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1789 Painting the Geography of the Mind

Faces, everywhere. As in every Royal Academy Exhibition since the first, twenty years beforehand, one category of painting dominated the 1789 Summer Exhibition: portraiture.

Overall, 353 pictures were listed in the Exhibition Catalogue as hanging in the Academy’s Great Room that year. These included the seventy-five miniatures that were placed on either side of the fireplace on the East Wall; as might be expected, the great majority of these intimate pictures were portraits, with some artists exhibiting as one work a frame that contained a number of modestly scaled likenesses, for example, a “Frame with eleven miniatures”.1 Beyond this cluster of small, jewel-like objects, the Great Room featured 277 other, larger paintings. One hundred and eight of these were portraits, ranging from numerous full-lengths to scores of far less grandiloquent canvases, most of which were listed in the catalogue simply as a “portrait of a gentleman” or a “portrait of a lady”. Here, for example, is a page from that year’s Catalogue, listing a series of portraits that also seem to have been hung on the East Wall (Fig. 1).

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This preponderance of portraits was quickly noticed by visitors to the show. One newspaper critic, echoing a long-standing complaint, bemoaned the “comparative superabundance of portraits” that was apparent even on a “first and superficial survey” of the room. He explains the dominance of what he calls this “most frivolous branch of the art” through referring to the workings of vanity and the understandable need of artists to respond to the constant local demand for such pictures. Portraiture, he declares, is that “from which the brothers of the brush reap the greatest benefit, and on which their existence must for ever depend. Riches, liberality, and taste, are fluctuating, local, and temporary—Vanity is immutable, universal, and eternal.”2

In a rather vicious switch of tone, the same critic goes on suggest that, though “ten thousand fat and greasy citizens” would give Reynolds little in the way of reward for a history painting such as his Continence of Scipio, which was on display in that year’s Exhibition, “every one of them would give him fifty guineas for the representation of their own unmeaning phizes [faces].” Playing with the notion of the pictorial hang, he concludes by declaring that: “most of the portraits at present gibbeted up, are totally uninteresting”, adding, by way of disgruntled parenthesis, that the sitters’ “names, at least, and trades, ought to be mentioned in the catalogue.”3

This criticism of the Great Room as a venue that offered little more than a lifeless collection of expressionless faces and illegible figures, swinging from the walls like the victims of a genteel public execution, was not, as has been noted, an especially new one. However, it came into particular focus that year thanks to a major development in London’s exhibition culture: the opening on 4 May 1789 of Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery.4 This gallery, set up by the illustrious print-publisher John Boydell, was located in the fashionable London area of Pall Mall. It was hung with paintings depicting scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, produced by many of Britain’s leading artists, including numerous Academicians. A good sense of how the Gallery’s interior looked—and how it differed from the spectacle offered at the Academy—is provided by a watercolour produced by Francis Wheatley in the following year (Fig. 2).

In this Gallery, clearly, there were no “unmeaning” portraits on display. Instead, spectators were invited to peruse an elegantly distributed series of large-scale subject paintings that were lauded by critics as having an irrefutably ambitious, dignified, and historical character. Furthermore, visitors to the display, having paid the same entrance fee as that being charged by the Academy—a shilling—were given a catalogue that contained the text of each of the Shakespearean scenes depicted in the paintings on show. Rather than being faced with the bald and unhelpful title of a “portrait of a lady”, for instance, they were given all the assistance they needed to enjoy the intricacies of any given artist’s pictorial translation of Shakespeare’s famous texts. The contrast to the Academy’s offerings was made even more explicit in the press coverage enjoyed by the new Gallery. In an era—not so different from today—when much journalistic art criticism was in fact a form of promotional “puffery” funded by artists or their supporters, Boydell used all of his resources to ensure an enormous amount of positive press coverage not just for his scheme as a whole, but also for each of the works in his Gallery. Whereas most of the pictures on display at the Academy—particularly the portraits—would be covered in a line or two by contemporary critics, or else entirely ignored, every single one of Boydell’s paintings was discussed in great detail, often over numerous paragraphs. These were pictures, it was implied, that were worth looking at and reading about: interesting, full of meaning, and existing far beyond the imaginative horizons of portraiture’s vain and grubby patrons.

One of the critics employed in singing the Shakespeare Gallery’s praises, writing in The Public Advertiser, drove the broader point home:

It is not that our artists have been weak, but their strength has been wrong [sic] directed … They have sedulously studied the map of the face, but neglected the geography of the mind. Their highest aim has been to please; they have seldom attempted to move. They have covered the walls of our exhibition rooms with portraits of lords and ladies, of country squires, and town squires, of horses and hounds, of players and dancing dogs, of men milliners and monkeys, and sometimes given prodigious likenesses! Indeed, in most of these subjects, resemblance is all we have a right to demand. But when they paint from the Drama of Shakespeare, let them consider it as a new world, and a world of wonders; it is man, in all his varieties; it is the grammar of art, and the dictionary of nature.5

The Academy Exhibition, it seems, and the type of object that dominated its offerings, were under threat. No wonder, perhaps, that over the next two decades, while portraiture continued its long struggle for critical respectability, other kinds of painting—in particular, landscape painting and genre painting—enjoyed such a dramatic rise to prominence at the annual summer displays. For these genres, too, could aspire to move as well as to please, and, in their most ambitious forms, to address the geography of the mind. They thus had the potential to become the Summer Exhibition’s secret weapons, as it sought to maintain its status as the most important and vital arena of contemporary British art.

  1. See entry 321 in The Exhibition of the Royal Academy (London, 1789); the works were by P.[i.e. Philip] Jean (1755–1802), who the Catalogue notes was then based in Hanover Square.↩︎

  2. The Morning Star, 30 April 1789.↩︎

  3. The Morning Star, 30 April 1789.↩︎

  4. For the most comprehensive accounts of Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, see Rosie Dias, Exhibiting Englishness: John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery and the Formation of a National Aesthetic (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013); and Sven H.A. Bruntjen, John Boydell, 1719–1804: A Study of Art Patronage and Publishing in Georgian England (New York: Garland Publlishing, 1985).↩︎

  5. The Public Advertiser, 28 May 1789.↩︎

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Explore the 1789 catalogue