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1797 Nature shook to atoms

Explore the 1797 catalogue

The critic Anthony Pasquin had a field day with the exhibition of 1797. “This picture is a mélange,” he wrote of Thomas Lawrence’s Miltonic Satan (Fig. 1),

made up of the worst parts of the divine Bonarotti, and the extravagant Goltzius: the figure of Satan is colossal and very ill drawn; the body is so disproportioned to the extremities, that it appears all legs and arms, and might, at a distance, be mistaken for a sign of the spread eagle. The colouring has as little analogy to truth as the contour, for it is so ordered that it conveys an idea of a mad German sugar baker, dancing naked in a conflagration of his own treacle!1

This is a wonderful image, and it does capture something of the crazed overblownness of Lawrence “a la Fuselli”.2 (John Hoppner would have given £100 to banish the painting from the room as it “takes effect from his pictures”).3 But the outlandish sugar-baker Satan wasn’t the only offender this year. “For some very extraordinary reason,” Pasquin wrote of Benjamin West’s portrait of his sons (no. 189), “he has given one of the characters green hair.” Westall, for his part, had made his young Bacchus ill: “Had any mother an infant thus covered with hues of crimson and yellow, would she not deprecate the consequences of a scarlet fever.” As for West’s St. Michael (no. 242):

The colouring of this Picture is so irreconcileable [sic], in our opinion, to what is harmonious or requisite, that we shall forbear to enlarge upon the comment: it appears to us, as if all the parties, from Heaven and Hell, had been soused over head and ears in the juice of pickled cabbage.4

What unites these criticisms, in their objection to luridly unnatural greens, crimsons, yellows, and blues—to hues that burn and pickle—is the problem of colour. Colour, in fact, was this year’s great theme, and it turned on the scandal of the so-called “Venetian Secret”.5 On 30 January, a group of Academicians—Joseph Farington, John Opie, Robert Smirke, Richard Westall, Thomas Stothard, J.F. Rigaud, and Hoppner—had signed an agreement with one Thomas Provis and his painter daughter Mary Ann. In return for a subscription of 10 guineas, each artist would be granted access to what the Provises claimed was a copy of a now-destroyed manuscript describing the lost methods of Titian and the Venetian masters. Benjamin West did not sign, but he was in close contact with the Provises and had been experimenting with the jealously guarded process since 1795.

Public anticipation of the newly revealed “system” was high.6 “With the expectation of seeing the colouring of Titian emulated by the Painters of the present day, the number of spectators was very great,” reported The Morning Chronicle, a few days after the exhibition opened.

[I]n the theatrical phraseology, the house overflowed. The Lover expected that the cheek of the portrait of his mistress would glow with celestial rosy red, Love’s proper hue, and the Connoisseur, that painting would assume a new face, and the hues of the English school equal those of the Venetians.7

Newspapers drew special attention to the “Pictures painted according to the new system”, which included those by Smirke, Farington, Westall, Tresham and, most prominently of all, by West.8 Yet despite glimmers of optimism from some quarters about the potential of the new method to revitalise British painting, the Venetian Secret was met with overwhelming scepticism. Suspicion was well founded, since the Provises had perpetrated an ingenious money-spinning hoax; the “manuscript” was a complete fabrication.

Among West’s experiments was his Crucifixion, a cartoon in oils for a window at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. The whereabouts of the cartoon are now unknown, but its composition can be gauged from a preparatory drawing (Fig. 2). West's picture was derided mercilessly. “An acre of absurdities!” thought The London Packet.

