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1894 Beckett's "Unconventional Guide"

In the same year that the Summer Exhibition galleries were first fitted with electric light, casting the pictures in vivid illumination, other aspects of the Exhibition ritual remained reassuringly familiar. One of these traditions, which went right back to the early years at Somerset House, was the use of the Exhibition by critics and artists alike as a source of humour. This often involved critiques of those visiting the Exhibition and the private view, or of the selection and hanging process, and could be both visual and verbal. However, in the nineteenth century, a very particular form of humorous prose about the pictures themselves also developed. 

Explore the 1894 catalogue

In 1894, on the occasion of the press view that year, a lengthy article was published in The Sunday Times titled an “Unconventional Guide to the Royal Academy”.1 Although the author was unnamed, it was made clear in the first few lines that this was by Arthur William à Beckett, Editor of the very same newspaper. Arthur, together with his brother Gilbert, had published an earlier pamphlet in 1864: the “Comic Guide to the Royal Academy”, an illustrated critique of the pictures on the walls of that august exhibition. By 1894, Arthur, now an established journalist, had attempted to revive this tradition with a series of articles in The Sunday Times, which were, in his own words, a “sort of soufflé of intelligence”.2

At first sight, the article looks like many other late nineteenth-century critical reviews of the Exhibition: it follows the customary pattern of approaching the display room by room, making a number of general remarks (“the hanging this year is better than usual”), before moving on to talk about a selection of pictures individually. It was, however, the particular characteristics of these individual vignettes, which marked Beckett’s article out from conventional reviews.

Beckett’s comments were intended to appeal to a very distinct type of consumer of the Summer Exhibition: the common man, or as he put it, “a man of average intelligence”.3 As he wrote in a preamble, “No doubt many of the reflections set down below will find an echo in the minds of my readers. What occurred to me very likely will occur to them.”4 This was Beckett targeting not the aspirational connoisseurs who might read the more heavy-weight contemporary reviews of the exhibitions, but instead a type of consumer (interestingly identified by Beckett as male) who wanted to read exhibition criticism with little cultural ambition. It employed a gentle humour, in which the author identified the kind of commonplace thoughts that the average visitor, unschooled in a classical education or in art historical references, might be thinking as they passed through the galleries. When compared with the more conventional reviews, these critiques undercut their focus on formal qualities, an expected aspect of Summer Exhibition criticism by this date.

One illustration of this is Beckett’s description of the venerable Academician Sir Edward Poynter’s painting Idle Fears (Fig. 1). This image of a child about to take a plunge in a bath was a typical subject from the artist’s stable of classical-style nudes. It was described in relatively neutral, though appreciative terms by another contemporary reviewer, who focused on its formal qualities. The Times’ critic described the painting as “a pretty child shrinking from the plunge-bath—a picture in which the motive is simpler and the lines larger, and where the composition is less broken up.”5

Beckett’s critique overturned this conventional assessment by drawing attention largely to the painting’s subject matter. He described a humorous narrative in the picture, despite its classical composition:

A child is refusing the order of the bath. The nurse is attempting to induce the reluctant baby to take to the purifying water. As the composition is severely classical of course it does not suggest the seaside “Martha”. Still the element of comedy is not entirely wanting. In the corner there are two pomegranates and some towels. The pomegranates are evidently to the reward of this tardy ablution.6

In a further effort to amuse his readers, Beckett went on to point out that the pomegranate could easily be substituted for cakes of soap. He wrote: “Is not this an idea for some enterprising savon manufacturer? Let me hope that the picture will ultimately reach the proper hands and (reproduced as a poster) on the proper hoardings.”7 This was a reference to the contemporary use of paintings exhibited at the Academy by companies like Pears and Lever Brothers as advertisements for soap products, a reminder of the commercial dimensions of the Summer Exhibition, which the Academy sometimes attempted to play down.

Even works by the President of the Royal Academy were not immune from Beckett’s jokes. Frederic Leighton’s Fatidica, a depiction of the Roman goddess as a voluptuous beauty, who leans back in her throne, swathed in voluminous draperies, received mixed reviews from the critics (Fig. 2). One drew attention to her “uneasy” and “almost ungainly posture”, a mark perhaps of their discomfort with this way of portraying the female figure, despite its classical guises.8 Beckett, however, again turned a critique of the painting’s formal qualities on its head, instead focusing on the pensive pose of the Sybil-type figure. He mused: “Were ladies permitted to speak at the RA banquet one would imagine that she were “thinking out” something new about art in four languages.”9 His commentaries suggest that, contrary to the hopes of the Academy, many visitors looked for humour rather than an uplifting aesthetic experience when visiting the Summer Exhibitions.

  1. [Arthur William à Beckett], “Unconventional Guide to the Royal Academy”, The Sunday Times, 6 May, 1894, 8.↩︎

  2. [Arthur William à Beckett], “Unconventional Guide to the Royal Academy”, The Sunday Times, 6 May, 1894, 8.↩︎

  3. [Arthur William à Beckett], “Unconventional Guide to the Royal Academy”, The Sunday Times, 6 May, 1894, 8.↩︎

  4. [Arthur William à Beckett], “Unconventional Guide to the Royal Academy”, The Sunday Times, 6 May 1894, 8.↩︎

  5. “The Royal Academy”, The Times, 5 May 1894, 16.↩︎

  6. [Arthur William à Beckett], “Unconventional Guide to the Royal Academy”, The Sunday Times, 6 May 1894, 8.↩︎

  7. [Arthur William à Beckett], “Unconventional Guide to the Royal Academy”, The Sunday Times, 6 May 1894, 8.↩︎

  8. “The Royal Academy”, The Observer, 6 May 1894, 6.↩︎

  9. [Arthur William à Beckett], “Unconventional Guide to the Royal Academy”, The Sunday Times, 6 May 1894, 8.↩︎

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Explore the 1894 catalogue