Buying and Selling Luxury in Seventeenth-Century England

Rachel Ramsey
Assumption College

John Brewer and Roy Porter, Maxine Berg, Erika Rappaport, and Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, among others, have argued that the eighteenth century marked the beginning of a consumer revolution in England with middle class shoppers embracing new ideas about luxury consumption and establishing radically different definitions of needs versus wants.1   Linda Levy Peck's new book Consuming Splendor: Society and Culture in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, 2005) challenges this critical consensus by arguing that the “practices, sites, and mentalities” of luxury consumption are firmly rooted in the seventeenth century, and that widespread luxury consumption was not a uniquely eighteenth-century phenomenon.   To support her claims, Peck describes the buildings specifically constructed to cater to luxury consumption, examines the types and kinds of luxury goods purchased and manufactured in seventeenth-century England, and outlines the royal policies and necessary consumer networks fostering the desire for luxury.   Her study focuses primarily on London—F. J. Fisher's “engine of economic growth”—because the nobility and gentry, along with the merchants who catered to them, increasingly took up permanent residence in the fast-growing metropolis and established a pattern of seeking out and consuming splendor that was eventually embraced by a wider society.

Peck begins her walk through seventeenth-century London with the luxury shops housed at its two most famous shopping centers, the Royal Exchange and the New Exchange.   While scholars of the early modern period are familiar with Thomas Gresham's 1570 monument to London's traders with its fabled meeting space for merchants and shops stocked with luxury goods, Peck focuses instead on its lesser-known rival.   In 1609, Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, opens the New Exchange situated in the Strand at the heart of the newly fashionable West End.   Peck examines the design, renting, and stocking of the New Exchange shops and traces their economic fortunes over the century to provide compelling evidence that as early as 1609 desire for luxury goods was strong enough to support an exclusive shopping center catering to luxury consumers.   As Peck points out, the New Exchange, like its predecessor the Royal Exchange, did more than offer goods for sale; it converted shopping into entertainment.   Peck unearths a telling letter from Francis Carter, the Surveyor of the New Exchange, to Robert Cecil in which Carter urges him against plans to narrow the Exchange's famed walks by adding more shops.   Carter's letter reveals a sophisticated understanding of retail shopping.   He explains the importance of the Exchange as a place for Londoners to meet and socialize, as a destination as popular as the theatre or Spring Gardens.   Peck emphasizes how Carter's letter conflates socializing and shopping and connects entertainment value with retail sales.   The Exchange's wide walks opening onto the Strand—in the heart of the fashionable town—encouraged impromptu visits from those passing the attractive building.   Cecil's New Exchange offered men and women a place to have their desires stoked and satisfied not only for conversation and entertainment but also for rare and exotic luxury goods attractively displayed in its shops.

If the New Exchange offered shoppers a chance to purchase small scale luxury items, the types of buildings erected by the London elite in the immediate vicinity of Cecil's Exchange illustrated yet another, if more costly type of luxury consumption.   While new construction in London was ostensibly discouraged by James I and strictly regulated by the King's Commission on New Building, Peck documents the number of new city palaces and urban developments constructed in and around London in the early decades of the seventeenth-century, describing in detail Bedford's Convent Garden and the elaborate suburban villas such as Syon, Ham House and Albury.   Restoration London's foremost speculative builder, Nicholas Barbon, declared building the pre-eminent luxury good and advocated it as the best way to advertise one's social position.   Peck sees the same logic at work earlier in the century, using Lionel Cranfield's ambitious building projects as a way to illustrate how he used architectural design to set the stage for his political ambitions.

In her examination of everything from architectural plans to the interior decoration of new city and suburban mansions, Peck also demonstrates how ideas of magnificence and splendor, the hallmarks of luxury, were generated from translations of Italian architectural treatises and realized only with the importing of skilled workers and specialized knowledge from abroad.   Moreover, the international flavor of many Jacobean interiors from those of the Earl of Somerset and Queen Anne to those of rich City merchants was inspired by prints featured in books, included popular engravings by Abraham Bosse, and from the secondhand market dealing in furnishes, paintings, and linen and plate.   In her discussion of London's built environment, Peck demonstrates the important role cultural exchange, or what she terms “cultural borrowing,” plays in the definition and realization of luxury.

Information about new types of luxury goods made its way to English consumers courtesy of a dense network of diplomats, courtiers, merchants, and buyers positioned in artistically-rich countries like Italy and the Low Countries and located all along Britain's expanding trade routes—from the Indies to the Americas.   These informal and formal conduits whetted the appetite of those who not only saw themselves not only as consumers but styled themselves as collectors.   With the publication of John Tradescant's 1656 catalogue describing “the curious, the foreign, the useful, and the strange” and the rising popularity of venues like his natural history museum and Anthanasius Kircher's scientific museum in Rome, rare and previously unknown items were transformed into desirable luxury goods.   These venues actively created new desires, expanded the definition of what was considered valuable and collectible and attracted a greater range of potential consumers.   Excerpts from letters exchanged between potential buyers of luxury goods and their agents abroad reveal a shopping public with a discriminating knowledge of other cultures gained from books, paintings, and prints.

