J. E. (John Evan) Hodgson.

The Royal academy and its members 1768-1830 online

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fessorships, to give prizes for merit in the schools, to provide
a library of art books for the use of students, and to give away
certain sums for charitable purposes ; the funds for such
purposes to be provided by them out of the profits of an
annual exhibition of works of Art selected for the purpose by
themselves ; and to this time, both parties have been true to
their engagements.

The first public assembly of the Royal Academy was held
on the 2nd January 1769, at their temporary rooms in Pall
Mall, a little eastward of the site now occupied by the Senior
United Service Club, where, losing no time, they had already
established and opened their schools. On this occasion Rey-
nolds, as President, delivered the first of his celebrated "Dis-
courses," beginning with these words : " Gentlemen, an
Academy, in which the polite arts may be regularly culti-
vated, is at last opened among us by royal munificence. This
must appear an event in the highest degree interesting, not
only to the artist, but to the whole nation."

Reynolds' second Discourse was delivered on loth December
1769, and then annually on the same date, which was that of
the foundation of the Royal Academy, up to 1772. After that
biennially, as has been the custom with his successors. What
is called his ninth Discourse is merely a short speech delivered
on 1 8th October 1780, on the removal of the Royal Academy
to Somerset House.



THE last chapter relates strictly to historical matters. We
traced the stream of English Art, we noticed its early trick-
lings in the miniature line, the affluents from abroad which
swelled its volume, until we brought it down to the latter half
of the eighteenth century, when it represented an important
river, fed from East, West, North, and South by native waters.
In this chapter, at least at the outset of it, we must request
our readers not to think of the course of English Art, or of
such a phenomenon as a Royal Academy, but to allow the
docile bent of their imaginations to turn indolently and curi-
ously in the direction we would have it go ; to mark while
we describe an interesting domestic scene which occurred in the
little town of Plympton, in Devon, in the house of the master
of the Grammar School, the Rev. Samuel Reynolds. He was
from all accounts a worthy man, a good scholar, very guileless,
simple, and also absent-minded ; did other probabilities coin-
cide, we might consider him to have been the prototype of
Fielding's Parson Adams. Besides him there are present his
wife Theophila, a friend of the family named Craunch, and his
youngest son Joshua, then aged sixteen, having been born
on 1 6th July 1723. The occasion is a very solemn one; it
relates to nothing less than the choice of a profession for
the said youth. The Rev. Samuel inclines towards that of an


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apothecary, which in those days corresponded to what we call
a general practitioner in medicine a useful, honourable, and
lucrative calling ; but his mind is much harassed. The boy
has been reading a book by a certain Jonathan Richardson,
A Treatise on the Art of Painting, which has set him
dreaming on becoming an artist. He has, moreover, executed
a drawing of the arches of Plympton Grammar School, in
which he has represented the arches getting smaller and
smaller as they do sometimes in nature, and which he learnt
the secret of in a curious book called the " Jesuit's Perspective."
These things appear to his father to be truly wonderful ; so
much so, that he has thought it worth while to take a long
ride to the residence of his trusted friend Mr Craunch and
has invited him to come over and advise on the matter.
The worthy man had started on this journey with a new pair of
gambadoes, and had returned with only one, having been too
preoccupied to notice the falling off of the other. If history
spoke the truth, which it never does, we should probably find
that all through this momentous interview, Mrs Reynolds was
thinking more of her husband's lost gambado than of the
prospects of her son, of the future Sir Joshua Reynolds, first
president of the Royal Academy of Arts.

In addition to the achievement of the school arcade, the
lad had also painted a head in common ship's paints on a
boat sail on Cremill Beach, near Mount Edgcumbe, and was
always copying the prints in Jacob Gatz' " Book of Emblems,"
which his paternal grandmother is said to have brought with
her from Holland.

