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1843 The Royal Academy and the Westminster Cartoon Exhibition

By the mid-nineteenth century, London supported a robust ecosystem of exhibitions, and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition was but one choice among many. Canny practitioners took full advantage of this fact by sending their works to multiple sites within a single season and strategically matching exhibits to venues.1 In 1843, a new type of display was added to the mix by the Fine Arts Commission, which was in charge of the decoration of the new Houses of Parliament.2 The Fine Arts Commission offered £2,000 in prizes for drawings or “cartoons” on a subject from British history, or literature that featured life-sized figures and measured between ten and fifteen feet “in their longest dimension” (Fig. 1).3 The entries were displayed in the medieval Westminster Hall, just a short walk from Trafalgar Square. A perennial complaint about the Academy was that it had failed to foster history painting; now, the Fine Arts Commission exhibition provided a venue devoted exclusively to history and dangled the prospect of future commissions. For many artists, the advent of the cartoon contest raised hopes of a new age of government patronage. But this did not mean that artists abandoned the Academy; rather, as was often the case in this period, many practitioners chose to maximise their exposure by exhibiting at more than one venue, sending works to both the Academy and the Westminster cartoon contest. 

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Participation in these two events required very different forms of artistic production. The Academy was open to works on a variety of subjects in multiple media, whereas the Fine Arts Commission required large-scale cartoons of historic subjects created for the occasion. The Academy remained the premier exhibition venue, and, on a practical level, works that went unsold at its summer show could be re-exhibited elsewhere in the hope of finding a buyer. The Fine Arts Commission, on the other hand, was an unproven entity, one that furthermore required artists to invest their resources in purpose-made designs that had little sale value, with no guarantee of obtaining a commission. Yet, in 1843, many artists sent works to both events. The full extent of this dual participation is difficult to determine because entries to the Fine Arts Commission were anonymous, and contemporary journalists’ attempted attributions are often unreliable.4 But we do know the identities of the participants awarded premiums and of some vocally disappointed entrants, such as Benjamin Robert Haydon.5 Even with this limited information, I have been able to identify at least twenty artists who contributed to both the Academy and the Westminster cartoon exhibition in 1843.6 The list includes artists with well-established reputations, such as Haydon; a number of Academicians, such as Sir William Charles Ross and Henry Howard; and lesser-known artists, among them William Edward Frost and Joseph Severn. Two dual exhibitors, Charles West Cope and Edward Matthew Ward, went on to play major roles in the decoration of the Houses of Parliament. Ultimately, the results of this project were decidedly mixed, and the Fine Arts Commission may have done as much harm as good to the artists of Britain.7 But in 1843, the advent of the cartoon contest allowed artists to work in tandem with their traditional venue at the Academy.

In some cases, the nature of the works that these artists exhibited suggests the range demanded (and enabled) by these two very different displays. Several sent portraits to the Academy, while experimenting in history for the cartoon competition.8 Others, including Ward and Marshall Claxton, sent historical genre scenes featuring eighteenth-century artists and authors to the Academy, while delving into the deep past with depictions of protagonists such as Boadicea and Alfred for the cartoon competition.9 In other cases, the content was quite similar. Although this fact is not noted in the literature to date, I believe that the well-known painter of spectacular historical landscapes, John Martin, actually went so far as to exhibit two different versions of the same composition at the Academy and at Westminster. Among Martin’s six entries at the Academy was Canute Reproving His Courtiers, and the cartoon exhibition included a work of the same title, accompanied in the catalogue by exactly the same quotation from David Hume’s The History of England.10 By repurposing the composition of his Academy exhibit for the cartoon competition, Martin declined to take on the risk involved in producing a design specifically for the Fine Arts Commission, while maximising exposure for his image. At this point in his career, Martin, like many of his peers, was well accustomed to having his compositions circulate in multiple forms of reproduction, autograph and otherwise.11