Early seventeenth-century England imported everything from plants, drawings, and sculptures to rare books and mummies, but cultural borrowing also stimulated interest in new technologies and manufacturing processes.   High tech industries such as glass making and crafting scientific instruments relied on importing practices, knowledge, and experts from abroad.   The State soon sought ways to harness these new technologies and growing demand for luxury goods to its plans to increase domestic production and employment.   James I's support of silk weaving and his backing of the Mortlake tapestry works, Peck argues, were calculated attempts to employ England's growing population, create a skilled workface, and establish a healthy export market.   However, attempts to establish glass, tapestry, and silk industries in England meant confronting longstanding moral objections against luxury.   Print campaigns produced between 1603 and the 1670s supported the fledging English silk industry by using mercantile and patriotic language more often associated with eighteenth-century luxury debates.   Advocates of English luxury production equated private vices with public virtues in hopes of convincing a suspicious public to abandon their objections to luxury goods.   The ideological underpinnings necessary to promote large-scale luxury consumption, Peck argues, was in use long before Bernard Mandeville penned his notorious Fable of the Bees (1714).  

In her effort to prove patterns of luxury consumption in England were well established before the Restoration, Peck reexamines long held assumption associating the English Civil Wars with the decline of retailing, the stagnation of building, and the disappearance of an active art market.   Peck highlights several notable exceptions to these generally accepted claims.   For example, Londoner Humphrey Weld purchased art and furnished several new houses all through the Interregnum, and, during this period, London opened the first of its many coffeehouses.   Moreover, her examination of the New Exchange's retail leases reveals shopping in London to be “a somewhat less bleak picture than scholars have drawn” and she provides several examples of new building undertaken by important parliamentarians (275).   These individual examples, coupled with references to the Commonwealth's Navigation Acts and the continued support for Royalists projects such as silk production help support Peck's claim that the Civil War and Interregnum government “did not curtail luxury consumption.”   However, the largely individual nature of her examples of continuing consumption and collecting also make her assertion that “luxury consumption and government support for it continued and expanded” between 1640 and 1660 seem less convincing.   Nonetheless, Peck's chapter on “Luxury and War” significantly challenges how historians traditionally portray London during the English Civil Wars, showing us a city that shops, builds, and collects even in the midst of political and religious upheavals.

Luxury, in all its many manifestations, acts as the starting point for Peck to analyze the acquisitive relationship London's elite had with the countries they read about in new books, visited during diplomatic or pleasurable tours, or called home during political exile.   Peck vividly conveys how the Crown and the elite, along with ambitious merchants and the burgeoning scientific community, encountered, experienced and processed information about new items and new manufacturing from France and Italy to India.   In her chapter on the Royal Society, she demonstrates how information gathered abroad changed more than buying habits but significantly influenced the Society's research into manufacturing processes.   Moreover, she connects the Royal Society's focus on city planning, collecting, and scientific research to the Crown's long history of promoting luxury manufacturing, claiming many of the Restoration-era discoveries were likely to have been patented already under the early Stuarts, a fact often overlooked because the lack of patent specification prior to the eighteenth-century.

This section of Peck's book ends as many others do—with a desire to prove luxury patterns associated with the eighteenth century existed much earlier.   While many of these corrections are merited, the insistence on bringing her observations back to this central point often detracts from the convincing narrative she produces about a distinct seventeenth-century engagement with the idea of luxury.   The many references to the similarities between luxury consumption in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries sometimes serve only to call attention to what seems to distinguish the two periods.   For example, Peck takes most of her examples of luxury consumption from the London elite, making few references to more ordinary, middling “consumers.”   The expansion of luxury consumption to the middle classes dominates almost all discussions of eighteenth-century luxury consumption patterns.   Peck acknowledges this as an essential difference and suggests adopting a more integrated approach in which the consumption patterns of seventeenth-century London's elite would be examined alongside those of an eighteenth-century middle class.   While an intriguing suggestion, it never receives any sustained examination in the book.   Although Peck successfully demonstrates that what separates luxury consumption in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries seems less a question of fact and more a question of degree, her reliance on this framework seems less relevant as she tells the story of a seventeenth-century consumer society.

Consuming Splendor provides a detailed account of what London's elite considered as a luxury, how they learned about new items and why they desired them, and what networks—political, economic, and social—made possession of these items possible.   In chapters ranging from those on the New Exchange and the origins of sericulture to discussions of new buildings and collecting habits, Peck assembles an insightful narrative about the individuals participating in luxury consumption, offering a wealth of examples and anecdotes culled from archives.   In the process, she accomplishes several of her stated goals: she forces us to reconsider the origins of England's engagement and debate over luxury consumption; she highlights the networks, structures, and discourses put in place during the seventeenth century to make possible the eighteenth-century expansion of luxury consumption; and she effectively questions whether the English Civil Wars stifled luxury consumption.   From its beautiful cover design featuring Ruben's portrait of the Countess of Arundel to the many illustrations of the luxury goods coveted by seventeenth-century English consumers, Peck's book offers a comprehensive, highly readable, and informative study of what seventeenth-century England desired, bought, and collected.

 


Notes:

1. John Brewer and Roy Porter, eds., Consumption and the World of Goods (London, 1993); Maxine Berg and Helen Clifford, eds., Consumers and Luxury: Consumer Culture in Europe, 1650–1850 (Manchester, 1999); Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger, Luxury in the Eighteenth Century: Debates, Desires and Delectable Goods (Basingstoke, 2003); Erika Rappaport, Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London's West End (Princeton, 2000); and Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, Consuming Sujbects: Women, Shopping and Business in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1997).