The case was put in this fashion. On the one hand there
was Mr Raport, of Plympton, a good apothecary, to whom
Mistress Reynolds had been much beholden thirteen times,
who would take Joshua and bring him up to the profession ;
on the other hand he had such a genius, those arches being
truly wonderful, it were a pity if some good master could not
be found to teach him the art of painting. Mr Hudson, the


reverend gentleman said, was reputed the greatest painter in
England now that Kneller was dead, who was a native of
Devon also. Upon which young Joshua interposed and
delivered himself of the first utterance which has come down
to us. " I would rather be an apothecary," he said, " than an
ordinary painter, but if I could be bound to an eminent
master, I would choose the latter." There is certainly a smack
of the father of English Art in that saying. Mr Craunch,
everybody will be happy to hear, rose quite to the height of
the occasion. He decided that as Mr Hudson was often " to
Bideford," Joshua's drawings should be sent to Mr Cutliffe,
the attorney, who was a mutual friend; and if needs were
that Joshua himself should journey thither and see the great
man ; that he (Craunch) who, thank God, did not want for
means would defray expenses. And so it came to pass that
Joshua Reynolds embraced the artist's profession. There is no
doubt that the town of Plympton lost a very good apothecary,
but as a set-off the world gained a great artist.

Dr Johnson's definition of genius, as " a mind of large
natural powers accidentally determined in some particular
direction," applies admirably to the case before us. The
accident is incontestable : Joshua was a younger son of a
poor man, an opening for him had to be found ; they knew
so little of Art down in Devon in those days that everything
appeared wonderful. Mr Craunch was a good friend, and a
substantial man, who pledged himself to the result, and so it
came about. But we may well ask ourselves, in view of the
strange phenomena of Art history, the delusive exhibitions of
precocious achievement, the splendid imaginative equipments
which become abortive, for want probably of some good ballast,
some sound foundation of character what was there in the
early performance of young Reynolds to justify a father and
a trusted friend in determining him to the career of Art?
Nothing, absolutely nothing. They were right, completely and
triumphantly right, and we figuratively take off our hats to


them, but for all that it was a "fluke." "The mind of large
natural powers" was accidentally determined in a certain
direction, and it went the course appointed to it by Nature.

Young Joshua journeyed up to London by stage-coach to
begin his life's work under Hudson. A medallion portrait of
him in his youth by Peter Falconet, represents a countenance
of strange beauty, though not by any means conventionally
beautiful. The eyes are small, and the upper lip rather long ;
the general balance of proportions is not, perhaps, of the
happiest, the mass of the forehead is small for that of the
cheeks, and the nose, though faultlessly straight, hardly asserts
itself enough to give an imposing character to the face, which
has nevertheless a spiritual charm hard to define ; the delicate
curve of the forehead, the arched brow and open eye, the
straight nose, the lips rather full but compressed, and the
massive chin, combine to produce an impression of gentleness,
earnestness, and determination. And he had all those
qualities ; never was a lad more in earnest and determined
to do his best, more open to instruction, or more observant ;
he paid to trifles the compliment which, at all events so far
as they relate to Art, they thoroughly deserve, of considering
them important. He seems to have been placid, of an equable
temper ; and he possessed, moreover, a surprising stock of
common sense.

He only stayed two years with Hudson, that is till 1743,
and returned to Plympton. In 1745, he was back again in
London, painting portraits ; in the following year his father
died, and he hurried down in time to take his leave of the
good man.

This event broke up the household at Plympton. Joshua
removed with two unmarried sisters to a house at Plymouth
Dock, and three barren years followed. Reynolds had learnt
something with Hudson ; he had learnt his elements, hard,
dry, and cold, as is the manner of such things ; and he was
now looking abroad for his "humanities." William Gandy,



