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1781 Baretti's Guide and its Public

Several days before the Royal Academy’s thirteenth annual exhibition was due to open, London’s Public Advertiser announced that a new publication would soon be available for purchase.1 Compiled by Joseph Baretti, Secretary of Foreign Correspondence to the Academy, A Guide Through the Royal Academy offered readers a description of the institution’s freshly rebuilt and expanded quarters at Somerset House (Fig. 1).2 An invaluable source of factual information about the Academy’s new home, Baretti’s Guide also repays examination as a document in its own right for the insights it offers into the institution’s self-image and public audience at this key moment of transition.

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The organizational structure of the Guide follows much the same format as would a typical visit to the Academy itself.3 We are introduced, by turns, to its lavishly ornamented exterior façade, vestibule, entrance hall, library, and life and cast rooms, before finally climbing the spiral staircase all the way up to the “Great Exhibition Room”.4 In the course of all this, however, Baretti devotes the most space and attention to one topic in particular: the Academy’s cast collection (Fig. 2). More than half of the Guide’s thirty pages is given over to an annotated list of the hundred or so clay and plaster copies after masterworks of classical antiquity and the renaissance spread across the Academy’s rooms.5

In providing this account, Baretti positions the Academy and its members as the rightful inheritors of an artistic tradition stretching back to classical Greece. Throughout the Guide, the names and works of great artists of the past are brought into close proximity with those of Britain’s present. The building’s design, we are told, was conceived by William Chambers, one of the Academy’s founding members, and draws upon architectural precedents set by Palladio, Vignola, Peruzzi, and Sangallo.6 The bust of Michelangelo that graces the central door of the vestibule was carved by Joseph Wilton, Statuary to the King.7 And large ceiling decorations by two of the nation’s leading history painters, Benjamin West and Angelica Kauffmann, are set off by smaller medallions containing portraits of Apelles, Raphael, Titian, and Rubens—all painted by yet another Academician, Biagio Rebecca.8

But if Baretti’s text establishes lines of continuity between artists past and present, it also hints at one major difference that sets them apart. From Phidias and Apelles to Michelangelo and Raphael, the master sculptors, painters, and architects of earlier periods had been sustained by the patronage of those in power—generals, kings, nobles, and popes. It was a commonly known and often lamented fact that in eighteenth-century Britain such support was in short supply. In this, the Academy was no exception. Though founded by order of the king and funded initially by the Privy Purse, its income by this time derived entirely from ticket sales to its annual Summer Exhibition.9 Despite its title, the Academy’s true patron was not the monarch but his subjects—the British public.

In many ways, this very fact accounts for and even necessitated the existence of Baretti’s Guide. In his opening paragraph, Baretti paints a portrait of his anticipated class of readers: 

To those, whom either vagrant curiosity, or desire of instruction brings into the Apartments of the Royal Academy, not to know the design, the history, and the names of the various Models that stand before them, is a great abatement of pleasure, and hindrance of improvement. He who enters, not knowing what to expect, gazes a while about him, a stranger among strangers, and goes out, not knowing what he has seen. The subsequent List of the Casts in the Academy, with some kind of explanation to each, may therefore be useful to those that love the Arts, and desire not to love them blindly.10

Neither artists, collectors, nor connoisseurs, Baretti’s imagined audience is rather the tens of thousands of men and women who arrive at the Academy’s doorstep curious and eager but relatively uninformed about the things they are about to see.11 Amateurs in the truest sense of the term, they are “those that love the Arts”, but “desire not to love them blindly”.

Yet while Baretti frames this public in wholly positive terms, the reality was more complex. As Martin Myrone has observed, in contrast to the Italian and French academies on which it was modelled, the Academy came into being “in a period of rapid commercialization, in which art was increasingly seen as a commodity and addressed to a large, anonymous, multitude of consumers.” Though conceived as a space for pure aesthetic contemplation, in actuality the Great Room operated “more like a shop window for artists scrabbling, often frantically, for public attention.”12

The exhibition of 1781 provided multiple proofs of this reality, the most striking of which was the spectacle of two artists—the Academy’s President Sir Joshua Reynolds and the ambitious newcomer Henry Fuseli—locking paintbrushes over the same subject, The Death of Dido. Learning that Reynolds had taken up the subject the year before, Fuseli set to work on a version of his own, a challenge that was further dramatised by the Hanging Committee’s decision to exhibit the paintings “fronting one another in the [Great] Room”.13 Another artist, the newly appointed Academician John Singleton Copley, went one step further in his bid for public notice by rejecting the Great Room altogether as a venue for his latest work, The Death of the Earl of Chatham. To the dismay of the Academy’s leaders, particularly its Treasurer William Chambers, Copley opted to show the painting instead in privately rented premises at Spring Gardens, garnering some £5,000 in profits.14

At the same time, it is also equally clear that the kinds of viewing occurring in this space were neither exclusively pure nor purely aesthetic in nature. In a widely reported incident, the Honourable Edward Onslow “took some indecent liberties” with a young Irishman named Felix McCarthy, who rejected his advances with such indignation that Onslow “was obliged to run out of the house, to the execrations of the whole company.”15 Evidently, a “love [of] the Arts” was not the only thing that drew people to Somerset House, or caused them to stay—or, more rarely, to leave—once there. 

