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1813 Church Painting on Show at the Summer Exhibition

One of the paintings that received particular press attention at the Summer Exhibition of 1813 was William Hilton’s Mary Anointing the Feet of Jesus (Fig. 1). This was not because it was a particular favourite of visitors, but because it struck several commentators as an example of the kind of serious history painting that would prove British art to be equal with the Old Masters, and, as such, should be celebrated and preserved for the national collection.

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The campaign for public patronage of history painting had been rumbling on since the early years of the Royal Academy. British artists believed that the national school was at a considerable disadvantage compared to other European countries owing to the historical antipathy of the Church of England towards imagery in churches. As a result, they claimed, artists had no support for producing large history paintings, and the public were denied the opportunity to develop their taste by viewing serious art. The only way for British artists to rival the European Old Masters was for the church to remove this artificial obstacle and enable private individuals and public institutions to place British paintings in churches.1 This argument came to a head following the purchase by the British Institution of Benjamin West’s Christ Healing the Sick in 1811 (Fig. 2). Hopes for a new era of British ecclesiastical art were raised over the following few years as the British Institution began purchasing, and awarding prizes for, history paintings with sacred subjects.2 The Summer Exhibition of 1813 included two works that were claimed by their artists—John Frearson and John Bryant Lane—to be intended as altarpieces, though both seem to have been produced speculatively, without commission.3

The greatest advocate of Hilton’s work was Robert Hunt of The Examiner, who proposed that the painting should be purchased by the government for a public collection.4 Hunt had long supported the notion that public institutions should finance historical paintings by British artists.5 In Mary Anointing, he found a work that “might fairly be placed with many of the admired works of the old masters”.6 Furthermore, its subject provided a convenient metaphor for Hunt’s argument concerning the patronage of art. It was not Mary’s penance that occupied commentators of the painting, but the figure of Judas, who questioned the benefits of pouring an expensive bottle of perfume on Christ’s feet, when the money might have been given to the poor.7 Christ’s reply— “the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always” (John 12:8)—seems to have spoken to Hunt. The episode is generally interpreted as an admonishment for the disciple’s failure to recognise the symbolism of the anointment and his hypocrisy with regards to money. In the spirit of Christ’s rebuke, Hunt accused the government of failing to recognise and reward the production of great works of art, while wasting public money through corruption:

Tell us, disinterested Englishmen […], which would be most honourable,—to continue […] to receive, without any return, the hard-earning of a distressed people, or to let [a portion of public money] be applied to a national purpose, to the annual purchase […] of meritorious works of Art like this.8

Hilton’s Mary Anointing became for Hunt an emblem of the case for public patronage and his argument that, even at a time of economic recession, the government should put aside some money for the arts.

Because commissions for altarpieces were rare, aspiring history painters were obliged to paint scriptural paintings speculatively for exhibition. Indeed, this approach was advocated by artists, theorists, and patrons. Martin Archer Shee, in his 1809 Plan for the National Encouragement of Historical Painting, proposed that competition at public exhibitions was the best means of supporting artists and fostering public taste.9 Even if an artist did not win a prize or sell his work, he could achieve recognition and raise his reputation. The exhibitions at the Academy and the British Institution were therefore conceived as having an important role to play in the encouragement and dissemination of church paintings. As a reviewer of Mary Anointing put it in The New Monthly Magazine, in 1814:

It is to pictures of this class that we wish to call the public attention, for it is from gallery pictures alone that the greatest painters have obtained their fame, and from them alone can the arts of England expect to receive a great and immortal name.10

On this occasion, the directors of the British Institution were of the same mind and they resolved to buy Hilton’s work for 560 guineas, shortly before officially announcing their new policy of purchasing scriptural paintings in order to present them to churches.11

This was not, however, to be the turning point for the patronage of ecclesiastical art in Britain, but rather a short-lived high-water mark. The first efforts of the directors to place paintings in churches were frustrated when their offer of Mary Anointing to St James’s Piccadilly was blocked by William Howley, the Bishop of London. There was no room for a painting above the altar, and Howley feared that if it were “once permitted” to place a picture elsewhere in the building “churches will probably become in time Exhibitions of Paintings rather than places of Worship.”12 In the following year, the directors turned their attention from scriptural to military subjects, dedicating their prize funds to commemorations of Waterloo.

From 1814, the focus for religious art shifted away from the Academy as artists, led by Benjamin West and followed by Benjamin Robert Haydon, John Bryant Lane, and others, began exhibiting ever larger scriptural paintings in independent exhibitions. Rather than being installed in churches and other public buildings, these works were toured around the country, until the novelty wore off. Mary Anointing—donated by the directors of the British Institution to St Michael Paternoster Royal in 1820—was a rare example of institutional patronage.13 Hilton’s next scriptural painting, The Raising of Lazarus (1816), was donated to Newark Church, Nottingham by the artist himself.

  1. Thomas Ardill, “Between God, Art and Mammon: Religious Painting as a Public Spectacle in Britain, c. 1800–1832” (PhD diss., Courtauld Institute, 2016), 84–86.↩︎

  2. Ardill, “Between God, Art and Mammon”, Chaps 1 and 2.↩︎

  3. No. 233, John Frearson, Christ and the Woman of Samaria: A sketch for an altarpiece for Wombourne church, Staffordshire; and no. 328, John Bryant Lane, Eutychus restored to life by St. Paul.↩︎

  4. Robert Hunt, The Examiner 281, 16 May 1813, 315–316.↩︎

  5. Robert Hunt, “A New Plan for the Promotion of Historical Paintings”, The Examiner 266, 31 January 1813, 73.↩︎

  6. Hunt, The Examiner 281, 315.↩︎

  7. The Literary Panorama 13 (June 1813): 841.↩︎

  8. Hunt, The Examiner 281, 315–316.↩︎

  9. Martin Archer Shee, R.A., A Letter to the President and Directors of the British Institution; Containing the Outlines of a Plan for the National Encouragement of Historical Painting in the United Kingdom (London: William Miller, 1809).↩︎

  10. The New Monthly Magazine, 1 April 1814, 278 [my italics].↩︎

  11. The purchase was agreed at the meeting of directors on 8 January 1814 (British Institution Minutes, National Art Library, vol. III, 127), and the policy was announced in the catalogue of the 1814 Exhibition.↩︎

  12. Gerrard Andrewes, Dean of Canterbury quoting Howley in Canterbury to George Granville Leveson-Gower, Marquess of Stafford, 10 March 1814, transcribed in British Institution Minutes vol. III, 140.↩︎

  13. Although it survived a bomb, which destroyed the church roof in 1944, the whereabouts of the painting is now unknown.↩︎

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