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

1820 Imaging Im/Mortality at Somerset House

Ever since the Royal Academy had first opened its doors in 1769, exhibiting artists had grasped the obvious fact that they were more likely to succeed in capturing public attention if their works dealt with themes that resonated with the highest possible proportion of the audience. In an era when average life expectancy hovered around forty years of age, and infant mortality rates remained stubbornly high, perhaps no aspect of human experience touched the lives of more Britons than death and its impact on those left behind; but if artists wished to exploit this rich thematic territory as a source of pleasurable visual entertainment, they had to tread with considerable care. In 1820, two of the most widely talked about paintings on display in the Great Room at Somerset House approached death from diametrically opposite positions: one as a matter of the very highest seriousness; and the other as the catalyst for a modern social comedy.

Explore the 1820 catalogue

The first of these routes was taken by an unusually large history painting (just under three metres wide), Henry Thomson’s Christ Raising from Death the Daughter of Jairus (Fig. 1). A full Academician since 1802, Thomson had been a regular exhibitor for more than twenty-five years, showing a mix of classical histories, portraits, fancy pictures, and scenes of everyday life; the Daughter of Jairus was his first public attempt at religious subject matter, and critics on the whole described his effort as a qualified success. The New Monthly Magazine, like most other periodicals, gave Thomson’s composition a mixed review:

The corpse appears to us rather too faithfully and too obtrusively represented; the figure of Christ is neither awful nor amiable; nor is there much expression in any part of the picture. But the execution is, on the whole, very respectable.1

By “respectable” the critic was presumably referring to the picture’s overt invocation of the lineage of classical art, in particular the example of Raphael (as well as Nicolas Poussin); conceived of in the spirit of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses to the Royal Academy, Thomson’s work was a rare example of the sort of grand style art that the leading members of the British School were meant to produce, but hardly ever did. Yet if style was one reason why the Daughter of Jairus was received in tones of general respect, its subject was just as important. Thomson could confidently assume his viewers’ familiarity with the story of Christ’s miraculous restoration of a dead girl to life, as recounted in the New Testament (Matthew 9:18–25). “The interest [the theme] excites is of the deepest kind,” commented a writer in The Literary Gazette, “and all must sympathize where all can understand”.2

Contemporary commentators reached much the same conclusions about David Wilkie’s only Academy exhibit in 1820, The Reading of a Will, but they got there by an entirely different route (Fig. 2). In this case the textual source was not the Bible, but Waverley, Walter Scott’s enormously popular first novel that he had published anonymously in 1814; though the fact that this literary dimension was ignored by most critics indicates that the pictorial narrative was easily legible on its own terms. Lauded as yet one more demonstration of the illusionistic skill for which its painter had long been admired, The Reading of a Will also elicited praise as a tableau vivant of expressive responses to a central dramatic action. Viewers and critics alike took great pleasure in registering how each of Wilkie’s different characters is shown reacting (or in some cases remaining oblivious) to the lawyer, while he lists out who will be getting what: “Interest, humour, and incident abound, together with beauty of colouring and neatness of expression: the grouping is admirably arranged—every face tells a tale.”3 Wilkie was also lauded for having taken on a subject of more general interest than the scenes of peasant or Scottish life for which he was best known. By dealing with the material aftermath of a death in a modern family, he invited the Academy public to view his painted comedy through the lens of their own personal experience; no wonder that The London Magazine hailed the picture as:

a striking instance of the truth of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s maxim, that there is no surer proof of the distinguished excellence of a work of art, than its power of exciting the interest, and fascinating the attention of common observers.4

Among the other exhibits at Somerset House in 1820, none appears to have been possessed more in the way of such power than Francis Chantrey’s sculpture of a Sleeping Child, which surely like the celebrated monument of two sleeping children he had exhibited three years earlier, must have been intended for a funerary or commemorative purpose. Apparently so moved were certain women and children in the Academy audience by “this little wonder”,5 that they were prompted to bend down and kiss the sleeper’s marble cheek. One wonders if the touch of warm lips on cold stone made the presence of death seem just that much closer.

If the Chantrey offered viewers an emotive reminder of the vulnerable and transient character of human existence, so, too, in a very different way, did one of the smallest paintings on view in the Great Room: Edward Villiers Rippingille’s Portrait of the late E. Bird, Esq. R.A. Painted in 1817. Edward Bird, Rippingille’s former teacher and a leading figure in Bristol’s small but vibrant community of artists, had risen to national prominence only at a relatively late stage in his career, in 1809, when he’d made his Academy debut with a genre scene called Good News. There then followed six years of relative success, culminating with his election to Royal Academician of the Academy in 1815; but financial difficulties and ongoing health problems dominated the last phase of Bird’s life, which tragically ended in bankruptcy and his premature demise in 1819. The appearance of Rippingille’s likeness at the next exhibition was designed not only to commemorate a distinguished Academician, but also to help raise money for Bird’s family by promoting interest in an engraving of the portrait. In the words of The Examiner, “The subscribers to the Print”—which sadly was never produced—“will have the pleasure of possessing a strong resemblance of a man of genius and amiableness, and the still higher pleasure of assisting his widow and three children, whom he left in indigent circumstances.”6

Death, then, could find artistic use as means of prompting charitable sympathies for the surviving relations of a painter who was already on the verge of slipping into obscurity. Elsewhere on the walls of the Great Room, however, hung a much larger picture which offered an eloquent reminder that art could also secure immortality for a select few: this was J.M.W. Turner’s Rome from the Vatican. Raffaelle, Accompanied by La Fornarina, Preparing his Pictures for the Decoration of the Loggia. Painted on the 300th anniversary of Raphael’s demise at the age of thirty-seven, Turner’s tour de force of imaginative painting argued for the transcendent power of artistic genius, both the Italian master’s and his own. Unconcerned with trying to “fascinat[e] the attention of common observers”, Turner was already focused on posterity.7

  1. The New Monthly Magazine 13 (June 1820): 717.↩︎

  2. The Literary Gazette, and Journal of the Belles Lettres (1820): 299.↩︎

  3. European Magazine 77 (1820): 511.↩︎

  4. “Notices of the Fine Arts”, The London Magazine 1 (June 1820): 696. The fact that Reynolds said no such thing—indeed, would almost certainly have strongly disagreed—is neither here nor there.↩︎

  5. The Examiner, 4 June 1820, 364; for a similar comment, see European Magazine 77 (1820): 512. One imagines that the lost Chantrey must have been similar to William Scoular’s commemorative sculpture of Princess Elizabeth of Clarence on her deathbed, commissioned by her parents in 1821.↩︎

  6. The Examiner, 25 June 1820, 414. Despite the fact that Rippingille’s portrait measured only 34.1 x 16.2cm, it gained at least a brief mention in most contemporary reviews of the Exhibition—benefitting, perhaps, from an advantageous position in the Great Room, and/or from the attention generated by the image of an Academician who had recently died.↩︎

  7. “Notices of the Fine Arts”, The London Magazine 1 (June 1820): 696.↩︎

Thematic categories: , , , , , , , , , , ,


Explore the 1820 catalogue