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1853 Literary Quotations in the Summer Exhibition Catalogue

Explore the 1853 catalogue

William Powell Frith’s A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 (1883) shows visitors reading and annotating their Exhibition Catalogues, capturing for posterity the presence of reading material at the Summer Exhibitions during the Victorian era. Sculptures, watercolours, oil paintings, miniatures, engravings, and architectural drawings on display were numbered but not captioned, so catalogues were necessary to identify them. They mediated access to art through minimal information: the name of the artist, the artwork number, title, and location in the gallery. Also included was a list of exhibitors with their address for prospective purchasers to contact them directly as the Royal Academy did not broker sales. This minimal information highlights the Academy’s willingness to let art speak for itself but some artists chose to include literary quotations in the catalogue to accompany their exhibits. The 1853 catalogue includes a total of 102 quotations taken from the Scriptures, poems, plays, and novels, mostly in English but some in French and Italian. Why did artists choose to caption their artworks with literary quotations and not prose descriptions? How did these quotations impact visitors’ interpretation of art? How did they enhance the aesthetics of the artworks they accompanied? An overview of the uses to which dramatic and poetic quotations were put in the 1853 Exhibition Catalogue begins to answer these questions, and can suggest ways to think about the relationship between literary and visual cultures at the Summer Exhibitions.

In quoting from literature, some artists indicated that their painting illustrated a text. The thirteen Shakespearean quotations in the 1853 catalogue are prime examples. Artists created narrative paintings depicting scenes taken from such plays as Henry II (1595), Love’s Labour Lost (1597), and The Merchant of Venice (1605). Often, they titled their paintings after Shakespearean characters and included a quotation depicting the main action, as did William Holman Hunt who captioned his Claudio and Isabella (1850), a painting showing Claudio chained to a prison wall and Isabella in her nun’s habit pressing her hands against his heart, with a quotation from Measure for Measure (1604) (Fig. 1):

Claudio: Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
*          *          *
’Tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life,
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
To what we fear of death.
— Measure for Measure, act iii, scene 1.1

In this scene, Claudio begs his sister, Isabella, to save his life by agreeing to sacrifice her virginity to Angelo, a lecherous judge. Isabella refuses. The quotation clarifies Claudio’s feelings at the prospect of dying and heightens the emotional content of Holman Hunt’s painting. The precise attribution, referencing the act and scene in Shakespeare’s play, gestures visitors to evaluate the faithfulness of Holman Hunt’s rendition in relation to its source text. The quotation, “Claudio: Death is a fearful thing. Isabella: And shamed life a hateful”, was also carved on the painting’s frame to reinforce its message, a practice dating back to J.M.W. Turner. Shakespeare is the only playwright quoted in the catalogue, which testifies to his canonical status and the appeal of his plays to mid-Victorian artists and gallery-goers.

The catalogue quotes extensively from lyrical, narrative, and epic verse written by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poets: Alexander Pope, John Milton, Thomas Moore, William Shenstone,Robert Herrick, and James Grahame; Romantic poets: William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, John Clare, Robert Bloomfield, and Walter Scott; and Victorian poets: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Tennyson, and Thomas Hood. Unlike quotations from Shakespeare’s plays, poetic quotations do not have a mimetic relation to the artworks they caption. Rather, artists used poetic quotations to enhance the atmosphere or the mood that their work conveys. For example, in 1853, M. Anthony’s landscape painting,The Monarch Oak (Fig. 2), was exhibited with the opening lines of “To M.H.” (1800), a poem by Wordsworth:

Our walk was far among the ancient trees:
There was no road, not even a woodman’s path—
But a thick umbrage checking the wild growth
Of weed and sapling, along the soft green turf
Beneath the branches, of itself had made
A track that brought us to a slip of lawn.

These lines, originally dedicated to the poet’s future wife, Mary Hutchinson, evoke a landscape layered with memories and shared experience. In the catalogue, their added value lies in their poetic essence, signalled by their prosodic effects and typographical arrangement on the page. Anthony’s painting shows a large oak tree in a clearing surrounded by small figures—a family resting against its trunk, a couple with child, and a farmer and his dog walking away from the scene. This is not Wordsworth’s landscape but an idealised picture of rural life. Here, the quotation imbues the artwork with a poetic aura that would have made it more compelling to visitors.

The Summer Exhibitions were commercial events that were central to the mid-Victorian art market and shaped consumer taste and demand. Artists could increase the saleability of their work and gain buyers among the visiting public by appending the name of a celebrated playwright or poet to their artworks. Much as it was common practice to buy the latest edition of Milton’s poetry or Scott’sworks on the basis of their names, it was fashionable to buy an artwork to which their names were appended. Artists could use authors’ names as commodities and brands that helped further their careers and grow their clientele.

Literary quotations are telling of artists’ expectations regarding visitors’ literacy and familiarity with poetry and drama. Artists used catalogues to select the audience for their art from readers: only those able to crack the literary code were deemed qualified to experience it. Quotations were either attributed or unattributed, as was “In the leafy month of June” from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), which captioned Richard Redgrave’s landscape painting An Hour with the Poets.3 Attributed quotations encouraged visitors to consult their source text, while unattributed quotations assumed that these texts were shared common knowledge.

Attending the 1853 Summer Exhibition took the form of intermittent acts of viewing and reading, in which literary quotations in the catalogue mediated the interpretation of art. Even well-read visitors would not have been familiar with all the texts quoted in the catalogue, which implies that some of the attraction of going to the Academy was to learn about both art and literature.

  1. Summer Exhibition Catalogue, 7.↩︎

  2. Summer Exhibition Catalogue, 23. The second line of the quotation is misspelt in the copy of the catalogue that I consulted at the Paul Mellon Centre in London. In my research, I have often encountered such mistakes in Summer Exhibition catalogues; they could perhaps signal carelessness on the part of the artist or that the text is being recollected from memory.↩︎

  3. Summer Exhibition Catalogue, 26.↩︎

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Explore the 1853 catalogue