J. E. (John Evan) Hodgson.

The Royal academy and its members 1768-1830 online

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tible, so paradoxical and contradictory, so provokingly clever
and so engagingly wicked, of which Carlyle speaks as " massed
up in our mind as a disastrous wrecked inanity not useful
to dwell upon," would seem to have possessed none of those
delicate and sensitive fibres of thought, no traces of the
luxurious aesthetic contemplativeness which we imagine to
be necessary for success in the Fine Arts. We contem-
plate it from this distance of time and its scenes pass before
us as in a diorama. We see old London with its narrow
streets and noisome kennels, its signs, its coffee-houses
and clubs, its theatre at Drury Lane, its bull-baitings at
Smithfield, the ladies on the Mall, the fops in sedan chairs being
conveyed to Button's or to Ranelagh, the watchmen with their
poles and lanterns, the Mohawks scouring the streets, and roll-
1 A


ing old women in tubs down Ludgate Hill, the orchestras of
marrow-bones and cleavers, the Lord Mayor going to Guildhall
in his coach, and the highwayman with a nosegay in his hand
journeying in a cart to Tyburn to be hanged. There is my
Lord Harvey yearning in Kensington Palace for his club, as
isolated as if he were on a rock in mid-ocean, between him and
London an impassable sea of mud. Thousands of interesting
scenes and amusing incidents have been preserved for our con-
templation in the most fascinating literature in the world ; and
the general impression they convey is of frivolity, coarseness,
and brutality. Art with all its refining influences, its sublimities
and its gran gusto> was much discussed by connoisseurs, but it
was considered the exclusive product of Italy ; Guido, Guercino,
the Carracci, and Raphael, though according to Horace Walpole
he was inferior to Luca Giordano in draperies, were considered
to have said the last word on that subject, and all that was
necessary to pass for a man of refinement was to be able to talk
about them. No one seems to have dreamt that Art could be
what it once had been, the natural and spontaneous expression
of the ideas which were uppermost in men's minds, which every
one was thinking ; that in fact a nation had once " co-operated
with individual genius." When a man was required to express
himself elegantly and artistically, he imported his style from
abroad ; when he spoke naturally he did it quite differently.
Sir John Vanbrugh when on the high horse built Blenheim ; in
his natural and homely way he wrote the " Relapse, or Virtue
in Danger." In polite circles the works of Dutch painters, of
Ostade and Teniers, were held up to execration as vulgar and
degrading by men who did the most horrible things, who began
their dinners with pudding and ended them with fish, who ate
veal pie with prunes, and mixed beer, punch, and wine together,
and who moreover were always carried home to bed.

In short, we may say that at the commencement of the
eighteenth century in England, there was no taste or feeling for
Art whatever ; that the nation had not reached that particular


degree or kind of refinement, which makes Art a natural and
spontaneous expression of ideas.

Writers on Art will not let us alone with it, in its most simple
and obvious function, as an imitation of some concrete reality,
as a language for expressing ideas ; that is not exalted or intel-
lectual enough. It must be the handmaid of religion, the
outcome of the sense of the beautiful, or, confusion worse
confounded, the expression of philosophical ideas. In its origin
in this country, at all events, it was none of these things. Our
hard-swearing, hard-drinking ancestors of the time of William
III. and Queen Anne cared little for religion, it is to be feared,
and less for the beautiful or the philosophical ; the beauty they
worshipped was not of the abstract kind, and their philosophy
came to them as a sorry compensation for satiety. But they
loved to see themselves reproduced by the hand of the artist. It
was a source of satisfaction to them to think that this skilful
hand could make visible to posterity the features of a certain
knight of the shire, custos rotulorum, or justice of the peace, as
he lived and moved amongst men on earth, and they were ready
to pay him golden guineas to realise that laudable aspiration.
From the days of Elizabeth, England had been a fertile field for
the portraitist, and as native artists were wanting foreigners had
stepped in. As late as the middle of the eighteenth century, it
appeared consistent to Horace Walpole to pen these lines, " It
would be difficult perhaps to assign a physical reason why a
nation that produced Shakespeare should owe its glory in
another walk of genius to Holbein and Vandyke." Native
artists, however, and artists of eminence, had not been wanting
since the days of Elizabeth. There were the limners who
practised miniature painting, a beautiful art which has, alas !
been asphyxiated by collodion and nitrate of silver. Nicholas
Hilliard, William and Francis Segar, Isaac and Peter Oliver, Sir
Nathaniel Bacon, Sir Robert Peake, and Samuel Cooper, are
all noteworthy names ; the works of Hilliard, Isaac Oliver, and
Cooper are of great beauty.


