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1784 Dialogues, Defections, and Disputes

The Royal Academy’s annual exhibition of 1784 was not, by contemporary accounts, its best. “We cannot congratulate the public on the amended prospect of the English school,” sourly declared a reviewer for The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, shortly after the display had opened.1 The Gloucester Journal was more diplomatic but still tepid in its response, finding there to be “more good pieces, and fewer bad ones, than in any former year.”2

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More remarkable, perhaps, than the exhibition itself, is the fact that we know a very great deal about what it actually looked like. In large part, this is thanks to a group of three detailed pen and wash drawings by Edward Francis Burney, which record the hang on the Great Room’s north, east, and west walls. Another drawing, made by Daniel Dodd and engraved for publication by William Angus, allows us to glimpse about half of the Great Room’s south wall as well.3

In recent years, scholars have made excellent use of Burney’s drawings (and, to a lesser degree, Dodd’s too) to explore what Angela Rosenthal has called the “dialogic” relationship between works in the Great Room.4 Thus, John Sunderland and David Solkin have pointed to the lateral symmetries that the Hanging Committee sought to generate across each wall by pairing works of similar genre and dimensions on either side of a large-scale, centrally positioned canvas—such as, in the case of Burney’s drawing, Sir Joshua Reynolds’s grand equestrian portrait of the Prince of Wales.5 And Mark Hallett has used this same portrait of the Prince to chart the variety of narratives—aesthetic, institutional, patriotic, and political—that could emerge from the positioning of certain works near others.6 

Yet Burney’s and Dodd’s drawings can tell us only so much, for the exhibition of 1784 was also one marked to an unusual degree by absence and defection—factors which clearly contributed to its lukewarm reception. The most famous instance of this concerns Thomas Gainsborough. Only days before the exhibition was due to open, The Gazetteer reported that an “event has taken place which must concern every admirer of the fine arts in this kingdom.” It continued:

The celebrated Mr. Gainsborough, whose labours have so much contributed to enrich the Royal Academy for several seasons past, has been under the necessity of withdrawing his performances from this year’s exhibition!—The occasion of this step, it is said, was a refusal on the part of the Academical Council, to hang one particular picture in a situation capable of shewing its effect!7

The picture in question was Gainsborough’s full-length portrait of the three eldest Princesses, Charlotte, Augusta, and Elizabeth, which has subsequently been cut down (Fig. 1). Commissioned by the Prince of Wales for Carleton Palace, it was designed to hang at a height of five feet six inches, exactly two feet lower than the Great Room’s vaunted “line”. In response to the Hanging Committee’s refusal to grant his request, Gainsborough withdrew the portrait along with all the other seventeen works he had planned to exhibit that year.8

Less widely reported but even more troubling was the fact that another artist, the engraver and caricaturist William Austin, had been actively barred from showing his work on purely political grounds. The exhibition opened in the midst of a heated Westminster election race that pitted the government candidates Lord Samuel Hood and Sir Cecil Wray against the Whig opposition leader Charles James Fox.9 One week before news of the Academy’s quarrel with Gainsborough broke, The Morning Herald announced that Austin had been expelled from the upcoming exhibition. “The reason of this extraordinary act of violence,” it fumed, “is supposed to be, this Gentleman’s having taken a very active part in the present contest for Westminster, in favour of Mr. Fox.”10

According to the Academy’s fiercest critics, both incidents were symptomatic of a larger problem—slowly but surely, the Academy was driving away its “greatest masters”.11 In recent years, George Stubbs and Joseph Wright of Derby had each been denied full Academician status, despite their evident merit—Stubbs because he had failed to deposit the requisite diploma work and Wright for reasons that remain unclear.12 In protest, both painters stopped exhibiting with the Academy for a time, with Wright opting instead to stage an ambitious one-man show, which opened to great success in 1785.13 Already in 1781, John Singleton Copley had chosen to display his monumental Death of the Earl of Chatham in a privately rented venue, and he did the same in 1784 with his Death of Major Pierson, this time with the financial backing of the publisher and entrepreneur, John Boydell.14 Finally, there was James Barry, who was now for the second year exhibiting his six-part series, The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture, in the Great Room of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce.15

