of the Bill of Rights and other constitutional devices which ensured the supremacy of Parliament and other legal rights which made Britain one of the most advanced and liberated nations on earth.

But then this is an art exhibition and not a history lesson.

The advent of William as King not only overthrew the House of Stuart but created two broad political parties among the political elite – those who remained true to the old Stuart line and came to be known as Tories, and those who moved to ingratiate themselves with the polemically Protestant new rule of this progressive king and came to be known as Whigs.

And it also drew Britain deep into European politics. We gained not only a new king but a new web of complex international alliances and enmities which this king brought with him, not least total opposition to the king of France’s ambitions for European hegemony.

And thus this room has paintings of William and various of his generals, in warlike pose, astride horses, in martial postures. The thing is… most of them are a bit rubbish. Here is a painting of Charles I on a horse by the genius Sir Anthony van Dyke.

Charles I with M. de St Antoine by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1633)

Now here is a painting of King William III, portrayed as the victor of one of his innumerable endless wars, by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

William III on horseback with allegorical figures by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1701)

The van Dyck has genuine grace and dignity and regality. The Kneller has many good effects, but it’s just nowhere nearly as good as the van Dyck. And there’s something about those high wigs for men which is just… ludicrous. And whereas Charles is accompanied by a real retainer the chocolate box angels and putti flying above William are ridiculous.

(To be precise, the allegorical figures are: Neptune on the far left; Ceres and Flora [goddesses of fertility and crops] in front of him; Astrae [Justice] and what looks like Mercury [messenger of the gods] above.)

Room 10 – The Age of Politics

So it was the constitutional and legal reforms which accompanied the Glorious Revolution which ushered in a new age. Formerly a king appointed his lead minister whose job it was to draw up policy and steer legislation through a mostly passive parliament until the increasing dissension which led up to the civil war.

Now it was agreed in law that parliamentary elections would be held every three years, and this ushered in a new era where groups and cabals of aristocrats came together to press for their own interests. It was the birth of parliamentary parties. And also the birth of an early form of journalism as new magazines arose to cater to the taste for reading about the ever-more complex political intriguing and jockeying which was going on, such as the original Spectator magazine, founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in 1711.

Thus the final room contains a massive and unflattering portrait of Queen Anne (reigned 1702 to 1714) along with portraits of the members of the various clubs which had their origins at this time, including Kneller’s portraits of members of the Whig Kit-Cat Club, and this fine body of podgy, bewigged men, the leading figures in the Whig Junto as depicted by John James Baker.

The Whig Junto by John James Baker (1710) Tate

Conclusion

If you watch the Antiques Roadshow or flick through popular history, nobody refers to an English ‘baroque’ period – the eras and styles they refer to are the Restoration, or Queen Anne, or Georgian periods and styles (the Georgian began at Queen Anne’s death in 1714).

And the exhibition certainly skimps on the enormous importance of the political events of the time, and skates very thinly over the momentous philosophical and scientific revolutions of the period – Newton discovering the laws of the universe and the nature of light, the Royal Society founded in 1660 and sponsoring all kinds of breakthrough in engineering, hydraulics, dynamics, the circulation of the blood and so on.

But then it’s an exhibition of art and architecture not a history lesson. And one of the most interesting lessons I took from it was how very unBaroque a lot of the art of this period was. In sharp contrast with the European Baroque, it was dedicatedly Protestant, unreligiose, unshowy, undramatic and often very tame and domestic in feel.

In fact walking slowly back through all ten rooms I came to the conclusion that in the entire exhibition there was only one real Baroque pieces, an enormous, fearfully heavy solid marble bust of Charles II made by the French-born, Genoa-based sculptor Honoré Pelle in 1684.

This it struck me, was grand, large, imposing, showed its subject in a moment of movement, dramatised by the extraordinary realism of the cloak of fabric flying around his shoulders. This, for me, was by far the most convincing and successful work of art in the exhibition.

Charles II by Honoré Pelle (1684) Victoria and Albert Museum

Promotional video

Curators

  • Tabitha Barber, Curator, British Art 1550-1750, Tate Britain
  • David Taylor, Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, National Trust
  • Tim Batchelor, Assistant Curator, British Art 1550-1750, Tate Britain

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling (2007)

‘We are now launching into a wide and boundless field, puzzled with mazes and o’erspread with difficulties.’
George Washington, autumn 1779

At 680 larger-than-usual pages, this is a very long, very thorough and very heavy book.

I bought it under the misapprehension that it would explain the economic and political background to the American War of Independence, which was a mistake. Almost a Miracle is a highly detailed account of the arguments about military strategy conducted by both sides in the war, and of the actual battles fought during the war.

In this respect its focus on the nitty-gritty of military engagements large and small follows straight on from the couple of books I recently read about its immediate predecessor, the Seven Years War:

The Seven Years War (1756-63)

Put simply, the result of the Seven Years War was that the British Army and its colonial and Indian allies won Canada from the French, seizing its key city, Quebec, and expelling the French from their would-be North American empire. Thus ensuring that America would be an English-speaking nation.

Britain won because:

  1. the British government threw many more men and resources at the war than the French
  2. the British colonists far outnumbered the French, 1.2 million Brits compared to 55,000 French

But the British government, led by William Pitt, had to borrow a lot of money to pay for these military campaigns and, as soon as the Seven Years War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, lost no time in trying to recoup their money from the colonists. A range of new taxes were introduced – via the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act and the Townshend Revenue Act – and existing taxes were collected more stringently.

