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1828 Reconstructing The School of Painting

George Scharf’s watercolour of the Great Room in 1828 has provided important evidence about the appearance of the Somerset House Exhibition and its visitors (Fig. 1). The usefulness of this image, however, belies the fact that in 1828 the greatest share of the crowds was to be found, not in the Great Room, but in the adjacent School of Painting. We are without a picture of this gallery, but one can still examine its popularity in 1828. The School of Painting formed a slightly different type of spectacle to the Great Room; in so doing, it encouraged a different manner of spectatorship and represented an alternative face of British art.

Almost exactly half of the pictures in the Great Room were portraits, but Scharf’s image reveals that their visual dominance of the space was disproportionate to their number. “The central place at the head of the great room”, was the position of Thomas Phillips’ portrait of the Duke of Sussex.1 Equivalent positions on the adjacent walls are occupied by full lengths depicting Viscount Broom by Henry Pickersgill (on the left) and the Marchioness of Londonderry and her son, Lord Seaham by Sir Thomas Lawrence (on the right). These three picture determined the layout of the rest of their respective walls, each being flanked along the line (a moulding running around the room about eight feet from the ground) by further full-length and three-quarter length portraits, and framed by smaller half-lengths and heads. Works in other genres are relegated to beneath the line and the corners of the room.

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One can imagine the effect of this arrangement upon a spectator. The irregular grid of tightly packed frames and the diverse selection of images present an overwhelming and incomprehensible mass of forms and colours. “Our eyes are dazzled with the newly-painted canvass [sic.] and gilt frames which cover the walls”, wrote the reviewer of The Mirror of Literature.2 This sensation, however, is soon relieved when the eye naturally alights upon one of the principal portraits. The gaze drifts left and right to a few pictures nearby, and perhaps dips below the line for a moment, before repeating the exercise on another wall. The order in which the reporter of The Literary Gazette noticed pictures at the private view closely matches the way in which we read the miniaturised paintings in Scharf’s watercolour. Some spectators, like the top-hatted gentleman at the bottom-left of the watercolour, would have taken the time to inspect the smaller works less prominently displayed near the floor or elsewhere. Many more, however, crowded around the benches in the centre, turning their heads this way and that to enjoy the accumulated “mass of splendid portraiture”.3

The overall effect was no doubt impressive, but critics bemoaned this “super abundance of portraits”, and the biggest crowds were reported to congregate around pictures in other genres. Many of these works were to be found in the School of Painting, which, according to The Literary Gazette, offered “by far the most interesting portion of the present Exhibition.”4

We can gather some clues about the appearance of this room from records of its layout in this period and from the works that hung there in 1828.5 Portraits still made up about 40 per cent of its contents in 1828, but they garnered less attention than in the Great Room. One of the first pictures people must have noticed upon entering was James Ward’s Portrait of a favourite hunter, which, at thirteen-feet wide, was reported to occupy most of one of the walls. It was, however, Francis Danby’s Attempt to Illustrate the Opening of the Sixth Seal that attracted the largest crowds and formed the Exhibition’s biggest sensation (Fig. 2). The drama of its end-of-the-world subject, the remarkable contrasts of light and dark, the fiery red glow at the centre, and the profusion of narrative details that demand close and extended examination caught the attention of spectators and critics alike, making it the painting of the year. Turner’s Boccaccio relating the Tale of the Bird-Cage was another attraction. A list of adjectives supplied by one critic gives a good impression of its eye-catching effect: shine, blaze, dazzle, glare, glitter, tinsel, and gaudy.6 The striking features of both works were heightened by their juxtaposition: “On turning our back upon [the] pictured horrors, we are confronted by the gaieties of a scene as opposite as the antipodes.”7 Such contrasts of subject, style, size, and mood therefore formed an additional attraction to the overall appearance of the room, making it distinct from the careful composition of the Great Room.

The layout of the room also contributed towards making the spectacle of the School of Painting distinct as the three windows on one of the walls would have made it impossible for the Hanging Committee to achieve the same sense of symmetry and order as in the Great Room. Furthermore, at about half the size of the latter, there may not have been enough space in the School for viewers to stand in the centre and take in the room as a whole. At busy times especially, they would have been required to stand much closer to the works, and therefore to view them one-by-one, leading to a more sequential manner of viewing the pictures.

Without exaggerating the dissimilarities, we can see that the Great Room and the School of Painting presented two forms of spectacle, and that these encouraged two modes of spectatorship. Furthermore, with the Great Room overwhelmingly dominated by fashionable portraiture, and the School offering a greater variety of genres, subjects, and styles, they each presented a very different impression of British art. Entering the Great Room, a visitor might assume that the best work was being produced by a small coterie of prolific and well-established Academicians at the behest of the Royal Family and aristocracy. As Mark Hallet has written, Scharf’s image represents a:

strikingly homogenous, undifferentiated, and repetitive mass of paintings and people, offering a sardonic confirmation that painting, even as it dramatized a modern notion of individuality, simultaneously served as a crucial means of confirming a bourgeois community’s cultural uniformity, both within and without the Academy’s walls.8

The School, however, presented a very different notion of the artistic profession in 1828. Here is a vibrant demonstration of the marketplace for new pictures, in which a great variety of practitioners exhibited their particular talents and interests, and employed every novel trick, innovation, and personal quirk to jostle for the attention of spectators. Perhaps we should credit the Academy for providing space for this individualised and unruly side of British art just next door to the much grander and far politer, if somewhat predictable, spectacle of the Great Room.

  1. The Literary Gazette, 5 May 1828.↩︎

  2. The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction 315 (31 May 1828): 382.↩︎

  3. The Literary Gazette, 17 May 1828, 315.↩︎

  4. The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction 315 (31 May 1828): 384; and The Literary Gazette, 17 May 1828, 314.↩︎

  5. The architecture of the “Inner Room”, as it was then known, and an example of how it was laid out in 1811 is described in Eric Shanes, “Sacrificing Symmetry: Turner and the Inner Room display at the Royal Academy in 1811”, The British Art Journal 16, no. 2 (Autumn 2015): 70–75.↩︎

  6. The Literary Gazette, 17 May 1828, 315.↩︎

  7. The Literary Gazette, 17 May 1828, 315.↩︎

  8. Mark Hallet, “Painting”, in Iain McCalman (ed.), An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776–1832 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 260.↩︎

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