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1783 Best in Show

As “far as a mere glance would warrant an opinion,” ventured The Whitehall Evening-Post in the early stages of the 1783 Royal Academy Exhibition, “Gainsborough’s Two Shepherd boys with dogs fighting, may be deemed one of the best, if not the very best picture in the room” (Fig. 1).1 As its readers would have known, this “room” was the Great Room in the institution’s new premises at Somerset House, where the majority of exhibits were arranged in a dense, spectacular hang. This attention-grabbing picture, meanwhile, was one of the most dramatic and unusual that Thomas Gainsborough ever produced.

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In the midst of wooded upland pastures, two ragged shepherd boys are depicted in life size reacting in vividly contrasting ways to the snarling ruckus taking place at their feet between a black dog and its reddish-tan adversary. As interpreted by another critic, the “concern expressed in the countenance of the lad whose dog seems to be in the worst part of the battle, is finely contrasted by the look of triumph described by the other.” At the very moment when one dog lunges to sink its teeth into the throat of the other, the dark-haired boy “flush with conquest” checks the downward strike of his pallid counterpart’s stick, raised in an attempt “to give relief to the overpowered animal”.2

The newspaper reviews that hailed this paradoxically violent pastoral as the best painting in the exhibition reflected a wider public enthusiasm for Gainsborough’s large-figure rustic subjects, known at the time as “fancy pictures”. He had made a sensational debut with this kind of exhibit as recently as 1781 with A Shepherd, which had immediately established him as the genre’s acknowledged master (Fig. 2). A specialist in tranquil landscapes and fashionable portraiture of long-standing repute, he had taken everyone by surprise with this original contribution, which garnered the “Approbation of the Publick above all others” as “by far the finest picture in the exhibition”.3 As the proponent of these wildly successful “fancy pictures” (and a clear favourite of the Royal Family among the nation’s portraitists to boot) Gainsborough’s public reputation was riding high.

Despite their lowly subjects, Gainsborough’s “fancy pictures” were works of considerable sophistication that deliberately evoked distinguished old master precedents. Shepherd Boys with Dogs Fighting was probably inspired in part by William Hogarth’s relatively recent dramas of human cruelty but it was his allusions to Frans Snyders and Bartolomé Estebán Murillo that were initially picked up by the critics.4 Furthermore, these “fancy pictures” deployed narrative and compositional techniques more commonly associated with the elevated realm of academic history painting to secure their effects. The protagonist of A Shepherd endures the tempest with the beatific upturned gaze of a saint; the Shepherd Boys with Dogs Fighting displays the precision of the highest realms of heroic art in its management of time, contrasting expressions, and complex action.

Gainsborough left no straightforward testament of his reasons for producing these innovative meldings of high art and low themes. Although on an individual basis they can be associated with fashionable ideas of sensibility and the sublime, as a group they appear not to follow any consistent aesthetic programme in a way that is characteristic of Gainsborough’s experimental and pragmatic approach to his art. A Shepherd had begun as just one among several one-off trials with new genres in the 1780s along with a classical nude, a modern moral subject, and a fête galante.5 And this “fancy picture” might also have remained without a sequel had not it met with such exceptional public success.

To view A Shepherd and Shepherd Boys with Dogs Fighting in sequence is to become immediately aware of the inexorable logic that exhibiting culture exerted upon artists who sought to sustain or extend their popularity with the public. To keep the attention of an audience beguiled by novelty, impressed by scale, and attracted by violent action, the basic elements of the first picture—a boy and his dog—have been retained but doubled and set upon each other in a shocking contest.6 Crucially, the composition has been expanded to fit the format of canvas typically used for a full-length portrait. “God bless you[,] hang my Dogs & my Landskips in the great Room” Gainsborough had implored the Academy’s Hanging Committee before the Exhibition in the full knowledge that this guaranteed a prominent position for Shepherd Boys with Dogs Fighting “on the line” alongside the largest and most prestigious exhibits. This ensured not only that the picture could be seen from all parts of the crowded gallery, but also that the dogs snapped and growled thrillingly just above the audience’s heads.7 Inclining forward on the tilted armature of the upper wall of the Great Room, the rough-hewn staff raised in the red-headed boy’s hand must have threatened to crash down from its towering height into the actual void beneath. Little wonder that the work stood out at a “mere glance” in 1783.

During the exhibition’s run, Sir William Chambers, the institution’s powerful Treasurer, received the following droll letter from the artist that sought to apologise for and smooth over the latest in a long history of disputes between Gainsborough and the Academy about the hanging of his works:

I sent my fighting dogs to divert you. I believe next exhibition I shall make the boys fighting and the dogs looking on—you know my cunning way of avoiding great subjects in painting & and of concealing my ignorance by a flash in the pan. … I know you think me right as a whole, & can look down upon Cock Sparrows as a great man ought to do with compassion.8

Of course, with such a notable public success in hand, Gainsborough could afford to be modest on the surface of things and, as in the final act of a comedy, all here finds its proper place under the influence of benign authority. Here is a restoration of order that encompasses both the positioning of his “fancy picture” within the formal Academic hierarchy of genres beneath the “great subjects” of history painting, and his own status in the institutional structure as an Academician without an executive role.

Though specific to one individual’s experience of exhibiting, these letters nevertheless reveal the tensions and complexities confronted by all artists who sought to compete for public applause within a limited space under the auspices of a highly hierarchical body. Contributors, however popular they were with the paying audience, surrendered control of how and where their carefully considered pictures would be hung in a process closed to all but a handful of insiders. The Hanging Committee, meanwhile, was faced with balancing the claims of artistic merit, fame, and institutional clout of a host of professional rivals to create the semblance of a satisfactory whole. It was a state of affairs which inevitably fostered a climate of suspicion and grievance, and which had had long since set Gainsborough, always so sensitive to the optimum hanging of his paintings, on a collision course with the Academy. The “next exhibition” at the Academy, at least for Gainsborough, would never arrive.

  1. The Whitehall Evening-Post, 26 April 1783.↩︎

  2. The Morning Herald, 30 April 1783.↩︎

  3. The St James’s Chronicle, 10–20 May 1781; The Gazetteer, 9 May 1781.↩︎

  4. Michael Rosenthal, The Art of Thomas Gainsborough: “A Little Business for the Eye” (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 108–109; Julius Bryant, Kenwood: Paintings in the Iveagh Bequest (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 218–219.↩︎

  5. Rosenthal, The Art of Thomas Gainsborough, 95–117.↩︎

  6. Martin Myrone, “The Sublime as Spectacle: The Transformation of Ideal Art at Somerset House”, in David Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 77–91.↩︎

  7. Thomas Gainsborough to Francis Milner Newton, April 1783, in John Hayes (ed.) The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 148.↩︎

  8. Thomas Gainsborough to Sir William Chambers, 27 April 1783, in Hayes, The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, 152.↩︎

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