The colonists didn’t like new taxes

The colonists didn’t like it. There was a long, steady rumble of complaint from the moment the new taxes were introduced in 1763 to the outbreak of war in 1775. A spectrum of dissenting opinion emerged among the colonists, from:

  • radicals like John Adams, who early grasped the need for complete independence from Britain
  • moderates, who accepted British rule but wanted the taxes lightened or lifted
  • Loyalists or so-called ‘Tories’, who accepted everything the British government demanded on the basis that they were loyal subjects of His Majesty and His Majesty’s government

Key way stations along the road to war were:

  • 1768 – the arrival of British troops in Boston, the most important port (and largest city) in the colonies, to support the collection of taxes
  • 5 March 1770 – ‘the Boston Massacre’, when an angry mob surrounded the British customs building, someone let off a shot, the soldiers panicked and killed five colonials
  • the 1773 Tea Act which aimed to promote tea from India in America and led to ‘the Boston Tea Party’ of 16 December, when American patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped £9,000 of East India Company tea into the Boston harbour
  • the four ‘Intolerable Acts’ passed by the British Parliament in May and June 1774, which stripped Massachusetts of self-government and judicial independence following the Boston Tea Party
  • the first Continental Congress in September 1774 when delegates were sent from all 13 colonies to the town hall in Philadelphia to discuss their response to the Intolerable Acts

Although critics of Lord North’s administration in the British Houses of Parliament fiercely criticised many of the British measures, although many British politicians spoke and wrote pamphlets in favour of greater moderation and understanding of the Americans, and although most of the American politicians were themselves conservative and favoured reconciliation with Britain – nonetheless, reading any timeline of the build-up to war gives an overwhelming sense of inevitability – of the Titanic steaming unstoppably towards the iceberg.

The two points of view were just irreconcilable:

  • The British king and his ministry thought they had spent a fortune, and lost a lot of men, defending colonists who paid only a fraction of the taxes which their cousins in Britain paid: it was time they coughed up.
  • The Americans thought victory in what they called ‘the French and Indian War’ had owed a lot to their own men and blood; they didn’t owe anyone anything. Plus, they had all grown up paying minimal taxes and so were outraged when the London government started imposing all kinds of new taxes and tolls on them and their imports.

American resentment crystallised into the expression ‘no taxes without representation’, meaning they refused to pay taxes imposed on them by a legislature 3,000 miles away, in which they had no say.

Because the outcome is so well-known, and because the extremists on both sides (especially the American patriots, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) went on to become such household names, it is most interesting to read about the moderates on both sides, those advocating for peace and compromise.

I learned that the Loyalist members of Congress got together an Olive Branch Petition to send to George III. Their belief that America could quite easily remain within the British Empire, with just a few tweaks and adjustments, have – like the rational, carefully argued opinions of so many moderates throughout history – disappeared from view.

Studying them carefully – putting yourself in their place and trying out their arguments – gives you insights into the fate of moderates in so many revolutions – the French or Russian ones, to name the big two; and by extension, helps you to understand the fate of moderates in modern political situations (America, Turkey, Britain, Iran).

The American War of Independence

This book, by its sheer length and the staggering accumulation of detail, really brings home that the American War of Independence was much longer than you tend to imagine – from first skirmishes to final peace treaty it lasted a surprising eight and a half years, from 19 April 1775 to 3 September 1783.

What should the Americans do?

I think the single most striking learning is that both sides didn’t know what to do or how to fight the war, an uncertainty which persisted right to the end.

Hostilities broke out because the British garrison in Boston was sent in April 1775 to confiscate munitions which Patriot militias had been building up in the towns and villages of Massachusetts.

Patriot spies got wind of this and set off on horseback to warn the militias, who were therefore armed and prepared by the time the 700 or so British soldiers reached the small towns of Lexington and Concord. Small engagements broke out at both places, before the British regulars were reinforced and marched together back to the safety of Boston, shot and sniped at all the way. Their blood up, the local militias rallied across Massachusetts and set up a siege of Boston. The war had, in effect, begun.

On June 14 1775 the Continental Congress voted to create the Continental Army and voted George Washington its commander-in-chief. When news of all this arrived back to London, the government sent a British Army force across the Atlantic under the command of General Howe. It was war.

But what should both sides do next? The biggest learning from the book is that both sides effectively made it up as they went along. I’m used to the Great War where the Allied aim was to defeat Germany on the Western Front, and the Second World War where the Allies demanded the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.

In both wars there were clear ‘fronts’ where the enemies fought, with the Allies pushing the Germans back from the Western Front in the Great War, with the Allies crushing Germany from east and west in the Second War, and pushing Japan back across Pacific islands towards her homeland in the East.

But in this war, where was the American homeland? Where could a knock-out blow be delivered?

And what did the Americans aim to achieve? Was it best to meet the British Army in a head-on, traditional-style battle and defeat it? When you put it like that, you see how unlikely it was that an army made of volunteers who’d spent most of their lives working on farms, with officers and NCOs having been appointed just a few weeks earlier, would be able to defeat the well-armed, well-drilled professional Brits.

So the Americans tended to seek smaller engagements where they had the advantage of surprise and knowledge of the territory – or otherwise they just retreated.

Washington early informed Congress that his would be a war of ‘posts’ (p.136) meaning small specific engagements, and that he would adopt the withdraw-and-fight-another-day tactics of the famous Roman general, Fabius Cunctator.

But not everyone agreed with Washington, and his headquarters was always riven by factions of officers arguing fiercely about strategy. It is the merit of a military history on this scale that it makes it quite clear that the American military command was permanently rife with debates and arguments, sometimes quite bitterly, about what to do, where to strike, when to pull back.

And, as it became clear that the war wouldn’t be over by Christmas, there were fierce and partisan arguments in Congress.

Not only were there divisions about how to fight but, more importantly, where. Were there ‘key colonies’ or areas which must not be ceded to enemy at any cost – and, if so, where? Was it vital to hold Boston, or to retire if the army was imperiled? Ditto New York: should Washington’s army defend New York come what may or, again, make a tactical withdrawal in the face of superior British forces, and live to fight another day?

What should the British do?

But while the Patriot side was riven by indecision and infighting about where to defend, where to retreat, and how much of a big battle to engage in, it was, if anything worse, on the British side.

In particular, there was a fundamental division between those who thought the British should fight with no quarter, ravaging and destroying the land as they went – as the Union army was to do in the Civil War – giving the retreating army nowhere to hide and wearing down the enemy’s agricultural infrastructure, teaching them who was boss – and others who thought that the only practical policy was to fight a civilised and limited war, in order to win the hearts and minds of men who were after all, in a sense, our cousins.

This is one of the main big learnings of the book –  that the men in charge of the British war effort hesitated and prevaricated over and over again, especially General William Howe, general in command of British forces from 1775 to 1777.

At several key moments, for example when he had cornered the American Army in New York, Howe hesitated to push his advantage – and so let the Americans escape.