Exhibiting simultaneously at the Academy and elsewhere could be extremely rewarding professionally. Such was the case with Paul Falconer Poole, a relatively unknown painter who came to new prominence in this year. Perhaps best known to history as the man who absconded with the artist Francis Danby’s wife, Poole had previously enjoyed a steady if not spectacular career as a landscape and genre painter.12 But in 1843, a history painting he exhibited at the Academy, Solomon Eagle Exhorting the People to Repentance, during the Plague Year of 1665, was declared “the picture of the year” 13 (Fig. 2). It is an image of plague painted for the time of cholera. Inspired by an episode in Daniel Defoe’s novel of 1722, Journal of the Plague Year, the work shows its protagonist preaching while “quite naked, and with a pan of burning charcoal on his head.”14 The people gathered around this startling figure chart a variety of human responses to calamity, from faith and contemplation to defiance and debauchery. In the background, a shrouded corpse is being lowered from a window, a detail one reviewer found “disagreeably gloomy”.15 In contrast, a critic writing for The Art-Union, a journal committed to promoting British works in the highest genres, found in that gloom a work of considerable power: “Of all who see this picture not one will call it beautiful, but all must acknowledge it a wonderful work of Art.”16 This writer also hailed Poole’s canvas as the equal of a celebrated depiction of human misery that had been displayed in London some twenty years earlier, Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa:

We cannot, at the moment, remember any other work similar in feeling or execution to compare it with, save the “Wreck of the Medusa”; … The picture is one for which we challenge competition, among all the schools of Europe.17

Poole’s newly gained reputation was further enhanced by his participation in the cartoon contest, to which he submitted a Death of Lear. At least one critic identified Poole as the author of this design and drew attention to his status as “the painter of Solomon Eagle and the Plague of London, now in the R.A. Exhibition.”18 In addition, Poole once again found favour in the pages of The Art-Union, which stated that: “amid vicious and reckless imitation, he has produced a work which achieves for him a yet higher position in the ranks of his profession.”19 Several years later, the Fine Arts Commission ultimately concurred, awarding Poole a prize for an entry to a subsequent competition held in 1847.20 For the Academy as an institution, the Fine Arts Commission represented a challenge to its authority as the principle promoter of the national school of art. But for many individual artists such as Poole, new display venues provided a valuable addition to the Academy, rather than (as is often claimed) an alternative to it.21

  1. For examples, see Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich, “Local/Global: Mapping Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market”, Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 11, no. 3 (Autumn 2012),; Catherine Roach, Pictures-within-Pictures in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 109–111.↩︎

  2. On the Fine Arts Commission, see T.S. Boase, “Painting”, in M.H. Port (ed.), The Houses of Parliament (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976), 268–281; William Vaughan, “‘God Help the Minister Who Meddles in Art’: History Painting in the New Palace of Westminster”, in Christine Riding and Jacqueline Riding (eds), The Houses of Parliament: History, Art, Architecture (London: Merrell, 2000), 225–240; Janice Carlisle, Picturing Reform in Victorian Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 85–116.↩︎

  3. Boase, “Painting”, 270. When the cartoon exhibition opened on 3 July, the Academy had been open since early May, and would remain so through the month of July. For the dates of the cartoon exhibition, see Richard D. Altick, The Shows of London (Boston, MA: Belknap Press, 1978), 418; for the Academy, see “The Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Times, 9 May 1843, 6; “Royal Academy”, The Literary Gazette, 29 July 1843, 197.↩︎

  4. See, for example, this request for a retraction: “Fine Arts. The Cartoons”, The Literary Gazette, 15 July 1843, 466.↩︎

  5. Frederick Knight Hunt, The Book of Art: Cartoons, Frescoes, Sculpture and Decorative Art, as Applied to the New Houses of Parliament and to Buildings in General, with an Historical Notice of the Exhibitions in Westminster Hall and Directions for Painting in Fresco (London: Jeremiah Howe, 1846), 82.↩︎

