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1769 Catching Your Eye

The couple look out at you, catching your eye (Fig. 1). They have been playing chess, and the pieces they have exchanged are scattered across the shining table top. Only their kings remain on the board, dancing around each other in what seems destined to become a perpetual draw. The husband stands up, as if in greeting, gesturing at you with one hand and indicating the game’s concluding position with the other; his wife, too, looks out at you, her fingertip still hovering near the piece she has just been moving around the board. You have entered this couple’s space, and met their eyes. They seem at ease in your presence, and look likely to tell you the story of their game; one can imagine them smiling together as they describe its equable ending. They and their picture welcome you into their world.

This portrait of William and Penelope Welby was completed in the early months of 1769 by the oil-painter and pastellist Francis Cotes.1 In April of that same year, the artist, one of the founder members of the newly created Royal Academy, submitted his freshly painted canvas to the Academy’s first ever exhibition, which took place in an auctioneer’s premises in the fashionable London district of Pall Mall. There, it not only joined six other pictures by Cotes, but jostled for attention with more than 130 other works—paintings, sculptures, and drawings—produced by forty-nine other professional practitioners, and by a handful of amateurs.2

At this point, exhibitions of contemporary art were still a novel kind of cultural event in Britain, but one that was already flourishing. The first such exhibition had taken place in 1760, and thereafter had become an annual fixture of the London art scene.3 From 1761 onwards, indeed, two different groupings—the Society of Artists and the Free Society of Artists—organised rival displays that took place in the spring and early summer months of each year, and that regularly featured hundreds of works by scores of artists. Thus, in 1768, just a few months before some of the leading members of the Society of Artists defected to form the Royal Academy, the Society had mounted a display of some 320 works by more than 200 artists.4 Meanwhile, the rival Free Society organised an exhibition of nearly 300 works by over 100 artists.5 Given that both organisations went on to organise similarly substantial shows in the following year, alongside the new Academy’s inaugural display, it is no wonder, perhaps, that one journalistic commentator was moved to exclaim in April 1769 that: “this year has been remarkable for encouraging Exhibitions.”6

How, then, did painters, sculptors, and engravers respond to this new phenomenon? On the one hand, artists recognised that the contemporary exhibitions—and the journalistic art criticism they were beginning to generate—offered them an unprecedented opportunity to advertise their wares, and to build a public reputation. Thousands of people attended the exhibitions, and read about them in the newspapers; and these were visitors and readers who might not only look at and talk about the works on display, but, on occasion, buy these works or commission others like them. Exhibitions sucked in potential patrons, and helped to create a newly expanded and vibrant market for contemporary British art. On the other hand, artistic practitioners quickly realised that these same exhibitions provided a visual environment in which the individual work of art, surrounded by a multitude of competing images, could easily become lost or overwhelmed. Adding to the sense of pictorial crush was the fact that, at the exhibitions of the period, pictures were exhibited cheek by jowl on the walls, giving them no room to breathe. Sculptures, too, were often starved of space, and jumbled together with little sense of decorum.

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Given these opportunities and challenges, it is perhaps unsurprising that most of the leading artists of the day not only felt compelled to submit works to the annual displays, but also began to develop strategies for distinguishing their works from those of their competitors. That is, they started thinking about the best ways to catch the exhibition visitor’s eye, and, if possible, to hold their attention.7 At the 1769 Academy display, artists attempted to do this in a variety of ways. Thomas Gainsborough, for instance, mounted a twin-track strategy that promoted his skills in two very different pictorial genres: he displayed a large landscape painting and a pair of full-length portraits. The latter, furthermore, were composed so as to strike the eye from afar, but painted with an intricate handling that repaid the close-up attention of the connoisseur.8 Joshua Reynolds, meanwhile, flaunted his ability to fuse the imagery of portraiture and allegory, while artists such as Benjamin West and Angelica Kauffmann submitted pictures that showcased their talents in representing the elevated narratives of classical history and myth.9 Other artists relied as much on who they painted as on how well they did so. The Academy’s inaugural Exhibition was especially busy with portraits of the royal family, including Nathanial Dance’s full-lengths of the king and queen and Jeremiah Meyer’s Portrait in enamel of his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. Thanks to their famous subjects, such pictures—and their producers—could expect at least a modicum of attention.