Great Britain’s last best chance to destroy the Continental army and crush the American rebellion occurred in September 1776, but the opportunity slipped away through a series of monumental mistakes. (p.139)

Howe had been an MP in the Commons during the build-up to war, and had voted for conciliation and compromise with the rebels. While the hawks called for a slash and burn policy, Howe appears to have thought that the Americans were misled by a handful of fanatics and that, if only they could be dealt a bloody nose, the Congress and most of the population would suddenly realise the error of their ways, put down their weapons, and accede to His Majesty’s very reasonable demands.

So although Howe defeated Washington in a series of encounters designed to drive him out of New York, he deliberately let slip a couple of sitting duck opportunities to surround and annihilate his opponent. History remembers Washington as a great general but he was fighting an opponent who was reluctant to really comprehensively defeat him.

Indecisive battles

And so both the British and the Americans hesitated among a variety of choices before embarking on anything coherent enough to be termed a ‘campaign’. What is then notable is how many of these campaigns failed – it seems to the untutored reader to have been a war of failures rather than successes.

Thus the engagements at Lexington and Concord led the Americans to besiege Boston, which sounds like a big bold thing to do. But General Howe threatened to burn the city to the ground unless he was allowed to sail away unscathed, the Americans reluctantly gave in, and Howe sailed off with all his men. Hardly a victory.

Similarly, the Americans launched a twin-pronged campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada, from the British, with Major General Richard Montgomery capturing forts up Lake Champlain while Major General Benedict Arnold led a force through the wilds of Maine, to join up in front of Quebec City.

The section describing the appalling sufferings of Arnold’s men as they hacked their way through swamp and forest, drowned in makeshift rafts on rapids, and began to starve, before finally blundering into the settled territory in Canada, is the most imaginatively gripping part of the whole book, reading like a gruesome novel of backwoods survival.

But the military point is that both the American forces were so weakened by the time they arrived and commenced the Battle of Quebec that their attack was a complete failure. Montgomery was killed and Arnold badly wounded in the assault on the city, before the survivors were forced to regroup and retrace their way back to America.

It had been ‘a calamity of epic proportions’ (p.111).

Similarly, Howe launched a great campaign to take New York City from Washington’s army ,and this involved a whole series of engagements as Washington slowly withdrew back through Long Island, then up Manhattan, and over into new Jersey. But the real story is that Howe missed several glaring opportunities to surround and exterminate Washington’s army, letting it live on.

Similarly, much is made of the Battle of Saratoga, a supposedly great victory by the Americans in October 1777. But when you read about it in as much detail as Ferling supplies, you first of all realise that it wasn’t a battle at all. British General Burgoyne had led an army down from British Canada, hoping to link up with General Howe’s army from New York, and another one coming east from Lake Ontario. Neither turned up and Ferling’s account shows how Burgoyne’s force was steadily weakened and depleted by small engagements along the way, loss of food and supplies, the necessity of leaving detachments to guard all the little forts he captured on the way south and so on and so on. So that by the time Burgoyne’s weakened force approached the American stronghold of Albany, at the northernmost point of the River Hudson, his depleted forces were perilously short of ammunition and supplies. Eventually Burgoyne’s force was surrounded by outnumbering American forces and he surrendered. There was no battle.

A lot of American mythology surrounds the Battle of Trenton, when Washington led his forces across the half-frozen River Delaware to take by surprise detachments of German mercenaries stationed in the small town of Trenton, who were outliers of Howe’s larger British Army stationed in New Jersey.

Yes, it was a daring pre-dawn raid, yes it caught the Hessians completely unprepared, and yes it led to the capture of almost all of them (22 killed, compared with just 2 dead on the American side).

But its importance was far more psychological than military. The Americans had done nothing but retreat from New York for six months. Trenton wasn’t a victory at all, it just showed that the Americans weren’t completely beaten and still had some kick left in them. Trenton stemmed the tide of defections and desertions from the Patriot army and showed sceptics at home and abroad that American troops could win something. But it didn’t gain much ground or defeat a major British force.

There is much more like this. Ferling quotes lots of contemporary eye-witness testimony to give really impactful accounts of the endless marching, of long gruelling campaigns like Arnold’s trek north or Burgoyne’s trek south, of the endless arguments at British and American HQ – which make up the majority of the text.

The suffering and hardships, the climatic extremes, the lack of food and shelter, are quite difficult to read sometimes. I was particularly struck by the way many of the Continental soldiers had no shoes or footwear of any sort. On numerous marches their fellow soldiers followed the blood from bleeding feet left in the snow or mud. In fact, the two Patriots who died at Trenton died from advanced frostbite, and thousands of American soldiers lost toes and feet due to lack of basic footwear.

Skirmishing aside, really large full-scale battles didn’t happen that often, but when they do Ferling’s accounts are appropriately gory and bloodthirsty, over and again bringing out how war amounts to the frenzied butchering and dismembering, skewering, hacking and eviscerating of human bodies.

War in the south

By 1779 and 1780 Washington was in despair because he didn’t know what to do next. Ferling makes it clear that right up to the last moments of the war, Washington was fixated, obsessed, with returning to fight a big battle for New York – despite the fact that the Americans never had enough men to retake it against Britain’s well-entrenched forces.

That or maybe another stab at taking Canada from the British – another phantasm which haunted American military minds, despite the catastrophe of the Arnold campaign.

Washington’s obsession with the north meant that he missed the region where the war was eventually won, which was in the southern states. About half way through the book Ferling switches focus from New England, New York and Pennsylvania, to the southern states of Maryland, North and South Carolina and Georgia.

This second half feels different from the first half for two reasons: the French had got involved, and there was a lot more guerrilla and partisan fighting.

France and world war

American representatives had been in Paris since before the start of the war, negotiating trade deals etc. Once conflict broke out, Ferling devotes sections to describing in detail the lengthy negotiations between American representatives and the French government, with the former trying to persuade the latter to join in and support the revolution.

Both sides had many considerations to weigh up: some Americans worried that any victory with the help of the French would mean handing over territory in North America to them – maybe they’d want Canada back, and so become a threat to the young country from the north; or maybe the French would demand the rights to Louisiana (at that point all the land along both sides of the Mississippi) and would thus block any further American expansion to the west. Risky.

