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1792 A Guided Tour

Almost totally blind, and following weeks of “tranquil despondency” under the influence of laudanum, Sir Joshua Reynolds died of chronic liver failure on the evening of 23 February 1792.1 Reynolds had not only been the Royal Academy’s President since its inception in 1768, but was also the towering figure of the late eighteenth-century British art world. At that year’s Summer Exhibition, Britain’s leading painters sought to fill the artistic and institutional vacuum that had been created by his death. Certain artists—most notably the Academy’s new President, Benjamin West—ensured that the kind of grand-manner history painting promoted by Reynolds as the apex of Academic ambition, and that had become an increasingly prominent strand of his own exhibition submissions, was still very much in evidence. While such submissions helped perpetuate Reynolds’s Presidential agenda of promoting an English school of history painting, the 1792 Academy Exhibition also featured numerous works that testified to the desire of artists to exploit the enormous gap his death had left in the field of advanced portraiture. Indeed, this display inaugurated a decades-long war between the best British portraitists, both young and old, in which they battled with each other to inherit Reynolds’ mantle as the nation’s leading practitioner in the genre. The show was packed with ambitious portraits, most notably those produced by the artist whom Reynolds himself saw as his true successor, Thomas Lawrence, but also those painted by Lawrence’s leading rivals, who included artists such as John Hoppner, William Beechey, Martin Archer Shee, and John Russell.

Explore the 1792 catalogue

To help provide a better sense of the especially intense forms of artistic and pictorial interaction that took place at the 1792 display, I thought it would be interesting to develop a virtual reconstruction of that year’s Exhibition. This idea was prompted in part by a remarkable cache of visual evidence: a set of diagrammatic drawings of the display produced by Thomas Sandby, then Professor of Architecture at the Academy.2 Having studied these drawings in detail, and spent some time hunting down forty or so of the paintings that were on show in 1792, I then embarked upon the next and final stage of the reconstruction: that of working with my colleagues Tom Scutt and Maisoon Rehani, and a pair of gifted and imaginative designers at the company Duck Duck Zeus, to produce a computer-generated walk-through of the painterly spectacle that was on offer in the Ante-Room and the Great Room at Somerset House in 1792.3 This animated reconstruction of the display is very much a work in progress, and still contains some inaccuracies—in particular, the film does not yet offer an accurate translation of the ways in which all the pictures above the Great Room’s famous ‘line’ leant forward. Nevertheless, I hope it offers a stimulating introduction to a Georgian annual exhibition, and prompts fresh debate about how we best use digital technology to explore the history of such displays.

This year’s entry thus takes the form of a short film, in which, first of all, I introduce Sandby and his drawings, and then offer a commentary on our newly created tour of the 1792 display.

Figure 1

Mark Hallett, 1792: A Guided Tour, film animation produced by Duck Duck Zeus, 2018. Courtesy of Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (Creative Commons CC BY-NC International 4.0).

  1. The quote is Edmund Burke’s, as reported by James Boswell; see Frederick W. Hilles, Portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds (London: Heinemann,1952), 18.↩︎

  2. These are now housed in the Royal Academy’s collection; for details, see the accompanying caption list displayed at the end of the reconstruction.↩︎

  3. I would like to express my thanks and appreciation to George Voike and Abel Drew, of Duck Duck Zeus, for all their sterling work on this project.↩︎

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Explore the 1792 catalogue