No doubt contrary to the Academy’s intentions, in the end, these disputes and desertions appear to have largely upstaged the Exhibition itself. Reviewers regularly lamented the non-participation of certain artists, often before or in lieu of discussing the works on view.16 Others neglected the topic of art altogether, opting instead to shine a light or pour criticism on the institution and its leaders.17 Most striking of all, Gainsborough, even in his absence, still managed to cast a shadow on his long-time rival Reynolds. Sir Joshua Reynolds exhibited a total of seventeen paintings in this year, including his portrait of the prince and another of the controversial Fox. However, his most admired work by far was his full-length portrait of the actress Sarah Siddons in the guise of the Tragic Muse (Fig. 2). The painting attracted rapt reviews and was widely esteemed—as it still is today—to be one of Reynolds’s finest.18 Yet as the The Whitehall Evening-Post shrewdly observed, this triumph was due, at least in part, to the circumstances of its display. While noting that, “in the present Exhibition Sir Joshua Reynolds stands so proudly pre-eminent,” the journal expressed “our regret, that Gainsborough should not have kept his ground.” Had he done so, it gamely wagered, “he would, doubtless, have shared the prize of publick applause with the President, and have afforded good ground for solid and substantial doubts, which of the two deserved the better half.”19

  1. The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 27 April 1784.↩︎

  2. Gloucester Journal, 3 May 1784.↩︎

  3. Angus’s engraving after Dodd’s drawing is the earliest published visual representation of the Great Room at Somerset House. See 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.↩︎

  4. Angela H. Rosenthal, exhibition review of Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780–1836, in Eighteenth-Century Studies 35, no. 4 (2002): 604. Cited in Mark Hallett, “Reading the Walls: Pictorial Dialogue at the British Royal Academy”, Eighteenth-Century Studies 37, no. 4 (2004): 582.↩︎

  5. John Sunderland and David H. Solkin, “Staging the Spectacle”, 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), 24–25.↩︎

  6. Hallett, “Reading the Walls”, 586–602. See also Mark Hallett, Reynolds: Portraiture in Action (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 352–365, esp. 360–365.↩︎

  7. The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 23 April 1784. The report continues:

    A number of portraits and other paintings were left to the discretion of the hangers on the condition that this numerical picture had some indulgence shewn it; but the arbiters who composed the inquisition of taste were regardless of the request, and decreed that it should be fixed at an established height called the full-length line.↩︎

  8. For a detailed discussion of the dispute, see Michael Rosenthal, The Art of Thomas Gainsborough: “A Little Business for the Eye” (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 95–113, esp. 112–113.↩︎

  9. Polling began on 30 March and ended on 10 May.↩︎

  10. The Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, 17 April 1784. The Gazetteer was similarly outraged at the thought “that because Mr. Austin and other gentlemen are known to possess certain opinions in politics, they must not be permitted to demonstrate their merits in painting.” The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 27 April 1784. For fuller discussions of the election’s impact on the Exhibition of 1784, see Holger Hoock, The King’s Artists: The Royal Academy of Arts and the Politics of British Culture, 1760–1840 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), 164–172; Hallett, “Reading the Walls”, 592–596; and Hallett, Reynolds, 364–365.↩︎

  11. The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 27 April 1784.↩︎

  12. Stubbs was provisionally elected a full Academician in February 1781 and given over a year to deposit his diploma work, after which his election would be annulled. Another source of upset arose in 1782, when the hanging committee “skied” his two enamel exhibition submissions for that year, placing them near the ceiling, away from view. Wright, meanwhile, was passed over in 1783 for the less skilled and now-forgotten Irish landscape painter Edmund Garvey. Though offered full membership in the following year, he not only declined to accept it but had his name removed from the Academy’s list of Associates.↩︎

  13. Stubbs exhibited nothing at the Academy between 1782 and 1786; Wright between 1783 and 1788.↩︎

  14. The St. James’s Chronicle blamed Copley’s departure, and that of William Hamilton, on the poor design of the Academy’s exhibition space and small-mindedness of its managers:

    We owe to Sir William Chambers’s Designs, and the Illiberality of the petty Managers of the Academy, that it has not been honoured with Copley’s wonderful Picture of the Death of Lord Chatham; and his yet more wonderful one of the Death of Major Pierson; Hamilton’s expressive and charming Picture of Mrs. Siddons; and several invaluable Performances.

    The St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post, 24–27 April 1784.↩︎

  15. Barry’s display is mentioned, for example, in The Public Advertiser, 28 April 1784 and in The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 11 June 1784.↩︎

  16. The St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post, 24–27 April 1784; The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 27 April 1784; The Whitehall Evening-Post, 27–29 April 1784.↩︎

  17. The St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post, 24–27 April 1784. See also The Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, 17 April 1784; The Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, 23 April 1784; The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 24 April 1784; and The St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post, 24–27 April 1784.↩︎

  18. See, for example, The General Evening Post, 24–26 April 1784, and The Public Advertiser, 28 April 1784.↩︎

  19. The Whitehall Evening-Post, 27–29 April 1784.↩︎

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