of Exeter, was the first to satisfy the craving, but only

He was stranded hard and dry at Plymouth Dock ; his
genius was strictly eclectic, and without material to work upon
he could do nothing ; so that during three years he seems to
have produced little. Things must have looked very unpro-
mising for this earnest young fellow ; it might all have ended
quite differently, like Waterloo if Blucher had not come up ;
but in Reynolds' case a Blucher did turn up, in the shape of
Commodore Keppel, who put into Plymouth with his squad-
ron to repair damages sustained in a gale. They met at
Mount Edgcumbe, and the " rude and boisterous captain of
the sea " was so taken with the modesty, the good sense, and
possibly also with the sweet face, handed down to us by
Falconet, of the young artist, that he offered him a passage
on board his ship the Centurion to the Mediterranean. This
was the turning-point of Reynolds' life; but for Keppel, but
for that opportunity, in all probability Sir Joshua Reynolds,
P.R.A., would not have been, and many other things besides.
It is a long process to trace effects to their causes, we have
not time for it, but indubitably amongst the causes of the
glories of English Art is the benevolence of a certain Mr
Craunch, a native of Devon, otherwise unknown to the world.
He has already been introduced as taking part in a certain
very important family conference ; we now become aware of
his presence a second time. He supplied young Joshua with
the funds necessary to prosecute his studies abroad ; after
which act he disappears from history ; not, however, without
having left his mark upon it ; to those who are not fascinated
by names and titles, that mark may appear quite as important
as if Mr Craunch had risen in his might and by the terror
of that awful name had dispersed thousands on the field of

From this time forth it was all plain sailing ; on the
nth May 1749, H.M.S. Centurion weighed anchor, shook out


topsails and courses, and bore young Reynolds away to

Rubens was eight years in Italy, Reynolds three. The
two great men who looked at Italian Art with the keenest
and most appreciative eyes, who were the most completely
developed and transformed by it, accomplished the process of
education in very unequal periods of time. Reynolds does
not appear to have got farther than analysing sources of
effect. The depiction of the " Marriage of Cana," by P. Vero-
nese in his Venetian note-book, is, from this point of view,
a most wonderful performance ; he made blots of light and
shade ; he observed and reasoned over all the little trifles
which go to build up a picture, and came back passed master
in picture-making. Rubens took his tuition differently, and
imbibed more of the vital sap of Italian Art ; but with him
we have at present no concern.

The first pictures exhibited by Reynolds after his return
placed him, ncuiine contradicente, at the head of his profession ;
a tide of patronage set in which never abated ; life constantly
expanded before him with more captivating show. He first
took Sir James Thornhill's house in St Martin's Lane ; thence
he moved to No. 5 Great Newport Street ; nine years after
to Leicester Fields, where he bought a house, now occupied
by Messrs Puttick & Simpson, library auctioneers.

It has been said that the nation is happy which leaves no
annals ; and the same thing may be said of individuals.
After the year 1753 there is nothing to relate of Reynolds.
The student of eighteenth-century literature meets him at
every turn. His honest, kindly, genial face seems to beam
out through an atmosphere which is not altogether wholesome.
At the house of certain Misses Cotterell he makes a casual
remark which awakens the esteem of another genuine crea-
ture of that forlorn century, Dr Johnson, and begins a life-
long friendship. Edmund Burke, impelled by the force of
spiritual affinity, falls in and completes a triumvirate which


stands in noble contrast with another that existed two hun-
dred years before in Venice, where a great painter, Tiziano
Vecellio, lived constantly in the society of Sansovino and
Pietro Aretino.

Through that door in Leicester Fields, or Leicester Square
as we now call it, passed all the great, the wise, the good,
and the beautiful of the latter half of the eighteenth century
Waldegrave, Pembroke, North, Chatham, Newcastle, Lawrence
Sterne, Horace Walpole, Gibbon, Selwyn, Langton, Garrick,
Goldsmith, the Wartons, Sheridan, Colman, Barry, Percy, and
all the brilliant members of the Turk's Head Club. Those
stairs were ascended by the majestic Siddons, by all the
loveliest women in the land, with their finery rustling round
them ; Kitty Fisher tripped up them with her saucy nose
upturned, and so did Nelly O'Brien. Joshua Reynolds was
an important item in the social life of his time; in 1758 he
had one hundred and fifty sitters. When he sat down to
dinner with Miss Frances Reynolds, who appears to have been
a bad manager, opposite to him, at a table laid for ten, he
often had to accommodate fifteen, and there was a general
scramble for knives, forks, and plates. There Johnson was
wont to eat immoderately, and Burke often ravished the
company with the coruscations of his transcendent wit. All
that can be confidently said of Reynolds during the last thirty-
nine years of his life, is that he painted a great many
pictures, saw a very great deal of society, played hundreds,
or more probably thousands, of rubbers of whist, and lost an
almost equal number of odd tricks through bad play ; that
before he died he was vexed by partial blindness, which pre-
vented him from exercising his art ; that when life was over,
a solemn procession, attended by thousands, followed his remains
to St Paul's ; that at a meeting after the funeral Edmund Burke
burst into tears, and became inarticulate for the only time in
his life; and that is pretty nearly all there is to relate of


