Royal Academy Chronicle The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769–2018 search Menu

1794 Anthony Pasquin and Artistic Judgement

Explore the 1794 catalogue

The Royal Academy Exhibition of 1794 was the first to come under the scabrous critical purview of “Anthony Pasquin”, the pseudonym of dramatist, theatre critic, and failed painter John Williams.1 Pasquin’s parodic-philosophical-political barbs have supplied some of the most quotable art criticism in the Academy’s history.2  Pasquin’s pamphlet, A Liberal Critique on the Present Exhibition, was distinguished by dramatic and occasionally violent language towards the Academicians, some of whom, Pasquin wrote, were worth no more than “powder and shot”. He lambasted the corruption of the Academy (a “junto … sitting in their hugger-mugger congress”), the decisions of the Hanging Committee (who should be hung up “instead of the pictures”), and the institution’s royal patron, the king (whose munificence he questioned). Pasquin also showed a close appreciation of the technicalities of painting and the mechanics of mounting a display, supplying a gritty insider knowledge that must have made him difficult to ignore.3

Against the background of the revolutionary terror taking place in France, Pasquin’s radical institutional critique and violent imagery must have created a frisson. Yet the Academy did rather invite such criticism in 1794.4 In an elitist crackdown, the Hanging Committee reduced the number of works from 856 to 670, while including numerous large-scale works by RAs.5 These Academicians, as Pasquin suggests, cajoled for favourable positions at the expense of less-established artists.6 Joseph Farington’s diagram of the hang in the Great Room that year shows a conventionally symmetrical arrangement built around Gainsborough Dupont’s full-length portrait of the king, with Beechey's and Lawrence’s half-lengths of bishops and ladies interspersed with Farington’s own sedate views.7 The political and aesthetic conservatism of the Exhibition in 1794 offered itself as a very likely target for a radical satirist.8

Pasquin’s prose is a bastardised mixture of genres, each employed where they made the greatest impact. The “insider-artist” mode is used most bitingly, where he suggests that the Hanging Committee9 paid:

more attention to the frames than the canvas. It is curious to behold their economy in arranging the decorative carvings round the rooms: they appear as having zealously labored to be mathematically just. Such minor considerations in such an establishment, make the judicious smile.10

The arrangement of works by frame size and decoration is, as any curator will agree, the last refuge for creating order when the paintings refuse to speak to each other. Pasquin was demonstrating an acute visual and technical eye, adding weight to his satiric and abusive flourishes. Yet the statement about making “the judicious smile” also indicates another theme of the Liberal Critique, which is about the exercise of judgement according to visual acuity and by reference to experience. Pasquin, like many critics, seems to have believed (against all the evidence) in the higher purpose of criticism. The longest section of the text, on the works of Benjamin West, then President of the Royal Academy, demonstrates all of Pasquin’s critical strategies.

West’s principal work that year was the ambitious, four-and-a-half-metre-long, Edward the Black Prince Receiving John King of France Prisoner, painted for the Audience Chamber at Windsor Castle (Fig. 1).11 Containing around thirty figures, it is a meditation on the correct way to treat a French Royal Prisoner—surely chosen to echo with recent events in France, without resorting to the contemporary sentimentality of scenes of French royal distress.12 Visually, it encapsulates Jean Froissart’s fourteenth-century Chronicle of the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, wherein King John II is captured and escorted to London. West disposed the countless banners, crests, and pennons mentioned in the text across a canvas that resembles a huge heraldic device—decoratively imbued with the exhaustively researched symbols of Or, Gules, and Argent.13

Pasquin’s response to this overwhelming display of erudition and assiduity is satirical. He calls it “a large piece of canvas”, perhaps recognising the banner-based conceit of the work. He wonders why the post-battle soldiers do not look more tired. He also criticises the horse, which he compares to the theatrical half-man, half-horse figures to be found on the stage in Buckingham’s satire The Rehearsal.14

As if cowed into cheap comment by the Black Prince, Pasquin ups his game for West’s three-metre-tall Descent of the Spirit upon Jesus, for the “Chapel of Revealed Religion” at Windsor (Fig. 2).15 Satirical again, Pasquin compares West’s Christ to a recently whipped deserter, then shifts again into artist-insider mode by pointing out that West uses the same “favourite domestics” as models for all his figure paintings.16 The nub of his critique, though, falls upon the spirit of God portrayed as a dove. This common symbol was frequently used in contemporary church monuments, but in this instance sparks an overblown tirade about a “ludicrous” and “impious” personification. Pasquin inserts a lengthy and learned literary reference of his own to show West’s lack of judgement in representing the absolute through a tangible symbol:

