Liquid networks

A scene at Carlo's in Florence, an inn much frequented by British grand tourists. Painting by Thomas Patch, 1760. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

I recently picked up the phrase ‘liquid networks’, which refers to environments where ‘ideas can have sex.’ The phrase was coined by Steven Johnson, who has recently published the book Where Good Ideas Come From. Johnson gives a short, entertaining talk about the subject here.

Print showing Lloyd's Coffee House, after George Woodward, 1798, at Calke Abbey. ©NTPL/John Hammond

If I understand it correctly, a liquid network is a structure or place in which people of different backgrounds can come together in a relaxed atmosphere and freely exchange ideas. One historical example of a liquid network is the emergence of the coffee house in north-western Europe in the seventeenth century: informal spaces where you could pick up the latest news and discuss politics, commerce or poetry fortified by a decent dose of caffeine. 

An angling party, possibly the Rashleigh family at Manabilly, by Edward Smith, mid-eighteenth-century, at Wimpole Hall. ©NTPL/Roy Fox

Liquid networks can also be used to describe the spread of artistic styles, which is usually very difficult to trace exactly. As people visited the houses and gardens of their acquaintances they would notice new fashions in interior decoration, see paintings by newly lionised artists, and discover new plants or the latest garden pavilion styles.

At the centre of a liquid network: Jemima, Marchioness Grey, by Allan Ramsay, at Wimpole Hall. ©NTPL/Roy Fox

An interesting documented example of such a liquid network can be found in the journals and letters of Jemima, Marchioness Grey (1722-1797) and her husband Philip, second Earl of Hardwicke (1720-1790).

Marchioness Grey's fellow networker: The Hon. Philip Yorke, later second Earl of Hardwicke, by Allan Ramsay, 1741, at Wimpole Hall. ©NTPL/Roy Fox

As Patrick Conner recounts in his Oriental Architecture in the West, Marchioness Grey was a keen and critical observer of the fashion for chinoiserie garden pavilions. She saw and described the pavilion at Studley Royal (in 1744 and 1755), the one at Wroxton Abbey (in 1748) and the one at Grove House, Old Windsor (before 1756).  

The Chinese House at Stowe illustrated in a guidebook of 1750, standing in its 'little dirty Piece of Water.'

When at Stowe in 1748 she inspected the Chinese House there, writing that it stood ‘in a little dirty Piece of Water’, but that otherwise it was ‘ the prettiest I have seen, & the Only One like the Drawings & Prints of their Houses.’

The Chinese House at Shugborough, with a chinoiserie boat moored in its boathouse beside it, in a watercolour by Moses Griffith of c. 1780 at Shugborough.

On several occasions she commented on the chinoiserie garden structures at Shugborough, noting ‘a Chinese Boat, extremely pretty’, in 1748. Stylistic affinity was sometimes strengthened by family ties: Marchioness Grey’s sister-in-law, Lady Elizabeth Yorke, married Admiral Lord Anson, the brother of Thomas Anson, the owner of Shugborough.

All this inspiration finally came to fruition at Marchioness Grey’s own country house, Wrest Park, where she had a Chinese House constructed by 1761.

2 Responses to “Liquid networks”

  1. Toby Worthington Says:

    A place where ideas can have sex. Hmm….that conjures up quite a picture.
    Yet isn’t that the basis for all forms of exchange? The way in which this
    theme was developed as a blog post is nothing short of brilliant.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    That’s Johnson’s phrase, not mine 🙂 But I do think it is quite apt.

    And as you say that kind of environment does seem to favour exchange, and exchange in turn seems to favour creativity.

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