His connection with the Royal Academy, with one short
interval, as shall be related later on, lasted for twenty-four
years, from 1768 to the time of his death in 1792. During that
period he delivered fourteen Discourses ex cathedra, to the
students, for the most part on the occasion of the distribution
of the great prizes, the gold medals and travelling studentships.
The first of his orations, to which allusion has already been
made, and which is entitled Discourse I., in the printed edition
of his works, was delivered at an inaugural meeting of the
newly constituted society ; it related entirely to its manage-
ment, and the details of its internal economy. Discourse II.,
which should more appropriately rank as No. I., was delivered
to the students on the first occasion of the distribution of prizes
on the nth December 1769.

To all men of judgment and culture who were present on
that occasion, it must have become at once apparent that a new
light had arisen in literature. In this masterly Discourse, he
passes over the wide domain of Art, characterises its highest
excellencies, and points out what he considers the most profit-
able system of education. He claims the right of offering some
hints to the consideration of his hearers, from to quote his
words "the long experience I have had, and the increasing
assiduity with which I have pursued those studies." This
Discourse, and all the others, give the words of a man who has
a thorough practical knowledge of his subject : they give the
results of earnest inquiry, diligent observation, and constant
reflection, offered to us in short, pithy, epigrammatical and
antithetical sentences. The " Discourses " conveys the impres-
sion of one of the weightiest books in the language, its style
rises at times to eloquence, at others it analyses minutely,
and there is never the faintest suspicion raised that anything
is done for effect : the thoughts seem to flow naturally and
spontaneously from the author's heart ; they are at times
couched in the phraseology of Burke, at others they roll
out with something of the ponderous impressiveness of


Johnson, but they always belong to Reynolds and to no one

There are necessarily many things in this book which a
modern reader is inclined to cavil at. In the second Dis-
course, for instance, he points out Lodovico Carracci as the best
model for style in painting. Our ancestors in the eighteenth
century thought a very great deal of the Bolognese school ; they
were educating their taste, and for their own good and that of
their successors they stocked their picture galleries as they laid
down port wine in their cellars. Full-bodied Guercinos and
Carraccis, rich fruity Nymphs and fine tawny Satyrs were con-
sidered to be quite the "grands crus." Time has mellowed
these things and given them a fine crust, but they are not very
much to the taste of the present generation.

It becomes evident from a careful perusal of the Discourses,
that Reynolds never freed himself entirely from the prejudices
of his time. In his estimate of the greatest men, of Raphael,
Michael Angelo, and Titian, he never rose to the point of
appreciating them on the score of their truth to nature : the
phantom of the " grand style," the " gusto grande," floated ever
before his eyes, and dimmed her true lineaments. He insists
upon the ideal treatment of human form ; all objects presented
to us by nature, he says, will be found to have blemishes and
defects, and the painter by long laborious comparison arrives
at the grand style, which consists in building up, out of the
most beautiful parts of separate bodies, an ideal or perfect body.
But it appears to us in the highest degree inconsequential when
he asserts that this perfect form was arrived at by those artists,
namely the ancient Greek sculptors, who were "indefatigable
in the school of nature," seeing that this perfect form exists
nowhere in nature, but only as an idea in the mind of the
artist ; it is utterly independent of study and observation.
Nature cannot suggest the perfect form : the artist must first
conceive the idea of it and then go to nature to work it out.

