Item of the Day: London and Westminster Improved, Illustrated by Plans. (1766)
[John Gwynn, one of the founding members of the Royal Academy in 1768, a civil engineer, architect and architect critic, was a key figure in the introduction of the Building Act of 1774. Gwynn believed that the Great Fire of the previous century had created a great opportunity to plan and improve
When historians give us the rise, progress and declension of any state, they generally relate its fall to have proceeded from some political error in government, or from luxury; a very vague and undetermined expression, which if it signifies excesses created by inordinate desire, stimulated by riches, has been justly marked as the vice of a nation. But if in the place of it we substitute delicacy, we shall find it the great source of liberal arts, and of every improvement not immediately necessary to life.
Thus it becomes a promoter of industry and ingenious labour, and finds employment for those superfluous hands that can be spared from agriculture &c. and while the hand of affluence thus affords the means of subsistence to the ingenious artisan, it finds employment for itself, without which life would become a burden.
Suppose a colony of emigrants first settling in any climate, the calls of nature are few. Building huts, and tillage, are the first objects of their attention; and their cloathing [sic] the skins of beasts. These supply them with food, and defend them from the inclemencies [sic] of the seasons, until encreasing [sic] in numbers, and their improvements advancing equally, their lands produce more than they consume, and they are able to supply the wants of their neighbours. This introduces commerce and navigation. The demands for exportation stimulate the manufacturer, wealth arises, and artificial wants encrease; the rich inhabitants look out for the means of ease, pleasure and distinction; these produce the polite arts, and the original formation of huts is now converted into architecture; painting and sculpture contribute to the decoration, and stamp that value on canvas and marble which is acknowledged by taste and discernment, and mark those necessary distinctions between the palace and the cottage.
Publick magnificence may be considered as a political and moral advantage to every nation; politically, from the intercourse with foreigners expending vast sums on our curiosities and productions; morally, as it tends to promote industry, to stimulate invention and to excite emulation in polite and liberal arts; for those industrious hands who find agriculture, &c. overstocked with labourers, naturally fall into those employments where they may expect more encouragement, in proportion, as more ingenuity is required.
We all know that the chief sources of wealth to many fallen states, are the remains of their ancient magnificence, and the constant confluence of foreigners to those places supply the deficiencies of manufactures or commerce.
The sums expended by foreigners may be considered as a laudable tax on their curiosity, whose ideas being excited by fame, can never be satisfied but by ocular demonstration. And had we more ample means of gratifying that thirst after novelty and amusement, numbers would continually flock over to our nation, as we continually do to theirs.
Let us consider the man of affluence, actuated by that beneficent spirit, the mere delight of doing good, and rendering himself acceptable to his Creator; he is furnished with the means, and by employing the ingenious and laborious artizans [sic], adds to the necessity of labour, the desire of excellence: A villa rises, and estate is improved, and a manufacture established; these create the proper distinction between the Prince and the peasant, the merchant and the workman; these characterize the genius of a nation, mark the area of its excellence, raise it from obscurity to fame, and fix it as the standard of taste to latest posterity.
In speaking of the ignorance of early times it is natural to charge them with want of genius; but the natural qualities of every nation are alike. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, who have made such a great progress in the sciences, were not actuated by supernatural causes, or any innate principles in their original formation; the mind is a mere blank, but capable of receiving such impressions as custom, education, or any other relative cause shall make upon it. It increases in vigour, according to its sensibility of such application, and, by degrees, so far exalts its powers, that it seems to obtain new faculties in seeing, hearing and feeling those objects to which it is most familiarized; it perceives defects and excellencies which the ignorant and unexperienced [sic] never apprehend. The man becomes eminent in his profession in proportion as his perception is more or less acute; and you easily distinguish the man of genius, or the inventor of original designs, from the servile copyist; who, though he may pretend to be an ingenious man, can have no title to the praise of genius.
But to return. If we examine the remains of the Roman magnificence, we shall see their first intentions were to procure the conveniences of life and health of the inhabitants; these are visible to this day, in their aqueducts and subterraneous drains. Next to these considerations, was the honouring of the gods by magnificent temples. Then arose cities, palaces and private buildings, which were adorned with every production of science.
The English are now what the Romans were of old, distinguished like them by power and opulence, and excelling all other nations in commerce and navigation. Our wisdom is respected, our laws are envied, and our dominions are spread over a large part of the globe.
Let us, therefore, no longer neglect to enjoy our superiority; let us employ our riches in the encouragement of ingenious labour, by promoting the advancement of grandeur and elegance.