Vicarious Observation: Conveying Pleasure and Sensory Experience in Eighteenth-Century British Periodicals

The time I spent perusing the British Library’s early modern treasures—thanks to a scholarship from the German Historical Institute London—left me with much to think about for my current research project on the body and pleasure in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century periodicals. First and foremost, my time in London gave me a heightened sense of how newspapers and magazines functioned as a medium for conveying pleasure, not least as a sensory experience.

Pleasure, amusements, beauty, and diversion were popular topics in British periodicals during the eighteenth century. Newspapers and magazines vied for readers with titles such as the Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, the Entertainer, and the Weekly Amusement. Periodicals were a medium in which contemporary pleasure practices were promoted, but also judged and discussed critically to instruct and shape social and cultural conduct. The act of reading them was considered a pleasure in itself; a diverting and entertaining practice that could assume various forms and be interpreted differently by contemporaries. Evidence for this is provided by their titles, and can also be found in the introductions1 which editors of newly established newspapers and magazines sometimes included in the first issue to explain how their work differed from existing publications and how it would be more entertaining than the competition.2

An example of the highly specialized nature of some periodicals is Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies, published annually between 1757 and 1795, which contained descriptions of prostitutes. British Library, London. Photograph by the British Library, released into the Public Domain.

In June and July 1712, the English politician and poet Joseph Addison published an essay on the ‘Pleasures of Imagination’ over several issues of the Spectator.3 This famous daily newspaper was edited by Addison himself, along with the writer and politician Richard Steele. The focus of the Spectator was on moral–philosophical topics which were meant, among other things, to provide material for conversation in coffee houses and clubs. First published in 1711, the Spectator followed the Tatler (1709–1711) and preceded the Guardian (1713), both of which were also edited by Addison and Steele. The Spectator was widely known and repeatedly reprinted throughout the eighteenth century, with Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire among its readers.4

Addison’s essay ‘Pleasures of Imagination’, which inspired the poet Mark Akenside to write a didactic poem of the same name (published in 1744), opens with the claim: ‘OUR sight is the most perfect and most delightful of all our senses.’ Addison described the pleasures of the imagination as those derived from seeing objects, or imagining objects after seeing them or similar ones. He considered the pleasures of imagination as less ‘gross’—more refined—than the pleasures of sense, yet not as refined as the pleasures of understanding based on reason. At first glance, this distinction might appear contradictory, as seeing is clearly a sensory practice. But we must take into consideration that for Addison, moral principles accompanied the pleasures of imagination. They were neither sinful and criminal, nor did they lead to pure sensual delight by letting the mind slip into ‘negligence and remissness’. Addison was convinced that the pleasures of the imagination were better for the body’s health than the pleasures of understanding, which demanded ‘too violent a labour of the brain’. Literature, art, architecture, and nature could influence the body and mind positively by freeing them from melancholy and sadness, and promoting wellness and felicity. Addison promoted the pleasures of imagination as a superior choice for entertainment. In doing so, he touched on the contemporary key concept of taste—but more about that later.

As the general sources of pleasure Addison presented greatness, novelty, and beauty, with beauty considered the most important one. He believed pleasure was enhanced if seeing was accompanied by hearing and smelling something new or beautiful. Suitable sources, in Addison’s opinion, were nature, art, and architecture, but for the most part his essay deals with written texts, writers, and poets. This makes Addison’s piece programmatic in several ways.

He defined his own craft—the craft of being a writer—by portraying the many ways in which a text may be created. Addison praised skilled writers of non-fiction, who dealt with visible material objects in fields such as natural philosophy, for making knowledge about the world and nature comprehensible, almost tangible. Addison cites the Roman historian Titus Livius as an example of an author whose writing practically transforms his readers into direct spectators of events and evokes emotions that follow the vicissitudes of the history described. Addison considered that generating a sensory–emotional perception—a virtual reality—of this sort was an art which he called the art of imagining.

By explaining the variety of, and conditions governing, aesthetic sensory perception, and shifting the view from the piece created by the artist to the pleasure of the recipient, Addison put the spotlight on the readers of texts. Before publishing his essay, Addison had already announced in an earlier issue of the Spectator that he was going to shed light on the foundation of taste by explaining in a completely novel way how readers may learn to recognize beauty in texts. He defined taste as ‘that Faculty of the Soul, which discerns the Beauties of an Author with Pleasure, and the Imperfections with Dislike’.5 Taste as a metaphor for approval and as a key element of social distinction became part of a discourse about aesthetics that evolved during the eighteenth century.6 While Addison’s essay and its place in this discourse has been studied at length,7 the periodical in which it was published has not received similar attention.

The Drury Lane Theatre in London as depicted in Microcosm of London (1808–10). British Library, London. Photograph by the British Library, released into the Public Domain.

