J. E. (John Evan) Hodgson.

The Royal academy and its members 1768-1830 online

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ardent that, as he has said, his powers seemed to expand with
the greatness of the undertaking before him. Reynolds had not
equal ardour, his knowledge was less profound than that of
Rubens, his imagination far inferior to that of Titian. But he
had a fine playful fancy ; he had a solid fund of judgment and
savoir faire ; he brought his whole mind to bear upon every-
thing he did, and he did everything deliberately and thoroughly ;
and the result is, he has bequeathed to posterity a legacy, accord-
ing to the statement of Messrs Graves and Cronin in their
monumental work, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua
Reynolds, P.R.A., of some four thousand pictures, in which
there are comparatively few traces of inequality.

Though, as we have said, it is a great error to attribute Sir
Joshua's success simply to his industry, there is no doubt that
he was extraordinarily industrious. He said himself that " no
industrious journeyman mechanic perhaps had laboured more
incessantly for his daily bread than he had." It was a cause of
grief to his friend, Dr Johnson, and a subject of delicate remon-
strance, that he would not even rest on Sundays ; it is said that
his only idle day was that on which he heard of the death of


Oliver Goldsmith. The note-books in which he entered
his appointments with sitters are preserved in the Royal
Academy ; there are twenty-seven of them, extending from
1757 to 1790, seven years being missing. They are plain,
shabby little volumes, uniformly bound and ruled after the
fashion of diaries ; they are scrawled thickly with names of his
sitters ; the paper is bad, the ink has turned brown with age,
and the handwriting is villainous ; but as we turn the pages
over and discern the familiar and illustrious names, the twentieth
century seems to vanish, and we see before us the Court of the
Georges, with its atmosphere of plots and intrigues ; we hear
the rustle of silks and satins, we see the glimmer of gems and
of pinchbeck ; the whole strange, enigmatical, and laughable
world of the eighteenth century rises up before us.

From one of the pages in these note-books it appears that
Reynolds did not actually receive the accolade, the investiture
of knighthood, till some months after the date of the foundation
of the Royal Academy and his election as President, as on the
opposite page, facing the entry " The King's Levee," on 22nd
April 1769 is written "Knighted at St James's."

One of the most cherished possessions of the Royal Academy
is Sir Joshua Reynolds' " Sitter's Chair," which is placed in one
of the Diploma Galleries. A tablet attached to it bears the
following inscription, which well sums up its history :

" This Chair was occupied in turn by the most illustrious
Statesmen and Warriors, by the most eminent Lawyers, Poets,
Philosophers, and Wits of the eighteenth century. The love-
liest and most intellectual women of that time have sat in it.
The majestic Siddons leaned her arms upon it as ' The Tragic
Muse,' Kitty Fisher lounged in it as ' Cleopatra.'

" It passed by purchase into the possession of each succeed-
ing President of the Royal Academy, until Sir Frederic
Leighton, in 1878, presented it to that body, and it has now
found a permanent resting-place in this Gallery."

To judge of Reynolds purely as an artist, unbiassed by either


national or Academic proclivities, is a perilous and difficult
enterprise. If we must venture, we will say that his greatness
was not peculiar but cumulative. In composition, using the
term as expressing the lifelike and vivid representation of a
scene, he was not strong. His " Death of Dido " does not impress
us with being exhibited exactly the way the thing occurred ; it
is a picture, and the subject, the actual event, is subservient to
pictorial treatment. In drawing he was weak, as he confesses
himself: but only weak as compared to the greatest draughts-
men. In chiaroscuro he was admirably dexterous and skilful,
but not inventive ; he had not explored that realm of mystery
and charm like Correggio and Rembrandt. Design and colour
were his strongest qualities : in the former he was never wrong,
his lines always flow right, his masses are always well balanced,
the aspect of his pictures is always imposing ; and in colour,
though he played on a very limited scale, and used but few
tints, he was equally imposing, rich, and sonorous in tone. As
an executant he was masterly and dexterous, but never reached
the height of excellence attained by Titian, Velasquez, and
Rubens. In no quality, as we have said before, did he transcend.
In grace and elegance, in rendering the naivete of children, the
unspeakable elegance which is imparted to women by an
innocent mind, we might be inclined to concede that triumph
to him, had he not been surpassed by his contemporary, Thomas
Gainsborough. In every quality of Art others had gone beyond
him, but none had combined so many qualities, and in such
high degree ; he surveyed the domain of Art, and as far as he
could see in every direction, he tilled and cultivated it till he
left no spot barren. If others have penetrated farther on a
given line of radius, to Reynolds belongs the glory of being the
most complete all-round painter the world has ever produced.'