When Van Dyck was painting at the Court of Charles I., his
attention was attracted by a picture he saw in a shop in Snow
Hill ; its merit appeared to him so great that he took the
trouble to seek out the artist, whom he found at work in a miser-
able garret : this man's name was William Dobson. Van Dyck,
to his great honour be it recorded, rescued this man of genius
from the penury and obscurity in which he was struggling,
introduced him at Court, and procured him employment.
Dobson succeeded his generous patron as sergeant-painter to
the king. Both the king and the office of sergeant-painter
were done away with, as we know, and Dobson, so it is said,
took to drinking and died.

Isaac Fuller, who died in 1672, studied in France, and copied
plaster casts, acquiring thereby a hard manner ; he was the first
Englishman to attempt the grand style, and painted altar-pieces
for two or three colleges at Oxford.

John Riley, his pupil, is highly spoken of by Walpole ; he
was a diffident, retiring man, and did not get on as well as he
might have done ; he got the length, however, of being court-
painter to William and Mary, and had Jonathan Richardson for
a pupil, of whom there is more to be said. In fact, there is a
very great deal that is pertinent to this subject to be said of this
man Jonathan Richardson. He was in every sense a fine fellow,
lived a noble life, was wise, sober, industrious, and God-fearing.
The example of that life, his sound sense, his stubborn refusal to
dissociate the beautiful from the good, his zeal for Art, the honest
bursts of enthusiasm which escaped in his writings all the
influence, in fact, which he spread around, were destined to fall
like seed upon the stream of time, and eventually to revive in
more splendid growth. He stands to Reynolds as cause to effect.
It was reading the " Treatise on Painting " which fired the
ambition of the Plympton schoolmaster's son, and fixed the bent
of his inclinations. The " Discourses," with a wide difference in
experience and culture, are one and the same thing with the
Treatise as far as inspiration goes ; some passages are identical


in both, and we may also fairly trace the virtues which adorned
the life of the first President of the Royal Academy to influences
derived from the same source. But this is not all : when young
Reynolds came up to London, a mild and very good boy, he was
put under Thomas Hudson ; we can imagine that his placid
temperament was stirred up to an unusual red glow of excite-
ment to find that his master was a pupil, his master's wife actu-
ally the daughter, of the great prophet whose words had sent
him forth on his enterprising journey : in his master's studio he
must have heard a good deal about Richardson, and that, about
one who even lives in history as a good man, was doubtless not
thrown away. The artistic grandfather of the greatest of Eng-
lish portrait painters boasted that in his day England already
possessed the best school of " face painting " then existing, and
ventured to predict that English painters would some day
become eminent in other branches of the Art. Peace be to the
shade of honest Jonathan ! If it be permitted to the eyes of the
just made perfect to pierce the circumambient ether to where
this insignificant planet swings round upon its orbit, though he
may have attained a state of perfect existence where all vanity
shall have passed away, it may gratify him to observe that his
prediction has been fulfilled.

Art may be said to have been permanently established on
English soil when George I. took possession of the throne. It
was essentially a graft and not an indigenous product : it had
had no childhood. Unlike the arts of Italy, which passed from
the pure symbolism of Cimabue and Giotto, through the nai've
and artless realism of the fifteenth century, and then attained
through the influence of the antique to its ultimate union of
symbolism with realism, to the most imaginative, the most
erudite and highly-organised phase that Art has ever attained
to namely, that of the Renaissance English Art at its com-
mencement started on a highly-organised basis. It derived
from Van Dyck, an eclectic who had seen and studied every-
thing, who had subdued his realism into subjection to arbitrary


