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1802 Head Shots

Everyone knew that the real attraction of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition was the annual parade of society portraits. Reporting on the opening of the Exhibition in 1802, the correspondent for The Times remarked on the inexorable growth, both in size and number, of portraits at Somerset House. Observing “more whole-length likenesses than have ever been submitted to the Public since the establishment of the institution,” the reviewer commended three artists for bringing the format to perfection: Thomas Lawrence, William Beechey, and Martin Archer Shee.1 For the critic of The Morning Post, the preference for portraits was a cause of regret: so many faces were a mark of personal vanity rather than artistic choice. It was a vanity that the critic seemed happy to indulge, however, by ending with a select list of more than seventy portraits identified by sitter—of princes and princesses, lords and ladies, actresses and admirals.2 Like The Times, The Morning Post also acknowledged the modern triumvirate of Lawrence, Beechey, and Shee. These were familiar names by 1802, and their submissions to this year’s exhibition were only the latest round in a contest between them that had gathered momentum since the death of Joshua Reynolds a decade earlier.

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Among the works singled out for special attention was Beechey’s full-length portrait of the Duke of Cumberland, a painting that in many ways embodies the grand manner of contemporary portraiture promoted by the Academy (Fig. 1). More specifically, the heightened visual drama of Beechey’s imposing canvas invokes a series of martial portraits exhibited by Reynolds in the 1780s, in which heroic, richly adorned bodies are set against an intense storm-blackened sky. It was a model that Beechey had identified as his own with the half-length portrait of the Prince of Wales he submitted to the Academy as a diploma piece in 1798; and here, Cumberland plays the part well in the full finery of the Light Dragoons, all legs and tassels.

Beechey gives us Cumberland’s best side in more ways than one. With an artful turn of the body, he effectively masks a disfiguring facial injury that the duke had received while fighting the French in 1794. On closer inspection, however, Cumberland’s distended left eye is just perceptible in the shadow—deliberately so, though no more than is needed to prompt thoughts of valour and heroic sacrifice. As if to underline the intention, Beechey portrays his sitter wearing a fashionable deep black cravat that neatly isolates the duke’s head from the rest of his body.

The portrait was commissioned around the same time that Isaac Cruikshank and others in the print trade had begun to respond to rumours of Cumberland’s predatory behaviour (in 1799, James Gillray even issued a portrait of his own, drawing the duke’s disfigured eye as a lecherous leer).3 With Cumberland fast becoming George III’s least popular son, Beechey’s portrait served as a timely restatement of royal duty.

This year, the popular spectacle of full-length portraits at the Academy faced new competition from an unexpected quarter. At the Lyceum theatre, a few minutes’ walk from Somerset House, a rather different kind of entertainment was about to open, comprising more than thirty wax figures assembled by Marie Tussaud and her late mentor Philippe Curtius.4 Newly arrived from Paris—part of a much broader, impromptu cultural exchange made possible by the Treaty of Amiens—Tussaud’s exhibition included full-length figures of the French royal family (modelled from life before the Revolution), and Napoleon and Josephine, as well as other luminaries of France’s recent past including Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Benjamin Franklin.5

Tussaud’s life-size models appeared initially as a sideshow to Paul de Philipsthal’s Phantasmagoria, a smoke-and-mirrors spectacular that had already enjoyed one successful season in London. Philipsthal’s spectre-show was a good match for Tussaud’s ghoulish gallery, which reached a bloody climax with the severed heads of Jacques Hébert, Maximilien Robespierre, and other Revolutionaries, each supposedly modelled from a death mask taken by Tussaud and displayed alongside a model guillotine. The bloody immediacy of these figures set Tussaud’s exhibition apart from other waxwork shows in the capital, which invariably traded on the illusion of bringing their subjects back to life, rather than exposing the grisly details of their death.