IN the last chapter we have dealt with Joshua Reynolds the
artist ; in the present we propose to deal with Joshua Reynolds
the President, or rather with the Royal Academy under his

It may with truth be said of the Royal Academy that it was
felix opportunitate originis, in that it had a king, George III.,
young, generous, and enthusiastic, for its founder and patron ;
a Reynolds for its first President, who, besides being admittedly
at the head of his profession as a painter, or to put it, if necessary,
less strongly, primus inter pares, was a scholar, a gentleman,
and a man of the world, full of tact and sound judgment ; and
a man of business, William Chambers, for its first Treasurer.
The last-named had more to do with the inception of the new
undertaking than any one else; a fact which we find duly
acknowledged by his fellow - members, who, at a General
Assembly held on 2nd January 1769, at which every one of the
twenty-eight Academicians originally nominated by the king
was present, passed a resolution thanking " Mr Chambers for
his active and able conduct in planning and forming the Royal
Academy." We shall refer to Chambers farther on, but it may
here be noted that, in addition to his business faculties, his
having been tutor in architecture to George III., when Prince of
Wales, and the favour in which he was held by the king, gave
him exceptional opportunities for gaining the king's ear, and


inducing him to give his patronage to the new society which
Cotes, West, Moser, and himself were desirous of founding.

Of the importance which was attached to this royal patron-
age, some idea may be formed from Reynolds' remarks in his
opening address at the same General Assembly an address
termed in the thanks voted to him for it, " an ingenious, elegant,
and useful speech." " The numberless and ineffectual consulta-
tions," he says, " which I have had with many in this assembly
to form plans and concert schemes for an Academy, afford
sufficient proof of the impossibility of succeeding but by the
influence of Majesty. But there have, perhaps, been times when
even the influence of Majesty would have been ineffectual : and
it is pleasing to reflect that we are thus embodied, when every
circumstance seems to concur from which honour and prosperity
can possibly arise. There are at this time a greater number of
excellent artists than were ever known before at one period in
this nation ; there is a general desire among our nobility to be
distinguished as lovers and judges of the arts ; there is a greater
superfluity of wealth among the people to reward the professors ;
and, above all, we are patronised by a monarch who, knowing
the value of science and elegance, thinks every art worthy of
his notice that tends to soften and humanise the mind."

George III.'s direct and personal interest in "my Academy,"
as he called it, was shown in many ways. He undertook to
supply any deficiencies between the receipts derived from the
exhibitions and the expenditure incurred on the schools, charit-
able donations to artists, etc., out of his own Privy Purse, and
actually did so to the amount of 5116, is. iifd. up to the
year 1780, when the last payment was made, the financial
independence of the Academy beginning from the following
year. He furthermore gave them rooms in his own palace of
Somerset House, to which the schools and the official depart-
ments were removed in 1771, the Exhibition still continuing to
be held in Pall Mall till 1780, when New Somerset House
was completed, and in accordance with thd right reserved


by the king when he gave up the palace for Government
offices, the Academy entered into possession of the spacious
apartments expressly provided for them, including a large
exhibition room at the top of the building. It is noteworthy
that the Academy becoming self-supporting, and requiring no
further aid from the royal purse, was synchronous with its
taking possession of its new home. But though the king had
no longer to render pecuniary aid to the Academy, he none the
less carefully looked after its finances, the accounts being for
many years audited by the Privy Purse. That he considered
himself liable for any deficiencies is shown by the document
containing the appointment of Venn as Treasurer in succession
to Chambers, who died in 1796. It runs thus :


" Whereas we have thought fit to nominate and appoint
John Venn, Esq. (Clerk of the Writs at the Queen's House),
to be Treasurer to our Royal Academy during our pleasure in
the room of Sir William Chambers, Knight, deceased : Our will
and pleasure therefore is, that you pay, or cause to be paid,
unto the said John Venn all such sums as shall appear necessary
to pay the debts contracted in the support of the said academy ;
and for so doing this shall be to you a sufficient warrant and
discharge. Given at the Queen's Palace, the 3ist day of March
1796, in the thirty-sixth year of our reign.
" By His Majesty's command,

(Signed} " CARDIGAN.

" To our right trusty and well-beloved
Keeper of our Privy Purse."