Other Patriots worried that any even-handed military alliance with the French might mean that Americans would get dragged into France’s endless wars in Europe: having begun a war to get free of entanglements with Britain and her power politics on the Continent, the Americans might find themselves ending up worse off than they began.

Many on the French side weren’t that thrilled either, and the French minister who managed the war, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, was presented with a sequence of obstacles, opposition and unexpected dilemmas which Ferling presents with great clarity.

I had no idea that, once the French had overtly allied with the Americans in 1778, they again began planning for one of their many attempts to invade England, and sent privateers to board and confiscate British shipping.

In the event, massive French loans to America enabled Congress to feed and clothe and supply its armies, and the fleet France sent turned out to play a vital role in ‘victory’. The Americans couldn’t have won their ‘freedom’ if it hadn’t been for French support.

War in the South

As 1780 dawned the British were as puzzled as the Americans about what to do next. A series of events led the British to conceive of mounting a ‘Southern strategy’ and General Henry Clinton (who had succeeded the indecisive General Howe in 1778) despatched General Charles Cornwallis to raise Loyalist forces across the south.

Cornwallis did attract Loyalist forces and – as Ferling brings out throughout his book – substantial numbers of slaves defected and/or ran away from their southern plantations to join the British forces who promised them their freedom.

But it was never enough. Loyalist support was defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain (October 1780), and the British Legion, a cavalry force led by swashbuckling Banastre Tarleton, was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781).

Cornwallis marched into North Carolina, gambling on a Loyalist uprising but it never materialised. He was shadowed by the American general Nathanael Greene, who dominates the American side of the story for this whole southern campaign and emerges (from my amateur perspective) as a much more energetic, successful and important American general than Washington, who spent all these last few years holed up in the north, vainly fantasising about recapturing New York.

It was very typical of this prolonged and indecisive war that a key engagement was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on 15 March 1781, where Cornwallis’s army beat Greene, but suffered large casualties in the process. As in so many battles of the American War of Independence, Cornwallis held the field but the other side had won.

Because it wasn’t a war of decisive victories; it was a war of attrition where the winner was the one who could wear down the other side. This describes the American failure at Quebec and the British failure at Saratoga – and that is how the war finally ended.

British surrender

In 1781 the French arranged to send a significant fleet to the Americas. In fact it went first to the West Indies to secure French territories there, before asking its American allies where along the coastline it should be sent.

This prompted feverish debate among the Americans and their French allies about whether the French fleet should be sent to New York to revive Washington’s endless dreams of recapturing the city. But in the end it went to Virginia, partly under the influence of the French officer Lafayette, who had been fighting alongside the Americans almost from the start, and was now embedded in Greene’s southern army.

Before he left North Carolina for Virginia, Cornwallis had been receiving confused orders from his commander-in-chief, Clinton, holed up in New York. At some moments Clinton asked him to come all the way back north to help protect the city, but in other despatches ordered him to stay where he was. The one clear message that emerged from this confusion was that Cornwallis should hunker down in a coastal port and await the Royal Navy.

So Cornwallis marched to Yorktown on the Virginia coast, built outworks, prepared for a siege and awaited relief. But it never came. Instead the French fleet arrived and Nathanael Greene’s army was joined by a steady flow of Continental soldiers and militias from all across the south, who were able to block off all Cornwallis’s escape routes.

As so often during the narrative, there were several windows of opportunity when Cornwallis could have escaped the siege and fled north, or embarked at least some of his forces across the Cooper river to land east of the city.

But he had been ordered to await the Royal Navy and await them he did until it was too late, he was completely surrounded and, with food beginning to run short – giving in to reality – Cornwallis surrendered his army on 17 October 1781.

The British give up

It cannot be emphasised too much that the Americans did not win the American war of Independence through a battle. They simply surrounded a British army which had let itself be taken by a series of accidents and bad judgements, and which decided to surrender.

And the Americans couldn’t have done it without the French naval force which blockaded Yorktown, thus preventing any hopes of relieving supplies or escape.

When news of this disaster arrived back in London in late November 1781 the British government… gave up. The British still had 30,000 troops garrisoned in New York, Charleston, and Savannah, could have recruited more, and the war could have been prosecuted for another six years, if anyone had wanted to.

But enough of the ruling classes were fed up with the loss of men and money to make it untenable.

Although the vote in Britain was limited to a tiny percentage of male property owners, nonetheless Britain was a democracy of sorts, and on 27 February 1782, the House of Commons voted against further war in America by 19 votes.

The minister responsible for conducting the war, Lord Germain, was dismissed and a vote of no confidence was passed against Lord North, who had led the government throughout.

A new government led by the Whig party came to power and immediately opened negotiations for peace. So it goes.

Conclusions

I’d never read an account of the American War of Independence before. It was a real eye-opener. There was:

1. a lack of focus, as both sides racked their brains to decide what they were trying to do

2. a lack of fighting – especially in 1779 and 1780 long periods passed with no fighting at all – I think Washington didn’t see any action at all in the final two years of the war

I was really, really struck by the way that a handful of events from the first months of the war have become so mythical that even I have heard of them – Paul Revere’s Ride from Boston to warn the Patriots that the British were coming; the first shot fired at Concord which inspired Emerson’s poem:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

And the Battle of Bunker Hill outside Boston.

But all these happened within the first few months of the war. American mythology dwells on these early, idealistic, and entirely positive events, and then – the following six years of failure and stalemate, well… you hear a lot less about them.

The exception is Washington’s night-time crossing of the Delaware river, ferrying his army across to launch his surprise dawn attack on Trenton, because it was a daring, dashing undertaking and it inspired a number of heroic paintings depicting the scene.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

But it’s as if the events of those first few months have become super-iconic, overflowing with revolutionary zeal and idealism and then…. as with all wars, when it wasn’t over by Christmas and in fact dragged on for six long, gruelling years more, during which thousands of men died, thousands of citizens lives were destroyed by marauding militias or Indians, and the entire economy of America was undermined by a lack of supplies which led to galloping inflation, well… you don’t hear much about that.

Ferling’s long, detailed account shows the gruelling reality which lay behind the handful of mythical highlights which we remember.

3. Above all, there was a lack of inevitability. 

Again, I am used to the kind of war where ‘the tide turns’ and the Germans start to be defeated on the Western front or the Japanese are fought back across the Pacific, so that the conclusions of World Wars One and Two possess a grinding sense of inevitability.