Francis Cotes deployed some of these same tactics in 1769. Though three of his seven submissions that year remain unidentified, we know that he exhibited a portrait in pastel of HRH the Duke of Gloucester that simultaneously exploited the Duke’s celebrity and flaunted the artist’s mastery of this fashionable medium.10 He also, like Reynolds, demonstrated his ability to fuse pictorial genres by exhibiting a portrait of a young woman in the character of the Greek goddess of youth, Hebe.11But he also found other ways of gaining attention. One of his exhibition pictures that year was a portrait of a “young gentleman”, Lewis Cage, in which the boy, brought up close to the picture plane, is shown confidently holding a cricket bat and standing against a low horizon (Fig. 2).12As Cotes would have been fully aware, such a portrait, thanks to the bold, assertive pose of its youthful subject, its flashes of white clothing, and the dramatic forms of contrast it generates between the boy’s figure and the framing sky, would stand out from its companions on the exhibition wall.

It is perhaps in his portrait of the two chess players, however, that we can see quite how innovative and experimental an exhibition painter Cotes was proving himself to be. Of course, this is a work that was ultimately intended to hang in the Welbys’ household, and that was painted as such; but it is also a picture that seems especially attuned to the dynamics of Britain’s new exhibition culture, and—more especially—to the need for pictures to call out from the crowded walls of the annual displays. At Pall Mall, the artist’s two subjects turned their eyes not just to one or two spectators, as they would go on to do at their family home, but to thousands of viewers, each and every one of whom was invited, in turn, to enter the couple’s elegant orbit, and to become the painting’s third protagonist. Come closer, the picture seems to say: come closer, now that I have caught your eye. Look at my subjects, yes, and enjoy your encounter with them; but also look at me, and marvel at the skill and ingenuity of my creator.

  1. For a detailed and characteristically readable account of the painting, and one which brilliantly unlocks the move that is depicted on the chess board, see Jenny Uglow, A Winning End-Game (London, 2013), an essay published privately by the Matthiesen Gallery. For an invaluable and stimulating account of Cotes and his career, see Edward Mead Johnson, Francis Cotes: Complete Edition (Oxford; Phaidon, 1976), where the portrait is listed as catalogue no. 287, and discussed on 99–100. The picture is dated 1769, which—given its exhibition in April—suggests that it was completed in the early months of that year.↩︎

  2. See that year’s catalogue, published as The Exhibition of the Royal Academy MDCCLXIX. The First (London, 1769).↩︎

  3. For this earliest phase of British exhibition culture, see Matthew Hargraves, “Candidates for Fame”: The Society of Artists of Great Britain, 1760–1791 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), Chapters 1–4.↩︎

  4. See A Catalogue of the … Society of Artists of Great Britain (London, 1768).↩︎

  5. See A Catalogue of the… Free Society of Artists (London, 1768).↩︎

  6. The Public Advertiser, 23 May 1769.↩︎

  7. One rarely noted aspect of the very first Academy Exhibition is interesting in this respect: the fact that, as we have seen, it was actually quite a lot smaller than those of its immediate predecessors, and featured substantially fewer artists, each of whom were given the opportunity to display a select portfolio of their works. Here, visitors might infer, you had the chance to enjoy carefully chosen works of art by a select group of practitioners. Even so, as all those involved would have anticipated as they prepared for the Academy’s first display, competition was still going to be fierce, and the exhibition environment a visually busy one.↩︎

  8. For more on Gainsborough’s 1769 submission, see Mark Hallett, “A Double Capacity: Gainsborough at the Summer Exhibition”, in Christoph Martin Vogtherr (ed.), Thomas Gainsborough: The Modern Landscape (Hamburg: Hirmer, 2018), 190–211.↩︎

  9. For a detailed analysis of Reynolds’ 1769 exhibition submission, see Mark Hallett, “The Academy Quartet: Joshua Reynolds in 1769”, in Sarah Monks, John Barrell, Mark Hallett (eds), Living with the Royal Academy: Artistic Ideals and Experiences in England, 1768–1848 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), 25–52.↩︎

  10. See Mead Johnson, Francis Cotes, where the portrait is listed as catalogue no. 273, discussed on 97, and illustrated as figure 110.↩︎

  11. For Cotes’s full submission of pictures, see The Exhibition of the Royal Academy MDCCLXIX. The First (London, 1769), 5.↩︎

  12. See Mead Johnson, Francis Cotes, where the portrait is listed as catalogue no. 255, discussed on 93, and illustrated as figure 72.↩︎

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