There is a point which mortals cannot approach but in glimmering thought, it is that which borders on an intellectual image of the universal Spirit; the great mind of the universe; who, in the motions of a subtile fluid, suited to the visual organ, illuminates the world; who lives in the perfect action of substance; the purity of nature: how can we conceive that which surpasses sense, but by means of what we know? How proceed to just inference, but by some clear rule of analogy?17

This uncredited quote is from the now-obscure philosophical text, John Donaldson’s 1786 “Short Analysis of the Human Mind”,18 which had a strong influence on Pasquin’s criticism in 1794. Donaldson’s essay concerns the relationship between visuality and judgement. His analysis proceeds from the idea that the eye is the means through which life is perceived, with the bundle of images supplied to the mind becoming the basis of our identities. When we see something, we can compare and contrast it with a fund of other images to give every object “its just consequence in the scale of experience”. This action is the basis of “right reasoning” and “judgment”19 and supplies a philosophical basis for art criticism.

His engagement with Donaldson and visuality also explains the omnipresence of metaphors of light in Pasquin’s critique, as for instance in the attack on Dupont’s George III, in which the painter is imagined to have not seen properly owing to a false perception of divine beams emanating from the king; or the repeated references to the hang as it affects the perception of given objects.20

For Donaldson, any attempt to conceive of something that “surpasses sense”—such as the spirit of God—however, is a dangerous distraction. There is a correlation between the correct application of judgement, based on visual sense, and personal, moral, character. Failure to exercise correct judgement is linked with evil habits, immorality, wickedness, and undeserved power. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the denouement of this section is an attack on West’s character. Pasquin writes that West has only mechanical knowledge of art, but gains a fortune “within the regal circles of Windsor” through mediocrity and inoffensiveness. He fetters the energies of passion so he can receive the “smiles of a king, as a counterbalance for the exercise of his own original dignity as a man.” That George III should favour him over others is just another demonstration of the “caprices of hereditary power”.21 The Black Prince, with its visual reliance upon symbolic embodiments of hereditary power, and its meditation upon royal dignity, must too, for Pasquin, have emphasised the elision of allegory and pandering to power.

Donaldson was an unsuccessful painter (like Pasquin), but also a product of the Edinburgh enlightenment. He investigated, like David Hume and Frances Hutcheson, the human capacity for exercising aesthetic and moral judgement, with a view to “controverting established systems”.22 Pasquin’s use of Donaldson to critique the exhibitions and the morality of the Academicians formed the template of an anti-establishment criticism (adopted later by Hazlitt and Cunningham), which combined practical knowledge of art with merciless judgement, passed both on art works and on the character of artists.

  1. James Sambrook “John Williams”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessed 8 May 2017).↩︎

  2. For analysis of the literary form and function of Pasquin’s criticism, see Mark Hallett, “The Business of Criticism: The Press and the Royal Academy Exhibition in Eighteenth-Century London”, 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), 65–75; and Shelly M. Bennett, “Anthony Pasquin and the Function of Art Journalism in Late Eighteenth-Century England”, Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies 8, no. 2 (September 1985): 197–208.↩︎

  3. Anthony Pasquin, A Liberal Critique on the Present Exhibition of the Royal Academy: Being an attempt to correct the National Taste; to ascertain the state of the Polite Arts at this Period; and to Rescue Merit from Oppression (London: H.D. Symonds and J. McQueen, 1794), 4, 16, and 15.↩︎

  4. For more on which, see David Bindman, The Shadow of the Guillotine: Britain and the French Revolution, with contributions by Aileen Dawson and Mark Jones (London: British Museum Publications, 1989).↩︎

  5. D.E. Williams, The Life and Correspondence of Sir Thomas Lawrence, in 2 vols (London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1831), Vol. 1, 142, Williams suggests the reduction might be due to the war effort, although this isn’t mentioned anywhere in Farington. “The pictures sent for exhibit were reviewed today. A greater number were refused than has been remembered”, Joseph Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre, and Kathryn Cave (eds) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978–1984), Vol. 1, July 1793–December 1794, 176.↩︎

  6. Farington records the usual appeals made to him and others regarding the securing of good places in the Exhibition in the run-up, for example, Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 1, 176–177, where Opie and Lawrence were among those cajoling for the best spots.↩︎

  7. Farington’s entry for 27 April 1794 includes a diagram of the hang, illustrated in the same volume. Not surprisingly, he also records extensive detail on the responses to his two landscapes, Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 1, 176–177. Oxford: High Street is known through a print.↩︎

