'The Cultural Memory of Georgian Glasgow' by Craig Lamont (published by Edinburgh University Press)
I begin by confessing that I have found this quite short, but very expensive book, somewhat difficult to review. As will emerge below, the problem it presents has something to do with the range, diversity, and timespan of the material its seven brief chapters cover. When I first saw that a book with this title was about to appear, I was instantly intrigued. 'Georgian Glasgow' – meaning, of course, the period between 1714 when the British kings, after Queen Anne's death, were the Hanoverians George 1, 11, 111, 1V, and William 1V, whose death in 1837 led to the accession of Queen Victoria and the ending of the Georgian age – has always been a major scholarly concern of my own.
That concern manifested itself back in 1995 when the American scholar Richard Sher and I edited a collection of essays entitled The Glasgow Enlightenment
– which Lamont duly references. The aim of the book was to correct the conventional assumption that the Scottish Enlightenment of the long 18th century was purely an Edinburgh affair. Now over 25 years later, Craig Lamont makes the same point. But given my early excitement, I was wrong in assuming that his book would be focused on confirming and reinforcing the fact of Glasgow's important role in the Scottish Enlightenment.
I should have paid proper attention to the 'Cultural Memory' of the title. Because the central concern of this book is to explain how and why it is that Glasgow's achievements in the Georgian period have never subsequently become part of the city's public consciousness. Why has the city's self-definition never involved any kind of celebration of its flourishing pre-Victorian social, economic, artistic and intellectual status? Why has Georgian Glasgow remained a kind of blinkered and neglected historical vacuum? To find answers to such questions, Lamont, a researcher in Glasgow University's Scottish literature team, makes use above all of the relatively recent emergence of the concept of the cultural memory.
What does it mean? In the 'Reading Cultural Memory' section of his Introduction
, Lamont writes: 'cultural memory is crucial in telling the story of Georgian Glasgow. To offer a definition: cultural memory is the shared understanding or interpretation of any one thing built up over several generations. The extant Georgian architecture of Glasgow, such as the Trades Hall, and the street names that commemorate people from that time (i.e. Glassford Street, Ingram Street) all feed into the cultural memory of Georgian Glasgow. It might be helpful to think in terms of "images" or "scenes" woven into the great tapestry of that cultural memory'.
Inevitably, in that this is a strictly academic study, the author goes on to describe the origins of memory studies in the pioneering work of French philosophers and sociologists, while recognising that 'the growth of memory studies in academia has accelerated since the new millennium'. He returns to such theorising from time to time but I'm not sure that it is particularly helpful.
More useful is a comment such as this from the opening of Chapter Three
: 'We have seen some of the ways Glasgow inspired a culture of Enlightenment which transformed the Georgian period. But to comprehend the full extent to which we have remembered the Glasgow Enlightenment, we have to consider the extant institutions, monuments, and other markers that have shaped cultural memory'.
The 'other markers' include statues, poetry and fiction, paintings, exhibitions, and forgotten historical realities. Examining all these aspects of cultural memory, Lamont argues, is the only way to understand how Georgian Glasgow, despite all its achievements, has largely been omitted from the traditional story of the city of Glasgow. However, while the case Lamont makes is in the end persuasive, it has to be said that the extraordinary wide range of material relevant to the concept of the cultural memory explains why the coherence of the book sometimes seems to become questionable.
It consists of four sections. They are: Part I Georgian Glasgow, Part II Remembering the Glasgow Enlightenment, Part III Empire and the Displacement of Memory, and Part IV Commemorating Glasgow as the 'Second City'.
Part I provides the reader with a quick run through of Glasgow's transformation in the long 18th century from a small religious town of under 17,000 people, to a teeming, flourishing metropolis of 100,000 by 1811 and twice that number by 1831.
Part II is the section of the book most in line with my misguided original expectations. In other words, it is a potted history of Glasgow's major contribution to the Scottish Enlightenment, describing the role of the university and such major figures as James Watt, Joseph Black, Adam Smith, John Millar, William Cullen, John Anderson and Thomas Reid. Particularly valuable here is the emphasis Lamont places on the work of Robert and Andrew Foulis, printers to the university, both in terms of the books they published in the Foulis Press, and perhaps even more importantly, their establishment in 1753 of the Academy of Fine Arts in the grounds of the university which for over 20 years provided training in painting and sculpture as well as drawing and engraving. Yet, as he explains, 'the venture remains almost extinct in Glasgow's public imagination'.
Part III moves into the highly fashionable area of what is called 'trauma memory'. Lamont suggests that as recently as 1950 Glasgow's pedestrians would have no memory of the origins of the names of Virginia Street and Jamaica Street – the city's 'most tangible links to plantation slavery'. But in recent days things have changed and 'a new wave of academic and public engagement with Scotland's links to slavery has been gaining momentum'. This section is Lamont's contribution to that momentum, providing us with a detailed account of both Glasgow's involvement in transatlantic slavery and an analysis of the views on slavery of the city's leading Enlightenment figures. (To my mind they come out of it quite well.)
Part IV focuses on the end of the Georgian period and its displacement by the vision of Victorian Glasgow which remains its dominant self-history today – Glasgow the Second City of the Empire, the workshop of the world, the industrial powerhouse famed above all for its shipbuilding and engineering. By examining the city's series of Great Exhibitions or World's Fairs between 1888 and 1938, Lamont is able to demonstrate just how far Georgian Glasgow had been lost sight of and eliminated.
It was not until 2014, when Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games, that Kelvingrove Art Gallery ran a major exhibition called How Glasgow Flourished: 1714-1837
, which made a deliberate attempt to remind the public that Glasgow did have a pre-Victorian history. Even then, the exhibition's organisers felt that to use 'Georgian Glasgow' in the title would have worked against its popular success. The author was part of the team creating that event. With this book he has provided the definitive account of why it was so badly needed.
Andrew Hook is Emeritus Bradley Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow