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1782 Sir Joshua Buys a Gainsborough

The year 1782 was the third year in which the Royal Academy Exhibition took place at New Somerset House. This year was all about impact and sensation. By now artists were attuned to the potential of enhanced display space, and the opportunity afforded by increased visitor numbers of establishing and promoting reputations on the walls of the Exhibition. This was the year that the twenty-year-old John Opie made his debut with a series of widely praised character studies, including An old man’s head, An old woman, and A beggar. Opie, who had already gained the patronage of the king, was presented to the public by his mentor, the satirist and critic, John Wolcot, as “The Cornish Wonder”; a boy from the backwoods, “a Cornish lad, utterly untutored in the Art, and yet able to excel many, who might, from seniority, affect to be his Teachers”.1 More contentiously, another critic, in a calculated move to stir the pot, observed: “There is a maturity and judgement, a truth and a force of colouring in his portraits which are astonishing. We hope Sir Joshua Reynolds will take some lessons of this young man before he leaves London.”2 Reynolds, who was always alert to potential rivals, was quick to acknowledge Opie, telling his former pupil, James Northcote, that he was “like Caravaggio but finer”.3

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It was also in 1782, in the context of the Exhibition, that Reynolds paid a unique compliment to his principal rival, Thomas Gainsborough, by purchasing for a hundred guineas his Girl with Pigs, one of eleven works he displayed that year, and “a great favourite with the public”.4 Gainsborough responded to Reynolds’s purchase by telling him: “I think myself highly honor’d, & much Obliged to you for this singular mark of your favour; I may truly say that I have brought my Piggs to a fine market.”5 Several years later, Reynolds offered to swap the Girl with Pigs for a version of Titan’s Venus and Adonis then owned by the Earl of Upper Ossory, on the grounds that it was “by far the best Picture he ever Painted or perhaps ever will”.6 In the event, Reynolds held on to it until 1790, when he sold it to the French statesman Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, reputedly for 300 guineas.

Reynolds’s purchase of a painting by Gainsborough at the Exhibition was a conspicuous gesture of public admiration. It could also be construed as an act of one-upmanship; whereby the ownership of Gainsborough’s art allowed him to take on the role of patron, evaluating his rival’s œuvre and deliberately elevating his fancy pictures on a level above his portraits. To do so in 1782 would be particularly apposite, since that year, Reynolds exhibited fifteen works, including portraits of several sitters whom the artists had in common. That year, both he and Gainsborough exhibited full-length portraits of the celebrated daredevil soldier, “bloody” Banastre Tarleton. And as Gainsborough exhibited the portrait of the celebrated Italian dancer, Giovanna Baccelli, so Reynolds was beginning work on his own portrait of her, which he exhibited in the following year. In many ways, Gainsborough and Reynolds were never closer than in 1782, witnessed by the circumstance of Reynolds sitting to Gainsborough for his portrait that autumn. What became of the resulting portrait is unknown, and Reynolds failed to repay the compliment.

While the exhibits of Reynolds and Gainsborough at the 1782 Exhibition included some of their most notable works, two artists in particular, Henry Fuseli and Matthew William Peters, produced perhaps the most eye-catching paintings in their respective careers. If John Opie was the greatest sensation as an artist, The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli was the most sensational work of art; a calculated attempt, it seemed, to disturb and horrify the polite audience (Fig. 1).7 “The Night Mare by Mr. Fuiseli [sic]”, one reviewer observed, “like all his productions, has strong marks of genius about it; but hag-riding is too unpleasant a thought to be agreeable to any one, and is unfit for furniture or reflection.”8 Fuseli’s narrative defied convention and categorisation. It’s source was neither biblical not mythological. Yet, its subject was perfectly intelligible: an ugly, naked imp crouching upon the torso of a voluptuous young woman. It was at once overtly sexual and bizarre.

The impact of Fuseli’s painting upon the public was enormous, both during the Exhibition and afterwards, as it continued to spawn commentary and satire. Physically, however, it was relatively modest in scale, measuring about 40 by 50 inches—the same dimensions as the canvas used for a half-length portrait. Larger in scale, and in some respects more conspicuous, was Matthew William Peters’ An Angel carrying the spirit of a child to Paradise, purchased by the Earl of Exeter for Burghley House, Lincolnshire (Fig. 2). Hitherto, Peters’ reputation at the annual exhibition had been coloured by a series of salacious depictions of semi-naked females, notably A woman in bed, which he showed in 1777. However, in the late 1770s, Peters turned his back on such titillating subject matter as he trained at Oxford for the priesthood. His ordination, on 6 May 1782, coincided with the exhibition of the present picture, in which the angel was modelled upon the Duchess of Rutland and the child upon Charlotte, daughter of Sir Thomas Dundas. The satirist, Peter Pindar (the nom de plume of John Wolcot), was unimpressed by the ethereal pretensions of the composition:

Dear Peters! who, like Luke the saint,
A man of Gospel art, and paint,
Thy pencil flames not with poetic fury:
If Heav’ns fair angels are like thine,
Our bucks, I think, O grave divine,
May meet in t’other world the nymphs of Drury.9

Others were more complimentary: “We congratulate Mr. Peters on this Exhibition of his Excellence, and cannot but wish him to continue to make his Art subservient to his new Profession.”10 Peters followed this advice. Two years later, in 1784, he became chaplain to the Academy, and in 1788, resigned his membership of the Academy to pursue a lucrative career in the Church.

  1. The Public Advertiser, 1 May 1782.↩︎

  2. William T. Whitley, Artists and their Friends in England, 1700–1799, 2 vols (London: The Medici Society, 1928), Vol. 1, 376.↩︎

  3. Charles Robert Leslie and Tom Taylor, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds: With Notices of Some of his Contemporaries, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1865), Vol. 2, 342.↩︎

  4. The Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, 1 May 1782.↩︎

  5. John Hayes (ed.), The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 147.↩︎

  6. John Ingamells and John Edgcumbe (eds), The Letters of Sir Joshua Reynolds (London: Yale University Press, 2000), 162.↩︎

  7. See Martin Myrone, Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination (London: Tate Publishing, 2006), 45, no. 1.↩︎

  8. The Morning Chronicle and Public Advertiser, 9 May 1782.↩︎

  9. John Wolcot, The Works of Peter Pindar Esq., 4 vols (London: John Walker, 1797–1802), Vol. 1, Ode XII. The Lyric Bard Groweth Witty on Mr. Peters’s Angel and Child—and Madam Angelica Kauffman, 64–65.↩︎

  10. The Public Advertiser, 1 May 1782.↩︎

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