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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.’
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.