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1864 New Art Ascendant

In his retrospective account of the exhibitions of 1864, the critic William Michael Rossetti described the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition as “a lull after the squall” of the previous year.1 In 1863, the Academy came under fire, resulting in a “salon des refusés” at the Cosmopolitan Club, as well as the publication of a report from the Royal Commission on the state of the Academy. So 1864 marked a turning point in more ways than one. New art in new formats and a younger generation of rising artists came to the fore in the Annual Exhibition at Trafalgar Square. John Everett Millais exhibited for the first time as “R.A. elect”. Frederic Leighton, whose paintings with their continental influences had not found favour in the previous years, made a splash with his large Dante in Exile. Albert Moore dared to submit a fresco, The Four Seasons, said at the time to be the first work in this medium ever shown at the Academy—it wasn’t. The American James McNeill Whistler shocked some observers with a realistic portrayal of low-life in a pub on the Thames in Wapping and confounded them with Purple and Rose: Lange Liezen of the Six Marks. G.F. Watts, meanwhile, from an older generation, showed the colossal Time and Oblivion, described in the catalogue as a “design for sculpture” “to be executed in divers materials after the manner of Phidias” (Fig. 1), which contrasted with his hauntingly beautiful, miniature-like painting Choosing.

Explore the 1864 catalogue

More works from younger artists working in a new spirit gained acceptance when submitted to the Council of the Royal Academy. In common with the usual practice, the members of the Hanging Committee, in this case William Boxall, Frederic Goodall, and Thomas Webster, were announced in the press. Stung by the recent publication of the Report of the Commission, which had scrutinised the Academy, there seems to have been an impetus towards modernisation, or at least to greater fairness towards those not yet in the Academy’s ranks. As a result, a group of younger artists had their works positioned in such a way that they received detailed discussions in the press and came to public notice: Edward Poynter, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Valentine Cameron Prinsep, Frederick Sandys, Arthur Hughes, George Heming Mason, and Alphonse Legros, in addition to Moore and Whistler. These artists best exemplified advanced tendencies in contemporary art, experimenting with non-narrative subjects or unusual techniques.

There were also younger artists of a more conventional cast, painting scenes of domestic or historical genre, who received liberal treatment in the rooms at Trafalgar Square that year, such as R.B. Martineau, Philip H. Calderon, William Frederick Yeames, Eyre Crowe, and others. One critic noted that the line was raised a few inches, giving more space for “young men and outsiders” to be treated more fairly.2 Almost all of the reviewers of the Exhibition noted that: “some younger men established themselves as stars of the first magnitude in the professional firmament”.3 One is not surprised that writers sympathetic to the emerging avant-garde, such as F.G. Stephens, W.M. Rossetti, or even Tom Taylor, expressed that opinion. But when such a wide range of critics (mostly anonymous), writing for different audiences in many journals and newspapers did so, it can be identified as a significant moment in the reception of new art at the Academy.

Major Academicians still commanded the most attention, both in the galleries and in the press. Dominating the four key positions in the East Room were Edwin Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes; John Frederick Lewis’ The Hosh (court yard) of the house of the Coptic Patriarch, Cairo; and John Phillips’ La Gloria: A Spanish Wake, each regarded as important contributions by established artists. But progressive new art was prominent in the hang as well. In the Middle Room, one could see Millais’ Leisure Hours, a portrait presented as a subject picture, positioned near to Leighton’s Golden Hours (Fig. 2). These works in the nascent Aesthetic taste, with sumptuous colour, rich textures, and an appeal to the senses, sat happily together. Along with many others in the Exhibition, such as Watts’ Choosing, they displayed a new poetic sensibility in their allusive meanings, which were not dependent on specific or easily readable subject matter.

Also novel for the Academy was the idea that artists might exhibit designs, even designs for works in other media, rather than finished oil paintings with identifiable subjects. Watts’ A design for sculpture, “Time and Oblivion” (which in fact dated from ca. 1850), showed large-scale allegorical figures painted in a monumentalising style. Just how the design might translate to sculpture (would it be free-standing or a bas relief?) had to be imagined, and certainly, the design was somewhat difficult to see, placed over the door in the West Room. Moore’s fresco The Four Seasons was a seemingly bizarre inclusion that derived from decorative work he had produced over the previous few years for the architect William Eden Nesfield. Descriptions in 1864 make clear that the work was painted on plaster; later writers indicate that it was intended as a design for a mosaic, then a popular material for architectural decoration. Its acceptance warranted the comment that it was the only fresco ever to appear at an Exhibition of the Academy. On a few occasions, work in this medium had been included, most recently in the early 1840s.4 That there was a failure of collective memory about frescoes indicated the novelty of having the domain of the fine arts invaded by an unusual piece of decorative art.

The hangers concluded that the best place for Moore’s work was in the Sculpture Room, its anomalous status confirmed by its appearance as the last item in the Catalogue, number 1062. Such works expanded the boundaries of what the Exhibition of the Academy could contain. That year, a sense of change also came, with one generation passing and another coming forward. Perhaps even at this point in 1864, the Academy was signalling an acceptance of the avant-garde, as seemed to be confirmed when Leighton gained his Associateship later that year.     

  1. “Art-Exhibitions in London”, Fine Arts Quarterly Review 3, no. 5 (October 1864): 33.↩︎

  2. The Times, 30 April 1864, 14.↩︎

  3. For example, [F.G. Stephens], The Athenaeum, 30 April 1864, 615.↩︎

  4. Agostino Aglio sent a Specimen of Fresco Painting to the Academy as no. 1039 in 1843, which can be linked to the scheme to decorate the new Palace of Westminster at that time.↩︎

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Explore the 1864 catalogue