1785 London versus Rome
The 1785 exhibition opened with some glaring omissions, with The Times complaining bitterly that: “prejudice and pique have deprived us of a Gainsborough and a Wright.”1 “Timothy Tickle” lashed the Royal Academy for its illiberal conduct towards Joseph Wright of Derby in a letter to the Public Advertiser and followed up with exposés of the shabby treatment meted out to Thomas Gainsborough and George Stubbs.2 One critic, writing for a regional audience, lamented not only the preponderance of portraits, but the poor quality even of those:
Instead of an increase of historical and descriptive paintings, landscapes, and pictures, that shew the scientific mind of the artist, it unfortunately stands distinguished for an increase of portraits, and though there are among them some that would have done honour to the pencils of the most celebrated masters of the best schools, there are many that can lay claim to mediocrity, and more that are very indifferent.3
Whatever high-minded ambitions the Academy nurtured to promote the most elevated genres of art, its exhibitions, filled with portraits, proved that they bore little or no relation to the actual market for art in Britain.
Yet those looking for a school of British history painters found some cause for optimism in 1785 thanks to Benjamin West. Long a favourite of George III, and since 1772 his historical painter, West exhibited two major pictures that year, both intended for the king’s planned Royal Chapel at Windsor. For the first time since the 1680s, the monarch himself was commissioning devotional pictures for use within liturgical spaces, thus answering the call artists had made since at least the mid-1750s, when Samuel Wale and John Gwynn produced their measurements and engravings of the interior of St Paul’s, and proposed blocking the east window to insert a magnificent altarpiece. Early efforts to restore devotional art to Anglican churches had relied on a few enlightened lay patrons in their private chapels, and the occasional sympathetic clergyman in a parish church, but there was no uniform policy for their use, and many senior Anglican clergy remained suspicious. The idea of ornamenting St Paul’s was reiterated by Gwynn in London and Westminster Improved (1766), when he proposed finishing Wren’s interior with a set of altarpieces to rival the mosaic altarpieces then underway in St Peter’s Basilica. The issue was one of national pride, with Gwynn asserting that: “England might in time, in its churches and painters, vie even with Rome itself.”4 But Bishop Terrick vetoed the attempt to adorn his cathedral when members of the Academy proposed supplying altarpieces for St Paul’s in the early 1770s.
What the bishops would not do, the Church of England’s Supreme Head might attempt. So it was in 1780 that George III began to commission West to make his series of thirty-five pictures expounding revealed religion, thereby disdaining the deistic Anglicanism of the Latitudinarians, who had emphasised natural religion and reason over revelation. These were intended for a Royal Chapel at Windsor, which was to occupy a space in the Horn Court as part of the king’s remodelling programme, that was gradually transforming the castle into his principal residence. West’s two exhibits from the scheme in 1785 were monumental in scale: The Lord’s Supper at 6 x 10 feet (Fig. 1) and St. Peter’s First Sermon at 12 x 10 feet (Fig. 2). The Lord’s Supper cost the king £735 and was to be the altarpiece in the new chapel and hang under the vast Moses Receiving the Laws shown with the Academy in the previous year; the St. Peter, for which West was to receive over £1,000, was intended for one of the chapel’s lateral walls.
A Last Supper above the altar was the most conventional choice for an Anglican altarpiece and sanctioned by royal precedent; Charles II had commissioned one from Antonio Verrio for his own chapel at Windsor, then still extant. In West’s version, Christ is shown reclining at table in the midst of breaking the bread and surrounded by his disciples; the entire composition is an Italianate essay intended to rival the best painters of the Roman tradition. The interior is illuminated by a hidden lamp filling the Upper Room with golden light and contrasting to the veiled moon in the night sky beyond. The critic for The London Chronicle praised this effect in lavish terms: “His Last Supper is one of the noblest productions of this distinguished master. It is one of the warmest pictures we ever saw, and the effects of the double light is beautiful to excess.”5 The St. Peter was equally admired for its grand, Italianate qualities. The Times made the rivalry with Rome and papal patronage explicit when it declared:
In this line of art, this great man stands unrivalled; it is not by his portraits we are to judge him, we must follow him in the great walks of historic beauty and sublimity, with all that correctness, and taste of design which ornamented the Romish schools.6
The various excellences were “of too exalted a nature for the million who throng an exhibition, to form any idea of”, thereby declaring it to be precisely the kind of picture the Academy’s President had long been exhorting his colleagues to attempt. If it had faults, they were mainly to be found in a general hardness in the execution and in what was seen as the sometimes vulgar characterisation of the figures.7
Yet any optimism that West was leading the vanguard of a flowering of historical art under royal patronage was soon dashed. The Windsor scheme ultimately faltered in 1801 because of the king’s growing disfavour towards West, Queen Charlotte’s hostility to both West and the project, and ultimately the king’s indisposition, which allowed Charlotte to end her husband’s entire scheme. George III’s new chapel was never finished and George IV donated the Last Supper to the new National Gallery in 1828. The vast St. Peter was returned to the artist’s sons, who sold it for just £105 in West’s estate sale in the following year—a lamentable end to the king’s attempted revival of devotional art in Britain.
The Times, 29 April 1785.↩︎
“Timothy Tickle” described Wright’s treatment in The Public Advertiser on 17 May 1785, Gainsborough’s on 23 May 1785, and Stubbs’s on 26 May 1785.↩︎
The Chelmsford Chronicle, 29 April 1785.↩︎
John Gwynn, London and Westminster Improved (London, 1766), 27.↩︎
The London Chronicle, 26 April 1785.↩︎
The Times, 6 May 1785.↩︎
The Times, 6 May 1785.↩︎
Thematic categories: altarpieces, American artists, art criticism - history painting, art criticism - portraits, boycotting of exhibition, ecclesiastical art, history painting, monarchy, patronage, portraits, religious art, royal patronage