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1821 John Constable, John Martin, and the Ecosystem of Exhibitions

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Each of the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions was but one element in a larger urban display culture that I call the “ecosystem of exhibitions”. In choosing this term, I take my cue from Richard Altick, who, in his foundational text, Shows of London, described London exhibitions as enjoying a “healthy symbiotic relationship”.1 But “ecosystem” suggests not only the mutual dependence Altick perceived, but also the fierce competition. Both symbiosis and destruction were vital elements of the ecosystem of exhibitions. Non-academic exhibitions are usually described as independent, but they benefitted from the existence of the Academy, which provided a focal point for the artistic season, as well as the occasion for oppositional posturing.2 Exhibitions were frequently located in close proximity, creating constantly evolving artistic districts.3 But while participants in the ecosystem of display benefitted from coexistence, they also vied for resources, including display venues, critical attention, and, most vitally, paying customers. Such was the case in 1821, when the Academy’s Summer Exhibition was not the most spectacular event of the season. Instead, the most talked-about artwork of this year was John Martin’s richly detailed Biblical painting Belshazzar’s Feast, shown not at the Academy but at the British Institution (Fig. 1).

Founded in 1805 by a group of wealthy collectors, the British Institution was a philanthropic arts organisation.4 Although in practice the two organisations frequently clashed, the Institution was designed as a complement to the Academy. To that end, the Institution’s sales exhibitions were usually held earlier in the year, so as not to conflict with those of the Academy. But in 1821, the demand to see Martin’s work was so high that the Institution exhibition was held over, thus just overlapping with the Academy’s summer show.5 Moreover, Martin’s work was simply the most prominent of the many London attractions competing with the Academy for visitors in this year. “London, at present, teems with shows of art,” wrote a critic for The New Monthly Magazine, citing as evidence the Society of Painters in Watercolours, the “Engravings by Living British Artists” in Soho Square, the artists’ exhibitions of Benjamin Robert Haydon, John Glover, Thomas Christopher Hofland, Benjamin West, and James Ward, and the domestic galleries of John Leicester, Thomas Hope, the Marquess of Stafford, and the Earl Grosvenor—a dizzying array, to which we might also add the models of a recently discovered Egyptian tomb shown at Bullock’s Egyptian Hall.6

Viewers moved among these various offerings, assessing them comparatively. Thinking of exhibitions as part of an ecosystem gives us a fresh perspective on nineteenth-century spectatorship, because exhibitions were not consumed in isolation. Rather, they were part of a round of seasonal urban entertainments. Sometimes several displays were seen in the same day, interspersed with social calls, shopping, and performances.7 Mark Hallett has argued that viewers brought memories of previous exhibitions to each year’s Academy show;8 we might extend this observation to consider the function of memory within a single year, as viewers moved from display to display, across town, or simply across Pall Mall. 

Looking closely at the relationships among exhibits can also give us a fresh perspective on nineteenth-century art, revealing the distance between the taste of the time and that of our own day. From today’s art-historical perspective, the most important event of 1821 was the exhibition at the Academy of John Constable’s Landscape: Noon, now better known as The Hay Wain (Fig. 2). But by the time the Academy exhibition opened, Martin’s Belshazzar had already been crowned picture of the year, and it remained available to the public after the Institution’s show ended, because the picture’s new owner displayed it in the Strand.9 Moreover, in reviews of the Academy in 1821, The Hay Wain was overshadowed by paintings such as William Hilton’s Nature Blowing Bubbles for Her Children, which garnered considerable critical praise. A rare dissenting voice in The London Magazine complained: “I don’t see why a fine plump young woman, lying under the shade of ardent sunflowers … and idly busied in bubbling water through a reed, should be dignified with the abstract title of Nature.”10 But the vast majority of critics agreed with Robert Hunt, who declared in The Examiner that: “this noble picture unites the simplicity of Nature with Allegory, the seriousness of moral instruction and satire with the charms of female and infantine beauty … It will equally delight the mother, the artist, and the philosopher.”11 Hilton’s picture no doubt benefitted from its location within the exhibition, hung above the fireplace in the great room.12 As Anne Lyles points out, location may likewise have contributed to The Hay Wain’s lacklustre reception: it was placed in the much smaller, adjoining school room.13 But a spot in the school room did not necessarily spell doom: another work hanging there, William Etty’s Arrival of Cleopatra in Cilicia, managed to attract considerable critical attention, perhaps due to its vivid hues and abundant nudes.

