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1787 Contemporary History Painting

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Frolicking dogs graced the Exhibition of 1787, if J.H. Ramberg’s view is to be believed (Fig. 1).1 So also did flirts on a bench, a baby at the miniatures, a little striped-stockinged lord with his eye-glass and cane, ladies’ noses in catalogues, gossipers, gazers, scrutinisers. With ear-trumpet in hand, Reynolds is shown escorting the Prince of Wales, pointing him towards John Opie’s Assassination of Rizzio, one of the largest works on display, and the painting that many felt shone brightest this year.2 Listen to the chatter of voices around them:

“Pon honour Sir John, says Miss Trippet, with her telescope levelled on the Highlander in the death of Rizzio—this is a charming subject—so perfectly in tone—the limb is so finely relieved.—True, Madam,” replies her companion, “—it is relieved from the embarrassment of breeches.—But it is the fashion—The tartan has already taken possession of the ladies waists […]” “Pshaw—says Miss Trippet, and turns to Maria Cosway and her flowers.”3

Opposite Opie’s ambitious composition is James Northcote’s own enormous canvas on a subject of British history. His Death of Wat Tyler—destroyed in the Second World War but known from a print by Anker Smith—dramatises the moment in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 when Tyler, leader of the protests against Richard II’s Poll Tax, is stabbed by a loyalist and falls from his horse.4 “This is a striking Composition,” thought The General Evening Post,

The Story is well told […] And the tumultuous Group, checked in the Moment of Revenge for the Death of their Leader, is drawn with great Force of Genius. The whole Picture is finely harmonized; and does great Credit to the Artist.5

The contributions of Northcote and Opie, both young Academicians elect and both sponsored by the Alderman Boydell, were thought to have saved the Exhibition from real mediocrity, proving that ambitious history painting in England still had a chance:

There is something very laudable in a private individual encouraging, in so munificent a manner, young English artists in historical painting; as it has been a perpetual opprobrium thrown upon us by foreigners, and not without foundation, that no paintings please in this country but copies of our own countenances.6

Yet those copied countenances were as numerous as ever. Reynolds exhibited thirteen. Among them, one stood out: his portrait of the Prince of Wales, full length in the froth of his Garter robes, with a servant of African descent in vivid livery reaching across his royal body (Fig. 2).7 Here we are again in the crowd:

“Pray, my dear Sir, observe that picture with the pretty black boy buckling that fine gay French gentleman’s sword on—says a haberdasher’s wife to her critical friend.” The friend consults his catalogue. “That picture—says he gravely—ah! Whose is it—let me see—Oh! By Sir Joshua—Exquisite! —Beautiful! —French Gentleman! Why, my dear Lady, it is the Prince of Wales, and as like him as possible.”8

Not everyone agreed with the friend of the haberdasher’s wife about the picture’s beauty and likeness. “Not equal to his other portraits,” thought The Whitehall Evening-Post about No. 90 (hanging at the centre of Ramberg’s view). “The black servant looks as if he were measuring His Royal Highness for a pair of breeches.”9

Meanwhile, the World noted that:

At first sight, some singularities stand out—and catch immediately. Amongst these—is one of a black robing the Prince of Wales—on a supposition, we suppose, that from his humbled state he has no white servant left. His highness seems to take it very patiently, and the black is pushing him about as he pleases.10

There were two reasons why this portrait might raise eyebrows, two political discussions that supply the real context for these criticisms. Nobody seems to be paying much notice to the painted Prince in Ramberg’s imagined scene, but they do cluster around the real thing. With their backs to the painting, one couple has even clambered onto a bench to get a glimpse of the man himself. The extravagant Prince was under intense public scrutiny at precisely this moment—and not only for his alleged secret marriage to Maria Fitzherbert. Running parallel to news about the Exhibition were column upon column on the state of his finances. Should his pension be raised and his mountainous debts cleared? Parliamentary debate on the question was much anticipated. Just days after the Exhibition opening, the Prince was granted £161,000 (equivalent to over £18m today) to pay his debts, and £60,000 (nearly £7m) for the completion of his Carlton House residence.11

The critic’s talk of his Highness’s “humbled state” directly linked Reynolds’ picture to the problem of the royal debt. A note in The Morning Herald made the allusion explicit:

The Prince is in his robes of State and a Black appears to be in the act of stripping them off. Some say the black […] is the prototype of Mr. Rolle;—and others apply it to a person of still higher consequence in the state.12

It was John Rolle (MP for Devonshire) who, on the day before the Prince’s visit to the Exhibition, opposed the motion to have the King address his problematic son. The portrait was nothing less than “an allegorical Satire, on those with whom his Highness has to contend.”13

What is striking about the painting is not only the way it seems to have been timed to “catch” a scandal about the Prince, but that it wove such allusion together with the politics of race. Given the long-established association in European portraiture between black body servants’ and white sitters’ contrasted wealth and power, Reynolds’ picture seems to have been taken as an irony. Was his decision to include the second figure (who sat twice for him in April) his way of making the portrait even more contentious? Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery was sold this very year from Schomberg House, where he lived in the employ of exhibiting artists Richard and Maria Cosway; Reynolds himself would subscribe to the second edition of Cugoano’s book in 1791.14 Cugoano had sent tracts and written letters directly to the Prince urging him to support the anti-slavery cause.15 And precisely at the moment when his controversial portrait of the Prince hung in Somerset House, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed in a nearby printing and bookshop on 22 May. By the end of 1787, public debate—moral and economic—about the British trade in enslaved Africans would be fiercer than ever before. The sorts of conversations that were made possible in front of Reynolds’ picture—its own kind of contemporary history painting—are up to us to imagine.

  1. For this and similar exhibition prints, 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), 39–53.↩︎

  2. The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 30 April and 1 May 1787; The Whitehall Evening Post, 5 May 1787. For the Prince’s visit, and his presence afterwards at the Academy Dinner, see The World, Fashionable Advertiser, 28 April 1787.↩︎

  3. This extract is from a column titled “Miscellaneous Criticisms on the Exhibition”, The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 3 May 1787.↩︎

  4. See Rosie Dias, “Loyal Subjects?: Exhibiting the Hero of James Northcote’s Death of Wat Tyler”, Visual Culture in Britain 8, no. 2 (Winter 2007): 21–43.↩︎

  5. The General Evening Post, 28 April 1787.↩︎

  6. The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 1 May 1787.↩︎

  7. For an extended discussion of this portrait, see Mark Hallett, Reynolds: Portraiture in Action (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 369–379.↩︎

  8. “Miscellaneous Criticisms on the Exhibition”, The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 3 May 1787.↩︎

  9. The Whitehall Evening-Post, 5 May 1787.↩︎

  10. The World, Fashionable Advertiser, 1 May 1787. See also Martin Postle (ed.), Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity (London: Tate Publishing, 2005), 138.↩︎

  11. See Holger Hoock, The King’s Artists: The Royal Academy of Arts and the Politics of British Culture, 1760–1840 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), 172–175.↩︎

  12. The Morning Herald, 2 May 1787.↩︎

  13. The Morning Herald, 2 May 1787.↩︎

  14. Works by the Cosways—Portraits of a lady and her child by Richard Cosway and An Enchantress by Maria Cosway—hung directly to either side of Reynolds’ portrait.↩︎

  15. Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and Other Writings, Vincent Carretta (ed.) (New York: Penguin, 1999), 183–185.↩︎

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Explore the 1787 catalogue