But there was no decisive ‘turning point’ in this war and the end, when it comes, is oddly anti-climactic, almost an accident. Oh well. We’re surrounded. Better surrender, chaps.

This sense of contingency is heightened by the way Ferling, at all points, investigates very thoroughly all the arguments and logics underpinning everyone’s strategies. There was no inevitability to Cornwallis deciding to invade Virginia or deciding to retreat to Yorktown – in fact, historians to this day struggle to account for it.

Indeed, for the last few years of the war, there was a mounting sense that either side might sue for international arbitration. This had happened in previous wars, where mediators such as Russia or Prussia were invited to arbitrate between warring sides in European conflicts.

As 1781 dawned, all sides – American, French and British – were fed up with the war and wanted it to end somehow, but the Americans in particular lived in fear that an international peace treaty might be imposed on them, and that – as was traditional – territory would be allotted to whoever held it when the deal was signed.

This wish to hold on to territory partly explains why commander-in-chief Clinton was reluctant to leave New York, which would be a jewel in the crown if Britain was allowed to retain it, and also explains Cornwallis’s energetic attempts to clear the southern states of rebels, and to raise Loyalist forces to keep them secure.

If peace suddenly broke out, they would have been retained by the British Empire.

Ferling brings out how this nightmare scenario kept men like Washington and John Adams awake at night – the notion that after six years of sacrifice, and watching the American economy go to hell, the Patriots might end up rewarded only with the New England states, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, while New York state (which extends north to the border with Canada) and the entire south would be retained by Britain.

Worse, if the French insisted on reclaiming Louisiana, the new American republic would be surrounded on all sides by enemies and barriers.

It was not to be – but it might have been – and it is one of the many pleasures of Ferling’s long and exhaustingly thorough account, that the reader develops a real sense of just how contingent and arbitrary this shattering war and, by extension, all human affairs, really are.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)


Related links

Other posts about American history

Disraeli or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young (2014)

The  Conservative party

The British Conservative Party has traditionally lacked any real intellectual or ideological underpinning, thinking of itself as the party of British values and traditions, which applies reform only on an ad hoc basis, as required.

In Disraeli’s day the Tories were the party of the landed aristocracy and their subservient squires, extraordinarily snobbish toffs at the core of a network of landed gentry mainly interested in fox hunting and farms. Traditionally philistine and reactionary, the Tory party emphasised the values of Monarchy, Hierarchy and the Established Church – as opposed to the Whig party with its more urban traditions of religious toleration and individual freedom. The Tories opposed the Great Reform Bill of 1832 and opposed attempts at further reform in the 1850s and 60s. Their leader Lord Derby saw his role, in his son’s words, to block change, to keep things exactly as they were i.e. everything run by the landed aristocracy.

The authors

The joint authors of this book come from from the very heart of the Conservative establishment and this book strongly reflects that bias or position, in a number of ways.

Douglas Hurd – or Baron Hurd of Westwell, CH, CBE, PC to give him his full title – is the son and grandson of Conservative MPs who himself became a Conservative MP. Hurd attended Eton College, before serving in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major from 1979 to 1995. He is most remembered as the Foreign Secretary who refused to authorise British aid to the Bosnian Muslims being massacred by Serbs during the Yugoslav civil wars in the 1990s, and also refused to allow Bosnian refugees from the war entry into Britain.

Edward Young is young. After getting a First at Cambridge he worked as a speechwriter for David Cameron – the man history and our children will hold responsible for calling the Brexit referendum and so turfing us out of Europe. Young also worked as Chief of Staff to the Conservative Party Chairman. He stood as the Conservative candidate for York Central in the 2017 General Election but he lost to the Labour candidate. Young is currently the Corporate Communications Director at Tesco PLC.

These two men, therefore, come from the core of the modern Conservative Party, understand its day to day working as well as its traditions. Once you get into it you realise that their book is not intended to be a straightforward biography of Disraeli – it is a systematic debunking of his reputation. But it also concludes with a surprising assessment of Disraeli’s relevance to our time and the modern politicians who have inherited his mantle.

For many modern Conservatives – and even politicians from other parties – Disraeli is the founder of modern Conservatism, the inventor of compassionate ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, a pioneer of reforming legislation and a dazzlingly successful Parliamentarian. This book is meant to debunk all these ‘myths’. It assumes that the reader is already fairly familiar with Disraeli’s life, career and reputation, and with the way his name and these ‘ideas’ have been invoked by Tory leaders such as Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s (Harrow and Cambridge) or R.A. Butler in the 1950s (Marlborough and Cambridge), down to David Cameron (Eton and Oxford).

In many ways this book is really an extended pamphlet, a ‘think piece’ aimed at Conservative Party insiders and knowledgeable Parliamentarians.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

I bought this book when I visited Disraeli’s house, Hughenden, just north of High Wycombe and now a National Trust property. The ‘two lives’ of the title is just another way of restating the hoary old cliché about ‘the man and the myth’, a phrase that used to be tacked onto the title of almost every biography I read when I was a lad.

Briefly, the authors claim that Disraeli has come to be associated in the modern Conservative Party with a string of ideas and quotes which many Tories think are the basis of the modern party. But a closer examination shows that he never said half the things attributed to him, or was an active opponent of half the policies nowadays attached to his name.

All the way through there is a very characteristically Conservative absence of ideas or ideology, theory or intellectual activity. They leave no stone unturned to undermine Disraeli’s reputation, to show him up as a completely unprincipled social climber greedy for power, with a devastating turn of phrase, sarcasm and invective which has left us with scores of memorable quotes – but all too often the authors can themselves be accused of simply moving round empty rhetorical tokens without much meaning. You are continually reminded that Young was a speechwriter, a master of the ringing but utterly vacuous soundbite. Take the conclusion of their introduction:

We have called our book Disraeli, or The Two Lives because the life he lived was markedly different from the myths he left behind. These contradictions do not mean that he was phoney. At the heart of Disraeli’s beliefs lay the thought that imagination and courage are the indispensable components of political greatness for an individual and a nation. That conviction, rather than any particular Bill, book, speech, treaty or quotation, is the true legacy of Benjamin Disraeli. (p.xxvi)

So: what a politician – what a nation – needs, are imagination and courage! You can see why words like ‘trite’ and ‘platitudinous’ continually spring to the reader’s mind. These sentences could have been written a hundred years ago by any number of British imperialists. They are the opposite of thoughtful, intelligence or insightful. They lack any facts, data, statistics, any evidence or proof, any analysis or sustained line of reasoning, to back them up. They are all too reminiscent of much recent empty Conservative phrase-making.

