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1835 A Collector Makes His Rounds

Though the Summer Exhibition is a destination for hundreds of finely crafted objects each year, it is also a way station for those same objects: one of the many places of pause that typically punctuate a work of art’s journey through time and space. Once the show is over, the hundreds of paintings, sculptures, models, prints, and drawings that typically make up the Exhibition move on from the Royal Academy’s rooms into new settings and new types of display. On occasion, however, we find a small but significant subset of this larger mass of works travelling in the same direction, that is, to the same new home or way station. This was the case in 1835. In that year, two of the most impressive pictures hanging in the Great Room—John Constable’s Valley Farm (Fig. 1) and William Mulready’s The Last In—were, within months, to find themselves nestling in the London mansion of the art collector Robert Vernon. Henry Wyatt’s genre-piece Vigilance, which hung in the Academy’s Painting Room during the run of the 1835 show, and Martin Archer Shee’s portrait of the dramatist Thomas Morton, which appeared in the Ante-Room, were also acquired by Vernon, and quickly installed in his collection.1

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Vernon, who made his fortune as a horse-dealer to the army during the early decades of the nineteenth century, devoted much of his leisure time to purchasing or commissioning paintings by the leading British artists of his day. His activities in this regard took on a new intensity following his purchase of a substantial house at 50 Pall Mall in 1832, which he proceeded to fill with hundreds of British pictures. Though some were works by the canonical artists of the previous century, the great majority were canvases produced by living artists and exhibited at the Academy displays. On closer inspection, indeed, it becomes clear that Vernon’s activities as a collector, like so many other aspects of the contemporary art world, were powerfully shaped by the rituals and rhythms of the Annual Summer Exhibition.

In this respect, Vernon’s acquisition of a selection of works hanging at the 1835 Exhibition was entirely characteristic, and followed on closely from the purchases he had made in previous years. The Academy show of 1833, for instance, had also featured a host of pictures, which were subsequently to hang at his house in Pall Mall, including works by Augustus Wall Callcott, William Hilton, George Jones, and Edwin Landseer.2 The same was true in 1834, when Vernon again acquired pictures that were exhibited that year by Callcott and Hilton, and by Thomas Sidney Cooper.3 This pattern of accumulation meant that, by 1839, Vernon’s Pall Mall mansion was crowded with what an admiring journalist in The Art-Union described as “several hundred paintings”, packed into every available space: “the drawing room contains 54 pictures; the small room opposite, 38; and … above 100 are placed on the staircase.”4

A range of factors shaped this intimate relationship between a collector and the Academy’s Annual Exhibition. Vernon’s main artistic adviser was the landscape painter and Academician George Jones, who in all probability encouraged his patron to treat the exhibitions at both the Royal Academy and the British Institution as glorified marketplaces (which, of course, from a commercial perspective, is precisely what they were) and to rove through their rooms in search of pictures to purchase.5 Vernon seems to have brought a number of his pictures in this way: thus, Robin Hamlyn has written that: “he bought his first Turner at the Academy in 1832”, referring to his purchase of a historic sea-piece featuring the landing of William III at Torbay.6 Vernon would go on to buy two of the artist’s Venetian views, exhibited in 1833 and 1842 respectively, in the same manner.7 Though Turner’s fame was fully established by this point, other, less well-known artists were seen to benefit enormously from the imprimatur provided by the collector’s decision to purchase their works off the Exhibition’s walls: in the admittedly exaggerated and fawning words of The Art-Union journalist quoted above, so respected was the collector’s “taste and judgement” that “the fact of his selecting a picture out of an exhibition goes far to establish the reputation of a painter, who may date his rise, in his profession, to that day.”8

Though Vernon bought from the Exhibition itself, he also purchased numerous works that he saw being prepared for the Academy’s Annual Exhibition. He would spend the spring months assiduously visiting the studios of Britain’s leading artists, inspecting the exhibition pictures that were taking shape on their easels, and deciding whether they should become the latest of his acquisitions. This was the case with his purchase of Constable’s Valley Farm in 1835, which the collector first saw in the artist’s Charlotte Street studio in March of that year, and instantly decided to buy, leaving the actual price he was to pay to the discretion of the artist himself. In Constable’s own words, written in a letter to his friend and fellow artist C.R. Leslie, “he … bought it—it is his—only I must talk to you about price, for he leaves all to me.”9 The picture, for which Vernon ended up paying £300, was then sent to that year’s Summer Exhibition.10