Its name already alluded to the shared sensory practice that was to be at the heart of the contributions: spectating. Author and reader merge—they share a virtual reality—in the Spectator’s persona, who roams through London and its environs, observing and eavesdropping. This concept of ‘vicarious observation’, which conveys sensory experiences to the reader who thus shares them, had a sustained impact on the British press and its readers because of the huge popularity of the newspapers published by Addison and Steele. In the first issue of the Protestant Medley (1717), its editor, Jeremy Wagstaff, praised the Tatler and the Spectator as extraordinary magazines. He even called himself the first cousin of the renowned Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., a pseudonym used by the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift and later by Richard Steele in the Tatler. Wagstaff promised to entertain not only with various genres such as songs, poems, and epigrams, but also by providing accounts of himself sneaking into places on occasions of pleasure, and reporting at first hand, just as the Spectator used to do:

[A]s Variety’s the Darling Mistress, the General Pleasure, that affects us all, the Play-house, in its Turn shall draw my Attention, and there Incog. Exactly I’ll observe the Actors both of Stage and Audience; and from thence will give you as many different Scenes as Tony Ashton. Then at a Masquerade, unknown, I’ll view the different Humours, the various Dispositions of each Sex. Methinks, I’ve now the Motley Scene before me, and can scarce contain myself, to see a Prim and Formal Quaker dancing with a Soldier; a Footman and a Dutchess; a pretty Hollander and a gouty Cardinal; a charming Briton and an ugly Swede.8

Similarly, in his London Journal of 1762–63, the Scottish lawyer James Boswell described how, during a visit to the Drury Lane Theatre, he imagined judging a comedy, taking the place of Addison and Steele in their time. He also envisioned undertaking an expedition like the Spectator on a trip to Oxford.9

Perhaps nowadays, the reader’s sensory experience of periodicals is fundamentally different. In contrast to eighteenth-century magazines and newspapers, which relied mainly on text, images now play a much greater role in entertaining. This tendency was enhanced by the shift from material media, whether printed or handwritten,10 to the digital realm which creates entirely new visual practices and thus, most likely, also new imaginary practices.11 Yet the concept of conveying pleasure by vicarious observation persists. Since 1901, a modern version of the Tatler has been published, which is linked to its eponymous, eighteenth-century predecessor. Later the Tatler incorporated the Bystander, a magazine founded in 1903. Like the Spectator, the modern Tatler uses the category of the ‘Bystander’, who—unlike Addison and Steele, he is equipped with a camera—also visits parties in London as a vicarious observer. And supposedly these parties are the best in history.12


The featured image shows the title page of The Spectator, No. 82, 4 June 1711. Photograph by the British Library, released into the Public Domain.

  1. For a comparative perspective on newspaper manifestos see Uriel Heyd, Reading Newspapers: Press and Public in Eighteenth-Century Britain and America (Oxford, 2012), chs 1 and 2. []
  2. E.g. The Wednesday’s Journal: Being an Auxiliary Packet to the Saturday’s Post, With Fresh Advices Foreign and Domestick, No. 25/1, Sept. 1717: ‘We have observed, that the Attempts of other Writers to fix a Wednesday-Journal, have evidently discovered how agreeable such a Thing would be to the World, since they had not miscarried, but by the meer Deficiency of their Performance; and tho’ we shall make no boast, yet we think our Readers will scarce suppose we can be so Dull as to make this Attempt, if we were not well assured of pleasing them better, than those who have so lately attempted it without Success.’ []
  3. The Spectator, No. 411–21, 21 June 1712–13, July 1712. []
  4. John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1997), 100–1. []
  5. The Spectator, No. 409, 19 June 1712. []
  6. Rowan Rose Boyson, ‘The Senses in Literature: Pleasures of Imagination in Poetry and Prose’, in Anne C. Vila (ed.), A Cultural History of the Senses in the Age of Enlightenment (London, 2014), 155–78, at 156 and 159. []
  7. Karl Axelsson, Political Aesthetics: Addison and Shaftesbury on Taste, Morals and Society (London, 2019); Robert W. Jones, Gender and the Formation of Taste in Eighteenth-Century Britain: The Analysis of Beauty (Cambridge, 1998), 43–5. []
  8. The Protestant Medley: Or, Weekly Courant, Containing News, Foreign and Domestick, No. 1, 17 Aug. 1717. Wagstaff probably meant Anthony Aston, who was an early eighteenth-century actor and dramatist. []
  9. Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination, 32–3. []
  10. For an insight into early modern handwritten media as a research topic see Michael Schaich, Manuscript News Sheets: A Neglected Medium of Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Europe, in German Historical Institute London Blog, 22 Sept. 2020, at [https://ghil.hypotheses.org/70], accessed 11 Feb. 2021. []
  11. For a comparative view of early modern and contemporary modern visual perception and reading, see Pauline Reid, Reading by Design: The Visual Interface of the English Renaissance Book (Toronto, 2019). []
  12. ‘Bystander, Long Live the London Fashion Week After-Party: The Best Parties in History’, in Tatler Online, 18 Sept. 2020, at [https://www.tatler.com/gallery/london-fashion-week-best-parties-ever], accessed 11 Feb. 2021. []

Published by

Manuel Kohlert

He is a lecturer in Early Modern and Modern History at Kassel University, where he works on entertainment and the body in eighteenth and nineteenth century Great Britain and Germany. He holds a Ph.D. in History from Humboldt University Berlin. His most recent book, Ideale Balance: Die politische Ökonomie der Emotionen während der spanischen Expansion, deals with emotions during the Spanish expansion in Latin America.

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