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1890 "Monumental Decoration" in England

After visiting the 1890 Summer Exhibition, the anonymous critic for the new journal The Speaker asked: “Is it a good Academy?” His (or her) reply was not positive: “we can only reply, sorrowfully but decisively, No.”1 Claude Phillips was more judicious, writing for The Art-Journal, “if it leaves on the mind no very vivid impression of originality, strength, or even genial eccentricity … nevertheless [it] gives evidence of a gradual rise in the standard of English art.” He was particularly struck by the number of works he called “monumental decoration”, even though “the art of monumental decoration does not exist in England.”2 He included Frederic Leighton’s Bath of Psyche, John Collier’s The Death of Cleopatra (Fig. 1), Albert Moore’s Summer Night, Solomon J. Solomon’s Hippolyta, and Arthur Hacker’s Vae Victis! (Fig. 2).

Phillips’ inference was that this genre of painting was not English but French, a point of view repeated, mostly as a criticism, by a number of reviewers of the 1890 Exhibition; “the wave of foreign influence is slowly and surely rising.”3 Size was one of the issues. Collier’s Death of Cleopatra, for example, at over twelve feet high, was too big: “in England we are hardly prepared to admire a picture of such phenomenal dimensions.”4 Valentine Prinsep’s Diva Theodora Imperatrix, with its life-size figures was also very large and its tragic subject, was not suited to the English: “such themes are often selected by French painters, who are a much better-read body than their brethren on this side of the Channel, and possess wider sympathies, incomparably greater courage, and larger technical resources.”5 Arthur Hacker’s Vae Victis! [woe to the vanquished!] was “French” both because of its size (nearly nine feet wide) and its “Eastern” subject: “a huge Moorish canvas … of the kind they manage better, if more bloodily, in Paris.”6

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Vae Victis! was not only one of the largest but also one of the most expensive paintings sold at the Royal Academy in 1890. The painting depicts the “sack of Morocco” by the Almohad Caliphate, the Berber Muslim dynasty that flourished in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries across large parts of North Africa and Southern Spain, including Cordoba and Seville. It is a horrific depiction of violence towards defenceless women. Nude and semi-nude women belonging to the harem of the conquered, are about to be raped or killed, some are dead or dying.  

Harry Quilter, writing in The Universal Review, agreed that Vae Victis! would be “more common in the French Salon than in an English Exhibition” but went on to praise Hacker for his technique and confidence. “It is large, grandiose in treatment, and evidences the thorough training of the artist marking the point of performance to which foreign painters habitually attain.” And he was impressed by Hacker for not being afraid of “offending the delicate susceptibilities of the British matron”.  However, he also warned against the influence of France: “we should be the first to regret that English painters should habitually aim either at such subjects or such a method of art as Mr Hacker represents.”7 

Hacker had studied at the Royal Academy Schools between 1876 and 1880, but he then moved to Paris and joined the atelier of Léon Bonnat, focusing on painting from the life and visiting the Salon. He was influenced by plein air painting while in France and became a founder member in 1886 of the New English Art Club, along with his friend Solomon J. Solomon. Solomon had also chosen to complete his art education in Paris after attending the Royal Academy Schools. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts under Alexandre Cabanel, and was influenced by his academic style. The friends travelled together in Europe, visiting Spain and North Africa in 1881. In Tangier, Hacker painted For Sale “a true and living record of an incident in the slave trade”.8 Vae Victis! was the most erotically charged of his several “Orientalist” works.

Critics might have raised objections to the French qualities of these “monumental decorations” but the committees choosing paintings for public collections were drawn to large paintings of sensual and often violent scenes. The Walker Art Gallery had been given Solomon’s Samson in 1887, after its purchase at the Academy by a Liverpool shipowner. The painting is large and depicts a bare-breasted Delilah gleefully encouraging the blinding of Samson—a moment of intense drama of the kind usually associated with the Salon. Three years later, the Walker bought Moore’s Summer Night at the Summer Exhibition; Collier’s Death of Cleopatra was bought from the artist by Oldham Art Gallery in 1891.

Vae Victis! was acquired by an individual rather than a gallery. The millionaire George McCulloch paid £1,000. McCulloch had made a fortune in Australia from one of the world’s richest lodes of silver, and between 1887 and 1907, he built up a collection of over 400 paintings and sculptures, most by living British artists. Many were very large, and were dismissed in an unkind review of his collection as “the unwieldy successes” of the Academy.9 Vae Victis! hung in the billiard room in McCulloch’s London house, 184 Queen’s Gate, placed, rather incongruously, next to Waterhouse’s Pre-Raphaelite fantasy, Flora and the Zephyrs.

A year after McCulloch’s death, his widow agreed to lend the collection to the Academy to form their Winter Exhibition.10 The Academy’s decision, however, was controversial. The Winter Exhibitions were intended to show Old Masters, certainly not the work of living artists; the show was attacked for its commercial side as well as the taste (or lack of it) of McCulloch. Frank Rutter, art critic for the Sunday Times described the show as “an awful example of the perils of collecting … [McCulloch] formed his collection under the too friendly auspices of the little Academic ring.”11 Luke Fildes defended the decision writing to The Times on 11 January 1909: “I will only say that there are not any grounds for imputing to the Academy any motives beyond the legitimate desire to benefit modern British art in its catholic aspect.”12 The collection was auctioned four years later by Christie’s and its works were acquired by a new generation of collectors. Lord Leverhulme, for example, liked “monumental decoration” and bought Leighton’s Daphnephoria and The Garden of Hesperides.13

Vae Victis! was given by McCulloch’s widow to the gallery he had helped to found in Broken Hill, Australia. The local press were enthusiastic; neither the size nor the narrative raised issues: “beautiful women cast down by their ruthless captors, lie on the floor under the eye of the victorious Sultan, who, from a box, with gloating lascivious eyes looks down on his prey, choosing for the future.”14

  1. The Speaker: The Liberal Review 1, 3 May 1890, 481.↩︎

  2. Claude Phillips, The Art-Journal (June 1890): 161.↩︎

  3. Claude Phillips, The Art-Journal (June 1890): 161.↩︎

  4. “The Royal Academy”, The Times, 3 May 1890.↩︎

  5. The Athenaeum 3262, 3 May 1890.↩︎

  6. The Saturday Review 69, no. 1801, 3 May 1890.↩︎

  7. Harry Quilter, The Universal Review 7, no. 26 (June 1890): 173–174.↩︎

  8. Helene L. Postlethwaite, “Some Rising Artists”, The Tatler and Bystander 28, no. 354, 8 April 1908, 43.↩︎

  9. The Observer, 3 January 1909.↩︎

  10. See Council Minutes of the Royal Academy, 24 March 1908.↩︎

  11. Frank Rutter, The Sunday Times, 3 January 1909.↩︎

  12. L.V. Fildes, Luke Fildes, R.A.: A Victorian Painter (London: Michael Joseph, 1968), 186. Also see Royal Academy of Arts, Exhibition of Modern Works in Painting and Sculpture Forming the Collection of the Late George McCulloch, ESQ., Winter Exhibition (London: William Clowes and Sons, 1909).↩︎

  13. Messrs Christie, Manson, and Woods, The Well-Known Collection of Modern Pictures and Water Colour Drawings of the British and Continental Schools, Statuary and Bronzes formed by the Late George McCulloch, Esq. of 184 Queen’s Gate, S.W. (London: 24, 30, and 31 May 1913).↩︎

  14. The Barrier Miner, 13 and 20 November 1913, from archives of the Broken Hill Gallery.↩︎

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