Small wax reliefs were a regular and popular feature of the Academy’s exhibitions. For example, the 1802 show included miniature profile portraits of Princess Charlotte and the Duke of Bedford by Catherine Andras, modeller in wax to Queen Charlotte. However, models in coloured wax were explicitly forbidden from the exhibition rooms, along with other media conventionally associated with female artistic practice, including needlework, artificial flowers, cut paper, and shell work.6 Twenty years earlier, Reynolds had explained why. In his influential eleventh Discourse, on the “genius” of a painter, he declared firmly against such things as too easy, too imitative, when urging his fellow artists and students to forego the “detail of particulars” in favour of a difficult but elevating “general effect”. “To express protuberance by actual relief, to express the softness of flesh by the softness of wax,” Reynolds insisted, “seems rude and inartificial, and creates no grateful surprize.”7

The force of Reynolds’s choice of words may have since dulled, but for his immediate disciples few adjectives could be more anathema to his vision for the Academy than inartificial, by which he meant imitation devoid of both imagination and expression. And there were few ideas more central to his way of thinking about painting than general effect, or the power of the whole. This is precisely the kind of general effect we find in Beechey’s handling of Cumberland’s battle-torn face—or, for that matter, in the fabric, fur, and silver braid of his uniform.

In 1802, no other figure (dis)embodied rude inartificiality more effectively than Tussaud’s bloody head of Robespierre (Fig. 2). With the sort of detail that must be about as far removed from Beechey’s restorative treatment of the Duke of Cumberland as one could get, Robespierre’s waxwork laid bare the extreme facial injuries that resulted from a failed suicide attempt at the time of his capture, which left his lower jaw in pieces.8 As a new generation of portrait painters competed for recognition as Reynolds’s rightful successor, Tussaud’s wax figures celebrated a brutal artlessness that threatened to expose the imitative purpose of all portraits, and thus undermine the Academy’s efforts to lift the genre towards the elevated status of history painting.

But there was more at stake than the status of portraiture alone. Throughout the 1790s, the Academy exhibitions advanced a patriotic perspective that implicitly contrasted the presumed stability and freedoms of the British state, amply arrayed on the walls of Somerset House every summer, with the self-destructive violence of Revolutionary France. However, the contrast was always more effective when left to the willing imagination, or when mediated by the caricaturist’s needle. When close enough to be combined in an afternoon’s entertainment—close enough, perhaps, for the heads displayed on either side of the Strand to become interchangeable in visitors’ minds—it wasn’t only the future of portraiture that was called into question.

  1. The Times, 3 May 1802.↩︎

  2. The Morning Post, 3 May 1802.↩︎

  3. See, for example, Isaac Cruikshank’s The Illustr[i]ous Lover or the D. of Cumberland done over (16 August 1801); and James Gillray’s A Portrait (30 July 1799).↩︎

  4. See Pamela Pilbeam, Madame Tussaud and the History of Waxworks (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), esp. Chapter 4, “The Travelling Wax Exhibition”; and Paris Amanda Spies-Gans, “‘The Fullest Imitation of Life’: Reconsidering Marie Tussaud, Artist-Historian of the French Revolution”, Journal18 3 Lifelike (Spring 2017).↩︎

  5. Biographical Sketches of the Characters Composing the Cabinet of Composition Figures, Executed by the Celebrated Curtius of Paris, and his Successor (Edinburgh: Denovan, 1803).↩︎

  6. 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), 11.↩︎

  7. Joshua Reynolds, A Discourse, Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy on the Distribution of the Prizes, December 10, 1782 (London: T. Cadell, 1783), 10.↩︎

  8. A biographical account published to accompany Tussaud’s show when it travelled to Edinburgh in 1803, went further in describing the full extent of Robespierre’s injuries as he went to the guillotine: “he was led to execution, amid the execrations of the people, with one eye hanging out of the socket, and his lower jaw attached to the upper by means of a handkerchief. It had been separated by a musket ball.” Biographical Sketches, 51.↩︎

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