Such pictures were viewed (and reviewed) comparatively: “Comparison is the great test of excellence,” wrote Hunt.14 Comparisons could be used to damn or to praise, but in either case, they were enabled by the rich diversity of simultaneous artistic offerings in the capital. For instance, consider the British Institution’s controversial innovation of holding loan exhibitions of historic art in the summer, concurrent with the Academy’s sales exhibitions.15 Contemporary artists, especially Academicians, resented the rival attraction and feared that it would pose an “invidious” comparison.16 In practice, the simultaneous staging of these two displays within London’s ecosystem of exhibitions alternately helped and harmed individual artists. The comparison could be salutary: a critic for The New Monthly Magazine lauded Hilton’s Nature by declaring it would appear equally at home in the company of the British Institution’s Old Masters.17 But a writer for The Examiner claimed that Etty’s Cleopatra failed to live up to the Venetian masters it so explicitly emulated, as exemplified by Veronese’s St. Nicholas, then on view at the Institution.18

Yet if individual actors in this ecosystem sometimes suffered from competition, at other times, they benefitted from symbiosis. For example, the ecosystem ill served Constable in 1821, when more boisterous works such as Etty’s Cleopatra crowded out the subtler composition of The Hay Wain. But the ecosystem worked to Constable’s advantage in the following year. Like many artists, Constable routinely sent works that did not find a buyer at the Academy to the Institution’s sale exhibition in the following season. In 1822, The Hay Wain was seen at the Institution by a French art dealer, who eventually purchased the work and sent it on to fame at the Paris Salon of 1824.19 As this episode suggests, the ecosystem of exhibitions extended internationally, often to the benefit of artists who participated in it.

  1. Richard D. Altick, The Shows of London (Boston, MA: Belknap Press, 1978), 426.↩︎

  2. For a modernist lineage of the “independent” exhibition, see Andrew Graciano (ed.), Exhibiting Outside the Academy, Salon and Biennial, 1775–1999: Alternative Venues for Display (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).↩︎

  3. Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich, “Local/Global: Mapping Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market”, Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 11, no. 3 (Autumn 2012),↩︎

  4. On the Institution, see Peter Fullerton, “Patronage and Pedagogy: The British Institution in the Early Nineteenth Century”, Art History 5 (March 1982): 59–72; Nicholas Tromans, “Museum or Market?: The British Institution”, in Paul Barlow and Colin Trodd (eds), Governing Cultures: Art Institutions in Victorian London (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), 44–55; Catherine Roach, Pictures-Within-Pictures in Nineteenth-Century Britain (London: Routledge, 2016), 24–63.↩︎

  5. The British Institution sale exhibition closed on 5 May 1821. British Institution Minutes, 14 May 1821, National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum. The private view of the Academy’s Summer Exhibition was held on 4 May, and its banquet on 5 May. Joseph Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre, and Kathryn Cave (eds) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978–1998), 4–5 May, 1821, vol. 16, 5658–5659.↩︎

  6. “Fine Arts”, The New Monthly Magazine, June 1821, 282; on the display at the Egyptian Hall, see Susan M. Pearce, “Giovanni Battista Belzoni’s Exhibition of the Reconstructed Tomb of Pharaoh Seti I in 1821”, Journal of the History of Collections 12, no. 1 (2000): 109–125.↩︎

  7. See, for example, Jane Austen, Jane Austen’s Letters, Deirdre le Faye (ed.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 179.↩︎

  8. Mark Hallett, “Reading the Walls: Pictorial Dialogue at the Eighteenth-Century Royal Academy”, Eighteenth-Century Studies 37, no. 4 (2004): 581–604.↩︎

  9. Martin Myrone (ed.), John Martin: Apocalypse (London: Tate, 2011), 101.↩︎

  10. Cornelius Van Vinkbooms, “Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The London Magazine, July 1821, 73.↩︎

  11. Robert Hunt, “Fine Arts: The Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Examiner, 13 May 1821, 301.↩︎

  12. “Fine Arts: Royal Academy”, The Literary Gazette, 12 May 1821, 296.↩︎

  13. Anne Lyles, “Soliciting Attention: Constable, the Royal Academy and the Critics”, in Anne Lyles (ed.), Constable: The Great Landscapes (London: Tate, 2006), 37.↩︎

  14. Robert Hunt, “Fine Arts: The Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Examiner, 17 June 1821, 380.↩︎

  15. See Francis Haskell, The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 46–63; and Catherine Roach, “Rehanging Reynolds at the British Institution: Methods for Reconstructing Ephemeral Displays”, British Art Studies 4 (Autumn 2016), doi:10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-04/croach.↩︎

  16. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, 26 December 1812, vol. 12, 4272.↩︎

  17. “Fine Arts: Native Talent:—Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The New Monthly Magazine, July 1821, 334.↩︎

  18. Robert Hunt, “Fine Arts: Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Examiner, 3 June 1821, 347.↩︎

  19. John Constable, John Constable’s Correspondence, R.B. Beckett (ed.) (Suffolk: Suffolk Records Society, 1968), vol. 6, 86–87; on the painting in Paris, see Patrick Noon, “Color and Effect: Anglo-French Painting in London and Paris”, in Patrick Noon (ed.), Constable to Delacroix: British Art and the French Romantics (London: Tate Publishing, 2003), 21–25.↩︎

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