Belief in Beauty
by John Holden
Octavia Hill was not an aesthetician. She was clearly moved by experiences of those things she considered to be beautiful, but her attitude to the concept of beauty was practical rather than theoretical, and she would have dismissed arguments about whether beauty is timeless and universal, or subjective and contingent, as a waste of her very valuable time. For Octavia Hill, beauty was important because it was emotionally, even spiritually, potent, but more so because it influenced human health and human morals — in other words it had effects as well as affects. The order of priority between practicality and transcendence is clear in her writings:
When all material wants have been duly recognised and attended to, there does remain in England enough wealth for her to set aside a few areas where man may contemplate the beauty of nature, may rest, may find quiet, may commune with his God in the mighty presence of mountain, sky and water, and may find that peace, so difficult to realise in the throng of populous cities.
Her no-nonsense approach was based on a number of assumptions, which can be traced through the past century and that still hold true for many people today.
The first was that beauty was primarily located in nature, and therefore in the countryside — in fruits and flowers, in landscape and in those vernacular English buildings, constructed from local materials, that seem to grow from the soil.
Alongside nature, there was art, but art could not be divorced from the more fundamental beauty of nature. Octavia Hill would have agreed with William Morris that ‘it is idle to talk about popularizing art, if you are not prepared to popularize reverence for nature also, both among the poor and the rich’.
Beauty should be all-pervasive, but Octavia Hill’s second assumption — again, widely held today — was that, in an industrial and urbanised age, beauty was fast disappearing and had, to a large degree, disappeared from everyday life.
When we see beauty as something that should be all around us all the time the consequences are startling. For one thing, we discover that Octavia Hill was indeed right in seeing beauty as a practical matter. In her view, beauty was closely associated with cleanliness, health and orderliness. In turn these virtues had practical ramifications: people lead better lives when they are clean, healthy and orderly. This is why London’s parks and open spaces could be written about in the same sentence both as ‘remnants of rural beauty’ and as ‘air-holes for labouring lungs’ (the words are those of Edward Bond, Octavia Hill’s close lieutenant and one-time fiancé).
If beauty is indeed ‘for all’, and if everyone is capable of judgement, then not just the appreciation but the very definition of the beautiful becomes a democratic endeavour where a multitude of voices — expert witnesses, urbanists and ruralists, artists, everyman and everywoman — have a stake and a voice in a continuous conversation that develops the idea of the beautiful.
By engaging in such a conversation, however disputatious, public policy could put beauty back into the equation when choices need to be made. By reconnecting with the possibility of ubiquitous beauty, and increasing the capacity of everyone to understand and enjoy beauty, civil society could take account of non-monetary values when making decisions, and then six counties, and more, could be cleansed of smoke.
This extract is taken from 'Beauty and aspiration', the tenth chapter in the Demos collection The Enduring Relevance of Octavia Hill.