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1824 Picturing the British School

The year 1824 could justly be described as the year the British School of painting came of age—at least, in the eyes of the French public. In August that year, the Paris Salon, organised by the Royal Academy’s equivalent, the Académie des Beaux-Arts, opened: an event that has gone down in history as the “British Salon” for the extraordinary number and quality of British pictures that were shown to much acclaim and controversy.

Apart from the absence of J.M.W. Turner and William Blake, the version of the contemporary British School that the Parisians witnessed that year accords closely with that which still tends to be held as valuable and influential from that moment. Thomas Lawrence and David Wilkie were represented but no one made a greater impression than John Constable who won a gold medal. This he earned chiefly for The Hay Wain, which would now be hanging in the Louvre if the then-Director and Keeper of Paintings had been successful in their attempts to purchase it for the French nation.1

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The famous irony, of course, is that Paris was far more appreciative of this canonical British painting than London ever was in Constable’s lifetime. And while French critics were extolling the rise of the visual arts across the Channel, on native soil warnings were being sounded from various quarters that the nation’s school had already passed its zenith.2 In addition to the “British Salon”, in fact, 1824 was a year in which conceptions of the modern British School and its achievements proliferated in fascinating and contrasting ways. One of the most remarkable of these expressions of national artistic identity took the form of a painting displayed at the Royal Academy exhibition some months before its Parisian counterpart: William Frederick Witherington’s A Modern Picture Gallery (Fig. 1).

This “very pleasing and amusing” picture depicts a large chamber, hung floor to ceiling with eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century paintings.3 Inhabited by four smartly dressed individuals, this room opens onto at least two further spaces similarly lined with paintings. Although Witherington’s pictured pictures are meticulously copied from actual artworks, the gallery is entirely imaginary and its contents selected from a number of disparate private collections to present a highly particular vision of the modern British school.4

Lawrence’s portrait of the actor Kemble in the role of Hamlet holds a prominent position over the door but fashionable portraiture—one of the driving forces of the art market—is otherwise excluded. This glaring, and surely deliberate, omission serves to highlight instead the imaginative feats of British history painting and allegory—Henry Fuseli and William Hilton hold prominent positions—in line with the tenets of the Academy, whose members’ works the picture liberally represents.5 The storytelling inventiveness of the school of painters everyday life, of which Witherington was himself an important figure, is also promoted, with a whisky distillery by Wilkie displayed on an easel in the foreground. Despite this emphasis, William Hogarth’s famous scenes of modern city life have no place in this gallery, perhaps to downplay the vulgar tendencies of the nation’s artists that his works tended to evoke. The vaunted, transformative effect of the British “genius” on the art landscape painting is clearly on display, although in a reversal of the situation at the “British Salon”, it is Constable rather than Turner who is absent.

A Modern Picture Gallery also evokes the real spaces in which the shifting pantheon of the nation’s talents was established and contested. There is an obvious analogy, for instance, between the densely hung, cube-like room of this pictured gallery and the Great Room of Somerset House as it appeared during the Academy’s annual exhibitions. Yet the enfilade of rooms connected by a series of arched doorways is also reminiscent of the premises of the British Institution, whose more select exhibitions of contemporary art imposed a similar prohibition on portraiture. And then there are the touches of polite domesticity—the pets, the porcelain, the musical instruments—recalling the collections of modern British paintings that could be visited at Knole, Tabley Hall, Petworth, and other houses of the nation’s great patron-patriots.6

Surprisingly, the most topical of the actual spaces brought to mind by this imaginary gallery may well have come about entirely by chance. The first weeks of the Academy Exhibition of 1824 saw the opening of the National Gallery in the Pall Mall house of John Julius Angerstein, whose pictures had been bought by the state to form the kernel of a national collection. Early depictions of the National Gallery show a museum-like, yet still domestic space, remarkably similar to that in A Modern Picture Gallery (Fig. 2). And while the collection was distinctly cosmopolitan, covering all the major European schools, Britain had a strong presence, comprising about a quarter of all the works on view.7 

From the beginning, the National Gallery set out to house the “best specimens” of the British art as defined by its directors on behalf of the nation. Interestingly, and for unknown reasons, the new institution edited out of the collection Angerstein’s three Fuselis—including, coincidentally, Satan starting from the touch of Ithuriel’s lance, which hangs over the fireplace of Witherington’s modern gallery. Hogarth’s Marriage-a-La Mode, on the other hand, was immediately put on show. Yet another iteration of the pantheon of “modern” greats had been formulated—and ostensibly fixed—for the public of 1824, this time with all the authority of the state for a new chapter in the Britain’s public visual culture.

  1. Judy Egerton, The British School (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 48.↩︎

  2. “Royal Academy”, The Literary Magnet 1 (1824): 423; The Examiner, 9 May 1824, 298.↩︎

  3. The London Magazine, June 1824, 669. Sir Brinsley Ford identified the majority of the known pictures in this picture. His list, with later additions by National Trust curators, is deposited in the National Trust catalogue file and transcribed on its online entry.↩︎

  4. For a contextual analysis of the fashion for these kinds of picture in a slightly later period, see Catherine Roach, Pictures-within-Pictures in Nineteenth-Century Britain (London: Routledge, 2016).↩︎

  5. For a discussion of the selection of works in the picture, see Isobel Grimshaw, “William Frederick Witherington’s ‘A Modern Picture Gallery’: Representing the English School” (MA diss., Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 2002).↩︎

  6. For major private collections of contemporary British art in this period, see Dongho Chun, “The Early Collectors of ‘The Cottage Door’”, in Ann Bermingham (ed.), Sensation and Sensibility: Viewing Gainsborough’s “Cottage Door” (New York: Yale University Press, 2005), 123–137; Christopher Rowell, Ian Warrell, and David Blayney Brown, Turner at Petworth (London: Tate Publishing, 2002); and John Chu, “High Art and High Stakes: The 3rd Duke of Dorset’s Gamble on Reynolds”, British Art Studies 2, doi:10.17658/issr5462/issue-02/jchu.↩︎

  7. Egerton, The British School, 11.↩︎

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