Men of Labor, Men of Leisure: Artists in Early 18th-century England, Part 1

Willem Jacob Storm van Gravesande. An Essay on Perspective.  Translated by Edmund Stone. London. 1724.
Willem Jacob Storm van Gravesande. An Essay on Perspective. Translated by Edmund Stone. London. 1724.

In 1724, a short translation of Willem Jacob Storm van Gravesande’s (1688-1742) essay on perspective was translated into English.[1]  The essay, originally published in French in 1711 to positive reviews, was translated by Edmund Stone (ca. 1690-1768).  This was not Edmund Stone’s first translation.  He had translated the Marquis de L’Hôpital’s Traité Analytique des Sections Coniques in 1720.[2]  And in 1723, he had translated Nicolas Bion’s work on the construction of mathematical instruments, Traité de la construction et des principaux usages des instruments de mathématiques (Paris, 1723), which he dedicated to John Campbell, Duke of Argyll and Greenwich, Lord Steward of George I’s household..[3]

Only a few years before, Stone was a gardener in the employ of the John Campbell, Duke of Argyll.  He had been trained in the profession by his father, who also worked on the Duke’s estate.  One day, Argyll was taking a walk in his garden when he came across a copy of Isaac Newton’s Principia in Latin laying on the ground.  He called for somebody to return it to his library when the 28 year old Edmund explained that it was his copy.  They began conversing about math and geometry, and eventually the Duke asked how Stone had learned mathematics.

Stone explained that he had been illiterate until the age of 18, when he learned the basics of reading from another servant.  From there, he was eventually able to teach himself how to read in several languages.  He had also learned mathematics from other employees of the Duke.  One day, Stone continued, he had come across some masons working on building the Duke’s new house, Sudbrook Park (Petersham, Surrey), which was constructed between 1717 and 1720.  Introducing himself to the architect who was on site — as it turns out, the renowned architect, James Gibbs — he had inquired about the tools of his trade — his ruler and compass.  Gibbs taught him some basics of arithmetic, and Stone continued his schooling by purchasing books on geometry and science, Latin, language dictionaries, and more.  All of his knowledge, he explained to the Duke, came “from knowing the 24 letters of the alphabet.”[4]  Taking Stone under his patronage, the Duke of Argyll encouraged the autodidact, who, a few years later, dedicated his lavish folio edition of Bion to the Duke.

Nicolas Bion. The Construction and Principal Uses of Mathematical Instruments. Translated by Edmund Stone. London, 1724.


The Gravesande edition of 1724 also had a dedication, but it was significantly different from Stone’s earlier dedication to Argyll — a point that the he noted in the text.

It was dedicated to William Kent, who according to Stone, had inspired him through his genius rather than any ability to bestow patronage.

Willem Jacob Storm van Gravesande. An Essay on Perspective.  Translated by Edmund Stone. London. 1724.
Willem Jacob Storm van Gravesande. An Essay on Perspective. Translated by Edmund Stone. London. 1724.

As sincere as this dedication might at first appear, this is quite probably not the whole story.  It is clear that Stone was moving in elite circles by 1724, and he was actively looking for patrons, and he may have seen Kent as a strategic connection.  It is probably not a coincidence that at this time William Kent was employed at The Cannons as a ceiling painter — an estate owned by James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos.  John Theophilus Desaguliers, the popularizer of Newton, was also employed by the estate as Chandos’s landscape engineer (Perhaps not coincidentally, Gibbs had also worked at The Cannons in the 1710s, designing the chapel).  Within the year, Desaguliers nominated Edmund Stone to the Royal Society (15 April 1725).  It seems possible that there was a connection between Kent, Desaguliers, and Stone, facilitated by the common patronage networks of  Argyll and Chandos.

A dedication of this sort was not unique during the period, but it is nevertheless important because it points to two contradictory themes that were fundamental to the lives of 18th-century artists.

First: Artists were men of labor.  Despite our 21st-century tendencies to downplay this fact — often focusing on the artwork, not the artist — artists worked within a commercial framework that was harsh and unforgiving.

In the case of both Edmund Stone and William Kent, they were the sons of workmen and artisans — a gardener and a joiner respectively.  Both sought the alliances of patrons and the creation of professional networks, and in so doing, learned first-hand the rough trade of reputation making, sociability, and political maneuvering.  To different extents, they were both successful at moving up the social ladder, and perhaps this is another reason why Stone saw Kent as a worthy figure for emulation.

Secondly: In addition to being men of labor, to be successful in the early eighteenth-century world of artistic patronage meant that they were also men of leisure — or at least seen as such by contemporary standards.  By this, I am using an 18th-century notion of leisure that would have been familiar to Kent and Stone.  Aristocrats and artists alike — for example, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury and Jonathan Richardson — often emphasized the importance of leisure, time for reflection, and contemplation.  It was essential in developing the mind and morality.  Time for leisure represented one’s wealth and the ability to remove oneself from the grubby world of commerce, helping them to be better civic leaders.  The lack of concern over money allowed them to imagine that they could develop a disinterested attitude to base things, which in turn distinguished them from the common rabble.  In the context of art, this encouraged them to develop their aesthetic sense, which required knowledge of hands and styles, but also an elevated moral sense to perceive genius and beauty — what contemporaries called “taste.”

To operate in this world, practicing artists needed to distinguish themselves from tradesmen — and, as the century wore on, the guilds.  Developing taste required sociable camaraderie, the exchange of ideas, and classical knowledge.  The ideal man was one who was amiable and knowledgeable, one who was not a pedant, but who engaged in a more moderate form of “polite learning.”

Consequently, the field of art was torn between two realities — the practical realities of work, competition, and artistic production in the marketplace and the just as important world of image and identity.

(Continued in Part 2)

[1] Gravesande was a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at Leiden.  He was a popularizer of Isaac Newton, and as such, was at the leading edge of eighteenth-century scientific thought.

[2] An Analytick Treatise of Conic Sections (London, 1725).

[3] Later works by Stone include A New Mathematical Dictionary from 1725 (London, 1725; 2nd ed., 1743); a comparative translation of Edmund Halley’s Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets (1726); a translation of Euclid’s Elements (London, 1728); and a revision of A New Treatise of the Construction and Use of the Sector by Samuel Cunningham (London, 1729); and a translation of Isaac Barrow, Geometrical Lectures (London, 1735).

[4] Andrew Michael Ramsay, “[Review of] The Method of the Fluxions,” 103-109 was followed by “Comme l’histoire des études de M. Stone a quelque chose de sort singular, voice l’extrait dune Lettre qu’en a écrite à un Journaliste, un de ses illustres Collégues dans la Société Royale de Londres.  Lettre de M. le C.D.R. au P.C.J,” Mémoires de Trévoux (January 1732): 109-113.


***Originally prepared for as a talk at the Bard Graduate Center event, “Men of Labor and Leisure: Defining Masculinity in Georgian Portraiture and Fashion,” 19 December 2013

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