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1806 The Indifference of Sculptors

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The year 1806 was a difficult year for the Royal Academy Exhibition. As its critics noted, competition from the newly launched British Institution, one-man shows, and self-defeating internal politics, led to a number of absences and some decline in quality amongst the paintings at Somerset House1 where the Academy Exhibition is considered as one exhibition among many in an age of exhibitions. Farington was also gloomy about the Exhibition, concerned that new talent was not developing, and the established figures, such as De Loutherbourg and Martin Archer Shee were getting worse.2 Less noticed, but nevertheless much more dramatic, was the decreasing status of the sculpture displays. One sorry statistic from the Exhibition is that the number of sculptural works dropped sharply from fifty in 1805 to around twenty in 1806.3 That the number had more than halved in the space of one year demonstrated the difficulties that the Exhibition faced in reflecting and influencing an increasingly diverse sculptural economy. The Academy was failing its sculptors: in a thriving domestic and international market for British sculpture, at a time of great public commissions, and with Academician sculptors who had European-wide reputations, most of its biggest names shrugged at the thought of exhibiting there, and those who did exhibit received very little benefit.

The sculpture exhibits of 1806 are an undistinguished collection. The dark ground-floor room, shared between sculpture and architectural drawings, played host to a collection of works by animaliers, a model for a candelabrum, and a selection of busts by sculptors, many little-known at the time.4 Where were the big beasts of the Academy in 1806? John Flaxman, then the senior figure of British sculpture, was that year chosen to execute the monument in St Paul’s Cathedral to the former President Joshua Reynolds. The patron, Lady Thomond, expected him to show a model at the Exhibition in the time-honoured fashion of drawing attention to a major forthcoming commission. However, she found Flaxman “dilatory & indifferent” and that he had not even “finished the small model for it, to be put in the exhibition.”5 Flaxman, in fact, showed nothing that year.

Another senior RA sculptor, Joseph Nollekens, exhibited only a bust of Lord Darnley. Nollekens had long been frustrated with the Academy Exhibitions. He had taken issue with the dark and cramped conditions at Somerset House in the 1790s, and cajoled to have his works placed in the better-lit, first floor Council Rooms. When in 1794 he was denied this spot, he withdrew from the Exhibition.6 The press often ignored the sculpture displays,7 a situation occasionally disrupted with coverage of the works of the aristocratic amateur sculptor Anne Seymour Damer, whose well-placed family and friends used the press to puff her works at the expense of her professional colleagues.8 For most of the professionals, this cannot have been a welcome development. In 1806, Mrs Damer was there again, this time exhibiting a terracotta bust of a family friend, Sir Joseph Banks.9

It is a measure of the Academy’s irrelevance to the sculpture world that 1806 was actually the year of one of Nollekens’ most famous works. Having been permitted to take a death mask of the statesman William Pitt in January, he completed the terracotta model and had secured eight orders by March. Yet at a time when Hoppner was fighting tooth-and-nail for a principal spot for his oil portrait of Pitt in the Great Room, it doesn’t seem to have crossed Nollekens’ mind to exhibit his bust at the Academy. Nor was the fame of the bust impeded by not exhibiting it: Nollekens had thirty-five orders by the Autumn.10 The Academy Exhibition, it seems, could neither help nor hinder a sculptor’s fame or business.

If the Academy was considered irrelevant to the domestic economy for busts it was, more worryingly, increasingly peripheral to the major public commissions that multiplied in 1806. Pitt’s death, and the demise of Admiral Nelson, along with the bloody ends of numerous other naval and military figures, led to a flurry of commissions for monuments. Subscriptions, and extensive public funds from corporations and the Treasury, provided money for large funeral tableaux in marble, the commissions for which sculptors, great and unremarkable, were forced to compete.11 The Academy attempted to maintain some hegemony in these important state commissions, but failed. When a round of major monuments in St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey was announced in December 1805, the Academy attempted to persuade the government to restrict competition to Academicians only. This failed, and they also were not part of the Committee of Taste that judged the entries.12 They were reduced to asking to be consulted about the placement of the monuments in the hope of recovering some of the honour, “which it seemed to have lost by the formation of a Committee of Taste, some of whom … had very little knowledge of art.”13