Remember David Cameron and his call for ‘the Big Society’ – ‘the flagship policy of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto’? Or Theresa May’s catchphrase ‘strong and stable leadership’? As the book progresses Disraeli not only loses the credit for the fine-sounding policies often invoked in his name, but comes to look more and more like a pioneering example of the Conservative tradition for flashy phrase-making concealing a bankruptcy of ideas or policies (see below, the story of his first Cabinet).

Disraeli myths and refutations

Since the aim of the book is to undermine the myths about Disraeli, it might be useful to state what those myths are, along with their refutations.

One Nation Conservatism

Myth Disraeli pioneered the idea that the Conservatives are a compassionate party which represents the whole nation (not just the rich – which is the common accusation made against them).

Fact Disraeli in no way wanted a classless society. In his novels (Disraeli began his working life as a novelist and wrote novels throughout his life) he champions an absurdly antiquated vision of a medieval England where people know their place. In the early 1840s he was elected leader of ‘Young England’, a group of handsome young chaps from Eton (that is how the authors describe them) who thought the cure for a Britain undergoing the seismic upheavals of the industrial revolution was a return to medieval feudalism (p.95). Disraeli shared their belief that the cure for Britain’s ills was to restore its fine old aristocracy to its ancient duties of building almshouses and holding jousting tournaments.

Quite literally, a more stupid, ignorant and fatuous analysis of the technological, industrial and economic situation of Britain during the industrial revolution cannot be conceived.

It was Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil, or the Two Nations which popularised the idea that England was divided into two nations – the Rich and the Poor (not, perhaps, the most profound of analyses) and this phrase – ‘the two nations’ – was picked up by newspapers and commentators for some time afterwards. But at no point does this long text, or anywhere else in Disraeli’s speeches or articles, does he use the phrase for which he is nowadays mostly remembered, the phrase ‘One Nation‘, which has been recycled in our time into the idea of the ‘One Nation’ Conservativism.

The words ‘one nation’ had never appeared in Disraeli’s lexicon and certainly had never been developed as a meaningful political creed. (p.11)

He never said it. And he would never have agreed with it.

Parliamentary success

Myth Disraeli was one of the most successful Victorian politicians.

Fact Disraeli lost six of the general elections he fought as leader of the Conservative Party and won only one, in 1874. He was ridiculed for his long-winded maiden speech in Parliament and made a complete shambles of his first Budget as Chancellor, which was ripped apart by Gladstone.

Social reformer

Myth In his one and only administration, Disraeli presided over a range of important social reforms e.g. the 1875 Public Health Act, which later Conservatives have used to claim a reputation as the reforming and improving party. One of his many quotable quotes is ‘Power has only one duty – to secure the social welfare of the People.’

Fact Disraeli wasn’t in the slightest interested in these reforms and fell asleep when they were discussed in Cabinet. More, this book is devastating in its indictment of Disraeli’s amorality. All he wanted was power. All he wanted was to climb to the top of ‘the greasy pole’. Once he had finally made it he had no plans, no policies and no ideas. The authors quote Richard Cross, an MP Disraeli barely knew who he appointed Home Secretary, who was amazed when he attended his first Cabinet meeting to discover that despite the power and conviction of Disraeli’s phrase-making and speechifying in the House and on the election stump around the country, his leader in fact had no policies or ideas at all. At the first Cabinet meeting he chaired, Disraeli sat asking his Cabinet members – many of them in power for the first time – if they had any ideas or suggestions about what to do next (p.240). From this and scores of other examples the reader is forced to agree with the radical MP John Bright, who Disraeli spent some time trying to butter up in the 1860s, that Disraeli was

‘an engaging charlatan who believed in nothing.’ (quoted page 199)

The non-Conservative reader might have no difficulty applying this damning description to numerous contemporary Conservatives – not least Theresa May, who just last week reached out to the opposition parties by asking if they had any ideas on what to do next.

Disraeli’s complete lack of ideas or policies was no secret, it was well-known at the time. A Punch cartoon captures it perfectly.

'Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.' Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: 'Eh? Oh - Ah - Yes - Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.'

‘Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.’
Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: ‘Eh? Oh – Ah – Yes – Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.’

1867 Reform Act

Myth Disraeli demonstrated that the Conservatives are on the side of the working man and ‘the people’ by passing the Second Reform Act (1867), which for the first time enfranchised some of the (male) working class, doubling the electorate from one to two million adult men (out of a total seven million adult males in England and Wales).

Fact Disraeli supported the Reform Act solely to steal the thunder of the ruling Liberal government and to help the Conservative Party’s electoral chances. A reform act of some kind had been in the air from some years, a draft version had been prepared by Gladstone’s Liberals, when Disraeli set out to steal their thunder. The best part of this 350-page-long book is where the authors give a fascinating, day-by-day, meeting-by-meeting account of how Disraeli a) cobbled together a patchwork of legislation which could be sold to his own (reluctant) party and b) laboured to assemble an alliance of radicals, dissident Whigs and cowering Tories to eventually pass the act and ‘dish the Whigs’.

This section (pp.191-214) gives a vivid insight into the nuts and bolts of Victorian politicking – I’d forgotten how utterly chaotic it was. Lacking the modern idea of well-drilled political parties, the House of Commons consisted of groups and factions which had to be laboriously assembled into voting majorities. Governments could easily be overthrown if a majority was cobbled together to vote against them, prompting the Prime Minister to resign. But quite commonly the leader of the opposition grouping would then himself struggle to create a working majority, sometimes managing to create an administration which rumbled on for a year or two, but sometimes failing altogether and forcing the Queen to offer the premiership back to the Prime Minster who had just resigned.

It makes for a very confusing picture and helps to explain why, even as Britain was becoming the most powerful country in the world, it’s quite hard to name any of the Prime Ministers of the Victorian era. At a pinch most educated people could probably name Gladstone and Disraeli solely because of their longevity and because they became famous for being famous – rather like Boris Johnson in our own day is a politician everyone’s heard of without, until recently, holding any significant position in government.