canons of criticism, who had learnt the ultimate lesson, the
password of grand-master namely, what was essential and to
be rendered, and what unessential and to be omitted. The
English art of painting in the eighteenth century was nothing
less than realistic : it was not exactly artificial, though it had a
smack of it it was artisticated, to coin a horrible word.
Hogarth, who painted scenes of actual life in London things
he had seen did not paint them as he had seen them ; he
artisticated them, he made them pass through an infusion of
Watteau and Callot, and in the same way the landscapes of
Gainsborough and Wilson had evidently been subjected to
Rubens and Claude. The dilettanti and the connoisseurs had in
reality nothing to do with the foundation of English Art ; all
they did was to talk big about Italians indiscriminately. English
art grew up out of the necessities of the hour, obeyed the laws
of supply and demand, and was thoroughly healthy and sound ;
but the big talking had some effect. It was long before Nature
was taken into confidence, before she was trusted to impart
anything worth knowing more than a century ; and now it
has come to pass such are the strange oscillations of the human
mind we take everything the garrulous old dame says as

During the greater part of the eighteenth century, English
artists had no analytic training ; they attacked their artistic
problem as a whole, looked at pictures, inspired themselves and
tried to do like them. They were not built up in sections,
neatly fitted, such as the drawing from the antique section, the
drawing from the life section, the composition section, and so
forth : the Art was not dissected before them into its constituent
parts ; they failed to acquire a very great deal, but it must be
confessed that they managed to retain a very great deal of
vitality. The want of scientific training was felt on all sides,
and various efforts were made to supply it. The first was by
Sir James Thornhill in his house in the Piazza, Covent Garden.
Hogarth had in his early days worked for him, but, having


committed the enormity of eloping with his daughter, had been
cut and seen no more until the publication of the " Harlot's
Progress" softened the big man into a reluctant toleration of
the impudent young painter of low life. Time, the incorrigible
old mower, must stride along with Ihis tongue in his cheek ;
here was big-wigged, pompous Sir James Thornhill, knight of
the shire for Melcombe Regis, and sergeant-painter to the
king, indignant beyond measure because his daughter had
married a low engraver, whose sisters kept a shop for dimity,
fustian, and other horrible things in Little Britain : and, lo
and behold ! but for that circumstance we at this distance
would never have heard of him. He died, did Sir James
Thornhill, and his academy with him. He was probably a
man of talent, but his mistake was one not peculiar to England
or the eighteenth century ; he attempted to be a great artist
by programme, not by the way of nature and the ordering of
circumstances. In his case perhaps it made little matter, but
later, as we shall see, the same error ruined a man of real
genius, namely, Benjamin West.

After the death of Sir James Thornhill a new school of Art,
or academy as it was called, was opened in St Martin's Lane,
in 1734. Hogarth was a prime mover in this new undertaking ;
it was supported by annual subscription and governed by a com-
mittee, and it continued to flourish as a school for the study of
the nude figure for thirty years.

Meanwhile the Dilettanti Society started a project for
creating " a public academy for the improvement of painting,
sculpture, and architecture," which was to "have a certain
number of professors, with proper authority, in order to making
regulations, taking subscriptions, etc., erecting a building, in-
structing students ; " and proposed to elect " thirteen painters,
three sculptors, one chaser, two engravers, and two architects,
in all twenty-one, for the purposes aforesaid." This scheme
fell through. Hogarth wrote a very characteristic letter on the
subject, given in Ireland's " Hogarth Illustrated." " Portrait-


painting," he says, "ever has and ever will succeed better in
this country than in any other. The demand will be as con-
stant as new forces arise ; and with this we must be contented,
for it will be vain to attempt to force what can never be
accomplished, at least by such institutions as royal academies
on the system now in agitation." Wait a bit, Mr Hogarth, you
are running on a little too fast with your " never." He then
proceeds to describe all the obstacles to success in the arts in
England among others its religion, which forbids the worship
of images ; and follows with this, to us astounding reason, that
" Europe is already overstocked with the works of other ages " ;
these, with the copies, he considers quite sufficient for the
demands of the curious.

