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The Image of Antiquity

Ancient Britain and the Romantic Imagination

Sam Smiles


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How was the remote past of Britain imagined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? What part did the visual arts play in that process? In this book Sam Smiles argues that the ancient Britain of the romantic imagination was a contested world, variously seen as a noble epoch of wisdom and patriotism and as a period of unredeemed savagery and barbarism. The arts, says Smiles, not only reflected these historical debates but actively contributed to them by attempting to bring the archaic past to life.

Smiles examines the interplay of antiquarian research, historiography, and the visual arts in constructing an image of Britain from prehistoric times to the arrival of the Saxons. He discusses such topics as the lengthening of prehistoric time in the contemporary view, the status of antiquarian learning, and the celebration of ancestral peoples as an offshoot of the growing sense of national identity. He describes the Celtic revival during the late eighteenth century, with its iconography that fashioned a pictorial repertoire for megaliths, bards, Druids, and the patriotic leaders Boadicea and Caractacus, who fought off the Romans. He also explains why the Victorians downgraded the Celts and replaced them with the Saxons, preferred by Victorians because they were Christians, because they were English (rather than British), and because they had established organized kingdoms.

Illustrated with images from a wide range of sources, this is the first major interdisciplinary examination of the British image of antiquity that has a particular significance for art historians and historians alike.

Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

Paul Mellon Centre, 9780300058147, 262pp.

Publication Date: September 10, 1994

About the Author

Sam Smiles is a lecturer in the history of art at the University of Plymouth.