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1834 Look on Those Trout!

In a study published in 2017, and based on research conducted at the Art Institute of Chicago, Lisa Smith, Jeffrey Smith, and Pablo Tinio concluded that the average time people spend looking at individual works of art in a museum is just under 29 seconds.1 This conclusion is interesting enough in itself, but it also prompts another, related question: how much time do we typically spend reading about the individual works of art that hang in museums, or that are brought together for the purposes of an exhibition?

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The most common source of written information about the works of art displayed at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibitions has, of course, long been the newspaper or magazine review. Today, the Summer Exhibition continues to attract such reviews, though they tend to be thin on the ground. One relatively substantial recent example is a piece written about the 2017 Exhibition by The Daily Telegraph’s art critic Alistair Sooke.2 The review, which focuses on the different sections of the show in turn, is some 1,300 words long and, as part of a broader assessment of the Exhibition as “the dependably reassuring last word in déjà vu”, discusses twenty-seven individual works out of the 1,100 that were on display. Most of the exhibits that Sooke does single out for attention are mentioned very briefly: thus, he notes Anselm Kiefer’s “characteristically bombastic landscape, churning with Sturm and Drang”, and suggests that Phyllida Barlow’s Untitled: Hammer 2015 is “typically authoritative”. Others attract a little more notice: Sooke praises “Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga’s stunning, sensuous curtain of chunky oxidised cans and stainless-steel wire, which provides a rich cascade of painterly turquoise and gold”, and, in his longest discussion, grants 125 words to Cornelia Parker’s Alter Ego (Object with Unconscious).3 All of this will, of course, seem entirely familiar: Sooke’s review, in its length and structure, and in the levels of attention it gives to individual works of art, may itself seem “dependably reassuring”—that is, the kind of exhibition criticism we take for granted, as we flick through a newspaper or magazine, or scroll down our phones. But it was not always thus.

The 1834 Summer Exhibition, as was normal throughout the nineteenth century, and as was common for all kinds of exhibitions in the period, generated an amount of press attention that, in comparison to today, was extraordinary. The show not only prompted numerous newspaper reviews but, as will be focused upon here, also an abundance of critical writing in the contemporary periodicals. A typical example is The Athenaeum, which published a series of three reviews of the 1834 show that amounted to almost 6,000 words in total, and each instalment of which offered extended analyses of the works of leading artists.4 Here, for instance, is the writer’s description of Edwin Landseer’s Scene in the olden time at Bolton Abbey (Fig. 1), which many critics thought the outstanding picture in the show: 

It seems a day of payment in kind, and the Abbot, with another of his brethren, has come forth to receive it. One man lays down a noble buck on the floor, extends his hand along its breast to show where the fat lies, while two dogs, that are all but living, look on as if they claimed a share: a girl, and a handsome one, with a humility not unmingled with fear, presents a dish of delicious trout; they seem fresh from the river, and just gasping their last. A youth has got a wild heron slung on his back, and, without the fear of the Abbot before his eyes, is peeping at the back of a letter which his reverence holds in his hand. The colouring of this truly splendid picture is clear, deep and harmonious.5

The critic in The Literary Gazette, meanwhile, offered the following account of the image, alongside similarly detailed responses to works by artists such as Turner, Augustus Wall Callcott, Daniel Maclise, and William Allen:

A beautiful picture, painted with Mr Landseer’s accustomed skill. The mild dignity of the principal character, and the reverential awe of the subordinates, are finely expressed. These were certainly days when the church was in a palmy state. When we look at the profusion of four-footed and feathered game lying at the feet of the abbot, who is reading the courteous missive by which the present has been accompanied, and observe the finny offering from another quarter, and the salver of rich and cheering cordials which an attendant is bringing in,—all indications of a well-stocked larder and cellar,—we are reminded of the burden of the fine old song—“What baron or squire, or knight of the shire, Lives half so well as a holy friar?”6

