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1811 Henry Bone's Enamels and the Triumph of Skill

While popular with the viewing public, painted enamels and miniatures on ivory or paper were, from the early 1790s, increasingly snubbed by the Academic establishment.1 Mostly depicting fashionable likenesses, and more rarely, landscapes and subjects, they were dismissed as minor arts for their smaller size and fastidiousness, and—in the case of miniatures—for being the amateur’s medium of choice. In 1793, they were moved from the focal point of the Exhibition, the Great Room, to the galleries for “lesser” works on the floor below.2 Displayed in their hundreds, they had mostly been ignored by the critics since the Annual Exhibitions began.

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A notable exception were enamels by Henry Bone, who showed at the Academy annually from 1781 to 1832. In 1811, while miniatures languished in the unloved “Antique Academy”, his works enjoyed the superior surroundings of a newly created gallery off the Great Room.3 The frequent preferential hang of his exhibits was due to their acknowledged quality, their uncommonly large size, and their ambitious subject matter, which consisted of copies of portraits and subject pictures by celebrated British painters and European Old Masters.

The year 1811 was a significant one for Bone. In February, after a decade as an Associate, he had finally been elected a Royal Academician—the only enamel painter ever to attain that honour. His fifteen-year campaign for associate and full membership had been hindered by his being considered by some a mere “copyist”, a derogatory label that also continued to prevent reproductive engravers from becoming full Academicians.4 The Academy’s statutes actually forbade the exhibition of “any copies whatever”. That this was blatantly overlooked in Bone’s case gives a hint of the exceptional qualities and advantages contemporaries perceived in his form of enamel reproduction.5

In 1811, Bone’s exhibits were surely chosen to justify his elevation; they represented the full range of his activities, and the extent of his connections to leading artists and patrons. First, there was a commission by the eminent arbiter of taste Thomas Hope of a St Cecilia, after a painting then attributed to the much-admired Domenichino.6 Second, there was a frame containing copies of five significant likenesses including the penultimate self-portrait by Joshua Reynolds (1788), who by 1811 was firmly established as the founding father and foremost master of the “British School” (Fig. 1).7 By contrast, Bone’s reproduction of Ozias Humphry’s pastel portrait of George Stubbs (1800) paid pointed homage to a neglected pioneer of enamel painting as a serious art form.8

The copy of a splendid sixteenth-century portrait of George, 7th Lord Seton, then ascribed to Antonis Mor, was undoubtedly included as a representative sample from what was to become Bone’s Illustrious Characters in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth. This uncommissioned series of enamels was particularly cherished by contemporaries, who saw in it not only a repository of outstanding historical portraits, but also a means of preserving a distinguished period of British history itself.9 The likenesses of two prominent aristocrats completed Bone’s selection for 1811: Charles, 8th Lord Kinnaird after James Northcote and William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire (depicted after Reynolds). Kinnaird’s portrait would have reminded many contemporary viewers of Bone’s all-time masterpiece, the unprecedentedly large, breathtakingly complex enamel copy of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, whose famed original was then in Kinnaird’s possession (Fig. 2).10 By 1 May 1811, the enamel had been sold for the phenomenal sum of 2200 guineas; during that month, it was on view in Bone’s studio, where it was apparently seen by thousands.11 Absent from the Academy’s Exhibition, this work was nonetheless vividly present in the minds of its visitors: The Examiner’s Robert Hunt, for instance, concluded a review of the stand-out pictures at the 1811 Exhibition with a delighted mention of the extended run Bone had decided to give to the display of his Titian at Berners Street.12

At Somerset House, the “new” exhibition gallery adjoining the Great Room had been allocated to smaller paintings in oil and watercolour, and to drawings.13 Hung in the vicinity of works like Henry Edridge’s exquisite, delicately hued drawings, Bone’s exhibits, with their famously brilliant colouring, must have easily held their own.14 Much larger than traditional enamels—St Cecilia alone was the size of a respectable cabinet-picture in oil—they also took up considerable wall space.15

Working on such large supports further complicated what was admiringly acknowledged to be a very difficult technique.16 Having first melded a neutral glass-based ground to a copper support, the enamellist painted on this with pigments likewise derived from powdered glass. Painting and ground were subsequently fused at high temperatures in a furnace. Pigments substantially changed colour during the firing, and one has to marvel at Bone’s ability to match the palettes of his originals so closely.17 Different colours also required different temperatures and reproductions of colouristically complex paintings therefore necessitated numerous firings, during which the enamel was increasingly at risk from warping or cracking; the larger the support the greater the danger.18 Enamellists’ colours were then produced by the artists themselves, and painting and firing represented sustained exercises in applied chemistry.19