There are certain incongruities in Reynolds' Discourses,


which were forced upon him by his position as head of an
Academy of Arts. Such institutions assume the function of
elevating taste, and keeping alive the traditions of what is
highest and most noble in Art ; and it must constantly happen
that professors whose own Art, like that of Reynolds, is based
upon the closest observation and imitation of nature, are found
preaching doctrines which they are extremely careful not to
practise. Reynolds' doctrines, in whatever light they may
appear to us in the crude sunlit glare of present-day realism,
appeared inefficient and subversive to the doctrinarians of his
time. Raphael Mengs, who opined that Raphael Sanzio, his
namesake, did not know the ideal, and that his Madonnas if
they had been like the " Daughter of Niobe," would have been
very much better, said that the book by the English Reynolds
was likely to lead youth into error, as teaching them superficial
principles, the only ones known to the author. Richard Cumber-
land no doubt made careful note of this piece of impertinence,
and when, in his Anecdotes of Painters in Spain, he found an
opportunity for vengeance, he used it after this fashion. Speak-
ing of a picture of the Nativity by the said Raphael Mengs, he
says that the painter "exhibits an ineffectual and puisne
bambino which looks as if it was painted from a bottle."

Hazlitt has also come forward with a statement of " contra-
dictions " existing in Reynolds' book, such for instance as that
students are warned to put no dependence on their own genius,
which is a delusive guide, that attentive study of the best
examples is the only sure foundation ; and on the other hand
that all the study in the world is of no avail without taste and
genius, which cannot be communicated. There is no denying
this impeachment ; this contradiction runs through all the
fourteen Discourses ; it is obviously the result of a peculiar,
and we may say very amiable craze of the author, in the pursuit
of which he is led into all sorts of impossible and inextricable
corners and false positions.

It was an affectation of our good Sir Joshua to deny himself


genius, and to attribute his success to industry and perseverance.
It is not for us to quarrel with this delusion, if it gave him
satisfaction, but it is a gross error on the part of the critic to
take him at his word.

Reynolds began by analysis : he was profoundly learned, he
had noted everything connected with the construction of pictures,
where the strong colours produced the best effect, how many
lights should be introduced, and their relative proportions to
the mass of shade. He had stored his mind with examples and
precedents, had noted even how trivial accessories had been
introduced with good effect ; and more than that, examples
seem to have been necessary to him as a stimulus to invention.

But dozens have done the same ; there have been artists no
doubt quite as learned, who remained pedants and machinists.
In certain of Reynolds' pictures, in a very few amongst the very
many, we are too plainly reminded of Titian, L. da Vinci, and
Murillo ; in the mass of them, all his extensive knowledge and
his memory of examples are fused and blended inextricably
with his own individuality, so as to constitute a new and living
phase of Art, which we know and recognise as that of Reynolds ;
and if that is not the result of genius, there is no meaning in
the term, or we are arbitrarily restricting that meaning to suit
some sectarian purposes. There are, moreover, indisputable
gleams in his art of a strange imaginative faculty, the only
counterpart to which is to be found in the " Mona Lisa " of
Leonardo da Vinci. The " Nelly O'Brien " and the " Strawberry
Girl " are conspicuous instances. What do they express ? We
cannot tell, something that fascinates and haunts us, that we
puzzle over and wonder about, that seems to tempt our imagina-
tions into abstruse forbidden regions of speculation. No doubt
his great, we may say his only rival, Gainsborough, had qualities
which appear more directly spontaneous, and the gift of nature,
and which we unhesitatingly ascribe to genius, but there is no
denying the aptness of Johnson's definition of " a mind of great
natural powers accidentally determined in a particular direction."


The mind of Reynolds was reflective, observant, and extra-
ordinarily tenacious ; it never lost grip of anything once acquired.
Throughout a long life of unceasing activity he gathered new
facts daily, and these were added to the old, mixed up and
fermented by a fine imagination, and regulated by an impertur-
bable common sense. Reynolds was never led astray by dreams,
never beguiled by enthusiasm to attempt the thing beyond his
powers ; in the very fever-fit of conception he had coolness and
presence of mind to turn upon himself, to take stock of his
commodity of means, to ask himself, Can I carry this out ? how
is it to be carried out ?

There have been few men like him. Titian conceived things
pictorially, he saw the scene before him as a picture, with its
tones and colours ; Rubens' resources were equal to any strain,
his knowledge was astounding, and his temperament was so

Online LibraryJ. E. (John Evan) HodgsonThe Royal academy and its members 1768-1830 → online text (page 3 of 35)