It was evidently not given even to one of the shrewdest
men of the eighteenth century to project his spirit into the
future, and to guess what might possibly be the capacity for
absorption on the part of the curious or for production on the
part of the artist. What are all the old masters, with the
copies, compared with the "modern pictures" with which
Europe is now infested ; and who shall say that the final limit
has yet been attained ? But artists appear at all times to have
been a genus irritabile vatum. Have we not heard them
complain that the world in general was carried away by the
desire of making fortunes, to the great detriment of Art, which
requires that people should sit still and contemplate the beauti-
ful on bread and cheese and beer, no doubt ?

But in spite of Hogarth's jeremiads, Art went on spreading.
Essays were published insisting on the necessity of a Royal
Academy ; busybodies, who had something to suggest or had
not, made themselves audible on every side ; committees were
appointed, one in 1755 which numbered among its twenty-five
members, Francis Hayman, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Sandby,
G. M. Moser, Louis F. Roubiliac, and F. M. Newton as Secre-
tary. This plan, which proposed the establishment of a " Royal
Academy of London, for the improvement of painting, sculpture,


and architecture" to consist of "a president, thirty directors,
fellows, and scholars," also failed ; the Dilettanti Society would
have nothing to do with any scheme unless they "bossed" it,
as the modern phrase has it, and the public was apathetic. The
Duke of Richmond opened his gallery of antiques to artists,
under the management of Cipriani for drawing, and Wilton
for modelling ; but this too came to an untimely end. The
difficulty in the way of all these undertakings had been the old
and familiar one of want of means ; state subsidy was not prac-
ticable, there seemed no way of making a National academy
self-subsisting, and it was accident which at length revealed
the secret.

An exhibition of pictures got together for the benefit of the
Foundling Hospital attracted such crowds of spectators, that
the idea suggested itself to the British artists to hold an annual
exhibition of their works, and charge for admission. The pro-
blem was solved. That charitable exhibition in Great Coram
Street was the germ of the Royal Academy. It made clear at
once that there was no occasion for state subsidy, for subscrip-
tions, or for any complicated machinery ; the pictures could pay
for the teaching : and the first experiment, the exhibition held
in 1760 in the rooms of the Society for the Encouragement
of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, in the Strand, opposite
Beaufort Buildings, where nothing was charged for admission,
but a price of sixpence for a catalogue, enabled the artists to
invest as net proceeds one hundred pounds in the three per
cent, consols. One hundred and thirty pictures exhibited by
sixty-nine artists produced a net profit of one hundred pounds.
That was a very remarkable sum of one hundred pounds, one
of the most remarkable recorded in history ; it revealed a new
source of wealth, a money-making power hitherto unknown.
Annual exhibitions of pictures under such promising circum-
stances were continued, and have gone on until they have
attained the present portentous results an exhibition of some
two thousand works of Art, by more than one thousand two


hundred artists, which is visited on an average by some three
hundred thousand people, and from which there is, moreover,
a mournful procession of some ten thousand works of Art for
which no place can be found : and this to speak of the Academy
exhibition alone without counting the numerous smaller ones
both in London and in the provinces, which have sprung up of
late years. A careful study of the statistics of these exhibitions
might throw considerable light on the history of British Art,
and supply abundant food for moralising to those who are so

In the following year, 1761, we find two exhibitions. The
artists had come to loggerheads ; the main body, styled hence-
forth the Society of Artists, continued its triumphant career, and
was eventually reconstructed and absorbed into the Royal
Academy ; the seceders formed a separate body, styling itself
the Free Society of Artists. They continued to hold exhi-
bitions in the rooms of the Society of Arts, in Maiden Lane,
Covent Garden, in Mr Christie's rooms in the Haymarket, in
Pall Mall, and in St Alban's Street, until 1778, when the Free
Society closed its books, divided the spoils, and vanished from

The main body, the Society of Artists, in 1761 held an exhi-
bition in Spring Gardens. Hogarth executed two plates for the
catalogue one representing Britannia watering three healthy
plants, labelled " Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture," the
other, a monkey in full "macaroni" costume, contemplating
three withered stumps which represented the Old Masters.
The receipts from this exhibition were 650. In 1762 they
instituted the charge of one shilling for admission. Dr Johnson
wrote a preface to the catalogue ; in his usual style, he fired
off double-shotted guns of the heaviest calibre, and went to
the very ground-work of human nature to justify the exhibi-
tion. One remark is singularly pertinent even in the remote
days in which we live. "All," he says, "cannot be judges
or purchasers of works of Art. Yet we have found by experi-


ence that all are fond of seeing an exhibition." Most wise
Dr Johnson ! Thou art a very Daniel come to judgment over
the arts !