This picture, we are told, is painted on the new principle; nothing, however, appears to be gained to the stile of its colouring by the process; in which it extremely resembles some of those old pieces of Delft porcelain, that our readers must have seen, exhibiting Dutch copies of the Cartoons of Raphael, and other ancient painters.9

It was an aberration. “All nature seems shook to atoms […] Michael Angelo, mounted upon the back of one of Teniers’ devils, were nothing to such a flight of fancy as this!”10 Pasquin agreed. “We have repeatedly been informed of the malign influence of certain direful agents ycleped blue devils,” he wrote, “but we never before heard of blue angels.” “[T]he tints are so variegated, abrupt, and deficient in mellowness, that it appears at a distance, like a vast piece of old coloured china.”11 Neither did West’s other ambitious historical composition, Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (no. 247), escape censure. “Mr West is a little wrong in his geography this year. Cicero did not find the tomb of Archimedes in Lapland. The climate was as warm, as the President makes it cold.12

At the root of the unease about this year’s colours lay the question of naturalism versus artificiality. Rather than following recipes, observers wished that “our artists of the present day would pay a little attention to nature.”13 Genius could not be bought in a colour shop.14 It was surely for this reason that the landscapes of the young William Turner were singled out by many, including the usually caustic Pasquin, for special praise. With his own singularity of vision, Turner had captured the effects of nature with a truth that could never have been achieved by following technical formulae.15

While the exhibition hung at Somerset House, news of another kind was reaching London from Venice. Doge Marin surrendered to French forces on 12 May. The city was in “anarchy and confusion”.

The Nobles have been most active in effecting this Revolution, seven only in six hundred having voted against the adoption of the new system. The Senate and Council have each been formally dissolved; and a perfect Democracy substituted in their stead.16

There can be no neat match between them, and probably no conscious link in the minds of artists and viewers, but the parallel use of this phrase—the “new system”—in painting on one hand, and politics on the other (both centring on Venice, the latest witness of French revolutionary aftershocks), is worth pondering. Could it be that anxiety about an inharmonious, garish, contradictory, and experimental system of colouring was heightened by the volatile political situation in Europe? More than one critic had raised the spectre of the war as context for the exhibition; one even worried that Hoppner had given his Duke of Bedford (no. 79) a “Jacobinical Crop”.17 “[A]brupt opposition of Tint and Manner”; “no reconciling and intermediate tone”; nature “shook to atoms”.18 In the eyes of contemporaries, this showcase of colour was certainly an exhibition for its times.

  1. Anthony Pasquin [John Williams], A Critical Guide to the Present Exhibition at the Royal Academy, for 1797 (London, 1797), 7.↩︎

  2. The Morning Chronicle, 2 May 1797.↩︎

  3. Tuesday, 25 April 1797, in The Diary of Joseph Farington, Kenneth Garlick and Angus Macintyre, and Kathryn Cave (eds) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978–1984), vol. 3, 827.↩︎

  4. Pasquin, A Critical Guide to the Present Exhibition at the Royal Academy, 8–13.↩︎

  5. See Angus Trumble and Mark Aronson, Benjamin West and the Venetian Secret (New Haven, CT: Yale Center for British Art, 2008); and Rosie Dias, “Venetian Secrets: Benjamin West and the Contexts of Colour at the Royal Academy”, in Sarah Monks, John Barrell, and Mark Hallett (eds), Living with the Royal Academy: Artistic Ideals and Experiences in England, 1768–1838 (Burlington: Ashgate, 2013), 111–130.↩︎

  6. See The True Briton, 21 April 1797.↩︎

  7. The Morning Chronicle, 2 May 1797.↩︎

  8. The True Briton, 1 May 1797.↩︎

  9. The London Packet, 3 May 1797.↩︎

  10. The London Packet, 3 May 1797. Cf. The True Briton, 4 May 1797.↩︎

  11. Pasquin, A Critical Guide to the Present Exhibition at the Royal Academy, 20.↩︎

  12. The Oracle and Public Advertiser, 25 May 1797.↩︎

  13. The London Evening Post, 13 April 1797.↩︎

  14. The St. James’s Chronicle, 2–4 May 1797.↩︎

  15. Pasquin, A Critical Guide to the Present Exhibition at the Royal Academy, 10–11.↩︎

  16. The Observer, 5 June 1797.↩︎

  17. The True Briton, 4 May 1797.↩︎

  18. Pasquin, A Critical Guide to the Present Exhibition at the Royal Academy, 3; and The London Packet, 3 May 1797.↩︎

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Explore the 1797 catalogue