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1879 The Remnants and Outsiders

The Summer Exhibition of 1879 offered an apparent contradiction: never before had the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition been so popular, yet the Exhibition itself seemed to offer few truly “popular” works of art. That year, over 390,000 people pressed their way through the airless rooms of Burlington House to see the first Summer Exhibition of Frederic Leighton’s tenure as President of the Academy. But numerous reviewers conveyed a sense of wearied disappointment about what they encountered there. The Western Mail lamented that: “as a matter of fact there is no work of what may be called heroic and absorbing interest. The aristoi of the brush seem to have taken holiday during the last twelve months.”1

Explore the 1879 catalogue

Such phrases were a common enough refrain among the Exhibition’s critics of the late nineteenth century, who wrote—with an almost pathological frequency—of its routine inferiority to previous Exhibitions and to those of continental academies. Nonetheless, it was usually the case that a few works on view each year would be met with intense public interest and concentrated critical analysis. Indeed, just one year earlier, at the Summer Exhibition of 1878, William Powell Frith’s series The Road to Ruin had proven so popular that barrier rails had to be erected to protect the paintings from the heaving crowds that flocked to see Frith’s works.2 The newly married Mrs Elizabeth (Thompson) Butler exhibited two large works at the Summer Exhibition of 1879: Listed for the Connaught Rangers and The Remnants of an Army (Fig. 1). Despite the numerous reviews that acknowledged the paintings’ technical superiority to her earlier works, critics also observed a deficiency of sensationalism and novelty, which had been an engine of her prior success.3 Well-established Academicians had similarly underwhelmed. Leighton’s contributions—which included Biondina as well as the grand but decidedly awkward Elijah in the Wilderness—were remarked on without much enthusiasm in the press. Paintings by the highly regarded Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Edwin Long were also consistently featured in reviews of the Exhibition, but failed to inspire rapturous or even heated enthusiasm.

Dismissive of such works, The Morning Post review was one of many to instead direct its attention to contributions by little-known and young artists:

Of the elder members and associates of the Royal Academy very few have produced for this exhibition works worthy of their ancient fame. The younger Academicians have exerted themselves with greater zeal, and, generally speaking, with happier effect, but many of the best pictures in the gallery have been contributed by outsiders.4

Earnest (although somewhat measured) praise tended to gather around the contributions of relatively unestablished artists like William Parton, but did not reflect an overwhelming consensus as to which of these works was most memorable.

One of the most successful paintings of that year’s Summer Exhibition was John Pettie’s The Death Warrant, which depicted the young Edward VI being tasked with signing the eponymous document in the presence of his severe, dour-faced advisors (Fig. 2). Although Pettie was an Academician, he was also described as something of a novelty insofar as he ranked among those artists who “come from beyond the Tweed”.5 The Daily News, like The Morning Post, embraced this abundance of work by “Scotchmen [… and …] outsiders”, taking the fact that “so much of the line-space in the present Exhibition [is] occupied by the works of non-Academicians” as emblematic of a new spirit of inclusivity in the Academy.6 Such optimism must have been buoyed by the fact that the purchases made by the Chantrey Bequest that year were four landscape paintings, all by non-Academicians.

The review in The Daily News, like many that ran in the late spring of 1879, seemed to suggest that the present Exhibition was symptomatic of shifting ground in the London art world. The Summer Exhibition was coming under growing pressure from rival commercial exhibitions at the Grosvenor Gallery, Goupil Gallery, and Dudley Gallery, among others.7 Moreover, a highly publicised libel trial in November 1878 between John Ruskin and James Whistler had—far from establishing a clear set of criteria for the aesthetic and monetary value of art—revealed mounting dissensus and antagonism within an increasingly fragmented community of artists and critics. The cult of grand Academicians and non-Academic celebrities whose paintings filled the walls of Burlington House had fallen short of the mark that year, failing to deliver a work that was truly commensurate in popularity with the Exhibition’s growing attendance numbers.

In this light, Butler’s elegiac The Remnants of an Army takes on a slightly different appearance. Depicting a lone survivor of the Battle of Jalalabad, which took place in Afghanistan in 1842, Butler’s painting was a sentimental (and problematic) homage to enduring British heroism in the far reaches of the Empire. But it also had more local, more contemporary resonances. Butler’s painting depicted the weary retreat of an established order, resigned and isolated as it staggered towards the distant fortifications. Of course, subsequent Summer Exhibitions remained very well attended (by upwards of at least 350,000 people), and Leighton was one of many established artists who continued to produce acclaimed works. Yet Butler’s Remnants nonetheless echoed a pervasive sense in the critical reception of the 1879 Exhibition that the stalwarts of the art establishment had not been present in full force, that they had faltered, and that an alternative—taken, perhaps, to be the horses on the left who approach Butler’s wilting hero—remained in the distance, just out of view.

  1. “The Royal Academy”, The Western Mail, 5 May 1879.↩︎

  2. Mark Bills, “‘The Line which Separates Character from Caricature’: Frith and the Influence of Hogarth”, Mark Bills and Vivien Knight (eds), William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 51.↩︎

  3. “Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Birmingham Daily Post, 3 May 1879.↩︎

  4. “The Royal Academy”, The Morning Post, 3 May 1879.↩︎

  5. “The Royal Academy”, The Daily News, 3 May 1879.↩︎

  6. “The Royal Academy”, The Daily News, 3 May 1879.↩︎

  7. Pamela Fletcher and David Israel, London Gallery Project, 2007; Revised September 2012.↩︎

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Explore the 1879 catalogue