The Academy also failed to influence the decisions of the Corporation of London, who declared their intention in December 1805 to erect important monuments to Nelson and Pitt in the Guildhall.14 The RAs had no role in advising the decision of the Aldermen and Common Council, and the competitions were open not just to RAs but also to all sculptors and statuaries. Twenty-seven models were submitted for judgement in late April 1806 at the Guildhall.15 It seems likely that this, along with numerous other competitions for war-related monuments, may have been the reason for the sharp decline in Academy exhibitors, who were otherwise engaged in the run-up to the Exhibition.

One notable exception was John Charles Felix Rossi, a committed Academician, wedded to the high ideals of academic art. He exhibited every year, and was later to serve on the Hanging Committee.16 In 1806, he exhibited his bust of Admiral Nelson, almost certainly the model for a bust that he hoped to make the centrepiece of his design for the monument in the Guildhall (Fig. 1).17

The stern frontal herm with floppy fringe, high collar, sash, and garter star was to be surrounded by figures of Hercules, Minerva, and London, with a bas-relief of Nelson’s death and figures of fame and eternity. When he submitted the bust for the Academy Exhibition, he was regarded as the front-runner in the competition, especially as he had the support of Josiah Boydell, the Chair of the Corporation committee. Unfortunately, the Corporation committee voted Rossi’s design the best, then chose the model submitted with the cheapest estimate. This was a work by James Smith, a former assistant to Rossi (Fig. 2).18

The choice of Smith was something of an insult to the Academy. Smith was not an established sculptor, he was not even an ARA, he had never executed a work on this scale before. He wasn’t even showing anything in the Exhibition. When the Corporation asked Flaxman to vouch for Smith’s design in May 1806, he refused.19 Nevertheless, Smith was engaged and completed the monument (Guildhall).20

It is a measure of just how irrelevant the Academy was becoming to the sculptural economy that its most notable exhibitors were losing public commissions to non-exhibiting rookies, while its senior RAs were producing seminal works that never saw the interior of Somerset House. The reform of the sculpture displays would come in 1811, when sculpture was given its own space, and the Academy was able to claim again to be the principal exhibition venue for the great works of the national school.21 In 1806, however, a major year for the sculpture world, the Academy Exhibition was peripheral to the sculptural economy, could not promote sculpture’s rising stars, and was largely irrelevant to its established greats.

  1. See “The Exhibition of the RA”, The Monthly Magazine 21 (1 June 1806): 450, where one critic wrote:

     A foreigner may consider the Exhibition a sort of test by which to estimate the state of the arts in Great Britain, but if so the exhibition has a drawback. Several first-rate artists Mr West, Sir William Beechey etc have not exhibited. A large number of capital pictures are at the gallery in Pall Mall, and it has become a custom for several of our leading painters to make a sort-of-exhibition at their own rooms.

    See also “Scrutator” writing in La Belle Assemblée,[fn]“Annual Exhibition at Somerset House”, La Belle Assemblée (April 1806): 163–164.↩︎

  2. Joseph Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 7, Kenneth Garlick and Angus Macintyre (eds) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982), Friday 13 June 1806, 2783–2784.↩︎

  3. Prince Hoare, Academic Annals of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, 1805–1809 (London: Royal Academy of the Arts, 1809), 9.↩︎

  4. The animalier works were by William Fisher, and the candelabrum by Peter Turnerelli. There were busts by mid-ranking sculptors such as George Garrard and George Bullock, and more by still-obscure figures such as Arthur Murphy, Henry Cornman. and John Collins. Information from Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and Their Work from its Foundation in 1769 to 1904, 8 vols (London: Henry Graves and Co. & George Bell and Sons, 1905–1906) and the Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain 1660–1851 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), updated monthly and accessible at↩︎

