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Living with the Royal Academy

Artistic Ideals and Experiences in England, 1768-1848


Edited by Sarah Monks, John Barrell & Mark Hallett


British Art – Global Contexts Series

Farnham: Ashgate, 2013

Hardcover. xv+251 p. ISBN 978-1409403180. £65.00


Reviewed by Jacques Carré

Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV)



This collection of essays explores the careers of a number of Royal academicians, mostly painters, in the period extending from the creation of the Academy to the formation of the Preraphaelite brotherhood. In the wake of David Solkin’s volume Art on the Line (2001), it avoids institutional history to concentrate on the experience of these academicians in the light of genre, national and social identity, sensibility, politics and religion. Most of the artists discussed are famous ones such as Joshua Reynolds, Joseph Wright of Derby, Philip de Loutherbourg and Benjamin West.

Mark Hallett suggests that the association between the young Royal Academy and a gendered vision of high art can be nuanced, by examining Joshua Reynolds’s first exhibits in 1769. There were four pictures by the artist representing women: three were mythologized portraits (Elizabeth, Duchess of Manchester, as Diana ; Mrs. Blake as Juno ; Mrs Bouverie and Mrs Crewe contemplating a tomb) and the fourth was a subject picture inspired by a living person (Hope nursing Love). Hallett shows that these pictures of women do not only attempt to raise the status of the portraits by connecting them with a classical narrative of some sort, but also to strike the spectator by introducing an emotional climate connected with fashionable female sensibility. Hallett describes these pictures as « Italianate, learned, feminized and poetical » [32]. Similar pictures, often related to continental precedents, were also produced by contemporary English artists, but the President’s status as leader of the Academy suggests that he was deliberately trying to outdo them by fostering an emotional interaction with the spectator.

Sarah Monks and Iain McCalman address the issue of foreignness in the careers of Dominic Serres and Philip de Loutherbourg. The London art world of the 18th century had long been prepared to welcome and sometimes naturalise foreign artists. The Royal Academy continued this tradition, because it was generally felt by many painters that something could be learned from modern, and not just ancient, Continental art. Dominic Serres, a Frenchman, specialised in maritime battle-scenes, in the tradition of Claude-Joseph Vernet. He was a founding member of the Royal Academy and ended as Marine Painter to George III. Like Reynolds in the case of portraits, Serres tried to raise the lowly status of marine painting. Yet the very accuracy and starkness of his rendering of naval battles seemed to limit the public appeal of his pictures, and his reputation was never secure.

More flamboyant was Philip de Loutherbourg’s London career. Iain Mac Calman asks why this Alsatian-born artist suddenly left the French capital where he had been hailed as a genius (not least by Diderot). He reveals that his wild extravagance and libertinism had led him into debt and marital trouble. For him London was a refuge, but also a promising market. Garrick, always on the look-out for novelties, hired him as scenographer. He was immensely successful in that line, ultimately opening his famous “Eidophusikon”. But he also found time to continue his brilliant painting career in a variety of genres and he won the admiration of such luminaries as Gainsborough and Reynolds.

If Loutherbourg was a pushing fellow, Wright of Derby, on the contrary, cultivated his image as a retiring provincial artist. After his failure to become a full Academician in 1783, he was described by his literary friend William Hayley as an artistic Cincinnatus, for whom the competitive environment of the Academy was “ill-suited to a man of sensibilities” [97]. John Bonehill suggests that in his one-man show of 1785 at Robins’s Rooms, Wright offered “a series of interrelated, criss-crossing narratives around themes of war and peace, stoic suffering and melancholy” [99]. His View of Gibraltar and his Midlands landscapes could be seen as patriotic gestures implicitly denouncing the more commercially-minded Academy exhibits.

John Barrell’s chapter challenges current views of James Barry’s and Thomas Banks’ respective brands of radicalism. He now sees Barry as “lukewarm about parliamentary reform and hostile to universal manhood suffrage” [131]. And he carefully details the close links of Thomas Banks with such radical militants as Horne Tooke, William Sharp and Thomas Holcroft. The painter joined the Society for Constitutional Information in 1792, at a time when such an association verged on disaffection. Yet out of sheer loyalty to academic ideals Banks joined in the campaign for the expulsion of his fellow radical Barry from the academy in 1799.

Benjamin West is the subject of two contributions by Rosie Dias and Ann Bermingham. Dias examines the American painter’s interest in effects of colour. Although academic theory emphasised the supremacy of drawing, many academicians (Reynolds included) privately experimented with the more “mechanical” aspects of painting. West was even victim to a hoax, when in 1796 Thomas Provis claimed to have a copy of an Italian manuscript detailing Titian’s colouring techniques. Dias further shows that West’s presidency of the Academy in 1806-1820 “was characterised by a greater openness to technical and scientific discourse” on colour [122]. Bermingham’s chapter examines the failure of West’s royal commission to paint 35 Biblical scenes for the “Chapel of revealed religion” at Windsor. After the completion of 18 paintings, the King cancelled the project in 1801. It seems that George III increasingly worried about supposedly democratic leanings among academicians (West included). Moreover, in his sensational rendering of the Book of Revelation, “West could be faulted in the same way that fundamentalist Millenarians could be faulted, that is, for being too literal in his interpretations of Scripture” [166]. Still, West did continue to work on Death on the Pale Horse, and according to Bermingham, “the subject may have come to embody, for West, the political, social and professional calamities that beset him, from the outbreak of hostilities between Britain and America to the collapse of the Napoleonic empire” [167].

Martin Myrone’s chapter on William Etty uses Bourdieu’s concept of “cleft habitus” to assess the painter’s career. He shows that Etty, a baker’s son, had strictly no link with the metropolitan artistic milieu from which most of his fellow students in the class of 1807 were issued. Although he was an exception, in sociological terms, he turned out to be the most dedicated of students and was described as a pure product of the Academy, rising thanks to sheer merit. His success corresponded to the Academy’s ideal, but the painter was paradoxically considered suspiciously by some critics: was his complete devotion to nude painting really disinterested? Was he not pandering to the erotic taste of his clients (or to his own obsessions)? Thus Myrone suggests that Etty’s critics actually tended to exclude him from the academic “habitus”.

The chapter about the neo-classical sculptor John Gibson, by Jason Edwards, forms an appropriate ending to the volume as it focuses on the later decades of the period and illustrates some anti-academic reactions. Here the critic tries to defend Gibson’s reputation against his critics of the later Victorian age. This highly successful sculptor, whose works were admired and exhibited throughout Europe and the British empire in the 1840s and 1850s, was later accused of lack of imagination and even bad taste. Edwards rejects the charge of conventionalism, defends his notorious Tinted Venus as daringly innovative, with its concern for the texture of sculpture. He identifies in Gibson’s work a specific concern for the depiction of physical suffering, and even suggests links with the Aesthetic movement.

This erudite and well-written book offers further evidence of the complexity of the London art world of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While it confirms the positive effects of the Academy on the enhancement of artistic professions, it also shows the diversity of opinions and relative freedom of the more original artists.


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