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1845 The Slaughterhouse of Art History

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For art historians seeking in the annual record of Royal Academy exhibitions the lineaments of a progressive account of cultural change, and in individual works exceptionally revealing anticipations or exemplifications of emerging art-historical phenomena, the Summer Exhibition of 1845 would undoubtedly be another year important for the presence of J.M.W. Turner. The year itself appears to have a kind of gravitational pull within the Turner chronology, pinpointing the moment that he presented pictures that exemplify a rupture into modernity so authentic and profound that they baffled contemporaries, and were thus prophetic.1 In that year, he assumed the temporary Presidency of the Academy; but in that year, too, Ruskin and other early commentators detected his final creative and intellectual decline.2 The Venetian pictures shown that year represent the continuing dissolution of the subject in favour of abstract light effects, and in this, perhaps, “the increasing recession of history, the redundancy of historical characters and the supremacy of the environment as a spectacle governed more by nature than by man”.3 In the pair of whaling pictures that he also displayed in 1845, dealing as they do with the industrial exploitation of nature, present-day eco-theorists may detect the queasy acknowledgement of the destructiveness of modernity wrought in paint (Fig. 1).4 Whatever implications might be drawn from these exhibits, what is revealed is some historical, cultural, or biographical point of special interest; thus too is betrayed the idiographic bias of art historians—our concern that the particular, by which we mean also, the exceptional, should serve as representative (of the artist, of the historical moment, of the possibilities of art itself at that juncture).5

This idiographic bias is deep rooted, and guides and edits the historical record itself. In re-presenting the exhibition catalogue itself, with its multitude of mostly forgotten names and titles, only very rarely to be connected with extant works of art, we bear witness to that process of editing, a process so harsh and complete that it merits its designation by the literary historian Franco Moretti as a “slaughterhouse”.6 In 1845, as with any other year, we can look beyond the (oxymoronic) representative exceptions, to the mass of portraits by forgotten artists of forgotten people, the lost historical canvases by artists known only by name, if at all, the now-anonymous landscapes and scenes everyday life which can have only generic status, whose appearance can only be surmised.

The Exhibition of 1845 provides an opportunity to do this. For in that year, scattered through the catalogue listing, are as many as four paintings dedicated to the subject of the Ascension: Ramsay Richard Reinagle’s The ascension, a sketch; the Saviour being raised far above the earth, which is left below; Thomas Jones Barker’s simply titled Ascension; Francis Philip Stephanoff’s The ascension—a sketch; and The ascension of Christ—a study for an altar piece by Edward Corbould. There were no paintings of this subject at the Academy the year before; nor in the year after, and only occasionally at other dates. But there were exhibits of the same subject in the other London exhibitions that year. Six paintings of the subject were shown at the British Institution, all of a similar size (between 3 and 4 feet, about 1 metre, high, and narrow, about 1–2 feet wide).7 Even in the show of the Society of British Artists, by this date, as William Bell Scott recalled, “the retreat for the ill-used art of landscape”, there was one work on this subject.8 The year 1845 was, in light of these records, the year of the Ascension.

That it was so can quite readily be explained. For all the paintings noted here as exhibited in 1845 can be identified as having been entered into competition for the commission of a full-scale altarpiece on the theme to be installed in the church of St James, Bermondsey, in south London. A local resident had left a bequest of £500 expressly for this purpose. The church authorities had put his plan into action in the autumn of 1844, calling for sketches of the subject, executed on a set size, to be submitted for scrutiny.9 Over seventy works were submitted to this end, leading to their exhibition together in the Leather Market in Bermondsey, with the winner declared in January 1845 to be John Wood (Fig.2). Regardless of the result, many competitors clearly wanted their efforts to get a further public airing.10

The competition itself has some interest, as a sign of how history painting of the most traditional kind remained a feature of the public exhibitions, even at this point: even the slight visual record provided by the newspaper illustration of the Leather Market exhibition indicates how the painters had, on mass, followed a very limited range of Renaissance compositional types. But the circumstances also expose the editorial process, the slaughter, characteristic of the discipline of art history. Although Wood’s finished painting still remains in St James, none of the exhibited sketches can currently be identified, and even the identity of many of their authors established only with special efforts. Two paintings do survive which conform to the set subject and dimensions of the competition pictures, by Ford Madox Brown and Alfred Stevens.11 The former picture has been identified as such, and it is only in the literature of this painter, a “major” figure strongly associated with Pre-Raphaelite artistic innovation, the rupture into Modernity, that any proper art-historical attention has been given to the St James Bermondsey competition. His effort, seeming to point back to William Blake and forward to Symbolist invention, has been compared favourably to Woods’ supposedly routine production.12 Yet Brown is not documented as a competitor. Neither is Stevens, at this date appointed as a teacher at the Government School of Design at Somerset House and regarded as a key figure in the development of industrial design and foreshadowing the Arts and Crafts movement. Yet all the paintings which we know were entered into competition have, basically, disappeared. Even participation in this well-publicised event could not save them; success has scarcely saved Wood from oblivion. What we are left with is the impression, unwitting, without doubt, that it is only Brown’s and Stevens’ association (however moderate or compromised) with a mainstream narrative of modernist innovation—the narrative exemplified more obviously with Turner’s ostensibly radical vision—that has kept their efforts on record and in view. Seen in that light, the task of excavating the Exhibition of 1845 exposes the hugely deforming influence of modernist priorities on the past, the difficulty of escaping its influence and the ongoing challenge of establishing alternative histories of art.

