Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire

‘Democratic Principles and Aristocratic Tastes’: William Roscoe’s Patronage and Art Collecting

Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire (2013), 162, (1), 107–135.

Abstract

William Roscoe (1753–1831) of Liverpool epitomises the encyclopedic range of interests and activities of the eighteenth-century English polymath, widely known as a lawyer, banker, politician, poet, and historian. Roscoe was also active as an art patron and collector: he was arguably the most important patron of the eccentric Swiss-born British painter Henry Fuseli and was instrumental in promoting the early career of the Neo-classical sculptor John Gibson; his collection of ‘Primitive’ paintings—pictures produced before the High Renaissance—was undoubtedly ahead of his time. Based on a close reading of primary sources, some so far unpublished, the purpose of this article is to revisit Roscoe’s activities as a patron and collector not so much to glorify him as to critically interrogate the underlying cultural politics of patronage and art collecting within the context of emerging provincial middle-class culture in eighteenth-century England. In particular, with the support of a newly-discovered archival document, this paper will question the originality of Roscoe’s conception of forming his Primitive collection and offer a reinterpretation of the origins of his collection. Finally, it will be argued that although there were individual variations, the nature of middle-class tastes was not radically different from that of traditional aristocratic cultural aspirations in general, that is, conspicuous consumption as a means of materialising their status and power.

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Chun, Dongho