  6. John Bridges (RA no. 392, FAC no. 104); Marshall Claxton (RA nos. 315, 377, 360, FAC no. 83); Alfred Edward Chalon (RA nos. 655, 987, 1001, 1013, 1048, 1078, 1133, FAC no. 51); Charles West Cope (RA no. 193, FAC no. 105); William Edward Frost (RA no. 55, FAC no. 10); Andrew Geddes, ARA (RA nos. 123, 262, 308, 504, FAC no. 36); Samuel Alexander Hart, RA (RA nos. 232, 483, FAC no. 20); Benjamin Robert Haydon (RA no. 579, FAC no. 33); John Callcott Horsley (RA nos. 220, 273, FAC no. 100); Henry Howard, RA (RA nos. 69, 76, 197, FAC no. 45); Edward Daniel Leahy (RA nos. 226, 239, FAC no. 129); John Martin (RA nos. 541, 582, 814, 878, 992, 1007, FAC no. 81); Frederick Richard Pickersgill (RA nos. 155, 557, FAC no. 16); Peter Falconer Poole (RA no. 423, FAC no. 26); Edward Villiers Rippingille (RA nos. 165, 561, FAC no. 7); Sir William Charles Ross, RA (RA nos. 723, 734, 754, 803, 827, 856, 908, 909, FAC no. 50); Joseph Severn (RA no. 516, FAC no. 11); Francis Philip Stephanoff (RA no. 597, FAC no. 60); Henry Townshend (RA no. 626, FAC no. 128); and Edward Matthew Ward (RA no. 218, FAC no. 74).↩︎

  7. Carlisle, Picturing Reform in Victorian Britain, 85–92.↩︎

  8. These include John Bridges, Alfred Edward Chalon, and Edward Daniel Leahy.↩︎

  9. Claxton showed Sir Joshua Reynolds and His Friends and Alfred in the Camp of the Danes; Ward showed Dr. Johnson Perusing the Manuscript of the Vicar of Wakefield, as a Last Resource for Rescuing Goldsmith from the Hands of the Bailiffs and Boadicea, Animating the Britons Precious to the Last Battle with the Romans under Suctonius.↩︎

  10. Hunt, The Book of Art, 101. William Feaver mistakenly gives 1843 as the year of Martin’s display of a similar subject, The Trial of Canute, in the Fine Arts Commission exhibition of 1844. William Feaver, The Art of John Martin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 181. For a related watercolour and Martin’s participation in the cartoon exhibition of 1844, see Martin Myrone (ed.), John Martin: Apocalypse (London: Tate, 2011), 194–195.↩︎

  11. Myrone, John Martin, 11–21.↩︎

  12. Francis Greenacre, “Poole, Paul Falconer (1807–1879)”, in H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); online edn, David Cannadine (ed.), January 2012, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22519.↩︎

  13. “Exhibitions”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, August 1843, 189. ↩︎

  14. The Exhibition of the Royal Academy, MDCCCXLIII, The Seventy-Fifth (London: W. Clowes, 1843), 22.↩︎

  15. “Fine Arts: Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, 13 May 1843, 298.↩︎

  16. “The Royal Academy”, The Art-Union no. 55 (June 1843): 171. See, also Debra N. Mancoff, “Samuel Carter Hall: Publisher as Promoter of the High Arts”, Victorian Periodicals Review 24, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 15–16.↩︎

  17. “The Royal Academy”, The Art-Union 4, no. 55 (June 1843): 171.↩︎

  18. “Fine Arts: The Cartoons”, The Literary Gazette, 8 July 1843, 451.↩︎

  19. “The Cartoons: Westminster Hall”, The Art-Union 4, no. 57 (August 1843): 209.↩︎

  20. Greenacre, “Poole, Paul Falconer”.↩︎

  21. See, for example, Andrew Graciano (ed.), Exhibiting Outside the Academy, Salon and Biennial, 1775–1999: Alternative Venues for Display (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).↩︎

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