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1775 Nathaniel Hone's Spartan Boy "Concealing a Theft"

On 27 April 1775, The Morning Chronicle bewailed the number of Royal Academicians not represented in the exhibition that year: Nathaniel Dance, Giovanni Cipriani, Thomas Gainsborough, and Nathaniel Hone.1 However, “A.B.” was not entirely accurate in including the final name, as Hone did have one picture in the hang: The Spartan Boy (Fig. 1).2 In fact, only the day before, this painting had been commended in the same paper for the boy’s “very expressive countenance”, and further positive reviews of the “historical portrait”, modelled on the artist’s son, John, were to follow.3 However, it was very unusual for an Academician to have only a single work on show. That same year, Joshua Reynolds, as president, had no fewer than twelve paintings on display.4

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Hone’s lone exhibit had a very unusual back story. In fact, seven of his paintings had been accepted for that year’s exhibition, but, shortly afterwards, he had received a delegation from the Academy Council, bearing news of a complaint from Angelica Kauffman. She believed herself to have been scandalously represented as a nude in a background group in one of Hone’s submitted works: The Conjuror (Fig. 2). Hone denied that he had represented Kauffman. He offered to repaint the image—and, indeed, subsequently did so. The naked figures can now only be seen in X-rays, and in the preparatory sketch.5 However, it was to no avail, and the artist was informed “that a ballot having been taken by the Council, whether your picture called the Conjuror should be admitted in the Exhibition, it was determined in the negative.”6 Hone, aggrieved, sent a servant not only to retrieve the offending painting, but also five of the other works, leaving only his Spartan Boy: “which I am willing to have hung up from the great respect I owe to ye King and his Academy.”7

That was far from the end of the matter, however. On the day the Academy show opened, Monday 24 April, an advertisement in the Gazetteer announced that, as of the Thursday of that same week, Hone’s removed exhibits, along with “upwards of Fourscore” more paintings by his hand, could be seen in a one-man retrospective.8 In the room in St Martin’s Lane, which Hone hired for his purposes, interested parties could view paintings from across the artist’s career, culminating with the six pictures “[intended] to [have been] exhibited [at the] Royal Academy this year, and … actually hung up there.”9 It was a pointed counterpoint to the Academy exhibition. Both shows were open every day of the week except Sunday; both cost a shilling admission; both had a free catalogue.

Hone’s catalogue opens with an account of the spat, including an affidavit swearing that, in The Conjuror, he had “never introduced, or intended to introduce any figure reflecting on Mrs Angelica Kauffman, or any lady whatever.”10 This may or may not be true, but Hone’s choice of words is significant, for the undoubted principal attack of The Conjuror was on none other than the most important man in the British art world: Joshua Reynolds.11 The painting depicts a robed magician, with a book inscribed: “ADVANTAG/EOUSCOPIES/FROM VARIOU./MAS…”, directing his wand towards a fire in the lower left-hand corner. A winged demon at the top of the image casts a number of old master prints down towards these flames, out of which emerges the frame of a painting. This curious scene clearly referred to Reynolds’s established practice of “borrowing” from the work of previous artists, identifying the sources for a number of the President’s exhibits over the previous two years: Michelangelo’s Aminadab, the basis for Reynolds’s Count Ugolino and his Children, displayed in 1773; an etching after Carlo Maratta’s Infant Christ, used for his Infant Jupiter, exhibited in 1774; Francesco Romanelli’s The Slumbering Silenus, the model for Reynolds’s portrait of the Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen, likewise displayed at the Academy in the previous year.12 Furthermore, only in the previous December, Reynolds had devoted his entire Discourses on Art to the subject of such imitation, asserting that: “no man need be ashamed of copying the antients”, and specifically underscoring the utility of such engravings after their works: “every man may now avail himself of the inventions of antiquity.”13 In case anyone could miss the point, the magician himself is a likeness of George White, one of Reynolds’s favourite models.14

The assertion of “A Lover of Wit” in The Public Advertiser that this was actually a panegyric on Reynolds was undoubtedly ironic. It was an all-out attack on the head of the Academy, and it was unsurprising that Hone was forced to withdraw the picture, and had to use his show in St Martin’s Lane as an alternative platform for his assault.15 But it is worth returning one more time to that painting which did remain in the Academy display: The Spartan Boy. One review explained the narrative, taken from Plutarch’s Moralia: “This is an historical portrait of that celebrated young Spartan, who, to shew his fortitude in concealing a theft (a meritorious branch of education then amongst that people) hid a fox under his coat, till he ate out his bowels.”16 The fox’s snout appears in sinister fashion from within the boy’s robe; the child’s gaze combines pain and resolution. The caption on the print, published in July the same year, provided another recap of how the Spartan boy had “suffer’d” his stolen fox cub “to bite him Mortally, rather than undergo the disgrace of a discovery.”17 The theme of concealed theft was, surely, another supplementary attack on Reynolds’s taking of poses and compositions from the likes of Maratta and Michelangelo. Indeed, Hone’s Spartan Boy clearly recalls a particular line from Reynolds’s Discourses on Art of the previous year: “Borrowing or stealing with such art and caution will have a right to the same lenity as was used by the Lacedemonians [Spartans]; who did not punish theft, but the want of artifice to conceal it.”18 Hone did manage to get his attack on Reynolds into the Academy show after all.

