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1808 Turner's Unpaid Bill and Artistic Rivalry

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The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition of 1808 was “not particularly notable” according to William Whitley.1 In the words of The Universal Magazine, the show could “boast no giant, no young Apelles”. On the other hand, the Exhibition as a whole was “distinguished above every other by the variety of its character.”2 This had a crowd-pleasing effect, according to Le Beau Monde: “designs that are interesting to every body are to be found in considerable abundance.”3 J.M.W. Turner contributed to this medley with an uncharacteristic genre subject, and spurred discussion among the Academicians and in the review pages with his apparent attempt to take on the brilliant young genre-painter David Wilkie. Indeed, the choice of the Hanging Committee to place Turner’s Unpaid Bill, or the dentist reproving his son’s prodigality (Fig. 1) in close proximity to Wilkie’s Card Players (Fig. 2) in the Great Room was probably designed to force comparison and fuel discussion, making this pairing one of the stories of the year.4

Turner was criticised for eschewing his usual landscape subjects for a genre piece in Wilkie’s manner, with The Sun remarking that he was wasting his powers in order to take on the rising star. The critic of the Cabinet concluded that the effort added nothing to his reputation.5 Lying beneath these criticisms is the suggestion that, in encroaching upon Wilkie’s territory, Turner was being ungenerous towards the younger artist. Furthermore, British academic theory specified that competition with the Old Masters and among moderns was supposed to be a means by which the student could improve his art, not an attempt to outdo one’s contemporaries.6 Turner’s entry into painting everyday life was therefore not only considered to be a poor effort, but also as damaging to the progress of the whole genre within the British school.7

A major criticism was that Turner’s painting was perceived to have fallen short in the very aspects of the genre that were generally considered to be its greatest strengths: naturalism, mimetic detail, and narrative interest.The Public Ledger was baffled by the scene, criticising its “wild disorder”, and confessing itself unable to decipher “what part of the play” the female figure was supposed to be enacting. “Indeed the whole story is very obscurely told.” Perhaps the most telling comment was that the interior of the shop “appears to have been compiled from old prints, as it has nothing about it like a shop of the present day.”8 This points to two apparent errors: first, Turner seemed to have copied the works of other artists, rather than observing nature; and second, he had failed to adapt the Flemish manner to a modern British subject. As a result, Unpaid Bill was perceived to be undoing Wilkie’s serious attempts to develop a new form of genre painting that was relevant to British art and life, and that refined the genre by eliminating the low-life associations of the seventeenth-century Dutch model.

Yet subsequent analysis of Unpaid Bill has complicated this notion that Turner was simply challenging Wilkie. For one thing, the painting was much more directly related to works by other artists. It was commissioned by Richard Payne Knight as a pendent to David Teniers’ The Alchemist (since reattributed to Gerard Thomas), with the idea that the two paintings would flank Rembrandt’s The Cradle (now known as The Holy Family at Night and attributed to a follower) in the Collector’s Gallery.9 By engaging with three other artists in his picture—Wilkie, Teniers, and Rembrandt—Turner was playing a complex artistic game addressed to spectators with an insider’s knowledge of his sources. This exclusivity was recognised by the critic of Le Beau Monde, who commented: “artists acknowledge the excellence of this picture,” but “an air of indistinctness over the whole work […] prevents an unskilled spectator from receiving any pleasure in the contemplation of it.”10

This sophisticated referential mode may have been lost on some of the visitors to the Summer Exhibition, but it would have been recognisable to the smaller audience of collectors, connoisseurs, and artists, who visited Turner’s exhibition at his own gallery on Harley Street. There, two weeks prior to the opening of the Academy, Turner had exhibited a series of landscapes with strong echoes of Claude Lorrain, Cuyp, Rubens, and van de Velde, as well as the second instalment of his mezzotint landscape manifesto, the Liber Studiorum. Not only did this exhibition give a much fuller representation of Turner’s deep engagement with the art of the past than was possible at the Academy, it also demonstrated the breadth of his artistic abilities and vision in this period.

Turner could afford to be misunderstood by the wider art public at the Summer Exhibition because he was able to present a grander artistic statement in his own gallery to a sympathetic audience. Furthermore, an analysis of his sales reveals that this was the year that Turner achieved financial independence through the support of a network of loyal collectors.11 The controversy of his apparent rivalry with Wilkie may even have appealed to Knight, who frequently employed provocation as a means to communicate his theories on taste. In this respect, his commission of Turner did have a public role as part of his attempt “to shew that the moderns [could] stand” with the Old Masters.12 If this was lost on many visitors to the Academy, Turner was nevertheless compensated by receiving more publicity than might have been expected for a relatively minor work. His apparent rivalry with Wilkie played to an established narrative of aggressive competitiveness and individualism at the Summer Exhibition that directly contradicted the Academic ideal of collective progress in the development of a national school of art. It was therefore well placed to grab attention by titillating critics and spectators alike, especially in a year defined more by the great variety of works than by their quality.

  1. William T. Whitley, Art in England, 1800–1837 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), 133.↩︎

  2. The Universal Magazine 9, no. 54 (May 1808): 433.↩︎

  3. Le Beau Monde, or, Literary and Fashionable Magazine 3, no. 22 (June 1808): 344.↩︎

  4. The Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 6 May 1808, 2.↩︎

  5. The Sun, 17 May 1808; and Cabinet, December 1807–June 1808, paraphrased in Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised edn (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), 62.↩︎

  6. Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses II and VI, in The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Knight; Late President of the Royal Academy, 3 vols, 2nd edn (London: T. Cadell, Jun. and W. Davis, 1798), Vol. 1: 35–36, 175–176.↩︎

  7. See, for example, Martin Archer Shee, Elements of Art, A Poem; In Six Cantos (London: W. Bulmer and Co., 1809), 297. For a recent discussion of the tension between collectivity and competition at the Academy in this period, see Leo Costello, J.M.W. Turner and the Subject of History (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2012), 112–119.↩︎

  8. The Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 6 May 1808, 2.↩︎

  9. David Solkin and Philippa Simpson, “Turner and the North”, in David Solkin (ed.), Turner and the Masters, exhibition catalogue (London: Tate Britain, 2009), 143 and 148.↩︎

  10. Le Beau Monde 3, no. 22 (June 1808): 344.↩︎

  11. Eric Shanes, Young Mr. Turner: The First Forty Years, 1775–1815 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 315. For a summary of Turner’s 1808 exhibitions, see also 304–315, and for an analysis of the Unpaid Bill, see 316–317.↩︎

  12. “11 February 1808”, Joseph Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre et al. (eds), 17 vols (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978–98), Vol. 8, 3220.↩︎

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