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1780 Trouble with the Tribuna at the "Temple of Priapus"

The year 1780 marked a watershed in the exhibition history of the Royal Academy, for this was the first year that artists exhibited in a purpose-built space: in top-lit galleries designed by Sir William Chambers at New Somerset House. This year’s Exhibition drew record crowds and revenue from admission receipts. As Horace Walpole noted in his copy of the catalogue: “The first exhibition at Somerset Houses, with excellent pictures by Gainsborough, Zoffani, Wright and others”. However, it was not only contemporary works of art by Academicians that attracted the public’s attention. On display in the Academy’s Council Room were recently commissioned portraits by Reynolds of George III and Queen Charlotte, while an array of classical casts, including the celebrated Farnese Hercules, the Apollo Belvedere, and the Gladiator, were ranged around the Academy’s apartments and public spaces (Fig. 1).

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While the Academicians may have hoped that the exposure of the classical casts to the public gaze would contribute to the refinement of the atmosphere, their presence proved contentious. On 6 May, less than a week after the Exhibition opened, a letter was addressed to Joshua Reynolds in The Morning Post:

Sir, I always understood you were a man of delicacy as well as taste, and therefore was the more astonished to find that, as President of the Royal Academy, you could admit the several statues in their present shameful state of nudity, to the terror of every decent woman who enters the room.

The correspondent, who signed himself “Peeping Tom”, suggested waggishly that if the Academy could not procure fig leaves to cover the offending parts, “two penny worth of cabbage leaves will fully answer the purpose …”. Other commentators entered the fray. The self-styled “No Conjuror”, writing in The Morning Post, stated,

In the second room ycleped antique, Apollos, Gladiators, Jupiters, and Hercules’s all as naked, and as natural as if they were alive!! … Many ladies, and those married ones, who are equally above the imputation of prudery and of false delicacy, have turned short of this temple of Priapus, and have been obliged to forego their desire of seeing that best part of the whole fabric, the lecture room.1

Although the episode concerning the casts could be dismissed as a “silly-season” press story, the Academicians, who were clearly embarrassed, took action, as a Letter to the Editor of The Morning Post suggests:

Mr Editor, I congratulate you in the name of decency on the reformation you have wrought among the brawny statues of the Royal Academy exhibition, the vine-leaf addenda are properly applied agreeable to your intimation, and therefore pray tell the Ladies that they may now traverse the whole suite of those magnificent apartments without meeting any thing that can raise a blush on the cheek of Modesty.2

 Confirmation of the Academy’s willingness to be swayed by the press, and its sensitivity to adverse public opinion, is found in the Council Minutes of 1781, where the Keeper, George Michael Moser, was instructed to ensure that in future “the Figures be covered”. The task of emasculating the male casts and fashioning the plaster fig-leaf appendages was allocated to the Italian sculptor, Giovanni Battista Locatelli, whose willingness to take on the job may have been determined by financial hardship, since in June 1780, the Academy had granted him £50 in charitable relief.3

Within the exhibition space itself, another object was attracting attention, and courting controversy—and here, once more, naked figures formed a focus for attention. The work in question was Johan Zoffany’s extraordinary tour de force, which he titled A room in the gallery of Florence, called the Tribuna, in which the principal part is calculated to shew the different styles of the several masters (Fig. 2). In 1772, Zoffany, who had gained considerable royal favour, was commissioned by Queen Charlotte to depict the paintings and sculpture collection of the Grand Duke of Tuscany in the Tribuna of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.4 The commission, which occupied Zoffany over a period of six years, became something of a talking point in Florence, as Zoffany deviated increasingly from his original brief and incorporated into the composition an exclusively male cast of characters from the artistic and cultural community, whom Horace Walpole referred to as a “flock of travelling boys”.5 They included the prominent British diplomat Sir Horace Mann and the painter Thomas Patch, who had been hounded out of Rome on account of homosexual acts.

In the context of the Academy Exhibition, Zoffany’s Tribuna must have had a unique impact; a painting of a group of contemporary connoisseurs in a European art gallery being observed by another group of art lovers in Britain’s newest contemporary art space. Press reaction was generally favourable, provoking admiration for Zoffany’s technical skills, the picture being described as “an amazing monument of imitative talents”, and “a striking instance of laborious industry”.6 Zoffany’s royal patron was at best bemused; and certainly not appreciative of Zoffany’s decision to crowd his canvas with a satirical assortment of posturing, leering, would-be connoisseurs. Somewhat reluctantly, the painting was accepted and paid for, and transferred, virtually out of sight, to one of the king’s apartments at Kew Palace. It was there, during a bout of illness that George III wrestled the picture to the floor, where he was “perceived to be busy with it”.7 Years later, the king continued to express “wonder at Zoffany having done so improper a thing as to introduce the portraits of Sir Horace Man[n], [Thomas] Patch, & other, who were considered as men addicted to improper practices.” The queen, he said, would not “suffer the picture to be placed in any of Her apartments”.8 As for Zoffany, the commission effectively signalled the termination of a rich seam of royal patronage.

  1. The Morning Post, and Daily Advertiser, 15 May 1780.↩︎

  2. The Morning Post, and Daily Advertiser, 25 May 1780.↩︎

  3. See Royal Academy Council Minutes, Vol. C, 1768–84, I, f286; Martin Postle, “Flayed for Art: The écorché Figure in the English Academy”, British Art Journal 5, no. 1 (2004): 60.↩︎

  4. For an in-depth account of the picture, see Mary Webster, Johan Zoffany (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 281–301.↩︎

  5. W.S. Lewis (ed.), Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, 47 vols (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1937–1983), Vol. 24, 527.↩︎

  6. The Morning Chronicle, and London Advertiser, 20 May 1780, 2.↩︎

  7. Oliver Millar, Zoffany and his Tribuna (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), 33.↩︎

  8. Kenneth Garlick and Angus Macintyre (eds), The Diary of Joseph Farington (London: Yale University Press, 1979), Vol. 6, 2471.↩︎

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