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1790 Youth and Old Age at the Royal Academy Exhibition

The Royal Academy Exhibition of 1790 found itself struggling to compete with two recent arrivals on the London art scene—Macklin’s Poets’ Gallery, in operation since April 1788, and Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, which had opened its doors a year later—and the evidence suggests that these new commercial upstarts damaged their older, more prestigious rival in at least two significant respects. First of all, once Macklin and Boydell appeared on the scene, London’s newspaper publishers quickly learned that there was serious money to be made by the sale of puffing notices of current art exhibitions; and since this was a game that the officers of the Academy were reluctant to play, “the Exhibition” soon found itself overshadowed in the press by the paid-for coverage of its rivals (and of Sir Francis Bourgeois, who seems to have stopped at almost nothing when it came to self-promotion). Had the journalistic critics been asked to justify this bias, they might have done so by suggesting that the key trends in modern painting could no longer be observed on the Strand, but instead a mile to the west, in the more fashionable neighbourhood of Pall Mall. Whereas, in 1790, Boydell’s and Macklin’s establishments were awash with dozens of examples of elevated, large-scale historical art, at Somerset House it was striking just how few such works there were. Featured in the Great Room was just one sizeable Benjamin West, of Moses Showing the Brazen Serpent to the Israelites, the latest instalment in the series of decorations for the king’s chapel at Windsor Castle that had featured regularly at the Academy during the first half of the 1780s; more novel, and therefore more newsworthy, was an enormous Queen of Sheba Entertained at a Banquet of King Solomon (now lost), which William Hamilton had painted for the 11th Duke of Norfolk as the design for a stained-glass window in the great dining room at Arundel Castle. The duke himself had sat for the head of Solomon; and although Hamilton was criticised for the shortcomings of the likeness, it is a sign of the reverence accorded to the aristocracy that the chutzpah of his patron passed entirely without comment.

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With so many of the Academy’s most ambitious painters occupied elsewhere, portraitists and practitioners of other minor genres had the field almost entirely to themselves. Thus the Pastellist John Russell, who after sixteen years as an Associate had at long last been elected to full membership of the Academy in 1788, took full advantage of his recent elevation by exhibiting no fewer than twenty-two works:  thirteen portraits, two classical subjects, two landscapes, and five fancy pictures. Among these was The Fortune-Teller, whose  eponymous male protagonist bore a striking resemblance to George White, one of Joshua Reynolds’ favourite models—and the interaction of this grizzled old man with a fresh-faced young girl may well have struck a poignant note with viewers, who were acutely aware that they were witnessing Reynolds being eclipsed by a much younger rising star.  

That luminary, of course, was Thomas Lawrence. Just three days before the artist’s twenty-first birthday (on 4 May 1790), The World gave its readers a full transcript of his birth certificate, by way of dramatising the fact that he’d been born in the very year of the Academy’s inaugural exhibition.1 Since that time the institution had been dominated by its founding President, the venerable Sir Joshua Reynolds, who even in his sixties remained the nation’s pre-eminent painter. For visitors to Somerset House in the spring and summer of 1790, the contest between Reynolds and the youthful pretender to his crown found its fullest expression in the confrontation between two full-length female portraits of celebrated stage performers:  Reynolds’ Elizabeth Billington in the Character of St Cecilia and Lawrence’s Miss Elizabeth Farren. The Hanging Committee placed these two compositions so that they could be seen as pendants, precisely in order to prompt viewers to compare the one with the other—as Mark Hallett has recently observed.2

Fortunately for me, however, Hallett does not concern himself with what were almost universally judged to be the two best male portraits in the same exhibition:  Reynolds’ George James Cholmondeley and Lawrence’s William Lock of Norbury (Figs. 1 and 2). The reviewer for The Times judged the “Head of Mr Cholmondeley … [as] one of the finest pictures we ever remember to have seen of any Master”—perhaps wishing to suggest, and if so quite understandably, that in the solidity of its modelling and the sonorous richness of its palette here was an image that could more than hold its own against any of the greatest portraits of the Venetian or Flemish Schools. By the time the Exhibition had opened, it had become common knowledge that Reynolds had recently lost the vision in one eye, and would not be able to practise for much longer; and while still unaware that they were witnessing the final episode in his exhibiting career, critics were already beginning to regard him as a figure of the past. Clearly, Lawrence’s presence was one factor that encouraged them to do so. 

In the eyes of the artists’ contemporaries, there were three principal factors that distinguished the younger painter’s Lock from Reynolds’ Cholmondeley:  Lawrence’s superior rendering of his sitter’s character; his speed of execution; and his picture’s finish, or lack thereof. Three newspapers admiringly reported that the Lock had been “‘hit off’ at a single sitting”3—thus, making it all the more remarkable that the result was “a figure expressing the mind of the man, touched with richness, freedom, and truth of colouring, and not surpassed by any picture in the exhibition.”4 And all this despite the fact that Lawrence had left his picture in a state that positively flaunted its lack of finish, with its sitter’s right hand hardly more than the very slightest of sketches, and his left sleeve coloured only as far down as the elbow. Although The Public Advertiser thought this a small price to pay for a brilliant study of male character, for the writer in The General Evening Post, there was no cost at all. On the contrary, he boldly advanced the daring opinion that: “the picture of Mr Locke” was “admirably finished”, conventional expectations to the contrary.5 Among Reynolds’ previous rivals, it had been the late Thomas Gainsborough who had adopted a sketchy and transparent technique as his signature painting style; and now that Gainsborough was gone, Lawrence was bidding to inherit his mantle.6 In addition to sheer virtuosity, his efforts benefitted from an attribute that neither Gainsborough nor Reynolds had possessed for many, many years: the charismatic allure of youth, which might successfully plead indulgence for any number of transgressions—for the time being, at least.

  1. The World, 1 May 1790, 3.↩︎

  2. Mark Hallett, Reynolds: Portraiture in Action (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 434–438.↩︎

  3. The Diary; or Woodfall’s Register, 29 April 1790, 2, reprinted in The Public Advertiser, 30 April 1790, 4; The World, 4 May 1790.↩︎

  4. The St James’s Chronicle, 1–4 May 1790, 4.↩︎

  5. “A Friend to the Arts”, letter to The Public Advertiser, 11 May 1790, 1; The General Evening Post, 27–29 May 1790, 4.↩︎

  6. Here it should be noted that the immediate point of departure for Lawrence’s Miss Farren was a drawing by Gainsborough; see Lucy Peltz’s catalogue entry on the picture, in A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell, and Lucy Peltz (eds), Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance, exhibition catalogue (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2010), 98–101.↩︎

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