  1. Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, 2 vols (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), Vol. 1, 235–239. For accounts of Turner’s modernity, see Sam Smiles, Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007). The dating of works to “ca. 1845” seems to carry special symbolic weight in the established literature on Turner, being strongly favoured in chronological attributions attached to paintings which have often been seen as tipping over into abstraction or fancy. There are thirteen oil paintings dated to ca. 1845 in Turner Worldwide (at, together with the four works documented as exhibited that year; two paintings are dated speculatively to ca. 1844, with seven exhibited works of that date; all nine of the paintings of 1846 were exhibited, with no speculative attributions to that date. Three more are dated to ca. 1844–1845. The date has a centrifugal draw within the scholarship, representing, obviously, a mid-point of the decade, but also something more value-laden. Norham Castle, Sunrise, dated to ca. 1845 is “a touchstone for modern understandings of Turner’s later work as abstract or Impressionist, as if he could knowingly ‘anticipate’ later artistic trends”, David Blayney Brown, Amy Concannon, and Sam Smiles (eds), Late Turner: Painting Set Free, exhibition catalogue (London: Tate Britain, 2014), 221; the Sunrise with Sea Monsters of the same date, perhaps “left by Turner as a piece to test reason and to point towards readings of the sea and its mysteries that lie beyond observation and in the depths of imagination”, Blayney Brown et al., Late Turner, 212.↩︎

  2. Sam Smiles, “Decline and Fall: Turner’s Old Age and his Early Biographers”, in David Blayney Brown, Amy Concannon, and Sam Smiles (eds), Late Turner: Painting Set Free, exhibition catalogue (London: Tate Britain, 2014), 60.↩︎

  3. Margaret Plant, Venice, Fragile City: 1797–1997 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 97, n.129, quoted, with certain reservations, in Ian Warrell, Turner and Venice, exhibition catalogue (London: Tate Britain, 2003), 28.↩︎

  4. The publication accompanying the recent exhibition of the Whalers pictures in New York was obliged to introduce Melville to make the step between Turner and Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella, see Alison Hokanson, “Turner’s Whaling Pictures”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 73, no. 4 (Spring 2016):  44–45. See also Jason Edwards (ed.), Turner and the Whale, exhibition catalogue (Kingston upon Hull: Hull Maritime Museum, 2017).↩︎

  5. On the idiographic character of art history as a discipline, see Whitney Davis, “Art History, Re-Enactment, and the Idiographic Stance”, in Peter Mack and Robert Williams (eds), Michael Baxandall, Vision and the Work of Words (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015), 69–90.↩︎

  6. Franco Moretti, “The Slaughterhouse of Literature”, MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 61, no. 1 (2000): 207–227.↩︎

  7. Exhibited at the British Institution in 1845: The Ascension—Sketch for an Altar-piece by Robinson Elliott, 3’3” x 1’7”; The Ascension by Thomas Woolnoth, 3’5” x 1’10”; The Ascension by William Rimer, 3’5” x 1’10”; “The Ascension, sketch for an Altar-piece”, James Matthews Leigh, 3’3” x 1’8”; Frank Howard, The Ascension of our Saviour from the Mount of Olives, 4’ x 3’4”; William Edward Frost, The Ascension, Design for an Altar-piece, 3’5” x 1’10”.↩︎

  8. The Ascension, a Sketch by Ebenezer Butler Morris. William Bell Scott is quoted in W. Minto (ed.), Autobiographical Notes of the Life of William Bell Scott, 2 vols (London: James R. Osgood, McIlvaine, and Co., 1892), Vol. 1, 109.↩︎

  9. The competition was widely reported in the national and regional press; see, for instance, Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 28 September 1844.↩︎

  10. Although the competition and exhibition was strictly anonymised, the competitors can be identified from a manuscript list, apparently drawn up out of pride by Wood at a later date. This is among a bound set of papers relating to the competition, which constitutes the fullest historical record: “Original Manuscripts of the Bermondsey Altarpiece. Correspondence. 1845 & 6. Also the Baptism Competition, Correspondence, Critiques. Etc. April 1845 to June 1847”, Southwark Local History Library, YJ 852 ST.JA.↩︎

  11. Forbes Magazine Collection, Christie’s, 19 February 2003 (lot 301) and Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (acc. no. 2204), respectively.↩︎

  12. See especially Laura MacCulloch, Ford Madox Brown: Works on Paper and Archive Material at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery (PhD thesis, University of Birmingham, 2010), Vol. 1, 40–54. Also, Mary Bennett, Ford Madox Brown: A Catalogue Raisonné, 2 vols (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), Vol. 1, 48–52; Julian Treuherz, Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2012), 112–113.↩︎

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Explore the 1845 catalogue