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1793 "Such a Heap of Trash We Never Before saw Collected"1

When the Royal Academy opened its doors on 29 April 1793, it joined an exceptionally rich cornucopia of London exhibitions. There were now three large commercial galleries filled with recent pictures by Britain’s leading painters of narrative subjects—Boydell’s Shakespeare and Macklin’s Poets’ having recently been joined by Robert Bowyer’s Historic Gallery, all within a few steps of one another on Pall Mall. At no. 125, since earlier that month, Macklin had been sharing the Academy’s former premises with the Northern European masterpieces of the celebrated Orleans Collection, which prior to being sold were attracting sizeable crowds at a cost of one shilling per head; meanwhile just around the corner in King Street, the European Museum was hosting a major show of some 500 Old Masters, including “a great Variety of the Genuine Productions of the principal BRITISH ARTISTS.”2 From there, the capital’s cognoscenti might go on to the Great Room in Spring Gardens, to see Valentine Green’s selection of pictures from the Düsseldorf Gallery. Given the unprecedented strength of the competition, and the fact that virtually all the most prominent Academicians were prioritising their work for Boydell and his rival publishers, it should come as no surprise to learn that the latest annual offerings at Somerset House received more negative press coverage than usual. 

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While not everyone may have wished to endorse The Oracle’s reference to a “heap of trash”, the critics clearly struggled to find praiseworthy examples of the elevated art that the Academy was supposed to promote. Once again, its newly appointed President, Benjamin West, had done his bit by submitting yet another in the long series of large religious pictures intended for St George’s Chapel at Windsor—this time a Paul and Barnabas at Lystra—along with another royal commission painted five years earlier, Edward III with the Black Prince after the Battle of Cressy. Both were respectfully received, albeit without much enthusiasm; one senses that the public had simply tired of West’s all-too-familiar version of the Grand Style. The same could certainly not have been said of Lawrence’s first major venture into monumental history painting, a Prospero Raising the Storm. But while the young artist’s ambitions may have been laudable, his picture (subsequently painted over) was judged “a great attempt with very little success”3—and newsworthy mainly because it had aroused the ire of Henry Fuseli, who regarded this upstart invasion into his own Shakespearean territory as nothing more or less than an act of plagiarism. To support this charge, Fuseli exhibited two works—presumably chosen only after the Lawrence had come to his attention—an oil sketch of Macbeth and an Amoret Delivered from the Enchantment of Busiran by Britomart, which he invited viewers to recognise as the sources for Lawrence’s Prospero and Miranda respectively. The Oracle’s rather barbed response was that both painters could be “perfectly easy, [since] the figures are original to neither the one nor the other”.4 If the Lawrence was a bit of an oddity, so too was John Singleton Copley’s first exhibition piece for seven years, and the only literary subject he would ever paint: The Red Cross Knight, Fidelia and Speranza, from Spenser’s Faerie Queen. At the time, it was widely recognised that the three main figures were faithful likenesses of the artist’s children, the result being an amalgam of the “allegorical, historical, poetic, and portraitical”, that the readers of several London newspapers were invited to regard as rather baffling.5 

With so few exhibited paintings that fully lived up to the Academy’s ideals, practitioners in other genres and media were able to draw more than their usual share of critical attention. These circumstances worked very much to the advantage of Richard Westall, for example, whose nine watercolours—especially the three that dealt with classical or Miltonic themes—garnered rapturous reviews. Another beneficiary, albeit not to the same extent, was Sir Peter Francis Bourgeois, whose devotion to his own self-promotion may well have surpassed his commitment to his art. According to The Morning Chronicle, this recently elected Academician (and Painter to the King of Poland) had:

eight,—we do not know what to call them,—for sketches they are finished too much,—and for pictures they are not finished enough [which] at first sight reminded us of some delineations made with a hot iron, and called poker pictures.6 

At the top of the very next column, however, a brief announcement of the opening of the Academy was accompanied by the following statement, presumably paid for by the artist himself: 

Sir Francis Bourgeois, for whose productions we own our partiality (arising chiefly from the beauty of his colouring) has in this Exhibition some of the best pictures that we have yet seen from his pencil; and we venture to say, that as long as there is taste in this country, his Landscapes, “The Funeral Procession of a White Friar”, “Kemble in Coriolanus”, and “the Rainbow”, will keep up Sir Francis’s name among those of our first artists.7

The Funeral Procession of a White Friar (Fig. 1) survives, beneath several layers of discoloured varnish, in Dulwich Picture Gallery, and a very curious object it is. Composed in a frieze-like manner vaguely reminiscent of West’s Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus, but with a Dominican cast of characters, Bourgeois’ two-metre-wide painting is neither history, landscape, nor scene from everyday life; no wonder that it remained with him till he died. 

Like Copley’s Red Cross Knight, Bourgeois’ Procession offers evidence that the hierarchy of pictorial genres, one of the centrepieces of academic art theory, was hardly in robust shape in the early 1790s—an impression that is further reinforced by one of the very few unqualified “hits” of the Exhibition of 1793: William Beechey’s Children Relieving a Beggar Boy (Fig. 2). “The best picture in the rooms, in the opinion of every one present”,8 Beechey’s painting combined a portrait (of the children of Sir Francis Ford) with a Gainsborough-like fancy picture on the theme of rustic poverty, to create a sentimental moral narrative of the most uplifting kind. The artist’s patron was a West Indian plantation owner, and a leading figure in the Parliamentary fight against the abolition of slavery; one of the points he was having Beechey convey on his behalf was that England’s poor were no better off than the slaves in her Caribbean colonies (indeed quite the contrary). Although visitors to the Academy may not have made this connection, Beechey’s image prompted one reviewer to take the highly unusual step of alerting his readers to a contemporary social problem. The “shivering and starved appearance” of the beggar boy, he suggested, “may suggest a Reform of our Poor Laws, and excite a temporary throb of pity in our breasts, steeled, perhaps, against the reality of distress.”9 Recent events in France, culminating with the execution of Louis XVI in January and the rise of a Republic of sans-culottes, may well have made propertied viewers particularly sensitive to a depiction of bare-legged poverty at home—where there were far more crucial hierarchies at stake than the hierarchy of genres.  

  1. The Oracle, 30 April 1793, 2.↩︎

  2. The Oracle, 25 April 1793, 1.↩︎

  3. The True Briton, 29 April 1793, 2.↩︎

  4. The Oracle, 30 April 1793, 2.↩︎

  5. The London Chronicle, 27–30 April 1793, 412; reprinted in The Morning Chronicle, 29 April 1793, 3; and The Public Advertiser, 30 April 1793, 2.↩︎

  6. The Morning Chronicle, 30 April 1793, 4.↩︎

  7. The Morning Chronicle, 30 April 1793, 4.↩︎

  8. The Oracle, 30 April 1793, 2.↩︎

  9. The Oracle, date unknown, quoted in Martin Postle, Angels & Urchins—The Fancy Picture in 18th-Century British Art, exhibition catalogue (Nottingham: Djanogly Art Gallery, University of Nottingham, 1998), 93.↩︎

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