As Bone’s enamels reproduced many previously exhibited paintings, visitors were able to judge for themselves his famously “truthful” colouring. Moreover, a masterpiece like Bacchus and Ariadne demonstrated that he had unlocked the “secret” of the Venetian school that had so preoccupied contemporary oil painters like Thomas Stothard and Benjamin West in their own experiments.20

Above all, Bone was valued for the safeguarding function of his works. The main technical advantage of enamel painting is its ability to protect colour from environmental effects; by contrast to the oil painter, the enamellist paints “for eternity”.21 The beauties of Reynolds’ painting were notoriously fugitive: even if only a fraction of the drying defects so evident today in his late self-portrait were visible in 1811, the restorative powers of Bone’s enamel medium would have seemed remarkable.22

In 1822, the writer of Bone’s “Memoir” invested the artist’s reproductive activity with a quasi-moral status, suggesting that the enamellist’s very lack of originality was his greatest merit.23 Meticulous “finish” and faithful copying were in this period often suspect, indicative of manual skill rather than creative “genius”. In Bone’s case, however, they were recast as virtues that prevented his own artistic personality from getting in the way of his total identification with the original painters. A Bone enamel was the supremely selfless, transparent medium through which the glories of Old and Modern Masters were allowed to shine forever.

  1. Most contemptuously expressed by Martin Archer Shee, for whom miniature painting was a talentless, blatantly commercial endeavour; see Martin Archer Shee, Rhymes on Art; Or, The Remonstrance of A Painter (London: John Murray, 1805), 30 verse 285ff and note.↩︎

  2. See, for instance, Greg Smith, “Watercolourists and Watercolours at the Royal Academy, 1780–1836”, 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), 193.↩︎

  3. Sometimes referred to as the “Inner Room”, this was formerly the Keeper’s apartment. The room included exhibits by J.M.W. Turner and Augustus Wall Callcott, who were on that year’s Hanging Committee.↩︎

  4. Thomas Lawrence on Bone in a letter to Joseph Farington, 22 December 1810, Royal Academy Archives LAW/1/261. Farington’s Diary abound in references to Bone’s fraught campaign for membership, see Joseph Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre, and Kathryn Cave (eds) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978–1984), Vol. II (2 November 1795; 16–17 July 1796), Vol. IV (2 November 1800), Vol. VI (10 February 1804), Vol. VIII (1 February 1807), Vol. IX (4 January 1808; 18 June 1808), Vol. X (22 December 1810; 26 December 1810), Vol. XI (12 January 1811; 15 January 1811; 17 January 1811; 4 February 1811; 12 February 1811). On the status of engravers at the Academy, see Sarah Hyde, “Printmakers and the Royal Academy Exhibitions, 1780–1836”, 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), 217–228. The petition by John Landseer and other associate engravers for full membership was finally rejected in 1812 because engraving lacked “those intellectual qualities of Invention and Composition, which Painting, Sculpture and Architecture so eminently possess … its greatest praise consisting in translating with as little loss as possible the beauties of these original arts of Design”, Hyde, “Printmakers and the Royal Academy Exhibitions, 1780–1836”, 226.↩︎

  5. Would-be exhibitors were reminded of this rule in newspaper notices placed by the Secretary each year. In fact, a few other enamellists, including Charles Muss, also exhibited copies, but neither in such large numbers, nor for as long, as Bone did. Following Bone’s election, and while he was serving on the Council, the Academy saved itself from potential embarrassment by amending the “no copies” rule formally to exempt enamels and the prints of associate engravers, General Assembly Minutes, 15 April 1814.↩︎

  6. The painting was then owned by the retired shipbuilder and collector William Wells, who had bought the Redleaf Estate in Kent in ca. 1800 and was to become trustee of the National Gallery from 1835–1847. The painting was bought by the National Gallery in 1941 and has been re-attributed to Pietro da Cortona.↩︎

  7. This was presented to the Prince Regent by Reynolds’ niece, Mary Palmer, Marchioness of Thomond in 1812. See Royal Collection Trust RCIN 400699, For Reynolds’ status in these years, see particularly the British Institution’s large-scale retrospective of his works in 1813.↩︎

  8. On Stubbs’ ambitious essays in enamel painting and their marginalisation by the Academy, see Judy Egerton, “Painting in Enamel and Copper”, in George Stubbs, Painter (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 62–65. Figure 1 reproduces Bone’s enamel portrait of Stubbs after Humphry.↩︎

