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

1814 Family Affairs

The prevalence of portraiture in the earlier exhibitions of the Royal Academy is a familiar theme. For many contemporary commentators, the numeric dominance of portrait images at each Annual Exhibition was self-evident as proof of the Academy’s failure properly to promote historical art. The predominance of portrait painters in the administration and leadership of the Academy itself became a focus of its critics, seeming to bear out the accusation that it was an organisation driven by self-interest rather than higher aspirations. For modern analysts of late Georgian exhibition culture, the reported triumph of portraiture laid bare the rise of consumer culture and the accompanying transformation of the status of art in a commercial society.1 Both the extent of original commentary and the bare facts of the exhibitions seem to offer an unassailable foundation for these arguments. Marcia Pointon, in one of her seminal studies on this topic, asserts that “around 45% of all exhibits between 1788 and 1829” were portraits, and that, accordingly, it was evident that the display of portraiture “constituted an important arena in which to construe notions of a modern social identity”.2

In that regard, the Exhibition of 1814 appears to differ little from the forty-five which preceded it. Of the 811 exhibits, at least 350 (43 per cent) appear from the catalogue descriptions to be portraits, quite in line with Pointon’s general assertion. The Academy show would certainly have appeared as ever as a spectacle of social deregulation and rampant consumerism, the walls crowded and mixing together the famous and infamous, royalty, prostitutes and heroes, intellectuals, artists and dignitaries, and the disreputable. So, among the portraits on show in 1814, we might want to light on Thomas Phillips’ Portrait of a nobleman in the dress of an Albanian, his memorably exotic and dashing portrait of the twenty-five-year-old Lord Byron, already celebrated as a writer, lover, and adventurer (Fig. 1). The Exhibition seemed, as ever, to embody the machinations of a modern consumer society, in all its self-serving, amoral tumultuousness. It was where “the momentary, the fashionable and the modern” were to the fore, “at the expense of a wider allegiance to a class, a nation or a history”.3

Explore the 1814 catalogue

This account might be refined in at least two regards. The first is in relation to the numerical dominance of portraits. The point would seem to be beyond dispute, but we should, perhaps, refine the assumptions we draw from this by taking account of the size and character of the exhibits in question, and their location within the Academy. In 1814, there were 205 exhibits listed in the Great Room; of these, 75 (or 37 per cent) were portraits. The Great Room also included Turner’s imposing, Claude-ian Dido and Aeneas, James Northcote’s Judgement of Solomon (Fig. 2), with figures “as large as life” and C.R. Leslie’s attention-grabbing treatment of a supernatural theme, The Woman of Endor.4 The well-known images of the early exhibitions do, certainly, testify to a numeric presence of portraits, but also, surely, to the visual dominance of large and striking canvases such as these. Elsewhere in the Exhibition, portraiture was either absent or present in a similar or smaller proportion.5 In the main space of the Exhibition, portraiture was neither numerically, nor visually, as dominant as the raw figures might lead us to think.

The second point is to test the appearance of a “free-market”, the cornerstone of political economy, the economic ideology, which came to dominate at precisely this historical moment, which dictated that (left alone) the market was an inherently just force, overriding all prejudice, personal connection, and favour.6 All that was needed was the right forum, where different products and services could be pitched against each other: arguably, the Great Room, with its jostling array of pictures opened to common judgement, represented a free-market situation, where all those picture accepted for Exhibition were pitched against one another in free and equal contest. Even if, as was often stated, the Royal Academicians hogged the limelight, the principle remained that the competition was judged by the aggregate opinion of the visitors. For its supporters, the Academy was merely a mechanism by which the best art rose to prominence.

In this instance, this testing of the appearance of a marketised forum for art could mean looking aside from the Great Room, and from the established names of the Academy exhibitions, to an exhibit by a young artist, hidden away downstairs among the “Drawings &c”, accompanied with lines of poetry in the catalogue:

Portrait of Capt. C.W. Thompson, 1st Regiment Guards, who fell in the Action of Bidart, Dec. 12, 1813 H.P. Briggs

“No mother’s kiss, no sister’s tear,
Embalm’d the victim’s fatal wound;
No father prayed beside his bier,
No brother clasped his arm around!”

