Something that causes a lot of confusion about the 18th century is that it was a time of increasingly civilised behaviour in England with improvements to towns, public health and safety. From the mid century literature and the arts flourished. Yet this coincided with enclosures which drove people from the countryside, more crimes were made capital leading to a rise in executions and transportation to North America, then to the founding of Australia. And the Atlantic slave trade .
It has been described as “an age conscious of its own enlightenment” …”But with the urbanity of its civilisation went an appalling physical harshness. The hand holding a calf-bound volume had been twisted and knobbed by gout. The face under candlelight was scarred from smallpox. Child after child died before it had left its cradle. Women struggled resignedly from one child-birth to the next. The young and hopeful dropped off overnight, prey to disorders the contemporary physician could neither diagnose or remedy.
But these tragedies brought their compensation. Since the accidents of birth and the maladies of childhood accounted for a large proportion of human offspring, few people reached maturity without deep reserves of physical and nervous strength.
In the debility of Horace Walpole there was, he admitted, something Herculean. It is this element of intense vitality hidden beneath the surface which gives so many 18th century portraits their vigorous and personal quality. Seldom have human characteristics been so boldly and frankly displayed.