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1778 Pleasing the Multitude

“Much superior to that of the last year” was how The London Evening Post judged the Royal Academy exhibition of 1778.1 This was not a unanimous assessment, but most critics gave supportive reviews and found the exhibition a good index of national progress. Only “a Spectator” writing for The London Chronicle struck a discordant note by claiming that it was “greatly inferior to many of those of preceding ones, especially in the article of historical pieces.”2 Other critics celebrated the arrival of defectors from the Society of Artists of Great Britain, especially John Hamilton Mortimer, George Stubbs, Joseph Wright of Derby, and Francis Wheatley, whose collective presence rendered the Royal Academy exhibition “much more powerful than heretofore”.3

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The year 1778 saw the exhibition of Reynolds’s masterpiece The Marlborough Family; the critics were near unanimous in declaring it the finest picture that year (Fig. 1). “The chef d’oeuvre of the whole … It is impossible to speak too highly in praise of this piece,” gushed one.4 The Public Advertiser acclaimed it as “the best Piece of Portrait Painting since the Days of Vandycke” and rhapsodised on its various merits of composition and expression in an unusually long description.5 Reynolds earned particular admiration for capturing the duke’s dignity, but the dissenting “Spectator” in The London Chronicle, unimpressed by the exhibition’s lack of histories, found the preponderance of portraits indicative of vanity and self-interest. He offered an oblique criticism of Reynolds’s specialism, and his masterpiece, when he said: “Who, but his own descendants (if he has any) will, a century hence, give a doit [i.e. a very small amount of money] for the picture of an English nobleman distinguished for nothing but for being an English nobleman.”6 He continued,

Those who confine their talents to the portraits of persons illustrious for nothing but their rank or opulence … must content themselves with the humbler praise of acknowledging, that, they do not paint to all ages or all nations, nor even to any whole age or whole nation, but merely to one particular family.7

By contrast, another picture in the Great Room that year was Copley’s A boy attacked by a shark, and rescued by some seamen in a boat; founded on a fact which happened in the harbour of the Havannah (Fig. 2). Now familiar as Watson and the Shark, it was perhaps the most innovative painting exhibited since Benjamin West had shown the Death of General Wolfe in 1771. Copley made no mention of Watson in his title, referring to him merely as “a boy”, but that it was based on actual events of recent vintage was obvious from orchestrated press coverage. Watson saw to it that a lengthy account of his youthful misadventure appeared in the press identifying him by name and, sensationally, as one “literally saved from the Jaws of Death”.8 Born in England to obscure parents in 1735, Watson was dispatched to Boston as an orphan in 1741 and eventually destined for a life at sea; a passing shark took his right leg below the knee when he was swimming in Havana harbour in 1749. His nautical career over, Watson instead served as a commissary to the British army during the conquest of Canada before sailing for London to establish himself as a merchant. It was in 1774 that the self-made Watson met Copley, then briefly in London after leaving Boston. The exhibition of Copley’s picture in 1778 and the subsequent press coverage was the beginning of Watson’s remarkable transformation from City merchant to Member of Parliament and ultimately Lord Mayor of London in 1796.

There could have been no greater contrast to the dignity of the reclusive Duke of Marlborough in Reynolds’s canvas than the total abjection of the naked Watson in Copley’s. Walpole, who disliked the Marlborough Family, offered Copley’s picture modest praise: “Good, and the whole a good picture.”9 The critics concurred: The Morning Post said Copley had exceeded himself and that it “may fairly be estimated among the first performances of this exhibition.”10 The Morning Chronicle described it as “one of the most striking pictures in the Great Room”, but made clear that being striking was not in itself a virtue: “This picture is one of those frequent proofs we meet with of great abilities joined to little judgment.”11 The human figures were admired for the quality of their expressions, especially the face of the black boatman—“a fine index of concern and horror”—but the critic condemned Copley for departing from truth: he found the harbour unnaturally calm, the boat miraculously buoyant, and the shark entirely unconvincing. The whole, he thought, resembled one of those patriotic tableaux vivants seen on stage at Sadler’s Wells; that is, it belonged more to the realm of entertainment than instruction. The Public Advertiser called it simply “a perfect Picture of its kind”.12

But what kind of picture was it exactly? The critic declined to say. A history? Yet the anonymous boy savaged by a shark could make no claim on the public interest. By the standards of the “Spectator” writing for The London Chronicle, Copley’s could hardly be called a painting for the ages, or even the present age—unlike West’s Death of General Wolfe four years earlier. Copley’s picture was nothing more than a moment of private misfortune for an obscure orphan in a far-off Spanish harbour, a circumstance that obliged Copley to redeem it as best he could by adding, anachronistically, a British man o’war in the background, thus allowing viewers to assume the misadventure took place during the British occupation of Havana in 1762. The St. James’s Chronicle for one declared it to be a scene set during that “glorious Time”.13 Nevertheless, its exhibition marked Copley’s own rapid rise from Associate to full Academician in 1779. Although Watson later bequeathed the picture to Christ’s Hospital to serve as “a usefull Lesson to Youth”, the nature of that lesson was never entirely clear, save for deterring boys from swimming in tropical waters. Some general lesson about overcoming adversity has since been inferred, as has a Christian message of surrender to divine providence, but no critic in 1778 offered such an interpretation. It seemed intent merely to astonish, and Reynolds had warned artists in December 1772 against the ambition “of pleasing indiscriminately the mixed multitude of people who resort” to the exhibitions.14 While the critics recognised Watson and the Shark as a picture of remarkable brilliance, it was not one that could be reconciled to any traditional framework of values. The Academy’s exhibitions offered something wholly different to the hierarchies espoused by critics and theoreticians as suited to a public academy founded to promote the fine arts. They presented instead the spectacle of British art liberated from conventional categories at the behest of the market, a spectacle of British art’s nascent modernity.

  1. The London Evening Post, 23 April 1778↩︎

  2. The London Chronicle, 25 April 1778↩︎

  3. The Morning Chronicle, 25 April 1778. The Society of Artists had offered annual exhibitions since 1761. It was by defecting from this Society that a group of artists formed the Royal Academy at the end of 1768. The Society of Artists continued to offer exhibitions after the Academy’s first show in 1769 but a combination of financial problems and internal dissensions led to gradual decline. By 1778, many of its most prominent members quit to exhibit with the Academy.↩︎

  4. The London Evening Post, 23 April 1778.↩︎

  5. The Public Advertiser, 25 April 1778.↩︎

  6. The London Chronicle, 25 April 1778.↩︎

  7. The London Chronicle, 25 April 1778.↩︎

  8. St James Chronicle, 30 April 1778.↩︎

  9. Horace Walpole’s annotated catalogue for 1778.↩︎

  10. The Morning Post, 25 April 1778.↩︎

  11. The Morning Chronicle, 25 April 1778.↩︎

  12. The Public Advertiser, 28 April 1778.↩︎

  13. The St. James’s Chronicle, 25 April 1778.↩︎

  14. “Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourse V”, in Robert War (ed.), Sir Joshua Reynolds: Discourses on Art (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1959), 90.↩︎

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