  9. The original is now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and has been re-attributed to Adrian Vanson. Bone’s series eventually numbered eighty-five and most of the objects contain biographical notes on the sitters and/or information on the provenance of the paintings on the counter-enamels [the plain enamelling on the reverse]; for the series’ contemporary resonance, see, for instance, “Memoir of Henry Bone, Esq. R.A.”, The European Magazine, and London Review 81 (April 1822): 294.↩︎

  10. Measuring 40.5 x 46 cm unframed, Bone’s was the largest enamel executed to date; it is now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. The counter-enamel notes that Bone began work on 30 July 1808 and finished in March 1811. The original had only come to England in 1806–1807 and the speed with which Bone obtained permission to copy it gives evidence of his own high reputation. The National Gallery technical bulletin (Vol. 2, 1978) on Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne confirms the remarkable correspondence in colour between the original and the enamel.↩︎

  11. It was acquired by the collector and patron George Bowles of Wanstead, Essex by 1 May 1811, when Farington records the sale. Farington’s diary entry suggests that the enamel could not be submitted to the Academy that year as the Prince Regent, Bone’s principal patron, had kept it too long for his own inspection—presumably dithering over whether or not he could afford to buy it, Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. XI, 1 May 1811.↩︎

  12. Robert Hunt, The Examiner, 19 May 1811.↩︎

  13. The Morning Chronicle, 29 April 1811. Bone’s exhibits were ostensibly placed among the drawings, although neighbouring works also included a “Monk’s head enameled on China”, by J. Powell.↩︎

  14. Enamel’s ability to “overcome” adjacent exhibits was given by Ozias Humphry as the main reason why George Stubbs’ works had been so disadvantageously placed at the Academy in 1782. Judy Egerton, “George Stubbs: Two Rediscovered Enamel Paintings”, The Burlington Magazine 128, no. 994 (January 1986): 24.↩︎

  15. St Cecilia measures 31.1 x 23 cm. The average size of the enamels in the frame is 23.7 x 14.14 cm and even if these works were tightly packed together in the frame, as the Academy stipulated, the overall impact by size alone would have been immense.↩︎

  16. A useful summary can be found in Egerton, “Painting in Enamel and Copper”, 62.↩︎

  17. See “Memoir of Henry Bone, Esq. R.A.”, The European Magazine, and London Review 81 (April 1822): 294.↩︎

  18. Contemporary accounts capture the excitement of seeing Bone at work, see Egerton, “Painting in Enamel and Copper”, 62.↩︎

  19. Bone’s technical advances in enamel painting were attributed to ceaseless experimentation by his obituarist in The Annual Biography and Obituary for 1836, no. V, 41–42. As a former apprentice of William Cookworthy, Bone was steeped in chemical experimentation; Cookworthy was a pharmacist who patented the making of hard porcelain in 1768 and set up the Plymouth (later Bristol) Porcelain Works, where Bone worked from 1771 until 1778.↩︎

  20. Titian, the pre-eminent painter of the Venetian school, was by far the most-copied Old Master in Bone’s oeuvre; see Richard Walker, “Henry Bone’s Pencil Drawings in the National Portrait Gallery”, The Volume of the Walpole Society 61 (1999): 305.

    On the significance of (Venetian) colour for Reynolds, and in particular for Benjamin West, see Rosie Dias, “Venetian Secrets: Benjamin West and the Contexts of Colour at the Royal Academy”, in Sarah Monks, John Barrell, and Mark Hallett (eds), Living with the Royal Academy: Artistic Ideals and Experiences in England, 1768–1848 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), 111–130. Under West’s presidency, as Dias points out, interest in the nature of colour ensured that artistic technique was beginning to be put on an equal footing with theory, culminating in the establishment of the School of Painting in 1816. Dias, “Venetian Secrets”, 127.↩︎

  21. “Memoir of Henry Bone, Esq. R.A.”, The European Magazine, and London Review 81 (April 1822): 293.↩︎

  22. Contemporary laments over the effects of Reynolds’ unorthodox technique abound. Warning against admixtures of varnishes in the oil medium, the anonymous critic of The Morning Herald made reference to the late President’s portraits of the king and queen in the Council chamber. “In those celebrated whole lengths it will be perceived that the original brilliancy of tints is almost entirely dissipated, and the countenance of the Royal Twain are becoming more cadaverous on canvas in each succeeding year.”[fn]Anon, The Morning Herald, 1 May 1811. No day given. Collected in Hamish Miles, Reviews of Genre Painting—Oversize Material (The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art). I am grateful to Paintings Conservator Alexandra Gent for her statement that some of the cracking now visible in Reynolds’ self-portrait was likely to have been apparent when Bone made his enamel.↩︎

  23. “Memoir of Henry Bone, Esq. R.A.”, The European Magazine, and London Review 81 (April 1822): 294.↩︎

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