Anyway, after the immense labour and scheming which Disraeli put into ensuring it was the Tories who passed a reform act in 1867, it was – in strategic terms – a failure, because the Tories went on to lose the subsequent 1868 general election.

Imperialist

Myth Disraeli was a staunch supporter of the British Empire and this endeared him to the generation following his death (in 1881) as the British Empire reached its height accompanied by a crescendo of imperialist rhetoric and pageant.

Fact The authors show how on both occasions when Disraeli was Chancellor of the Exchequer he was positively anti-Empire, horrified at the cost of the Royal Navy which he tried to cut. He went so far as to suggest Britain abandon all its entrepots and territory on the African coast and dismantle the African Squadron of the Navy. This image of ‘imperial Disraeli’ is a product of his final years and of his one and only administration, during which he was able to make some typically flashy gestures thus concealing his basic lack of policy or strategy (see above).

Probably the most famous of these gestures was when Disraeli, soon after becoming Prime Minister, pushed through Parliament the Royal Titles Act 1876 which awarded Queen Victoria the title ‘Empress of India’. She loved it and the ‘people’ loved the elevation of their queen to an empire. Flashy and popular – but hollow. It was, after all Disraeli who said: ‘Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel’ and lay it on he did, inches thick. And it worked.

In August of the same year Queen Victoria awarded Disraeli the title of Earl of Beaconsfield. The absurdity of these leaders awarding each other titles was not lost on contemporaries. The contemporary humorous magazine, Punch, satirised it as ‘one good turn deserves another’.

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria - who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India - awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria – who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India – awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield, in August 1876

Foreign affairs supremo

Myth At the Congress of Berlin, Dizzy plucked diplomatic success from a convoluted situation like a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat, and surprised the world by gaining Cyprus for the British Empire and winning ‘peace with honour’.

Fact In 1877 the Russians invaded the neighbouring territory of the Balkans, under the control of the Ottoman Empire – and advanced towards the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. In the second of the two really detailed analyses in the book, the authors give a fascinating account of how the crisis unravelled week by week.

Initially British sentiment was against the Turks because they had massacred Orthodox Christian Bulgarians who had risen seeking independence from the Ottomans. But Russia’s relentless advance into the Balkans (after the Russian declaration of war in April 1877) eventually swung public sentiment round behind the Turks (exactly as it had 33 years earlier, at the start of the Crimean War).

Hurd and Young’s account brings out just how irresponsible Disraeli’s attitude was: bored to death of the nitty-gritty of domestic policy, he thought foreign affairs was the last great arena for a man of imagination and style and so, like so many rulers addicted to words like ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ and ‘prestige’, Disraeli repeatedly threatened to send the fleet through the Dardanelles to attack the Russians and start another Crimean War (he is quoted as claiming that, although it might last three years, it would be ‘a glorious and successful war for England’, p.283).

The British diplomats on the ground and Dizzy’s own Foreign Secretary were horrified at the lightness and rashness of his intentions:

I dissented but said little; being in truth disgusted by his reckless way of talking. (Lord Derby, quoted on page 283)

Once again hundreds of thousands of men might have died in misery because of the idiocy of their leaders, specifically this preening peacock of a run-of-the-mill romantic novelist. Luckily Disraeli’s own cabinet repeatedly blocked his war-mongering intentions until, before he could attack anyone, the Russians made peace with the Turks by themselves. It was only when the Russians consolidated their gains in the Caucasus theatre of the war that the British, feeling threatened in India, sent army forces into Turkey. At this point the Russians agreed to a Great Power peace conference at Berlin (in deference to the new arbiter of the Balance of Europe, the Prussian Chancellor, Bismarck).

The authors show how the ageing Disraeli adored the Congress of Berlin, mainly because it involved hob-nobbing with the royalty of Europe, with Russian princes, and European emperors and ambassadors, pashas and doges and counts and innumerable lords and ladies.

As to the actual work, Disraeli had no diplomatic experience, had only a shaky grasp of the map of Europe, spoke no foreign language, and had only once been abroad. When it came to the detail of the negotiations about Ottoman territory he was completely at sea. He was a romantic novelist who thought in terms of the worst literary clichés. This is not my view – it is the authors’.

Disraeli, the novelist turned politician, believed in a world of empires, sustained and manipulated by the skill of bankers, priests, beautiful women and secret societies. (p.252)

Disraeli proved almost comically inept at diplomacy. He never grasped the details of the discussions, showing ‘a perfect disregard for the facts’. He had never even seen a map of Asia Minor so had no idea what was being negotiated. His own Foreign Secretary noted that Disraeli

has only the dimmest idea of what is going on – understands everything crossways – and imagines a perpetual conspiracy. (p.287).

Luckily, Lord Salisbury negotiated an effective if complicated set of treaties. All that mattered to Dizzy was that Britain come out of it with some showy gestures. Thus he supported the separate convention by which Britain took permanent control of Cyprus from the Ottomans. And once peace was secured, Disraeli could claim – however duplicitously – to have been the moving force behind it. In his speeches he spoke about ‘peace with honour’ which the newspapers gleefully picked up and repeated.

Thus Disraeli found himself a hero and was greeted by adoring crowds back in London when he arrived as Charing Cross station to find it decked out with flowers in his honour. The crowds cheered him back to Downing Street, where he read out a telegram of congratulations from Her Majesty. Dizzy was given the freedom of the City of London and Victoria offered him a dukedom.

Once again bravado, a sense of the dramatic and a gift for phrase-making gave the appearance then, and in the decades after his death, that Disraeli had brought off some kind of diplomatic coup. But, as the authors emphasise, the peace had already been made; if she lost some territory in the Balkans, Russia was left with all her acquisitions in the Caucasus; and Cyprus was a useful way station for the Royal Navy but hardly ‘the key to the Middle East’ as Disraeli flamboyantly claimed. The Eastern Question was far from solved and would rumble on for forty more years before providing the spark for the First World War.