  5. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 7, 18 April 1806, 2722.↩︎

  6. Farington records that in 1794 Joseph Nollekens was “angry that some busts which he desired to exhibit were refused to be placed in the Council Room, in consequence he wd not exhibit,” Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 1, 27 April 1794, 184.↩︎

  7. See Alison Yarrington’s essay “Art in the Dark: Viewing and Exhibiting Sculpture at Somerset House”, 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), 173–188.↩︎

  8. Damer’s works are the only sculptures analysed in the Exhibition review of The London Chronicle of 28 April 1787. In The World, 29 April 1788, which frequently carried puffs for Damer’s activities, there is a review of all her exhibited works, and no mention of any other exhibitors. Of a terracotta model of a dog, they write “who can look on unmoved? The statuary may say ‘with envy, I’.” In the same organ, on Thursday 1 May 1788, the only comment on the Exhibition was, “Mrs Damers’ Statuary rank pre-eminently, more than ever.” Damer was an Honorary Exhibitor.↩︎

  9. For which, see Aileen Dawson, Portrait Sculpture: A Catalogue of the British Museum Collection c.1675–1975 (London: British Museum Press, 1999), 29–32. The bronze version was presented by the sculptor to the British Museum in 1815.↩︎

  10. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 7, 2705, 2721, 2763, 2738, 2770–2771, 2821, and 2853. Nollekens was subsequently commissioned for a statue of Pitt for Cambridge. Hoppner’s Pitt was finished from life in Autumn 1805, and copies were much in demand following Pitt’s death. Farington records a lengthy stand-off between Hoppner and Thomas Lawrence over where to place the Pitt portrait; Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 7, 2738. A studio copy is in the collection of Tate Britain.↩︎

  11. For lists of all the commissions of 1806, search the Database of the Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain 1660–1851 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009); also the Henry Moore Institute’s online edition at:↩︎

  12. In January 1806, the Academy attempted to prevent John Bacon applying for a monument in St Paul’s on the grounds that he was not an RA, but on 9 April, the Secretary of State and the Treasury decreed that: “the liberty of offering designs shouldn’t be confined to members of the academy,” see Prince Hoare, Academic Annals of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, 1805–1809, 9.↩︎

  13. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 7, 10 December 1805, 2657; 14 December 1805, 2660–2661.↩︎

  14. “Papers Relating to Lord Nelson’s Monument Committee 29 Nov 1805”, London Metropolitan Archives, Misc MSS/195/11.↩︎

  15. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 7, 2689, 2705, and 2721.↩︎

  16. For more on the sculptor, see M.G. Sullivan “John Charles Felix Rossi RA”, Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain 1660–1851; and Jason Edwards, “John Charles Felix Rossi’s Cornwallis Monument (1807–11) and the Colonial Cosmopolitanism of the British School”, in Sarah Burnage and Jason Edwards (eds), The British School of Sculpture, c.1760–1832 (New York: Routledge, 2016).↩︎

  17. The bust is not traced.↩︎

  18. “Papers Relating to Lord Nelson’s Monument Committee 29 Nov 1805”, London Metropolitan Archives, Misc MSS/195/11; Rossi’s gradual movement towards despair is recorded in Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 7, 2689, 2705, and 2721. On the drawing of the design in St Paul’s Architectural Archive, Rossi has handwritten a lengthy and bitter account of the process that led to his defeat at the last stage.↩︎

  19. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 7, Wednesday 14 May 1806, 2760.↩︎

  20. A summary of the competition, and a full account of Smith’s executed monument are in Philip Ward-Jackson, Public Sculpture of the City of London (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2003), 170–173. For more on Smith’s career, see Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain 1660–1851.↩︎

  21. On the 1811 reforms, see Alison Yarrington’s essay “Art in the Dark”, 173–188.↩︎

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