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1850 Battles Old and New

I have the honor to inform you that in consequence of the want of room in the present National Gallery, for the Pictures belonging to the collection Her Majesty’s Government have come to the determination of appropriating the room now used by the Royal Academy to the purpose of the National Gallery.1

This excerpt from a letter sent to the Royal Academy by the Prime Minister Lord John Russell makes clear that the Government was determined that the Academy find its own home and end the institutional house-share of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square where, from 1837, the Academy had occupied the East Wing and the National Gallery the West Wing. Space was at a premium and grumbles about the situation were frequently issued from both sides of the vestibule. By this point, several parliamentary committees had sat to discuss the issue and the findings of the Committee of 1850 was widely reported in the press. Overcrowding in the National Gallery was becoming a serious issue for the preservation of the pictures. The Committee’s report observed that the location of the gallery in central London encouraged: “masses of people, consisting not merely of those who come to see the pictures, but also of persons who either visit it for shelter in bad weather … or where food and refreshments may be conveniently taken.”2 It was made clear that the whole of the Trafalgar Square building was needed to house the nation’s pictures. However, the debate rumbled on—there was even a counter-proposal that it should be the Academy that stayed put and the National Gallery move—and it was not for another seventeen years, finally in 1867, that the Academy would move to its present-day premises off Piccadilly.3

Explore the 1850 catalogue

Amid this controversy which occupied many column inches in the press, the Annual Exhibition was staged as usual. One of the most discussed works in the contemporary reviews that year was Sir Edwin Landseer’s A Dialogue at Waterloo (Fig. 1), a large painting measuring three metres wide, depicting an elderly Duke of Wellington visiting the battlefield in Belgium with his daughter-in-law, the Marchioness of Douro (with the Royal Academician David Roberts standing in to model as a Belgium farmer). Presented to the nation three years before its completion by Robert Vernon, it was described by one biographer of Landseer as a “special favourite”.4 Vernon, a businessman who had amassed a fortune supplying horses to the British army during the Napoleonic wars, gave his collection of modern art to the nation in 1847 (it is now split between the National Gallery and Tate). By this date, he had already purchased a number of works by Landseer, with several Highland scenes, including Highland Music and Deer and Deerhounds in a Mountain Torrent. In 1846, he commissioned along with Dialogue at Waterloo, two other large canvases, Time of War and Time of Peace (both destroyed in the Thames flood of 1928).5

Landseer attracted patrons such as Vernon—businessmen seeking sporting, animal, landscape, and genre subjects. These included William Wells of Redleaf, a former shipbuilder who owned thirty-three pictures by Landseer, and one of nineteenth-century Britain’s most prolific art collectors, John Sheepshanks, the cloth merchant originally from Leeds who had moved to London in 1828 and concentrated on amassing his important collection of genre pictures, which are now housed in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Landseer was knighted in 1850 and that year also paid his first visit to Balmoral to meet with another esteemed patron, Queen Victoria. “Knighthood happily synchronised with another noble example of his powers,” wrote his biographer, James Manson, referring to his other Academy exhibit of 1850, The Lost Sheep.6

The Academy was both an important venue for attracting such patrons, or, as in this case, demonstrating the fruits of their patronage. The Sherbourne Mercury reported a visit to the Exhibition by “the Duke himself, who lingered with evident satisfaction before the canvas, which seemed to render him twice over a spectator of his own greatness.”7 The Birmingham Journal was equally as effusive:

The portrait of the Duke renders very striking his present and peculiar pose—the precise inclination of the head on the shoulders—the exact character and expression of the features—and the vigour and deliberation which distinguish his gesture whilst in conversation.8

Thirty-five years after the battle had taken place, Waterloo pictures could still attract a crowd, as David Wilkie’s The Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Dispatch from Waterloo had done in 1822 when it was exhibited at the Academy and had to be roped off to protect it from the crowds.

Such fawning praise did not greet all the exhibits of 1850. Described by critics using a pathologised language of dirt and disease, John Everett Millais exhibited his first religious subject.9 After the largely favourable reaction to his Isabella in the previous year, the paroxysms of the press must have come as a shock to the young painter. Exhibited without a title and listed in the catalogue with a quote from the Bible (“And one shall say unto him, What are those wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.” Zechariah 13:6), Charles Dickens described Millais’ depiction of Christ, which is now known as Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop), as “a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed gown” (Fig. 2).10 Wellington’s battle had long passed, but Millais’ had only just started, reminding us that the Academy could also be an arena of cultural combat, where critics waged war with words and artists shot back, sending their works into the fray year on year.

  1. RA General Assembly Minutes, Vol. 5, Royal Academy of Arts Archive, 160.↩︎

  2. “The National Gallery—Report and Evidence of the Parliamentary Committee”, 18 November 1850, 3.↩︎

  3. Papers relating to the Trafalgar Square building, May 1851, Royal Academy Archive of Arts (RAA/SEC/2/107).↩︎

  4. James A. Manson, Sir Edwin Landseer R.A. (London: The Walter Scott Publishing Co., 1902), 139.↩︎

  5. Richard Ormond, The Monarch of the Glen: Landseer in the Highlands (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2005), 100.↩︎

  6. Manson, Sir Edwin Landseer R.A., 140.↩︎

  7. “Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, Sherbourne Mercury, 7 May 1850.↩︎

  8. “The Royal Academy Exhibition”, Birmingham Journal, 8 June 1850, 3.↩︎

  9. Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of Pre-Raphaelites (London: Tate Publishing, 2000), xx.↩︎

  10. Charles Dickens, “Old Lamps for New Ones”, Household Words, 15 June 1850, 265–266.↩︎

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Explore the 1850 catalogue