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1901 The Policeman Painter

Queen Victoria’s death, on 22 January 1901, continued to cast a shadow when the Royal Academy opened its doors for the 133rd Exhibition in May. As a mark of respect, the Annual Dinner was cancelled and the west wall of Gallery III, perennially regarded as an Exhibition’s position of honour, was devoted in its entirety to Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant’s monumental portrait Her late Majesty Queen Victoria, exhibited by command of the new king (Fig. 1).1 Now at Windsor, this is an almost spectral likeness, the result of a mnemonic visual impression gained in a single twenty-minute sitting. The Queen is rather lost within the splendour of Pugin’s throne, bounded by a gilded neo-classical frame that was itself half-buried for the course of the Exhibition in enormous swags of funereal drapery.2 The ensemble dominated Gallery III and by extension the whole show.

This painting was already famous, having been exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900. The copyright had been bought by The Illustrated London News, which was now advertising limited edition coloured photogravures to a grieving nation.3 Extraordinarily enough, the picture, a totem for a departing epoch, was recorded in the Academy Master Sales Catalogue as still being available for purchase, at £5,000.

In 1901, nearly 80 per cent of Academy exhibits were for sale, once portrait commissions and architectural drawings are discounted.4 The Exhibition had from its inception been a forum for the sale of art direct from the artist to the patron, but until around 1840, the proportion of works on offer was small. The growth of Britain’s aspirant middle classes and a boom of Art Union lotteries in mid-century had created a new art-buying public and consequently the percentage of available works in the Exhibition climbed steadily.5 In contrast to the unprecedented cost of Constant’s portrait, most of the works held modest asking prices, hoping to attract custom from the middle-class crowd. After arriving at Burlington House in 1869, the Exhibition doubled in size, while retaining a dominant position in the British cultural mind. For many struggling professional artists, the Academy could still significantly enhance both their reputation and their income. In consequence, 14,353 works were submitted to the 1901 Selection Committee for consideration, whereas in 1869 the total had been 4,526.6

Competition was fierce, to say the least, and rules governing submissions for the Exhibition made no distinctions as to professional status. In 1901, one frustrated professional, William Muller-Hewitt, took exception to the well-publicised efforts of a keen amateur:

May I ask your permission to again draw your attention to the contributions of the policeman Jones of Leeds; who was last year so largely boomed in the papers in consequence of his pictures being “accepted” by the Hanging Committee of the Royal Academy. It was pointed out that this Jones was only a Policeman, who had “never had a lesson” & “only painted pictures in his spare time”, & that while thousands of Artists were rejected this Policeman’s works were selected to hang side by side with the Greatest Artists of the Day. This sort of thing is extremely hurtful to the true artist, who is naturally very jealous over the honour of exhibiting in the R.A. being extended to amateurs.7

Part of the Academy’s founding purpose had been to define the professional artist, but despite early prohibitions on certain types of work amateurs (often students of Academicians drawing masters) had always been a presence in the Exhibition.8 For many years, they were designated “Honorary” exhibitors and listed at the end of the catalogue or given the abbreviation “H”. But the designation of “Honorary” exhibitor slowly withered and ceased altogether in 1867. The scale of the Burlington House exhibitions and by extension that of the British art world had made it impossible for the Selection Committee to any longer determine professionals from amateurs. The professional artistic community felt this keenly and there was an increasing clamour for reform of the Exhibition.9 In the face of this criticism, the Academy could only intone their defence that each submitted work was judged solely on its merits. The administrative processes required to organise the show were blind to any other signifier of status and the Academy lost its grip as a national arbiter of professional art practice.10

Police Constable Jones was unusual only in that he had received publicity from a burgeoning popular press, with his engraved portrait even appearing in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper.11 In a letter of thanks to the Academy, P.C. Jones is clearly ambivalent about his status:

I often think what a mistaken kindness to me it is that I should be boomed by this press when other poor & more deserving men should be more considered. I know it is done in the best of spirit to me but I like others to share with me & I with them the result of our combined labours … I had an idea I should not be able to remain long a Constable & I had nothing in the form of a trade to turn to if I should have to return so I set to work in earnest so that if the worst should come I might then have a little of something to provide food &c for my wife & children, with the result I set myself a task to do. I shall never say I’ve done enough but shall plod on until I have attained my ambition of becoming a painter.12

Though not hung in 1901, Jones was successful in the Academy shows of 1906–1908. All four of his exhibits were for sale, though none found a buyer. He never stopped painting, but continued in his job as mace-bearer at Leeds City Hall until the day he died. He was an early example of the sort of hopeful amateur or part-time artist that has since become so emblematic of the Academy’s Summer Exhibition. As such, his efforts signpost a fundamental and seemingly permanent shift in the show’s character.

William Muller-Hewitt continued his campaign for professional rights, eliciting a response from the Academy’s President, Sir Edward Poynter, that amounts to an acknowledgement of defeat: “I would point out that [there] are many amateurs whose works are of considerable merit, & often better than those of many professional artists.”13

Muller-Hewitt was never successful in his bid to exhibit at the Royal Academy.

  1. Oliver Millar, The Victorian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), Royal Collection OMV 209.↩︎

  2. Magazine of Art (1901): 337.↩︎

  3. The Illustrated London News, 13 April 1901, 519.↩︎

  4. Royal Academy Archives, RAA/SEC/23/12/42, Summer Exhibition Master Catalogue, 1901. There, 1,079 works are listed for sale from a grand total of 1,823.↩︎

  5. On the possible reluctance of artists to advertise the availability of works displayed, see David H. Solkin, Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 230–231, n.49. A sample of 1805, 1839, and 1861 shows the percentage of works for sale rising from 5.3 per cent to 41.4 per cent.↩︎

  6. Royal Academy Annual Report (London: 1901), 23.↩︎

  7. Royal Academy Archives, RAA/SEC/12/32/1, W.H. Muller-Hewitt, 20 April 1901, to Frederick Eaton, Secretary.↩︎

  8. Sidney C. Hutchison, The History of the Royal Academy 1768–1986, 2nd edn (London: Robert Royce, 1986), 36 and 40; Ann Bermingham, Learning to Draw: Studies in the Cultural History of a Polite and Useful Art (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 130–131.↩︎

  9. One particularly vigorous campaign was organised by Marion H. Spielmann in 1885, using an anonymous letter signed “An Outsider”, published in The Pall Mall Gazette, Royal Academy Archives, SP/1.↩︎

  10. Julie F. Codell, “‘Righting the Victorian Artist: The Redgraves’ A Century of Painters of the English School and the Serialization of Art History”, Oxford Art Journal 23, no. 2 (January 2000): 118.↩︎

  11. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 16 April 1899.↩︎

  12. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 16 April 1899.↩︎

  13. Royal Academy Archives, RAA/PRA/3/4/2, Sir Edward Poynter to William Muller-Hewitt [draft], 1908.↩︎

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