  8. The Academy had also showed its sensitivity to criticism by allowing the press to report on an internal spat over whether a volume of criticism hostile to some RAs should be allowed in the library, The Whitehall Evening-Post, 18 February 1794. Rev. Bromley’s History of the Fine Arts was the cause of much consternation, especially as Benjamin West was thought to have supplied some of the material, Robert Anthony Bromley, A Philosophical and Critical History of the Fine Arts, Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture; With Occasional Observations on the Progress of Engraving (London: Philanthropic-Press, 1793–1795), 181; and Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 1, 176–177.↩︎

  9. That year, Sir Francis Bourgeois and Robert Smirke↩︎

  10. Pasquin, A Liberal Critique on the Present Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 16.↩︎

  11. Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley The Paintings of Benjamin West (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 202.↩︎

  12. Benazech, Pellegini, and William Hamilton all produced popular sentimental scenes of the French king or queen being parted from their children, see Bindman, Shadow of the Guillotine, nos 133–135. Although none seem to have been exhibited this year.↩︎

  13. Froissart’s Chroniques was written in the late fourteenth century. Its translation into English by Lord Berners in 1523–1535 was regarded as one of the first great works of literature in English, see George Kane “An Accident of History: Lord Berners’s Translation of Froissart’s Chronicles”, The Chaucer Review 21, no. 2 (Fall 1986): 217–225. West must have studied it in the 1523–1525 version as a modern version was not published until Macauley’s in the nineteenth century. In Froissart’s account of the Battle of Poitiers, he makes over thirty references to shields, banners, crests, and pennons, some of which, such as the Madonna in Glory shields (front-right and front-centre) are part of the narrative as well as descriptive. My references are to the reprint of Berner’s edition, The Chronycle of Syr John Froissart, translated by Lord Berners, republished with notes by William Paton Ker (London: David Nutt, 1901).↩︎

  14. Pasquin, A Liberal Critique on the Present Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 9; Pasquin calls them “Mr Bayes’ Cavalry”. Bayes is the main character, a theatre director, in Buckingham’s Rehearsal, a satire on Dryden. A ridiculous “Grand Combat of Hobby-Horses” is fought between actors. A less theatre-minded critic similarly said that West’s horse was made of wood, The St James’s Chronicle, or, The British Evening-Post, 6–8 May 1794.↩︎

  15. Von Erffa and Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West, 335.↩︎

  16. Pasquin, A Liberal Critique on the Present Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 10.↩︎

  17. Pasquin, A Liberal Critique on the Present Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 10.↩︎

  18. John Donaldson, Principles of Taste, or, the Elements of Beauty: Also Reflections on the Harmony of Sensibility and Reason … to which is annexed a Short Analysis of the Human Mind (Edinburgh, 1786), 169–170.↩︎

  19. Donaldson, Principles of Taste, 153.↩︎

  20. Pasquin, A Liberal Critique on the Present Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 6 and 9, where he discusses the “light of heaven … imperfectly administered”. Donaldson also lies behind Pasquin’s further critique of West’s reliance on classical antique reference. Donaldson explains how paintings of nude figures can attain a grace that sculpture cannot, because it can add a “blush” that can’t be imitated in marble. Pasquin criticises West for making his figures too like classical marble prototypes (as in the use of Antinous in Pylades and Orestes, Tate), Donaldson, Principles of Taste, 11.↩︎

  21. Pasquin, A Liberal Critique on the Present Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 11. The critique of hereditary is pertinent here because of the hereditary-based conceit of the heraldry in the Black Prince. Pasquin, however, was quite wrong about West’s position with the king. The painter was out of favour at court, receiving no commissions since 1789. On 6 December 1794, Farington reported that West was suspected by the king of possessing “democratic” principles.↩︎

  22. James Boswell, Boswell’s London Journal 1762–1763, edited with Introduction by Frederick A. Pottle (London: Yale University Press, 1985), 198; Boswell notes especially his opposition to revealed religion. For Donaldson’s relationship to the thought of David Hume, Frances Hutchison, and others, see Leslie Ellen Brown, “The Idea of Life as a Work of Art in Scottish Enlightenment Discourse” in Carla H. Hay and Syndy M. Conger (eds), Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), Vol. 24, 51–67; and for a discussion of Donaldson on allegory and personification, see Earl R. Wasserman, “The Inherent Values of Eighteenth-Century Personification”, PMLA 65, no. 4 (June 1950): 435–463.↩︎

Thematic categories: , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Explore the 1794 catalogue