Coffee and culture with Dr Johnson

Trendy cafes, cool art galleries, clubs packed with glitterati: Roy Porter visits swinging London, Georgian style; The Pleasures of the Imagination: English culture in the Eighteenth Century by John Brewer, HarperCollins, pounds 30
The 18th century brought the British a new sense of nationhood. Marlborough won glorious victories, Britannia ruled the waves, and the industrial revolution made Britain the workshop of the world. More was going on than that. In 1700, the English still looked enviously at the French and Italians for pre-eminence in literature and fine arts. A century later all that had changed: a national culture had been forged. That transformation is traced in John Brewer's masterly book - a model of the new cultural history.

High culture turned from an exclusive privilege into a public commodity. In Tudor times, the arts had depended on royal and aristocratic patronage. After Charles II, however, civilisation relocated from the Court and into the city with its coffee houses, theatres, debating clubs, galleries and concert halls. Traditionally the servant of sovereigns, culture became the consort of commerce.

Between the Restoration and George III's accession, myriad cultural producers sprang up in London - journalists, Grub-Street hacks, publishers and print- makers, all looking for employment and favour not to the Crown but to the affluent. The rise of the media and the invention of the critic turned culture into a booming business serving the people at large.

London became the marvel of the world, throbbing with news, spectacles and entertainment. Like New York in the 1920s, it operated as an addictive geography of the imagination, the hero - and often villain - of plays, poetry and Hogarthian prints. Symbolically, the key site for the new public culture was the coffee house. By 1739 the capital boasted well over 500 of them. Along with taverns, they served as places of pleasure and business, catering to customers from all walks of life. Newspapers were read, critics held forth, while sexual scandal and political rumours were hotly debated.

Coffee houses were remarkably democratic. One day the Irish clergyman Dr Thomas Campbell noted "a specimen of English freedom" when "a workman in his apron and some of his saws under his arm, came in, sat down and called for his glass of punch and the paper, both of which he used with as much ease as a Lord".

Coffee houses led to clubs. Towering over the rest was Dr Johnson's, which met at the Turk's Head in Gerrard Street. It included Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon, actor-managers like Garrick and Sheridan, the musical historian Charles Burney, and the later President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks.

Such clubbable elites laid down the cultural law. They ranged over fiction, biography, history, literary criticism, medicine and science, languages, political economy, travel, divinity and music. Together, the members of Johnson's club codified the culture and set its standards. Reynolds' Discourses, Warton's History of English Poetry, Johnson's Lives of the Poets and his editions of the English classics established a canon, an authorised critical heritage. They told the people what to read, what to view and what to think. They set themselves up as cultural custodians to the nation. It was no accident that Shakespeare was just then being deified as a national institution.

Women were excluded from Johnson's club but, Brewer shows, they were not debarred from participation in the culture, exercising power as arbiters of taste. There were women's periodicals like The Female Tatler, while sentimental comedies, artistic conversation pieces and above all the new novels were all regarded as humouring feminine tastes. A third of the most popular novelists were female, while in 1779 Richard Samuel exhibited at the new Royal Academy his "Nine Living Muses of Great Britain" - a pantheon of female artists, actresses and writers.

The age spawned huge cultural audiences served by producers, entrepreneurs and institutions. Thousands flocked to plays and art shows. Attendance at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1780 topped 60,000; on Friday 2 June, an amazing 1,680 visitors crammed into Somerset House. The "public" was being born.

Yet this dizzying new culture bred profound ambiguities. Who formed the public whose preferences and pockets were being appealed to? Who decided good taste? Authors wanted it both ways, seeking the applause of the public at large, while also laying claims to superior judgement and mocking the "vulgar". Amid the flux, it was up to performers themselves to stake out their relationship to their public as fashion-leaders and legislators. Hogarth, Garrick and other performers excelled in managing "public relations". They projected themselves as the nation's voice, or as larger-than-life stars.

No longer prepared to be the parrots of peers or catspaws to the market, top culture-makers strove to achieve a new independence. Johnson could afford his magnificent put-down to Lord Chesterfield on the worthlessness of patrons because the public was already taking the place of aristocratic protectors.

Authors and critics set about training their audiences and improving their taste. In the Augustan age this aesthetic education was conducted through satires like Pope's Dunciad, scouring the vulgar, the ignorant and pretentious. Later authors made their peace with the public, acknowledging that their own status depended on its support. "I rejoice to concur with the common reader," pronounced Samuel Johnson; and if that tribute doled out a spoonful of flattery, it also reflected the times.

Brewer highlights a double process in the making of national culture. On the one hand, popularisation, and, on the other, regulation. As for the consumers, what was crucial was a sense of participation. It became essential to a citizen's self-respect to shop in the cultural mall that distinguished the civilised from the yokel. The admission ticket was "politeness": an ideal commanding gentility of mind and manners. Elegant refinement was meant to smooth away religious bigotry and political divisions.

Prescriptions for politeness poured off the new periodical press, particularly in Addison and Steele's Spectator (1711-12) and its imitators. Politeness gave rise to a more refined ideal: sensibility. This marked out special qualities that fitted the genteel for admission not just to the public sphere but to its charmed inner salons.

In Britons, Linda Colley highlighted the new political, patriotic and religious tides which flowed in the Georgian age, creating a fresh confidence and sense of national identity. From its different angle, The Pleasures of the Imagination confirms this view of the making of the public mind. It shows how the English came to feel not just strong but civilised too, polite as well as powerful. God's chosen people, of the age of Cromwell, were reinventing themselves as Shakespeare's heirs.