Both discussions of Landseer’s painting pale into insignificance, however, when compared with a review that appeared in Fraser’s Magazine that summer. Issued under the pseudonym “Morgan Rattler”, it was written by a charming, convivial, and improvident Irishman called Percival Weldon Banks, who, having trained as a barrister, earned a precarious living on Grub Street until his early death, aged forty-four, in 1850.7Titled “Some Passages in a Visit to the Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, it spends no less than thirteen pages reviewing the show, almost three of which—amounting to more than 2,000 words—are devoted to Landseer’s picture alone.8 To give the piece’s flavour, here is the beginning of its description of the picture’s central character, the prior who stands receiving his visitors’ offerings of game and fish:

the prior is in presence—an awful man, just touched with years; the stalwart frame has begun, and only begun, to relax into corpulency, and that evidently from the new indulgence of dignified ease and the lack of accustomed exercise: for these magnific limbs are not the limbs of a cloistered monk. Many and many a time has that broad chest swelled and that haughty nostril been expanded to the breezes of the mountain; many and many a day of free and sweet toil has it taken to develop those splendid muscles. Higher attributes, however, has he than those of mere physical conformation: look at that magnificent brow—that pile of a brow—in which thought, and will, and power seem enthroned.9

And so it goes on, and on. “Look on those trout!” (Fig. 2), exclaims Morgan Rattler at another point:

see … the moisture on their backs: they are absolutely alive! The gills of one are dilated gaspingly in the ungenial element; a bend … of the tail of another—a spasmodic action, declares that he, too, is instinct with the remains of life, and that he is faintly writhing in the throes of expiring animation.10

The art criticism of this late Georgian period, it will now have become clear, had a very different character to that we are used to today. There are many reasons for this, of course, but one fascinating question raised by a comparison of the two types of criticism is whether the far greater degree of journalistic attention granted to the works that were on display in the nineteenth-century Summer Exhibition, when compared to the critical scrutiny they enjoy today, bore any relationship to the visual attention that those same works received within the Exhibition itself? Did people spend, on average, 29 seconds looking at Landseer’s picture as it hung at Somerset House? Or did they, rather, spend many minutes poring over such pictorial features as the prior’s magnificent brow and the basket of twitching fish, as Morgan Rattler’s account suggested they should? We will probably never know. But what we can say with absolute certainty is that the visitors to the 1834 Exhibition had the chance to spend a lot more time reading about the works that were on display than is the case for those who go to see the Summer Exhibition today.11

  1. See Lisa F. Smith, Jeffrey K. Smith, and Pablo P.L. Tinio, “Time Spent Viewing Art and Reading Labels”, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 11, no. 1 (2017): 77–85.↩︎

  2. Alastair Sooke, “The Dependably Reassuring Last Word in déjà vu”, The Daily Telegraph, 7 June 2017.↩︎

  3. All quotes from Sooke, “The Dependably Reassuring Last Word in déjà vu”.↩︎

  4. The three reviews are to be found in The Athenaeum: “Fine Arts: The Exhibition at the Royal Academy”, 10 May 1834, 355–356; “Fine Arts: The Exhibition at the Royal Academy [Second Notice]”, 17 May 1834, 378–379; and “Fine Arts: The Exhibition at the Royal Academy [Concluding Notice]”, 31 May 1834, 418–419.↩︎

  5. “Fine Arts: The Exhibition at the Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 10 May 1834, 355.↩︎

  6. “Fine Arts: Royal Academy [Fourth Notice]”, The London Literary Gazette; and Journal of the Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences &c, 31 May 1834, 377. The two lines of poetry come from the poem I am a Friar of Orders Gray by John O’Keefe (1747–1833).↩︎

  7. See “Obituary, P.W. Banks, Esq.”, The Gentleman’s Magazine (December 1850): 665.↩︎

  8. “Morgan Rattler” [Percival Weldon Banks], “Some Passages in a Visit to the Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country 10, no. 55 (July 1834): 106–119.↩︎

  9. Morgan Rattler, “Some Passages in a Visit to the Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, 109.↩︎

  10. Morgan Rattler, “Some Passages in a Visit to the Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, 110–111.↩︎

  11. Such reviews—then as now—were, of course, written as much for readers who didn’t attend the exhibitions as for those who did.↩︎

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