Any tendency on the part of the Academicians to spend
money outside the express object for which the institution was
founded was promptly checked by George III. Two memor-
able instances of this are his refusing to sanction in 1791 the


[Face p. 30


proposal to contribute 100 towards the monument to be erected
to the memory of Dr Johnson in St Paul's, and his disapproval
of the offer in 1803 f S towards the subscription for the
relief of the sufferers by the war ; though with reference to this
second occasion, which was connected with a very important
incident in the government of the Academy, more fitly to be
referred to subsequently, it would seem that his action was
somewhat inconsistent with his previous approval in 1798 of a
donation of 500 for " the use of the Government."

Another proof of the personal interest taken by George III.
in the concerns of his Academy, was the fact that he drew up
with his own hand the form of diploma to be granted to each
Academician on his election, retaining the right of approving of
such election, and ordering that none should be valid till his
sign-manual had been affixed to the diploma. Although
Reynolds' diploma is dated the I5th of December 1768, as,
indeed, were the diplomas of all the original members, the
question of a diploma was not taken into consideration till May
1769, when Sir William Chambers was asked to draw one up,
and after approval it was submitted by him to the king, who
made many alterations and finally wrote out himself the
existing form. Several designs were made for the head-piece,
the members of the Council, the Visitors, and the Keeper having
all been requested to furnish one. That of Moser, the Keeper,
as appears from the minutes of the Council of 3Oth June, was
first selected ; but at the next meeting, on loth July, Cipriani's,
with certain specified alterations, was substituted for it, and
ordered to be engraved by Bartolozzi. Three or four of the
sketches sent in are preserved in the Academy archives, and
judging from them there can be little doubt that Cipriani's was
by far the best design.

The formal election of Reynolds as President took place at
the first General Assembly held on I4th December 1768, and
was confirmed by the king on i8th December. In accordance
with section 4 of the " Instrument " of foundation, the election


was to be an annual one, and to take place on loth December,
or on the nth, if the loth was a Sunday. In 1769, 1770, 1771,
and 1772, Reynolds was re-elected nemine contradicente, a special
vote of thanks being given him in 1770 for "the many eminent
and distinguished services he has in his late office rendered to
the Royal Academy." But in 1773 a slight note of discord
was struck, one vote being given for Charles Catton ; and the
same thing again occurred in 1774. In 1775 West, Gains-
borough, Chambers, Dance, and Hone each got a vote, and
Edward Penny, the Professor of Painting, three votes, and the
next year, 1776, he got two. Nemine contradicente was again
the verdict for Reynolds in 1777, 1779, 1783, 1784, 1785, 1786,
and 1790; Gainsborough, Dance, Peters, Penny, Chambers
(twice), Catton, Northcote, Carlini, and West, each getting one
vote in the $ other years. The number of votes for Reynolds in
the years when there was opposition varied from 12 to 26. It
is difficult to account for this constantly recurring note of discon-
tent, except onithe supposition that it was intended as a protest
against the re-election being considered a matter of course.

His assiduity in the discharge of his functions as President
both outside and inside the Academy was unwearied. On
two occasions only was he absent from the meetings of the
Council and the General Assembly (not including the meetings
held during his temporary resignation), and the minutes of
these meetings bear ample testimony to the reality of the work
done by him. The opposition cannot have been prompted by
any feeling that he shirked his duties : nor from all that is
known of his character can it be for one moment supposed that
he discharged them in any but the most kindly and conciliatory
manner towards those over whom he ruled. Burke said of him,
"In full affluence of foreign and domestic fame, admired by the
expert in art and by the learned in science, courted by the
great, caressed by sovereign powers, and celebrated by dis-
tinguished poets, his native humility, modesty, and candour
never forsook him, even on surprise and provocation ; nor was


the least degree of arrogance or assumption visible to the most
scrutinising eye in any part of his conduct or discourse. . . . He
had too much merit not to excite some jealousy, too much
innocence to provoke any enmity."

The differences and quarrels in the artistic community which
immediately preceded the formation of the Royal Academy
show that the spirits over whom Reynolds presided, must have
required very careful and judicious management, but there is
no record of any serious friction until the famous occasion
which ended in his temporary resignation. Occasionally some
of the members seem to have given trouble as regards the
pictures they sent for exhibition. In 1770 there is an entry in
the Council minutes that Nathaniel Hone " be desired to alter
the crucifix in his picture" the picture being a caricature of
two monks carousing, to which request he replied in a satirical
vein that he was " very sorry y e President and Council should
fear that y e painted wooden cross in my picture (for it is not a
crucifix) should lay them open to censure, when I have no fear
of that kind about me respecting that article : indeed, I should
think the poignancy (for I meant it as satire) would lose the
best part of its effect, and therefore can have no thought of
altering it, except," he goes on to add, "the President and
Council refuse to admit it," and then he will not only alter it,
but if hereafter he " should send another unintelligible picture
shall beg y e favour of y e President and Council's opinion respect-
ing y e composition before I send it to y e exhibition." The
reply of the Council is drafted on the back of Hone's letter in
Reynolds' own handwriting, and states that they " continue in
the same opinion in respect to the cross. They are too dull to
see the poignancy of the satire which it conveys. However,
were the wit as poignant as you think it, it would be paying
too dear for it to sacrifice religion. They confess they have
that fear about them of offending against the rules of decency,
and have no desire to ridicule religion or make the Cross a
subject for buffoonery. You are therefore desired to send for



