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

1803 Spectres of Hogarth

The 1803 exhibition opened after details of the Royal Academy’s dysfunctional politics had been leaked to the newspapers. This negative press had its origins in the rivalry between the Academy’s Assembly and its Council, and particularly in the antagonism between John Singleton Copley and the President, Benjamin West. West had been losing royal favour for some time and Copley, sensing weakness, moved in, throwing in his lot with the loyalist faction within the Academy against the President. In 1803, he had requested extra time to finish his vast Knatchbull Family (only three fragments of which survive, now in a private collection), a request which was approved despite considerable opposition from West, only to withdraw it at the eleventh hour after the exhibition was hung. In the meantime, West’s enemies on the Council accused him of breaking the rules by submitting Hagar and Ishmael, a picture that he had shown decades before, but since, had reworked substantially. West claimed he had no memory of showing it before and, besides, it was now essentially a different picture. But such was the furore in the press that he was obliged to withdraw it. This debacle was not only humiliating for the President but also shed unwelcome light on the intrigues behind the exhibitions. “Let it be remembered,” warned The Morning Post “that the Academy is not a mere private assembly of artists. It is a Royal and national establishment, in the success and prosperity of which the public is deeply interested.”1

When the show opened, The Morning Chronicle was overwhelmingly positive, proclaiming that: “The Exhibition of this year is in every respect superior to that of the last—More varied in the subjects, and more abundant in pictures of lasting merit.”2 It also included a significant innovation, apparently the idea of Sir Francis Bourgeois, of turning the Great Room into an octagon by means of temporary walls to eliminate the darkest and most contentious corners.3 It fell to The Morning Post to issue the obligatory lament over the lack of historical art on view and, with that over, it was the work of the Academy’s youngest member, J.M.W. Turner, which received special attention.4

Explore the 1803 catalogue

Turner was then a newly minted Academician and found himself immersed in Academy politics as a member of the Council and the Committee of Arrangement. The critic in The British Press (likely John Britton) declared: “We have long observed and admired the improving execution of Mr. Turner. His early performances evinced the possession of an eye to see, and mind to feel the beauties of nature and art.”5 Of the seven submissions by Turner that year, most of which were the fruit of his recent Continental tour, it was Calais Pier that attracted most attention (Fig. 1). It is possible that Calais Pier hung in the most prestigious spot in 1803: on the line opposite the entrance to the Great Room.6 The Morning Post reported that: “Mr. Turner’s landscapes, of which there are several in the Exhibition, will be viewed with pleasure by every real lover of the art”, and followed up later by singling out Calais Pier: “The latter [Turner] has a picture, A View of the Pier of Calais, which was much admired.”7

This was Turner’s third and largest yet in a series of extraordinary sea-pieces, having shown the Bridgewater Sea-Piece and Egremont Sea-Piece in the 1801 and 1802 exhibitions respectively (Fig. 2). There was an immediate awareness that Calais Pier was somehow different to the earlier pictures; it had a novel quality that excited young artists—he was soon dubbed by the press the “over-Turner”—and displeased the old.8 James Northcote criticised Turner’s lack of attention to nature, Fuseli his lack of finishing in the foreground, and other members of the old guard were quick to complain of its novelties and unnaturalness. Sir George Beaumont thought the sea “like the veins on a marble slab” and warned of a creeping “influenza” in the Academy, which sought effect over truth and which had infected many, Turner chief among them.9

Calais Pier was based on Turner’s first-hand experience of landing at Calais in 1802. The two earlier sea-pieces were great set pieces in the Dutch tradition, whereas this 1803 exhibit offered the artist’s own record of his stormy landing at Calais rendered on a vast scale and in an immersive composition where the waves threatened to spill out of the picture plane. “Nearly swampt” was Turner’s laconic note in his 1802 sketchbook and Calais Pier relies on that characteristically Turnerian threat of nature overwhelming human effort, in this case, through the water seeping over the pier and swamping its lower level near the brawling “poissardes” and their children. And the subject matter itself, the common life of the lowest sort of French person—coarse, vulgar, drunken—went well beyond the content of Turner’s earlier seascapes, and perhaps deliberately evoked another iconic British view of Calais, William Hogarth’s satirical Calais Gate, especially given how Turner channelled Hogarth via the painting’s comical rendering of French incompetence and the preponderance of cartilaginous fishes.10

That Turner was allowing his own experience to dictate the subjects of his Academy submissions, picturing them in emulation of the Old Masters, and then having the temerity to raise the spectre of the anti-academic Hogarth, goes some way to explaining the disquiet with the picture within the Academy. Turner was already increasingly disliked. On 30 April, Farington noted in his diary that Turner’s “manners, so presumptive & arrogant were spoken of with great disgust,” thus referencing both his social inferiority and natural inflexibility.11 Later in the year, Sir Francis Bourgeois (the honorific was Polish), exasperated by Turner, called him “a little Reptile” and it was during the exhibition of 1804 that, shocked by a reprimand from Turner when he was chairing the Council, Farington had spluttered about the “impropriety of addressing us in such a manner” (emphasis mine).12 Academicians gossiped gleefully about Turner’s vulgarity and covetousness in reports that he had lost his chance of selling Calais Pier to Lord Gower by demanding as much as 400 guineas for it.13 Indeed, it was Turner’s disgust with the Academy’s institutional politics and doubts about its future that led him to offer only meagre exhibits in 1804. Neither of Calais Pier’s successors as major sea-pieces, the Shipwreck (1805), or the Wreck of the Transport Ship (ca. 1810), were shown at the Academy—the former being exhibited in his own gallery on Harley Street and the latter not at all, until it was seen at the British Institution in 1845. While Turner would remain a committed Academician, the exhibition of 1803 was a turning point in Turner’s own relationship to the Academy’s exhibitions and its institutional politics.14 Despite his continued service to the institution and participation in its exhibitions, his youthful enthusiasm for the Academy was thereafter tempered by a more pragmatic approach to promoting his interests.

  1. The Morning Post, 31 May 1803.↩︎

  2. The Morning Chronicle, 2 May 1803.↩︎

  3. The Morning Post, 30 April 1803.↩︎

  4. The Morning Post, 3 May 1803↩︎

  5. [John Britton?], The British Press, 9 May 1803.↩︎

  6. Eric Shanes, Young Mr. Turner: The First Forty Years, 1775–1815 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 242.↩︎

  7. The Morning Post, 30 April 1803; The Morning Post, 2 May 1803.↩︎

  8. The True Briton, 16 May 1803↩︎

  9. The Diary of Joseph Farington, ed. Kenneth Garlick and Angus Macintyre (eds), 3 May 1803, vol. 6, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 2022.↩︎

  10. Shanes, Young Mr. Turner, 242–243.↩︎

  11. The Diary of Joseph Farington, 2021.↩︎

  12. The Diary of Joseph Farington, 24 December 1803, 2202; 11 May 1804, 2319.↩︎

  13. The Diary of Joseph Farington, 22 May 1804, 2327-2328.↩︎

  14. Shanes, Young Mr. Turner, 247.↩︎

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


Explore the 1803 catalogue