The purpose is to look and think about the town as Watts saw and experienced it.
Susanna wants to show us new things (as well as old things). She takes the visitor to see the canal – a dramatic intervention in the urban landscape, a technological marvel, a site of bustling industry. Her visitors would have seen an iron foundry supplied with coal and ore by the canal, carts and horses, steam and machinery, rows of new terraced houses for the workers stretching away accross the fields and along the roads.
What would you show a visitor to Leicester? How have our ideas about aesthetics (and history) changed over the years? Would you take someone to see a green park, the picturesque ruins of Leicester Abbey – or a new airport or docks or railway or a busy road?
Watts was, like us, a creature of her time; it can often be unhelpful in history to try and classify and categorise the past into simple blocks, because neat cut-offs rarely exist (“The Victorian Age”, “The Nineteenth Century”) but thinking about states of mind – the dominant or predominant way of looking at, and thinking about, the world, can help us understand why an individual navigated through their lives the way they did.
Watts was a creature of the enlightenment. Her world celebrated order, structure, rationality, empiricism, experiment, science, development, progress. Her present was a victory over the past, and towns were beacons of the future in an increasingly prosperous countryside. She is confident and enthusiastic about the present and wary of the past. Rural life did not mean a bucolic paradise – it meant back-breaking labour to scrape a living. The past was a dark age, not a place of comfort and nostalgia.
Enlightenment thinking was widespread amongst the social and cultural elite. In the eighteenth century the King of England took a particular and personal interest in the very newest scientific techniques and the agricultural revolution; “Farmer George”. Imagine Prince Charles as an enthusiast for the very latest medical techniques instead of homepathy.
Even as Watts wrote, her world was changing. A new way of looking at, and thinking about, the world was rising, to displace the enlightenment as the intellectual framework of choice for the social and cultural elite: romanticism.
In the nineteenth century the Queen of England was reputed to have closed the blinds of her train so she did not have to see the industrial landscape of the Black Country. De Loutherbourg gave way to pastoral romanticism, the classical to the gothic. Man moved from dominion over nature to awe.