It was in the visual and literary arts where counter-Enlightenment sympathies found their most natural sanctuary. The work of painters such as Henry Fuseli and Francisco de Goya meditated upon the realms of nightmare and fantasy inherent in imagination, while gothic novelists like Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, and Matthew Lewis imagined communities terrorized by the uncanny, the supernatural, and the perverse. Art was not merely a vehicle for metaphor: aesthetic experience was believed to literally grant access to a superlunary beyond through the powers of imagination and inspiration that echoed, however dimly, the powers of God. For Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg in particular, art and occultism were fundamentally joined at the level of craft. Unwilling to conceive of his practice as anything other than inherently mystical, he had, since his earliest days as a student in Strasbourg, combined his studies in painting with alchemical research to such an extent that he credited alchemy with leading him to discover a new way of fixing and enhancing pigments that would become the central element of his noted facility with color. The language of color was an important part of alchemical study, and Loutherbourg made himself its master, filling his paintings with its imagery, illuminating his canvases with creative and destructive flames, the subtle arcana of the magic world he felt inhabited his art.
London was a natural destination for Loutherbourg and his kind. It was home to prominent occultists such as the Swedish visionary Emmanuel Swedenborg, whose theosophical teachings inspired the poet William Blake’s conversations with angels; as well as Samuel Falk, the turbaned Jewish alchemist known as the “ba’al shem of London,” who had escaped a sentence to be burned at the stake for necromancy in Westphalia. He held court in a secret alchemical laboratory in a house in the middle of London Bridge, where he instructed pupils such as the Duc d’Orleans in the task of hastening the advent of the Messiah. A handsome man and alluring presence, Loutherbourg moved freely between the worlds of alchemy and fashion, and it was not long before he was introduced to David Garrick, manager of Drury Lane theater and the most celebrated actor of his day. At fifty-five, Garrick was scaling back his performances, but as his onstage roles diminished, his interest in theatrical spectacle grew.
In the late eighteenth century, British stagecraft was in a sorry state, having remained largely unchanged since before the Civil War, when performers stood before lifeless backdrops on stages lit by blazing candelabra. Unlike its French counterpart, which had undergone a neoclassical revival during the days of Jean Racine, Molière, and Pierre Corneille, British theater remained avowedly public and popular, much to the dismay of European visitors alarmed by the volume and influence of the “mop squeezers” and “fart catchers”—maids and footmen—who inhabited the upper galleries, indifferent to their superiors below.
Canadian subscribers add $10; All other international subscribers add $40.