This Society of Artists continued to prosper exceedingly
so much so that in 1765 they were granted a Royal charter, as
the Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain. Their
Roll Declaration contained two hundred and eleven names,
those of Reynolds, Gainsborough, Zoffany, Wilson, and West
amongst them. The original document bearing their signa-
tures is preserved in the archives of the Royal Academy.

The Incorporated Society was prosperous, but not united.
Pale discord showed herself at their banquets, and as a result we
find in 1768 a number of the original members and directors
formally tendering their resignations. These seceders were the
most eminent artists of their day ; they were driven to this
course by finding that a number of men who were by no
means an ornament to their profession, and were doing nothing
to further the cause of Art, were endeavouring by intrigues
and jobbery to turn the management of the institution to
their own profit : the old story of the great man who has no
time for trifles and the little man who lives by them. On
28th November 1768, these seceders presented a memorial to
the king, beseeching him to found a Royal Academy on a
plan which they had laid down. It was to be a "school or
academy of design for the use of students in the arts," with an
annual exhibition. "We apprehend," said the memorialists,
" that the profits arising from the last of these institutions will
fully answer all the expenses of the first ; we even flatter our-
selves they will be more than necessary for that purpose, and
that we shall be enabled annually to distribute somewhat in
useful charities." An aspiration which has been fulfilled to the
letter. At the present day there are more than two hundred
students passing through their term of studentship in the
schools of the Royal Academy, enjoying an elaborate education
free of charge ; and more than twelve hundred pounds a year


is given away in charity, entirely out of the proceeds of the
annual exhibition.

The king, George III., received this memorial graciously,
and matters seemed in a fair way only one obstacle presented
itself: Reynolds held aloof from either party, and without him
it was felt that nothing could be done. Here was a grave
dilemma. The king was waiting to receive the plan, and had
appointed the hour. Thirty artists assembled at Mr Wilton's,
and sent Benjamin West to see what he could do with Reynolds.
For two anxious hours they waited, when at length West
returned, and Reynolds with him. They rose, and with one
voice hailed the latter as " President." Reynolds was much
affected, thanked them, and asked for time to consider and to
consult his two great friends, Burke and Johnson. He was a
fortnight before he gave his consent.

In the meantime the scheme was laid before the king,
approved of, and finally, on the loth December 1768, the docu-
ment known as the " Instrument " was signed, and the Royal
Academy of Arts came into existence. In this document thirty-
six persons are named as the original members, viz. : Joshua
Reynolds, Benjamin West, Thomas Sandby, Francis Cotes,
John Baker, Mason Chamberlin, John Gwynn, Thomas Gains-
borough, J. Baptist Cipriani, Jeremiah Meyer, Francis Milner
Newton, Paul Sandby, Francesco Bartolozzi, Chas. Catton,
Nathaniel Hone, William Tyler, Nathaniel Dance, Richard
Wilson, G. Michael Moser, Samuel Wale, Peter Toms, Angelica
Kauffman, Richard Yeo, Mary Moser, William Chambers,
Joseph Wilton, George Barret, Edward Penny, Agostino
Carlini, Francis Hayman, Dominic Serres, John Richards,
Francesco Zuccarelli, George Dance, William Hoare, Johan

This original " Instrument" has never lost its authority; it
contains virtually all the laws which govern the Royal Academy,
and no changes or modifications have been made in it without
the sanction of the sovereign, which sanction is communicated


to the President in a personal interview. The gist of it may be
summed up in the following fashion. The sovereign, on his
part, undertakes to provide the Society with rooms, sedes
statioque, to patronise, or, as George III. did, to call it "My
Academy." In return, the artists undertake to instruct students
in painting, sculpture, and architecture, gratis ; to endow pro-

Online LibraryJ. E. (John Evan) HodgsonThe Royal academy and its members 1768-1830 → online text (page 2 of 35)