Sensations || Jonathan Jones

This somewhat left-field thesis takes the Enlightenment as its starting point and finds a link between scientific curiosity and the development of art. Jones makes a convincing case, beginning with Robert Hooke’s Micrographia – a work that is extraordinary not just because of its scientific novelty, but also the craft of its illustrations. From here, Newton and Locke come into the picture as scientific exploration inspired a passion for closer examination of the natural world.

It’s reasonable to ask whether this is a concoction, of making facts fit answers. Did the Gentlemen’s Societies where ideas were exchanged encompass both worlds as completely as Jones’s narrative requires? Well, you can’t argue with George Stubbs or Joseph Wright of Derby, whose work arguably continued a thread that Hooke had begun.

The sensations of the title mainly derive from the Sensationalist philosophy of Joseph Locke, which centred on experience (sense) as the key to understanding, and might be said to be the foundation of what is now called the Scientific Method. However, Jones also wants to create a sensation himself. The chapter on George Stubbs is called The Butcher of Horkstow and opens, “ He began by slitting their throats”. That got your attention, didn’t it?

In less careful hands, this style would become the message itself and obscure the narrative behind it. Jones has a surer hand, however, and has managed to create a history of British art that reads more like a thriller than a dry academic tome. It won’t please everyone, but it’s an enjoyable journey that’s also thoroughly inclusive.

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