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1818 Camaraderie and Rivalry on Display

The 1818 Summer Exhibition was dominated by portraits and landscapes and there was a marked paucity of history paintings, which might be attributed to exhaustion and a desire for normality following the cessation of the lengthy wars with Napoleon. The critical reception was for the most part positive, albeit low-key in tenor, but only a handful of works were singled out for critique or praise.  Of most note was Augustus Wall Callcott’s Mouth of the Tyne with a View of North and South Shields, and J.M.W. Turner’s Dort; or Dordrecht, the Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam becalmed (Fig. 1), which each attracted both fulsome accolades and vitriolic critique. The circumstances of the display of the two paintings offer a fascinating insight into the activities of the Hanging Committee and also provide a telling example of the camaraderie, rivalry, and in-jokes that characterised artistic relationships within the Royal Academy. Turner’s painting also sparked controversy, speaking to issues that were being vigorously debated more widely in the “ecosystem” of the art world—the complex network of co-dependent players in the British art world that included artists, critics, dealers, patrons, exhibiting societies, and artists’ colourmen.1 

Turner on a number of occasions made paintings that responded to the work of his contemporaries, often, though not invariably, in the spirit of playful rather than adversarial rivalry. His decision to embark on Dort may have been stimulated by Callcott’s luminous canvas the Pool of London, which he had exhibited to acclaim at the Academy in 1816, and which Turner, who was enormously impressed, had declared to be worth a thousand guineas.2 Turner’s designation of the titular packet-boat as “becalmed” may have been a humorous allusion to Callcott’s slow progress on his painting of Rotterdam commissioned by Earl Grey.3 Callcott was keenly aware of their relative speeds of execution, and he confided to the painter William Owen that he “could not [paint] such a picture” as the ‘View of Shields’ in less than 6 months, whereas Turner wd. paint such as ‘The View of Dort’ in a month.”4 Callcott was on the Hanging Committee in 1818, and he seems to have responded to Turner’s challenge with good humour since he agreed to Turner’s request to move Mouth of the Tyne from its original placement in order that the Dort might be hung prominently on the wall at the end of the Great Room.5

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The reviewer of The Morning Chronicle described Dort as “one of the most magnificent pictures ever exhibited and does honour to the age”,6 but responses were not uniformly laudatory, and the painting generated intense debate regarding Turner’s controversial artistic practices. The much remarked upon bright chromatic scale of Dort, achieved in part by Turner’s use of the recently introduced pigment chrome yellow and his hallmark white grounds, marks a watershed both in his painting practice and that of his contemporaries. Many of the identifiable works that were also hung in the Great Room, Thomas Lawrence’s equestrian portrait of the Duke of Wellington clad in a black cloak, which was placed directly above Dort, Lawrence’s full-length of the Prince Regent, and George Dawe’s portraits of Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold, were dark in coloration. The picture must have appeared dazzling, as attested by the painter Henry Thomson’s comment to Joseph Farington that its brilliance “almost puts your eyes out”.7 More prosaic commentators were troubled by the intensity of the light that they deemed more appropriate to southern climes, and the painting generated debate regarding the necessity for realism in landscape subjects. Visitors to the Exhibition may also have been struck by the eloquent contrast of the startling luminosity and cheerful quotidian subject of Dort with the subdued palette and elegaic theme of the Turner’s painting Field of Waterloo, which was accompanied by verses from Lord Byron’s Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage that stressed the human suffering rather than the heroism of battle. Turner may even have intended the two paintings as companion works articulating the binaries of war and peace.

Turner’s showcasing of Dort in 1818 may also have constituted an intervention in debates taking place outside of the Academy. Inspired by his 1817 pilgrimage to Dordrecht, the birthplace of Aelbert Cuyp, whom he greatly admired, Turner’s painting was made in direct response to the inclusion of Cuyp’s celebrated painting, The Maas at Dordrecht, in a high-profile exhibition of Flemish and Netherlandish paintings from British collections at the British Institution in 1815 (Fig. 2).8 The patrician nature of the Institution’s self-appointed group of Directors and its conservative agenda, which privileged Old Masters over living painters, had generated controversy since its foundation in 1805. The 1815 Exhibition, intended, as noted in the catalogue’s polemical introduction, to “excite in the British artist the ardour of emulation”, was much criticised by artists. The majority of the Royal Academicians boycotted a special evening opening, and the Directors were excoriated in A Catalogue raisonnée of the pictures now exhibiting at the British Institution, an anonymous satirical publication that appeared in parts between 1815 and 1816, which was widely circulated in artistic circles.

As Farington noted, the Catalogue raisonnée had censured the “virulence of criticism on the pictures painted by Turner”. Sir George Beaumont, who was a founding Director of the British Institution and a major driving force of its activities, had been an outspoken critic of the work of both Turner and Callcott, whom he censured as “white painters”, a pejorative term he had coined in 1806 as a critique of Callcott’s distinctive muted palette.9 With its nuanced juxtaposition of cool and warm colours, Dort may have been intended as a riposte to Beaumont’s strictures, and also may have been intended as a gesture of solidarity to Callcott, his close friend and fellow “white painter”. While Dort was undoubtedly intended as a tribute to Cuyp, Turner’s use of pigments, handling of paint, and distinctive rendition of light, as well as the emphatic inscription of his name on the floating log in the foreground, seem to constitute a radical assertion of the legitimacy of the cutting-edge practices he and his fellow painters had adopted, and an uncompromising assertion of his distinctive artistic identity. 

  1. A term coined by Catherine Roach at “A Year’s Art: The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition”, conference, Paul Mellon Centre, London, 29–30 September 2016.↩︎

  2. David Cordingly, Connoisseur (October 1973): 99–101.↩︎

  3. David Blayney Brown, Augustus Wall Callcott (London: Tate Gallery, 1981), 15.↩︎

  4. Joseph Farington, 4 May 1818, in Kathryn Cave (ed.), The Diary of Joseph Farington (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), Vol.15, 5195.↩︎

  5. Farington, 5 April 1818, in Cave (ed.), The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 15, 5190–5191.↩︎

  6. [Anon], The Morning Chronicle, May 1818.↩︎

  7. Farington, 29 April 1818, in Cave (ed.), The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 15, 5191.↩︎

  8. British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom. Catalogue of pictures by Rubens, Rembrandt, Vandyke, and other artists of the Flemish and Dutch Schools (London: British Institution, 1815), 17, no. 67.↩︎

  9. Felicity Owen and David Blayney Brown, Collector of Genius: A Life of Sir George Beaumont (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 165–168.↩︎

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