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1786 Endangered Royalty On Display

The year 1786 was a bumper year for history painting at the Royal Academy. Although plans were already afoot to establish alternative commercial venues for the display of ambitious pictorial art, for the time being the Academy retained an unchallenged position of supremacy as the premier showcase of the nascent British School. Moreover, that year’s exhibition gave cause for optimism that the Academy’s efforts to generate support for native practitioners of historical art were at long last beginning to bear fruit: for all of the five examples prominently positioned in the Great Room at Somerset House had been either commissioned by or sold to private individuals. And while two of these compositions had been executed by the venerable Benjamin West, Historical Painter to the King and a long-time Academy stalwart, the other three were the work of up-and-coming younger painters, James Northcote and John Opie, whose performances held out the promise of even greater things still to come.

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More than one contemporary critic commented that the emergence of several members of the rising generation—John Hoppner, Mather Brown, William Hodges, and John Webber were also mentioned in this context—more than made up for the regrettable decisions by Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney, Joseph Wright of Derby, Nathaniel Dance, and one or two other well-established figures to boycott the Academy exhibitions. But there was a less obvious absence that all the reviewers failed to mention, though one imagines that it would have met with their general approval: for the first time in many years, indeed quite possibly since the Academy’s foundation in 1768, there were no obvious signs in the Great Room of Britain’s reigning royal family, either as the subjects of large-scale portraiture or as patrons of any of the major artworks on view.  

But if the subject matter depicted by West, Opie, and Northcote is anything to go by, monarchy still occupied a central place in the collective imagination of late eighteenth-century British painters and their audience. Apart from West’s Resurrection altarpiece, commissioned by a West Indian plantation owner for St George’s Parish Church in Barbados (where it remains to this day), all of the large, multi-figure history pictures prominently featured royal personages; that each of these actors without exception appeared in a situation of extreme peril may be an indication of the residual anxieties engendered by the trauma of America’s recent successful defiance of George III. In fact, only one of the four scenes held out the prospect of survival for its royal protagonist—the exception being West’s Alexander the Third, King of Scotland, Rescued from the Fury of a Stag, by the Intrepidity of Colin Fitzgerald, the Ancestor of the Present Mackenzie Family (whose clan leader, Francis Humberson Mackenzie, had commissioned the work for the considerable sum of 800 guineas). At twelve feet high and over seventeen feet wide, this exercise in the Rubensian Sublime (Fig. 1) was one of the largest works ever to grace the Academy’s walls; and quite evidently, the task of orchestrating an action-packed narrative involving an enraged deer, the fallen Alexander, the lance-bearing Highland chief who comes St Michael-like to his aid, four energetically twisting horses, a pack of dogs, and a host of secondary figures tested West’s considerable powers of composition to the limit (and arguably beyond). On the whole, contemporary critics judged the performance a chef d’ œuvre, one going so far as to describe it as a picture “which does honour to the country and age we live in, and may challenge the boasted treasures of Antwerp or Venice to excel.”1

There were a few dissenting voices, however. Writing in The Morning Post, “Fresnoy” attacked this “huge affair” as a meretricious “confusion of so many things bursting at once upon the eye”, capable only of impressing an “uncritical observer”; whereas “the chast[e], judicious spectator, will with facility discover the imposition, and assign to it the proper character of mediocrity.” “As for expression”, he went on to say, “the figures boast not an atom”.2 This kind of critique was reiterated differently in the same day’s The Morning Herald, which also shared Fresnoy’s opinion that an artist of West’s experience should have known better than to lapse into such schoolboy errors.3 If contemporary critics were prepared to be more charitable about the other large (69 x 85 inch) piece in the Exhibition that featured the travails of a medieval Scottish monarch, this was probably because it came from a relatively inexperienced hand. James the First of Scotland, Assassinated by Graham, at the Instigation of his Uncle the Duke of Atholl (Fig. 2) was the first history painting that John Opie had ever submitted to the Academy. Since making his Somerset House debut four years previously, the so-called “Cornish Wonder” had been rapturously hailed for a succession of portraits and fancy pictures; but it was only with the display of the James the First that he claimed and was granted a place among contemporary British artists of the foremost rank. With an idealised (semi-)nude male hero at the centre of a circle of actively responding figures, this was an exercise in the Grand Style of which the Academy could be proud, and which would earn Opie his election to Associate membership later that same year. The combination of aesthetic prestige, national history, high drama and topicality—Opie’s great champion, the anti-monarchical political satirist John Wolcot (aka Peter Pindar), modelled for the main assassin—also proved irresistible to the print publisher John Boydell, who quickly purchased the picture with a view to its engraving.

Boydell was also persuaded to buy King Edward V and his Brother Richard, Duke of York, Murdered in the Tower by Order of Richard III—one of the two paintings by James Northcote that completed the group of four exhibited scenes of royalty in peril. Although dismissed by Fresnoy as the “contemptible” product of the “imagination … of a starved imbecility”,4 this composition earned the unqualified admiration of most other critics, and presumably proved popular with the audience at large; three years later, the Princes in the Tower would become one of the great crowd-pleasers at Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, the commercial display of works by modern artists illustrating the works of the Bard. The other history painting that Northcote exhibited in 1786 fared rather less well, though it, too, soon found itself in the hands of an engraver (in this instance, Thomas Gaugain). The Death of Prince Leopold Maximilian of Brunswick (which survives in a somewhat altered state in the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow) dealt with an event that had taken place just a year earlier, when a Prussian prince celebrated for his love of humanity had drowned while attempting to save several families threatened by a flood.5 Praised by one reviewer as a veritable “coup de maître”, the Leopold otherwise attracted little critical attention, even though it occupied a central position on “the line” on one of the walls the Great Room. Fresnoy—not surprisingly, perhaps—felt that a work “of such uncommon mediocrity” had no business occupying so “respectable” a space.  

Underlying all his criticisms was a fear that modern practitioners of the most noble form of pictorial art were catering to the debased tastes of the multitude—an anxiety that was clearly shared by other British cultural spokesmen in the mid-1780s.6 This raises the question whether the artistic preoccupation with imperilled royalty may not have masked another concern of at least equal importance: that with Boydell and other commercial Maecenases well on their way to supplanting the Crown as the leaders of art patronage, the most pressing dangers were those faced by high visual culture itself. 

  1. The Daily Universal Register, 2 May 1786, 3.↩︎

  2. “Fresnoy”, The Morning Post, and Daily Advertiser, 4 May 1786, 2.↩︎

  3. The Morning Herald, 4 May 1786, 3.↩︎

  4. “Fresnoy”, The Morning Post, and Daily Advertiser, 3 May 1786, 2.↩︎

  5. For a much fuller discussion of this curious picture, see Martin Hopkinson, “James Northcote’s The Death of Prince Maximilian Leopold of Brunswick”, British Art Journal 4, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 29–36.↩︎

  6. See 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, 77–91.↩︎

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