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1799 Unfinished Monkey Business

Amid the usual portraits of actors and aristocrats, bucolic landscapes and distant colonial prospects, a rather more unexpected subject greeted visitors to the thirty-first Exhibition of the Royal Academy. Between a view of Blenheim Park by R.C. Barnett and one of George Morland’s late landscapes sat a solitary monkey, looking out attentively from a rock, while gathering ripe fruit from the branch of a peach tree (Fig. 1).

The artist responsible for this interloper, George Stubbs, had been an occasional contributor to the Academy’s annual shows since the mid-1770s, although his reputation as Britain’s foremost painter of animals had been established earlier and elsewhere: as the author of the peerless Anatomy of the Horse (1766); and as the painter of choice for an elite circle of horse-breeding patrons, who valued animal painting far more than Joshua Reynolds ever would.

As such, Stubbs never depended on the elevating status of the Academy, or on the annual hubbub of its Exhibition, as others did. He remained loyal to the rival Society of Artists for longer than most, and when he was eventually elected an Academician, in 1781, he repeatedly refused to submit the required diploma piece and his election was rescinded.

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The monkey (more specifically, a type of macaque) belongs to a pictorial menagerie of exotic animals that Stubbs created over many years, including such celebrated works as Queen Charlotte’s Zebra (exhibited with the Society of Artists in 1763), and Tygers at Play. And together with a painting of a trotting horse, it was the first work he had sent to the Academy since 1791.1

But the monkey was there under false pretences. In fact, the canvas exhibited in 1799 was a near-identical copy of the Portrait of a Monkey that Stubbs had exhibited in 1775, his Academy début, and as such contravened the Academy’s rule that: “No picture copied from a picture or print […] shall be admitted in the Exhibition”.2 Perhaps nobody cared to object; or more likely, no one on the Hanging Committee could remember that far back. But why, after so many years, did Stubbs send his monkey to the Academy for a second time?

If he had intended to cock a snook at the metropolitan art world, it was surely with William Hogarth’s monkey-connoisseur in mind. Hogarth’s satirical tailpiece to the catalogue of the Society of Artists’ inaugural exhibition in 1761 (to which Stubbs also contributed) features a foppish monkey, magnifying glass in hand, tending the long-dead branches of foreign painters, or “Exoticks”—an easy jibe at the antiquated tastes of modern collectors.3 And if we’re looking in this way, Stubbs’s monkey also seems to mimic the pose of Jean Siméon Chardin’s widely circulated Le singe peintre (ca. 1740), a more self-deprecating reflection on the tendency of artists to ape each other, rather than look to nature. Our monkey might easily be holding a brush, rather than a branch.

Whether Stubbs was poking fun at the servile imitation and commercial opportunism of the Academy, or mischievously marking his own return to Somerset House after several years of absence, the reappearance of the monkey after nearly a quarter of a century confirmed the painter’s position on the margins of London’s art establishment: an outsider looking in.

But there was another, more pressing reason that the monkey may have found a new purpose for Stubbs and his audience in 1799—one illuminated by the presence in the same exhibition room of a series of large paintings commemorating the recent sea battle fought between the British and French fleets in Abū Qīr Bay, off the coast of the Nile Delta.

A resounding British victory at the Battle of the Nile, on 1 August 1798, gave the Royal Navy effective control over the Mediterranean, leaving Napoleon isolated for a time in Egypt, and propelling Horatio Nelson to international fame and fortune. Most sensationally, the outcome of the long and bloody sea fight had been sealed when the French flagship L’Orient caught fire in the heat of battle and exploded, lighting up the night sky and causing the death of around 1,000 crew.

As news of the action and the subsequent capture of the French fleet filtered through the London press, eyewitness accounts of the destruction inspired poetry, pantomime and song, firework displays, and a new musical play by Thomas Dibdin.4 Alongside these traditional forms of patriotic entertainment, the Battle of the Nile was also made the subject of other, novel spectacles of the modern capital, including a new installation at Robert Barker’s panorama in Leicester Square, and a mechanical naumachia in Fleet Street, where the blowing up of L’Orient was recreated twice daily.5

Nearby at the Academy, the battle’s explosive climax presented a generation of marine painters with a rare opportunity to seize the attention of exhibition-goers by animating their canvases with fiery concentrations of red and yellow paint. In the great room, a pair of paintings by the leading marine artist of the day, Nicholas Pocock, and two more by his rival Robert Cleveley glowed among the portraits and picturesque views. In the Anteroom, the fate of the French fleet was represented with a single canvas by an aspiring young artist, William Turner (he began using the more familiar initials “J.M.W.” following his election as Academician in 1802).

The awe and excitement prompted by the Battle of the Nile, and subsequent efforts to ridicule Napoleon’s progress in the Middle East, masked a deeper anxiety over the possibility and consequences of French military success in the region. In spring 1799, though cut off from Europe, Napoleon continued to lead an expeditionary army through Egypt and into Syria, with a grander plan to reach India, forge an anticipated alliance with Tipu Sultan, and challenge the British East India Company’s hold on the subcontinent.

James Gillray responded to Napoleon’s onward march with a series of satirical Egyptian Sketches that exposed the “flagitious absurdities” of the French campaign. Published in March 1799, the series opened with a caricature of a half-naked monkey-soldier attempting to place a bonnet rouge on top of a pyramid (Fig. 2). Gillray returned to the theme a few weeks later with The state of the war—or—the monkey-race in danger, which further developed his earlier characterisation of the sans-culottes of revolutionary France as grotesque, ape-like beings, by imagining a simian Napoleon at the head of an army of panic-stricken monkeys, easily devoured by a British lion.

But Stubbs’s monkey was not so easily frightened. In the light of the ongoing French occupation of Egypt, the monkey and the stolen peach—a sweet fruit of empire that retained its associations with the Middle East in its alternate name, the Persian apple—gained a new urgency, as a reminder to those present of Napoleon’s tightening hold on their collective imagination. Unmoved by the surrounding triumphalism, the interloper looked back into the Great Room with a quiet mischief.

  1. See Alex Kidson, Earlier British Paintings in the Walker Art Gallery and Sudley House (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012), 179–180. Also, Judy Egerton, George Stubbs, Painter: catalogue raisonné (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 364 (catalogue entry for the Portrait of a Monkey painted in 1774 and exhibited in 1775).↩︎

  2. Royal Academy of Arts (London), Royal Academy. Laws and Regulations for the Students. Rules and Orders of the Schools and Library. And for the Exhibition (London, 1795), 10–11.↩︎

  3. Hogarth’s tailpiece and the contested notion of connoisseurship at this time are subjects of an important essay by Harry Mount, “The Monkey with the Magnifying Glass: Constructions of the Connoisseur in Eighteenth-Century Britain”, Oxford Art Journal 29, no. 2 (2006): 167–184.↩︎

  4. Thomas Dibdin, The Mouth of the Nile: or, the glorious first of August, a musical entertainment; as performed at the Theatre-Royal, Covent-Garden (London, 1798).↩︎

  5. See, for example, The Times, 23 May 1799, for Barker’s panorama; and for the Fleet Street naumachia, see The Times, 4 June 1799.↩︎

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