Eighteenth Century British Painting


Amina Wright, Senior Curator, Holburne Museum, Bath

20 July 2015


Amina began her talk with the self-portrait (1794) by Thomas Barker of Bath (1769-1847) which exemplifies the golden age of British painting.  His long hair makes him appear modern, but he is also clearly looking to the past, and to a long artistic tradition. Barker was a poet and an intellectual, considered a natural-born genius in his time. There is a comparison with Anthony van Dyck’s presentation of himself, with clear similarities of style. Barker had been on the Grand Tour, and showed here that he understood the classical world of Europe. His View of Longleat (Holburne Museum) was shown, together with The Blind Beggar (1788, also in the Holburne). Amina pointed out that such images of the English poor and English labour were not seen until the later 1780s.  Joseph Wright of Derby’s The Dead Soldier (1789) was shown as an example of evocative ‘history’ painting.

Thomas Barker of Bath (1760-1847): Self portrait (1794) oil on canvas
Holburne Museum, Bath

The speaker then went through the main categories of painting in the 18th century, in rank order of their perceived prestige level:
HISTORY painting was at the top, and had a political purpose, emphasising the significance, often the grandeur and heroism of past events.
PORTRAITS came next. A good example was Allan Ramsay’s society portrait of Rosamund Sargent (1749), in the Holburne.
GENRE painting, or images of everyday life, was the third category. A good example is Thomas Barker’s Gloucestershire Girl Keeping Sheep (~1810), a perfect record of rural life in the English provinces.
LANDSCAPE came next; the example given was Edmund Garvey’s View of Bath (~1780), to be seen in No.1 Royal Crescent, Bath.
ANIMAL PAINTING was regarded as decorative art. The example shown was Birds in a River Landscape (~1700), by Marmaduke Cradock, a local figure born in Somerton. This is in the Government Art Collection.
STILL LIFE came last. The example here was Mary Moser’s Vase of Flowers, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

The overall view was that art was not at its highest unless it contained human figures, and told a story. All the rest was seen as decoration.  There were few places in Britain outside the great country houses where one could actually see good paintings. Amina showed pictures by G.A. Pellegrini (Rebecca at the Well, 1708-13, National Gallery), Jan Siberechts (View of Longleat, 1678, in the Government Art Collection Sir James Thornhill’s William and Mary presenting the Cap of Liberty to Europe (~1710, Great Hall, Greenwich Hospital, London) and Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe (1770, National Gallery, Ottawa).  Both the last two were about Britain in history. West’s General Wolfe had a particular message for Britain, and was a modern subject in modern dress, with great prestige value, combining innovation with tradition.  West’s picture of Wolfe could be seen as reaching out to a bigger public, creating demand for art as an historical statement, and even changing people’s mind about what was beautiful.

Benjamin West: The Death of General Wolfe (1770, National Gallery, Ottawa)

Artists always needed space, light and the right tools in the studio. Making pictures was not easy, was usually a messy business, and painting big pictures was expensive. Artist as also wanted to be seen as gentlemen, not just as artisans or craftsmen. With the foundation of the Royal Academy of Art on 10 December 1768, it became possible to study life drawing and painting for a very modest fee. Johann Zoffany’s A Life Class at St Martin’s Lane Academy (1761/2, Royal Academy of Art, London) and his picture of William Hunt Lecturing  (1772, Royal College of Physicians, London) revealed this new self-conscious spirit in the making of art. So also did the work of William Hogarth  (1697-1768) in mid-century, ranging from his domestic pieces (The Painter and his Pug; Six of Hogarth’s Servants, 1750-55)and his morality pictures (The Rake’s Progress, No.8 ;The Rake in Bedlam (1734, Sir John Soane’s Museum) to his history painting, Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter (1740, The Foundling Museum, London). Hogarth emphasised his very strong British identity through his unconcealed loathing of the French, and his hard work behind the scenes to create good opportunities for British artists.