What really emerges from Hurd & Young’s account is how close Britain came to going to war with Russia and how, once again (just as in the Crimean War) tens of thousands of men would have died to justify Disraeli’s reckless addiction to glamour and prestige and power. His opponents in Cabinet who blocked his wish for war were the true wise ones. But history, alas, forgets quiet wisdom and remembers flashy showmanship.

The Disraeli reality

The book makes clear that Disraeli was consumed with ambition and would do almost anything, betray any mentor (as he shafted his mentor Robert Peel in the 1840s), change any position, say almost anything, in order to succeed. This is why the pompous High Anglican Liberal leader, William Gladstone, didn’t just dislike him, but detested him, seeing in Disraeli the embodiment of all the money-seeking, amoral, flashy, superficial, irreligious chicanery which was bad about Victorian society.

Disraeli emerges from these pages as a splendiferous writer – of superficial and overwrought ‘silver fork’ novels, of passionate love letters to his numerous mistresses, sucking-up letters to Queen Victoria, and chatty epistles to the many ageing spinsters he cultivated in the hope of being named in their wills – of vast speeches in the House, and of any number of dinner table bons mots. But he also emerges as easily the most untrustworthy, slippery and amoral leader this country has ever had.

Having demolished almost all of the Disraeli myth, do the authors leave anything, does he have claim to any ‘ideas’? Yes, but they were preposterous. Disraeli thought that Britain needed a stronger aristocracy, recalled to fulfil its ancient duties by the rebirth of a vague and undefined national ‘faith’. And that what mattered to Britain internationally was to maintain its ‘prestige’, its ‘reputation’, its ‘honour’ – without any  concrete plan for administering, reforming or expanding the empire, without any knowledge of its myriad farflung territories, which he never visited or made any effort to understand.

An unintended insight from this book is it makes you sympathise with what the imperialist soldiers, administrators and merchants on the ground in Africa, India or China when you see the sheer empty-headed, unprincipled, ignorant and knee-jerk political culture back in London which they had to put up with. It makes the scorn and contempt for politicians of a writer like Kipling a lot easier to understand and sympathise with.

Contemporary relevance

In the introduction the authors say their book will be an investigation of how Disraeli became ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’. Well, it’s true that immediately following his death a thing called the Primrose League was founded to preserve his memory, and that it grew astonishingly until by 1910 it had some 2 million members (p.xxii). The Primrose League venerated this man of flash and rhetoric, the image Disraeli created through his style and extravagant gestures. Disraeli has more entries in the Oxford Book of Quotations than any other British politicians. He was always ready with the quotable quip and the memorable phrase.

  • There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
  • Never complain; never explain.

But today, in 2017, would you say he is ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’? The only group of people who have reliably heard of him are members of the Conservative Party and maybe other Parliamentarians who have taken the trouble to study their history. Neither of my children (19 and 16) had heard of Disraeli.

The fact is the authors need to erect an image of a dominating and significant Disraeli in order to knock him down – their claims for his important and contemporary relevance are simply the straw man they need to erect in order to knock it down, the scaffold they require to justify their long biography – it doesn’t really reflect any reality around me. It is pre-eminently a book for political insiders. A lot of names are lined up on the cover giving the book fulsome praise, but who are these enthusiastic reviewers?

  • Dominic Sandbook (Malvern and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Matthew Paris (Clare College, Cambridge and Conservative MP)
  • Sam Leith (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Lady Antonia Fraser (the Dragon School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • Michael Gove (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Conservative MP and now Environment Secretary)
  • Jesse Norman (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Under Secretary of State for Roads, Local Transport and Devolution)
  • Boris Johnson (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Foreign Secretary)

Once I started looking them up I was shocked by the narrowness of their backgrounds. If the quotes on the cover are any indication, its true target audience is Conservative MPs and public schoolmen.

(And – incidentally – confirmation, if any was needed, that London’s book world – like its politics – is run by a tiny interconnected metropolitan elite.)

Boris Johnson

In the last few pages, the authors declare that Disraeli’s final, ultimate, enduringly great achievement was to make politics interesting; he emitted memorable phrases, scathing put-downs, he was entertaining, he made politics lively, colourful and so made it accessible to a very wide popular audience. Hence the cheering crowds at Charing Cross.

Alas, laments Baron Hurd, politicians nowadays are a grey lot reduced to spouting pre-agreed party lines in tedious television interviews. That, the authors suggest, is why politicians are held in such low public regard.

In the final pages they ask whether there is there any political figure of our time who compares with Disraeli for dash and brio? Astonishingly, the authors say Yes – Boris Johnson. Similarly rash, colourful and undisciplined but immensely entertaining, a man who has survived countless scandals which would have sunk a lesser man, and is probably one of the few politicians everyone in the country has heard of.

(This is the same Boris Johnson who is quoted on the book’s cover describing it as ‘superb and sometimes hilarious’, who went to Baron Hurd of Westwell’s old school, and now follows in the Baron’s footsteps as this country’s Foreign Secretary. It’s a small incestuous place, the Conservative world.)

But I venture to suggest that the authors are wrong. The reason most of us plebs despise politicians is not because they are grey and boring; it is because they are lying incompetents. Tony Blair came to power promising a moral foreign policy then sent British troops into war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gordon Brown claimed to have abolished boom-and-bust economics on the eve of the greatest financial crash in world history. The LibDems promised to abolish tuition fees and then, once in power, trebled them to £9,000 a year (the single broken promise which sums up all ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ for my teenage children: for them ‘politician’ simply means faithless liar).

And the Brexiteers, led by that very same Boris Johnson and his creature, Michael Gove (both of them quoted praising this book on the cover) campaigned to leave the EU and then turned out to have no plan, no plan at all, for how to manage the process. They still don’t.

And then Theresa May came along promising ‘strong and stable’ leadership and called the most unnecessary general election in modern history.

Looking back at the past twenty years of Britain’s political life do the authors really believe that the issue has been that British politicians are grey and boring? No. It is that they are inept, incompetent, lying wankers. What the British people are crying out for is basic competence. The notion that what British politics needs is more politicians with Imagination and Courage, and that the solution to this problem is Boris Johnson, tells you everything you need to know about the modern Conservative Party, dominated by men from elite public schools who have never had proper jobs outside politics, and – as this book amply demonstrates – whose best ideas and quotes derive from a 19th century charlatan.


Credit

Disraeli or The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Phoenix paperback edition.

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