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Hogarth to Turner : British Painting

The National Gallery


Louise Govier


Yale University Press / London National Gallery, 2010 

Paperback. 70 p. ISBN 9781857094879. £9.99


Reviewed by Sophie Loussouarn

Université de Picardie – Jules Verne (Amiens)



This catalogue entitled Hogarth to Turner : British Painting, published by Yale University Press in 2010, features the masterpieces of British painting in the collection of the National Gallery in London. The short introduction by Louise Govier focuses on the history of the museum which became too small when Turner bequeathed nearly 300 paintings and more than 1900 drawings to the nation. Founded in 1824 by collectors, Sir George Beaumont and Robert Vernon, the National Gallery displays outstanding British paintings in its premises in Trafalgar Square. The catalogue features Mrs Siddons (1785) by Gainsborough on the front cover, The Fighting Temeraire (1839) by Turner on the frontispiece and it opens with the familiar British landscape, The Cornfield by Constable.

British art as such did not exist before the creation of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 whereas the French painters were sought after in Great Britain. British painters lacked training, theory and practice. They balanced the demands of their local markets. They had to vie with skilful foreign artists who had been trained at the French Academy and were commissioned by British aristocrats who thought that the best painters came from the Continent.

The introduction to the catalogue stresses the European inspiration of British painters. Constable discovered European painting in his patrons’ house and certainly drew his inspiration from Rubens, An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning. Turner worshipped Claude and was inspired by Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba. Reynolds was inspired by Van Dyck.

Hogarth, who was trained as an engraver and was a self-taught painter, imposed his own style on English painting with “modern moral subjects” and “conversation pieces”. His most famous series of painting is Marriage à la Mode (1743) which ridicules the marriage of convenience in eighteenth-century Britain and denounces the vanity of the Earl of Squander who prides himself on his lineage going back to William the Conqueror. The catalogue only features the first painting, The Marriage Settlement, and the last of the six paintings, The Lady’s Death. This tragicomedy ends up as a tragedy. Hogarth was a moralist who denounced the foibles of eighteenth-century British society and the mores of the British aristocracy. Hogarth was also a portrait-painter who was commissioned to paint conversation pieces. The Graham Children (1742) exemplifies this genre and underlines the brevity of childhood and the frailty of life.

British patrons wanted to be idealised and shown at their best. That is how British portraiture developed with Gainsborough, who became known as the outdoor conversation piece painter and a great landscape artist. Mr and Mrs Andrews (about 1750), John Pamplin (1752), Mr and Mrs William Hallett (1785), also called The Morning Walk, are amongst his greatest portraits. These full-length portraits set outside on the estate of the landlords magnified by the artist insist on social order and rural values. Gainsborough also painted picturesque landscapes, such as Cornard Wood, near Sudbury, Suffolk (1748) and The Watering Place (1777), where men were minor figures as he mainly focused on trees, shrubs and grey skies. In these paintings, he remains close to the Dutch masters he copied, Jacob van Ruisdael and Peter Paul Rubens.

The self-taught artist Stubbs painted horses and animals of all kinds. He was the favourite painter of wealthy landowners who wanted their beautiful steeds to be immortalised. In his only great family portrait, The Millbanks and Melbourne Families (about 1769), focusing on the union of two families, the horses echo the social positions of the characters.

Joseph Wright of Derby was a great painter of conversation pieces too. Unlike Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough whose posture was stiff and formal, Wright of Derby’s full-length portrait of Mr and Mrs Thomas Coltman (1770-2) insists on the affectionate bond between husband and wife. It is quite different from his paintings dramatising scientific experiments in the eighteenth century, especially An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), in which a scientist makes a demonstration in front of men, women and children. Wright of Derby was the painter of the industrial revolution and was fascinated by the light effects coming from candles, erupting volcanoes and the forge. He appears as a ground-breaker in British painting.

There was a growing need among artists for a professional organisation similar to the academies of art in Italy and France. This led to the creation of the Royal Academy of Arts under the patronage of George III with Joshua Reynolds as its first President. Two of his portraits of gentlemen are reproduced here, Captain Robert Orme (1756) and Colonel Tarleton (1782). Some of his portraits of women and girls are also reproduced, especially Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons (1773). Reynolds contrasts with the natural style of Gainsborough and resorts to the grand style which he commented upon in his Discourses.

The catalogue also covers the late eighteenth century with Zoffany’s painting of Mrs Oswald (1763-4) and Sir Thomas Lawrence’s famous portrait of Queen Charlotte (1789) in a shimmering silk dress. The court painter magnified the image of the Queen and resorted to theatrical effects conveyed by the draperies and tassels and the perspective on Eton Chapel in the distance. This study of the evolution of British portrait ends up with Lord Ribblesdale (1902) by John Singer Sargent, who drew his inspiration from Reynolds’ full-length grand manner portraits.

The catalogue extends to nineteenth-century landscape painting with Lord Leighton, President of the Royal Academy of Arts, Thomas Jones and Richard Wilson. Yet Constable appears as the prominent nineteenth-century rural painter with the famous paintings The Hay Wain (1821) and The Cornfield (1826), Weymouth Bay (1816) and Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1833-6). The catalogue ends up with Turner, the great British master of light and colour. From Calais Pier (1803) to Margate from the Sea (about 1835-1840) and Rain, Steam and Speed—The Great Western Railway (1844), the evolution of Turner is traced from the Flemish influence to the liberation of light into a dazzling mist which paves the way to impressionism and verges on abstraction.

Each painting is nicely reproduced and analysed at the end of the catalogue. The commentaries are vivid and enlightening but remain anecdotic and superficial. This makes of this catalogue a good illustration of the evolution of British portrait and landscape painting from the eighteenth century to the dawn of the twentieth century. Yet there is no chronological order or analytical perspective on genre painting.




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