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1855 Addressing the Eye

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Most critics agreed that the Royal Academy exhibition of 1855 was a disappointment.1 The critic for The Art Journal, for example, remarked that landscape paintings that year were “infinitely inferior” to what he had seen in the past.2 In fact, he despaired of most of the genres. Artists seemed more interested in blending them than in preserving their status. History painting was saved only by Frederic Leighton’s magnificent sixteen-foot long procession of Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna, which borrowed from genre painting. John Everett Millais’s The Rescue, meanwhile, managed to sustain genre painting only by approaching it with the scale and urgency of history painting, while Augustus Egg’s pair of paintings The Life and Death of Buckingham appealed primarily because they combined genre with the allure of history, in this instance, the life and death of a Restoration rake. Even portraiture, usually reliable, produced no notable examples. Instead, still life emerged as the breakout star of the Exhibition thanks to George Lance, who exhibited a painting of a peacock and a table laden with fruit enigmatically titled Harold (Fig.1).

George Lance trained with the history painter Benjamin Robert Haydon for seven years, ending his apprenticeship in 1823. He is supposed to have discovered his talent for “fruit painting” by accident under Haydon’s tutelage: Lance was planning a subject from The Iliad, and Haydon set him the task of copying objects from nature to improve his ability to finish the work. By 1846, The Illustrated London News called him “The King of Still Life Painting.”3 He was a virtuoso at handling fruity surfaces, from the knobby pineapple to the waxy plum, creating a perspectival plenty that always threatened to spill forth into the viewer’s space. Lance was a prosperous and successful artist from the 1840s until his death in 1864.

Still-life painting in general and fruit painting in particular occupied an uneasy place in the Academy hierarchy. Still-life painting was considered the least elevated or refined mode of art, requiring only the artist’s attention to inanimate objects devoid of emotion and narrative. Both Sir Joshua Reynolds and John Ruskin associated Dutch still-life painting of the seventeenth century with “manual dexterity” in disparaging terms.4 Yet the growing admiration for Dutch art in the mid-nineteenth century suggests that still life could occupy a status above its Academic rank.5

In this regard, Lance’s Harold emerges as a pointed statement about the value of still-life painting. Lance elevated the literary pedigree of the painting by exhibiting it with a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “And now reigns here a very, very peacock.” Contemporaries noted the relationship between this composition and a work by the celebrated Dutch master Jan Weenix, his Flowers on a Fountain (ca. 1700), whose composition shows a peacock preening amidst an array of ripe fruit. The eyes of peacock’s feathers feature more prominently in Lance’s version. They flow down the centre of the composition and call to mind the mythical explanation for their extraordinary appearance: the goddess Hera transferred the hundred eyes of her faithful watcher Argus to the bird. Was this a visual riposte to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s judgement that: “it is to the eye only that the works of this [Dutch] school are addressed”?6

Lance has further asserted his artistic identity by including a grotesque self-portrait as the face on the vase. Perhaps attentive Academy viewers would have compared that visage to the portrait of Lance by one J. Andrews (as noted in the catalogue) on display in the same exhibition. Lance furthered the identification of artist and subject with a second painting from 1855, Still Life with Fruit and Chalice and Goblet, although it was not included in the Academy Exhibition (Fig. 2). He painted his signature as if his name were woven into the carpet upon which the fruit rests, and his self-portrait is reflected by the sheen of the goblet. In Lance’s example, we marvel not only in the natural abundance but also the human artistry on display.

Why would fruit painting appeal at the Academy in 1855? According to many scholars, still-life paintings are always in danger of collapsing subject and subjectivity—they are all surface, with no “reality” behind the illusion. This view, however negative, is redolent with the materiality of these paintings: surfaces, absences, abundance, and waste are bound up in the very matter of these paintings. Harold is a depiction of things arranged for the viewer’s attention, and it gives us ample opportunity to think about surface, texture, and sheen. The growing wealth of the middle classes led to a revival of still-life painting in Britain in the 1840s and 1850s, and this painting seems to be one about wealth made visible. It was a commission from the prosperous railway contractor Edward Ladd Betts to decorate Preston Hall, his home in Aylesford, Kent (The firm of Peto, Betts, and Brassey constructed the Grand Trunk Railway in Canada). If the Dutch set the example for this type of art in this seventeenth century, then one could argue that the British would naturally follow in an evolutionary model of capitalist societies focused on trade in a global context. Tempting feasts for the eyes offer up art as artifice. This skill, in turn, becomes a marketing strategy, as Lance’s career as a “fruit painter” suggests. 

  1. “Disappointment” and “disappointing” appear in “The Royal Academy”, The Literary Gazette, 12 May 1855, 298; and “The Royal Academy”, The Art Journal, June 1855, 169, while The Athenaeum critic stated that the exhibition was “average”. “Fine Arts, Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 12 May 1855, 557. According to The Critic, most artists on view at the 1855 Exhibition had forgotten “the highest objects of art”, The Critic, 15 May 1855, 241.↩︎

  2. “The Royal Academy”, The Art Journal, June 1855, 169.↩︎

  3. As quoted in John Radcliffe and Mark Lance, George Lance: Victorian Master of Still Life (London: Philip Wilson, 2016), 93.↩︎

  4. As noted in Simon Schama, “Perishable Commodities: Dutch Still-Life Painting and the ‘Empire of Things’”, in John Brewer and Roy Porter (eds), Consumption and the World of Goods (London: Routledge, 1994), 480.↩︎

  5. See Ruth Yeazell, Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), xv.↩︎

  6. As quoted in Yeazell, Art of the Everyday, 45.↩︎

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Explore the 1855 catalogue