Mrs Opie’s Dirge

This is, without much doubt, a competent but wholly routine portrait, closest perhaps to Hoppner and characteristic of an entire school of portrait painting routinely gathered under the rubric of “follower of Lawrence”, under which heading the name of Henry Perronet Briggs has lurked, obscurely, in the modern literature. His debut Academy exhibit may be modest, but it was aimed at getting some attention. In the midst of wartime, the death of any soldier might be expected to have public interest to a degree; the vibrant uniform and dashing glance might be expected to draw the eye. Amelia Opie, whose recently published commemoration of Thompson, “Weep not” was quoted in the catalogue, had had fame as a writer, and as widow of the Professor of Painting at the Academy, whose lectures she had edited.7 If all this fits a pattern for the commercial and professional exploitation of the exhibition space, there are also, less visibly, the old ties of kinship and affiliation which this new cultural arena is understood largely to have dissolved. Thompson’s mother was Philothea Briggs; he was a cousin to the artist.8 Amelia Opie, the poet who lent her fame to this emerging artist, was the cousin of both sitter and painter. Opie (née Alderson) was in turn the cousin of Elizabeth Alderson, who would go on to become Briggs’s wife. Opie and the Thompsons were Briggs’ most important supporters, providing commissions, introductions, and advice. Briggs’ debut at the Academy was, without doubt, a family affair.

One of the great themes in recent social history is the rising importance of cousin-marriage and cousin-based nepotism in business, social and intellectual life, and finance, and the endurance of kinship in the rising to dominance of a bourgeoisie in Europe in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.9 As one of those historians, Christopher H. Johnson notes, “The final picture is that of a vast cousinage that dominates civil society and politics and sets the social, moral and intellectual standards for the rest of the population.”10 Whether the exhibitions were subject to the same forces is yet to be tested out, but the case of Briggs alone may indicate that the ostensibly free-wheeling market culture we associate with the Great Room may be worth scrutinising more closely, with the questions of kinship, as well as of spectacle, sensation, and innovation, in mind.

  1. This is a theme in a succession of now classic studies including: Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J.H. Plumb (eds), The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (London: HarperCollins, 1983); David H. Solkin, Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993); Marcia Pointon, Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993); John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: HarperCollins, 1997); Michael Rosenthal, The Art of Thomas Gainsborough: “A Little Business for the Eye” (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999); David H. Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001).↩︎

  2. Marcia Pointon, “Portrait! Portrait!! Portrait!!”, in David H. Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 106 and 105. Pointon’s more detailed figures for the 1780s (in Hanging the Head, 38) were stated to have excluded miniatures and sculptures, and indicated on that basis between 34 per cent and 49 per cent representation of portraiture.↩︎

  3. Pointon, “Portrait! Portrait!! Portrait!!”, 109.↩︎

  4. The Monthly Magazine (1814) reporting on Northcote’s working on the canvas, quoted by Mark Ledbury, James Northcote: History Painting, and the Fables (New Haven, CT: Yale Center for British Art, 2014), 124. Leslie succeeded in his purpose, at least within the transatlantic literary world represented by the Philadelphia journals The Port Folio 4 (1814): 88–90 and The Analectic Magazine 4 (1814): 173.↩︎

  5. In the “Inner Room”, there were eighty-four exhibits, at least thirty-seven being portraits (44 per cent); in the “Anti-Room”, seventy-three exhibits, at least twenty-four portraits (33 per cent). In the separate listing of “Miniatures”, running from catalogue numbers 365–469, all appear to be portraits. Among the 103 “Drawings &c”, about eighty appear to be portraits, although some of these were character studies (as with no. 501, Portraits of the Indian Jugglers by J. Green). The listing of seventy-eight “Architectural drawings” contain, unsurprisingly, no mention of portraits; that of “Sculpture”, fifty-eight exhibits, of which thirty, over half, were obviously portrait busts.↩︎

  6. The classic and enduringly influential dissection of free-market thinking is Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001 [1944]).↩︎

  7. Weep Not, Dirge to the Memory of Captn. Charles Wm. Thompson, of the 1s Guards, Killed at Bidart 12th Decr. 1813. Written by Mrs Opie, the Music Composed & Sung at the Vocal Concerts, Hanover Square. & Dedicated to the Honble. Mac Donald, by Mrs Bianci Lacy (London, 1813). Later collected in Lays for the Dead, see Shelley King and John B. Pierce (eds), The Collected Poems of Amelia Alderson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 578–579.↩︎

  8. See Arthur R.B. Robinson, The Counting House: Thomas Thompson of Hull (1754–1828) and his Family, (York: William Sessions, 1992). See also Leonard George Johnson, General T. Perronet Thompson, 1783–1869: His Military, Literary and Political Campaigns (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1957).↩︎

  9. David Warren Sabean, Simon Teuscher, and Jon Mathieu (eds), Kinship in Europe: Approaches to Log-Term Developments (1300–1900) (New York: Berghahn Books, 2007); Adam Kuper, Incest & Influence: The Private Life of Bourgeois England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Christopher H. Johnson and David Warren Sabean, Sibling Relations & the Transformation of European Kinship 1300–1900 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2011); and Christopher H. Johnson, Becoming Bourgeois: Love, Kinship & Power in Provincial France 1670–1880 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015).↩︎

  10. Johnson, Becoming Bourgeois, 2.↩︎

Thematic categories: , , , ,


Explore the 1814 catalogue