At the beginning of The Image of Antiquity, Sam Smiles quotes William Borlase's lament, in 1754, that Englishmen, enraptured by the antiquities of Greece and Italy, "have seldom any relish for the ruder products of Ancient Britain". The book charts the various ways in which this "unpromising situation" was transformed by the end of the 18th century.
Once the fashion for primitivism was well established, Smiles suggests, the very factors that had led earlier writers to dismiss the fascinations of the ancient British past became positive advantages. "The inferior quality of remains" now "hinted at a simple society living closer to nature than the over-sophisticated classical world".
William Blake, for example, comments happily: "The Britons (say historians) were naked civilized men, learned, studious, abstruse in thought and contemplation; naked, simple, plain." Lack of evidence, moreover, "allowed more room for unqualifiable invention", says Smiles.
One focal point for inventiveness was noted by Edward Ledwich in 1785: "On no subject has fancy roamed with more licentious indulgence than on that of the Druids and their institutions." As though to illustrate this claim, William Stukeley confidently evokes Druidical sages who, "tho' left in the extremest west to the improvement of their own thoughts, yet advanc'd their inquiries . . . to such heights, as should make our moderns asham'd to wink in the sunshine of learning and religion".
Other 18th-century writers expressed reservations about the Druids' penchant for human sacrifice. Smiles cites the "more negative view" put forward in Wordsworth's unpublished draft A Night on Salisbury Plain ("Far heard the great flame utters human moans, / Then all is hushed: again the desert groans").
The theme of "the necessity and power of poetry" in the heroic ages of Celtic culture also prompted a great deal of imaginative elaboration. Smiles briskly outlines the controversy over James Macpherson's Poems of Ossian, and discusses a number of paintings and engravings illustrating Thomas Gray's poem The Bard, in which the last surviving Welsh bard, perched sublimely over the River Conway, curses the conqueror Edward I, who has ordered the slaughter of his comrades.
Other chapters consider responses to megaliths, attempts to simulate ancient megalithic monuments in landscape gardens, the use of the archaic past in defining national identities within northern Europe, and, in Britain, the increasingly sharp split between the respective images of Anglo-Saxons and Celts. While the former came to be seen as "naturally industrious", the latter were, by the mid-19th century, typified (in the words of Thomas Carlyle, describing the Irish) as given to "squalor and unreason", "falsity and drunken violence", "degradation and disorder".
The book maps out a range of diverse contexts in which the archaic past of the British Isles becomes an object of fascination. In doing so, it provides a tour around its subject matter that is immensely helpful as a general guide, and is consistently enlivened by apt and amusing quotations.
At times, however, Smiles seems uncertain about his aims. In considering Richard Cosway's etching of Gray's bard, for example, he suddenly departs from his usual strategy of detached scholarly summary, and comments indignantly on Cosway's decision to throw "antiquarian exactitude" to the winds, and assign to the heroic Celt not a large Welsh harp, as in the works of other artists, but a small, more portable, classical lyre, which the author describes as "woefully and surprisingly out of sympathy with the rather effective figure of the bard himself".
There is an uncomfortable discrepancy between the theoretical claims that Smiles makes at the beginning of the book and the approach that he adopts as he progresses through it. In the first chapter, the author declares that "my intention is not to mock the researches of the past, but to demonstrate their coherence within the larger epistemic contexts of the age". In practice, he potters through an array of texts and images, offering odd remarks, which, however illuminating, never amount to any very rigorous attempt to explain the "coherence" of his subject-matter - to chart the range and limits of what it was possible to say and write about Ancient Britain, or convey about it in visual representations.
But such objections may be slightly over-fastidious. The Image of Antiquity is enjoyable and thought-provoking, leaving the reader in no doubt about the interest of the topic; it suggests a great many starting-points for further analysis and enquiry. Two minor observations: the book would be improved by more conscientious proof-reading, and by a much more generous use of commas.
Chloe Chard lectures in contextual studies, Wimbledon School of Art.
The Image of Antiquity: Ancient Britain and the Romantic Imagination
Author - Sam Smiles
ISBN - 0 300 05814 4
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 252