  1. The Public Advertiser, 28 April 1781. The advertisement also appeared on the same day in The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser and The London Courant and Westminster Chronicle. The summer exhibition opened on the following Monday, 30 April.↩︎

  2. Baretti was evidently eager to ensure easy access to his Guide, for in addition to making it available through the print shop of its publisher, Thomas Cadell, he also arranged for it to be sold at the Academy itself for the duration of that year’s Exhibition. According to the advertisement, “A Person belonging to Mr. Baretti will attend in the Hall of the Academy, during the Exhibition, to supply any Body with this Pamphlet.”↩︎

  3. Joseph Baretti, A Guide Through the Royal Academy (London: T. Cadell, 1781), 3. Designed by William Chambers, the lavish “new” Somerset House, which was still then in the process of construction, was built to house not only the Academy and several other learned societies, but also a large number of government offices. For a discussion of Chambers’ design, see John Murdoch, “Architecture and Experience: The Visitor and the Spaces of Somerset House, 1780–1796”, in David H. Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 9–22.↩︎

  4. Baretti, A Guide Through the Royal Academy, 31.↩︎

  5. The bulk of the collection occupied two spaces: the life room (known as the Academy of Living Models) and the Antique Academy. See Baretti, A Guide Through the Royal Academy, 9–15, 18–30. Baretti’s entries range widely in content and length: some simply give the title, subject, and location of the original; others stretch to nearly a page, assessing the importance of the work at hand, recounting the history of the cast’s provenance and restoration, and citing sources and commentaries by authors from Pliny to Winckelmann. For example, see entries on Niobe, Discobolon, and Laocoön. Baretti, A Guide Through the Royal Academy, 13, 20–21, 28.↩︎

  6. Baretti, A Guide Through the Royal Academy, 6–7.↩︎

  7. Casts restored by Wilton include those after Donatello’s Saint George and Saint John, a Venus, and the Laocoön. See Baretti, A Guide Through the Royal Academy, 14–15, 28.↩︎

  8. Baretti, A Guide Through the Royal Academy, 26–27.↩︎

  9. Sidney Hutchison, The History of the Royal Academy 1768–1986, 2nd edn (London: R. Royce, 1986), 31, 49. See also C.S. Matheson, “‘A Shilling Well Laid Out’: The Royal Academy’s Early Public”, in David H. Solkin (ed.),Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 44.↩︎

  10. Baretti, A Guide Through the Royal Academy, 3.↩︎

  11. Later in the Guide, Baretti reinforces this point. Before embarking on a description of four allegorical paintings ornamenting the Library ceiling, he notes, “These Subjects explain themselves sufficiently to Artists and Connoisseurs; but as all who visit the Royal Academy cannot be of that class, an explanation may to some not be unacceptable.” Baretti, A Guide Through the Royal Academy, 18. In 1781, an estimated 42,824 people attended the Academy’s Annual Exhibition, down somewhat from the 61,381, who had attended in the previous year. For a complete record of attendance numbers from 1769 to 1820, see Holger Hoock, The King’s Artists: The Royal Academy of Arts and the Politics of British Culture, 1760–1840 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), 64–65. On the topic of female visitors to the Academy, see K. Dian Kriz, “‘Stare Cases’: Engendering the Public’s Two Bodies at the Royal Academy of Arts”, in David H. Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 58–62.↩︎

  12. Martin Myrone, “The Sublime as Spectacle: The Transformation of Ideal Art at Somerset House”, in David H. Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 78.↩︎

  13. The St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post, 28 April–1 May 1781. For a fuller discussion of this incident, see Myrone, “The Sublime as Spectacle”, 83–88.↩︎

  14. Marcia Pointon, “Portrait! Portrait!! Portrait!!!”, in David H. Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 97. The Public Advertiser berated Copley for being “so ill advised, as to think himself ipse agmen enough, to make an Exhibition of his own.” The Public Advertiser, 2 May 1781.↩︎

  15. The Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, 4 May 1781; The London Chronicle, 1–3 May 1781.↩︎

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Explore the 1781 catalogue