  1. The Morning Chronicle, 27 April 1775. The Public Advertiser, 28 April 1775, also noted the absence of Dance, Cipriani, and Gainsborough, but did not include Hone in the list.↩︎

  2. No. 157. Now in a private collection. See Adrian Le Harivel, Nathaniel Hone the Elder 1718–1784 (Dublin: Town House, 1992), 29.↩︎

  3. The Morning Chronicle, 26 April 1775. See The London Evening Post, 2 May 1775; The Middlesex Journal, 2 May 1775; The Morning Post, 3 May 1775. John also modelled for Hone’s Piping Boy, shown at the first Royal Academy exhibition in 1769, now at the National Gallery of Ireland. See Nicola Figgis and Brendan Rooney, Irish Paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland (Dublin: The National Gallery, 2001), 224–226, no. 440.↩︎

  4. As noted in The Public Advertiser, 28 April 1775.↩︎

  5. The sketch is now at Tate Britain. They hold brushes and palettes, and are shown in front of St Paul’s, as a reference to the failed scheme, led by Joshua Reynolds, to decorate the cathedral with contemporary paintings.↩︎

  6. This narrative is mostly taken from Hone’s own account in his introduction to The Exhibition of Pictures, by Nathaniel Hone, R.A., mostly the Works of his Leisure, and many of them in his own Possession (London, 1775). Copies of this text are rare, but one is available in the Tate library. It was summarised by J.T. Smith in Wilfred Whitten (ed.), Nollekens and his Times, 2 vols (London, 1920), vol. 1, 120–128. See also Edward Edwards, Anecdotes of Painters (London: Luke Hansard & Sons, 1808), 99–103. For a full account, see Martin Butlin, “An Eighteenth-Century Art Scandal: Nathaniel Hone’s The Conjuror”, Connoisseur 174 (May 1970), 1–9.↩︎

  7. Royal Academy Archive/SEC/1/6, Nathaniel Hone to Francis Milner Newton, 19 April 1775.↩︎

  8. Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 24 April 1775. Actually sixty, making the total number of exhibits sixty-six. For a recent account of Hone’s exhibition, focusing on it as a retrospective, see Konstantinos Stefanis, “Nathaniel Hone’s 1775 Exhibition”, Visual Culture in Britain 14, no. 2 (2013): 131–153.↩︎

  9. Hone, Exhibition of Pictures, 7.↩︎

  10. Hone, Exhibition of Pictures, 2.↩︎

  11. The issue of whether Kauffman was represented is confusing. She has been identified as the nude with long black stockings, but herself identified the figure with the trumpet—who sports a beard. Some scholars have proposed that she is rather included as the young girl leaning against the magician’s knee, based on her self-portrait as Hope, the engraving of which had been published only months previously. See the catalogue entry for The Conjuror in Figgis and Rooney, Irish Paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland, 226–231, no. 1790.↩︎

  12. For a full account, see John Newman, “Reynolds and Hone: The Conjuror Unmasked”, in Nicholas Penny, Reynolds (London: Royal Academy, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1986), 344–354. The conceit was explained in The London Evening Post, 9 May 1775, largely reprinted in The Public Advertiser, 12 May 1775.↩︎

  13. Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, ed. Robert R. Wark (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 107.↩︎

  14. See Martin Postle, “Patriarchs, Prophets and Paviours: Reynolds’s Images of Old Age”, Burlington Magazine 130, no. 1027 (1988): 735–744.↩︎

  15. The Public Advertiser, 15 May 1775. This was answered in the same paper by “A Lover of Decency” on 20 May 1775. See also The Morning Chronicle, 19 May 1775.↩︎

  16. The London Evening Post, 2 May 1775.↩︎

  17. William Humphrey after Nathaniel Hone, The Spartan Boy, 1775, British Museum 1872, 0713.266. Hone produced other images modelled on his own children, also showing them protecting animals. See Le Harivel, Nathaniel Hone the Elder, 29.↩︎

  18. Reynolds, Discourses on Art, 107.↩︎

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