Charles Townley with His Friends in the Townley Library, 1781-3

As the urban population of Britain grew, bankers and the new industrialists became increasingly keen to prove their status through their engagement with the arts. The Grand Tour of Europe, undertaken by young men from wealthy landowning families, was a major influence in promoting awareness of great art, studying actual landscapes in Europe, and collecting works of art (sculptures and classical remains as well as paintings and drawings) to bring home. Zoffany’s The Tribune of the Uffizi (Florence) was shown (1772, Royal Collection) as was The Exhibition of the Royal Academy (etching, 1787, Yale Center for British Art), a work done at the time Sir Joshua Reynolds was president of the Royal Academy. The need to create places where art could be shown was increasingly felt. A good local example was the Mineral Water Hospital in Bath, which possesses a work by William Hoare, Dr Oliver and Mr Peirce Examining Patients (1761). In 1760 the Society of Artists of Great Britain was founded, rival institution to the Royal Academy. Local societies of artists sprang up in Bath, York, Newcastle, Liverpool and Dublin. Thomas Rowlandson’s An Artist’s Picture Room (1809, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) illustrates the direction art was taking. Salerooms became more and more important, as shown in Rowlandson and Pugin’s Christie’s Auction Room (1808) and aesthetic matters were discussed increasingly in the press. Family paintings were commissioned; there are many in the Holburne’s own collection. One is Johann Zoffany’s The Auriol and Dashwood Families, c.1783-7, actually on loan to the Holburne from a private collection.

Artists sought out subjects from the living world, such AS George Stubbs’ A Horse Affrighted By A Lion (1770,Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)in which the horse is the hero, and where Stubbs takes an apparently mundane subject and, stressing the relationship with nature, makes it sublime.  His picture Warren Hastings’ Yak (1791, private collection) does the same. Joseph Wright of Derby was drawn to scientific subjects, such as An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768, National Gallery) and A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery (1764-6, Derby Museums and Art Gallery). The world of the theatre was sought out more and more by late 18th century artists - witness Zoffany’s David Garrick and Susannah Cibber in Otway’s Venice Preserved, and Reynolds’ Mrs Musters as Hebe, Cupbearer to the Gods (Tate Britain, c.1785) and Gainsborough’s Mrs Mary Robinson as Perdita (c.1781, Wallace Collection).  Incidentally, the charismatic Mrs Musters was also painted by George Romney and John Hoppner, while George Stubbs painted her spaniel.

In the work of the finest artists, a moral and psychological dimension can be seen clearly, for example in Gainsborough’s Tree Study (a graphite and chalk drawing on paper) in the Tate Britain collection. Gainsborough’s The Byam Family (1762-66, Holburne Museum, on loan from the Andrew Brownsword Arts Foundation) is permeated by the glow of the landscape, with which the family itself seems to interact. The same might be said of Gainsborough’s celebrated Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews (1748-9, National Gallery). The landscape is that of their farm The Auberies, near Sudbury, Suffolk.   (See page 106-107 of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, for the debate about this painting, its obvious beauty, but also its projection of a sense of ownership and possession of the great estate around the two figures)   In Jonathan Richardson’s Garton Orme at the spinet (1705-8, Holburne Museum), family pride is very much in evidence; the blue-coated boy displays politeness, but also a sense of showing off his precocious abilities as a musician. The portrait of the young Arthur Hatherley by Thomas Lawrence (~1791, Los Angeles County Museum) shows a school leaver with long hair, wearing a red coat, a hat, and with a fixed gaze outwards, meeting the world head-on.  Eton College is in the background, indicating wealth, status and power. On the strength of this portrait, it is said that Thomas Lawrence became President of the Royal Academy, the most prestigious post in the English art world of the time.

Thomas Gainsborough: Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews  ~1750 National Gallery, London

As time went on, and the era we now think of as that of Romanticism developed, landscape painting became increasingly dominant. Richard Wilson, the Welsh artist, (1713-1787) was an important British pioneer : Amina showed Wilson’s Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle (1765, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) and there are, of course, many fine Wilsons in the fine collection of the National Gallery of Wales in Cardiff.  A superb exhibition of paintings, drawings and other material relating to Wilson was held in Cardiff in 2014. The slightly later Matlock High Tor by Joseph Wright of Derby (1780, Southampton Museum) and John Constable’s Stour Valley and Dedham Church(c.1817, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) show how certain great British painters drew so naturally and effectively on their native rural territory. Constable’s Stour Valley is a landscape which is also simultaneously a history painting. British artists were seeing Arcadia less in Italy and Greece than in their own countryside.  Amina closed her talk with J.M.W. Turner’s Bath Abbey before 1793 (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath) and with one of the most famous (and best-loved) British pictures of all time, his The Fighting Temeraire being towed to her Last Berth (1838, National Gallery). Turner’s Temeraire is a great patriotic painting, symbolically of an old hero being finally laid to rest, as the Temeraire had taken part long ago (1805) in the Battle of Trafalgar, and is thus explicitly linked to a central moment of national triumph. The ship is going up to Rotherhithe to be broken up. Amina pointed out that in The Fighting Temeraire, the sunset is in the wrong place, and that the sun should be setting behind the viewer, not ahead. But this will never dim the lasting popularity of this endlessly glamorous marine picture.

Dr Robert Blackburn, former Principal Lecturer in Music, School of Music and Performing Arts, Bath Spa University