Justifying Georgian Luxury

In 1772 jeweller James Cox opened a Museum in London’s Spring Gardens which became the most popular show in the capital to the extent it became known as ‘The Museum’. It displayed ornate  jewelled automata in an opulent setting and charged a massive half a guinea (10/6d) entry. Fanny Burney mentioned it in her novel Evelina, Richard Brindley Sheriden’s play The Rivals cited it so provided free publicity, while reformers such as Rev William Mason condemned such luxury and waste.

But Cox was known for his simple living, and claimed to reinvest all profits he made, as well as providing employment for many poor people. This is an article from Saunders Newsletter January 1774 when a touring version of his show arrived in Dublin.

TO THE PUBLIC As it is universally allowed that the fine Arts are honoured with a Protection from every State, in Proportion to the Wisdom and Generosity f the People, Mr Cox would think it an Insult no less to the known good Sense, than to the acknowledged Munificence of the Irish Nation, if he was to apologise for the Introduction of a Museum into this Kingdom. Far be it from him to insinuate the smallest Doubt with respect to the Ingenuity of the native Artists. In the Course of 30 years extensive Trade, he has had many Opportunities not only of admiring, but (if he may be pardoned the seeming Vanity) of encouraging the Genius of Capital Workmen of Ireland; nay; several of these Workmen have been employed upon the very Collection, which now respectfully solicits the Patronage of heir Country, and therefore, abstracted from all other Considerations, it has a Kind of natural Claim to her Indulgence.

It has frequently been objected to Mr Cox’s Labours, that they are wholly articles of Luxury, and can prove of no real Utility to the People. To this a general Answer may be given, that the Luxuries of the Rich, constitute the immediate Bread of the Poor, and that if we return to the Pastoral Age of simplicity, not only all the Arts, but all the Sciences, which have hitherto promoted our Opulence, or extended our Fame, must be totally exterminated. Luxury s the very Soul of Trade, and every Manufacturer, be it what it may, which enriches the State, or gives an innocent Employment to Numbers, is of the greatest Importance to the Kingdom Plain “unaccommodated man,” has but few Wants – yet contracting the Circle of these Wants, neither adds to his Security, nor promotes his Happiness. At the time of the Roman Invasion, this Island, and her Sister Britain, were as uncontaminated by Luxury, as the present Aborigines of America – but they were equally rude and defenceless; nor was it till the luxurious Hand of artificial Necessity opened the Door for a thousand un-thought-of Wants that either made a figure among the Nations.

Yet more evidence that the past is another country.

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