In such instances, part of the pleasure Vernon must have felt as he walked around the Annual Exhibition was that of looking at the pictures he had already bought, and of basking in the discussion of such purchases within the contemporary art world. Satisfying, too, must have been the sense of his power over those artists whose works he had purchased, and whom he had the means to reward so generously. Vernon must also have taken pleasure in imagining where in his crowded mansion he might place the works he had purchased, or was about to buy off the Academy’s walls. Finally, like all collectors, he would have thought about how these new purchases might fit in alongside those older acquisitions by which they would soon find themselves surrounded. In 1835, he seems to have talked to Constable about this issue, too, for the artist reported to Leslie later in the same year that The Valley Farm was to take the place previously accorded in Vernon’s home to William Etty’s Youth on the Prow and Pleasure at the Helm (Fig. 2).11 This latter painting, which depicted a boat full of female figures in a state of undress, had been exhibited at the Academy in 1832, where it was criticised by the writer of The Morning Chronicle as the product of “a lascivious mind” and as a work that “no decent family can hang … against their wall.”12 Vernon, however, had no such qualms, and Constable mischievously notes that the installation of his own landscape was going to see this controversial painting being positioned lower down on the collector’s walls, and being brought even more intimately into the spectator’s purview: “My picture is to go into the place, where Etty’s ‘Bumboat’ is at present—his picture with its precious freight is to be brought nearer to the [eye deleted] nose.”13

However, Constable could have no real cause for complaint about the company his picture was going to be keeping. Thanks to Vernon’s reputation as someone who not only spent lavishly in artist’s studios, but also plucked some of the juiciest pictorial fruits hanging at the Academy’s Exhibition, he would have known that his painting had found its way into an especially desirable and prestigious new setting. In this instance, at least, an exhibited picture’s onward journey from Somerset House had proved a success.

  1. For an informative introduction to Vernon’s collection, see Robin Hamlyn, Robert Vernon’s Gift: British Art for the Nation 1847 (London: Tate Gallery, 1993); see also Dianne Sachko Macleod, Art and the Victorian Middle Class: Money and the Making of Cultural Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 20–87.↩︎

  2. See Hamlyn, Robert Vernon’s Gift, 67–70, and the catalogue for the Summer Exhibition of 1833.↩︎

  3. See Hamlyn, Robert Vernon’s Gift, 67–70, and the catalogue for the Summer Exhibition of 1834.↩︎

  4. “The Mansion of Robert Vernon, Esq., in Pall Mall”, The Art-Union (March 1839): 19.↩︎

  5. Hamlyn, Robert Vernon’s Gift, 15.↩︎

  6. Hamlyn, Robert Vernon’s Gift, 17–18; see also Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, who write, more cautiously, that the picture was “presumably purchased at the R.A. 1832”, Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, 2 vols (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), (Text), 195.↩︎

  7. Hamlyn, Robert Vernon’s Gift, 61; see also Butlin and Joll, who confidently declare in both cases that the pictures concerned were “purchased at the R.A.”, Butlin and Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, 200 and 245.↩︎

  8. The Art-Union (March 1839): 19.↩︎

  9. R.B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable’s Correspondence III: Correspondence with C.R. Leslie, R.A. (Ipswich: Suffolk Records Society, 1965), 124.↩︎

  10. For the price, see R.B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable’s Correspondence IV: Patrons, Dealers and Fellow Artists (Ipswich: Suffolk Records Society, 1966), 121.↩︎

  11. Beckett, Constable’s Correspondence III, 132.↩︎

  12. Quoted in Sarah Burnage’s catalogue entry on the painting, in Sarah Burnage, Mark Hallett, and Laura Turner (eds), William Etty: Art and Controversy, (London: Philip Wilson, 2011), 129.↩︎

  13. Beckett, Constable’s Correspondence III, 132. It is interesting to note that, in this pictorial exchange, one depicted boat has succeeded another, if of a very different kind.↩︎

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