High art and low politics: a new perspective on John Wilkes.
Huntington Library Quarterly, 36, (4), .
In 1777, towards the end of his colourful career as a radical politician, John Wilkes (1725-1797) became the first politician to advocate the creation of a national gallery in Britain. More familiar for his opposition periodical The North Briton and the riotous Middlesex Campaign of 1768, Wilkes’s beliefs on the limits of royal authority with respect to parliament and the people were also expressed in his lifelong activities in support of the ‘polite arts’ in Britain. Building on his friendships with Denis Diderot and J.J. Winckelmann, as well as his links to London’s mercantile class, he challenged contemporaries who saw Britain’s commercial prowess as irreconcilable with such moral improvements. When juxtaposed to his attempts at parliamentary reform, his demonstration of liberty’s importance for the arts raised the prospect of greater public access to culture, as well as to the franchise.
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