the picture and alter it if you desire to exhibit it this
year." The rebuke would have been still stronger had
several words and sentences which are erased in the draft
been retained.

Hone was again an offender in 1775 with a picture entitled
" Pictorial Conjurer displaying the whole Art of Optical
Delusion." In it he represented a figure, so it was contended,
of Reynolds as an old man with a wand in his hand and a child
leaning against his knee, performing incantations by which a
number of prints and sketches, from which Reynolds had, as it
was intended to insinuate, plagiarised, were made to float in
the air round his head. Among the sketches was one of a nude
female figure, which some one seems to have suggested was
intended for Angelica KaufTman. The picture had been already
passed for exhibition, Reynolds and the Council no doubt
treating the implied satire on him with the contempt it deserved ;
but an indignant letter from Angelica Kauffman to the President
put a new aspect on the case. At first, indeed, they endeavoured
to appease her susceptibilities by inviting her to come and see
the picture, and then they sent Chambers to try to persuade
her to take no notice of the matter. But the lady was in no
mood to treat it lightly, as evidenced by her letter to the Council,
which was as follows :


" I have had the honour of a visit from Sir Will.
Chambers, the purpose of which was to reconcile me to submit
to the exhibition of a picture which gave me offence. However
I may admire the dignity of the gentlemen who are superior to
the malignity of the author, I should have held their conduct
much more in admiration, if they had taken into consideration
a respect to the sex which it is their glory to support. If they
fear the loss of an Academician who pays no respect to that
sex, I hope I may enjoy the liberty of leaving to them the


pleasure of that Academician, and withdrawing one object who
never willingly deserved his or their ridicule. I beg leave to
present my respects to the Society and hope they will always
regard their own honour. I have but one request to make, to
send home my pictures, if that is to be exhibited.

" I am, Gentlemen, your most obedient servant,


" Golden Square, Tuesday morn"

Thus addressed, the Council hesitated no longer but resolved
not to admit Hone's picture, and a letter was written to him
conveying that decision, and it was further decided that if he
should send for his other pictures they should be delivered to
him. Hone in the meantime had tried to appease the lady's
anger by declaring that he had not intended to represent her,
and that nothing was farther from his thoughts than to insult a
lady whom he esteemed as "the first of the sex, in painting,
and amongst the loveliest of women in person," and by offering
to put a beard and male attire on the obnoxious figure. But
the lady no doubt thought he did protest too much, and declined
to be convinced ; whereupon Hone wrote a sarcastic reply to
the Academy's letter and desired that the rt Conjurer " might
be sent back to him, and all his other pictures except " y e Spartan
Boy historical, which I am willing to have hung up from y e great
respect I owe y e king and his Academy."

The quarrel of Gainsborough with the Academy in 1784, as
to the hanging of his group of the Royal Princesses, was a very
regrettable incident, which did not reflect much credit on either
side, though no doubt the Council acted strictly within their
rights in declining to be dictated to by any member, however
distinguished ; a member who, it must not be forgotten, seems
always to have regarded the Academy merely as an exhibition
shop, and never to have taken any part in the business, or


taught as visitor in the schools; indeed, in 1775 the Council
decided to omit his name from the list of Academicians eligible
to serve on the Council or as visitor to the schools, etc., he
" having declined accepting any office in the Academy, and
having never attended " ; but his name |was restored by the
General Assembly. Moreover, in the previous year, 1783, he
had sent a letter to "the Committee of Gentlemen appointed to
hang the pictures of the Royal Exhibition," in which he presents
his compliments to them, and " begs leave to hint to them that
if The Royal Family which he has sent for this exhibition
(being smaller than three-quarters), are hung above the line
along with full-lengths, he never more, while he breathes, will
send another picture to the exhibition. This he swears by
God" With it he sent a friendly letter to the secretary, Newton,
and a sketch of how the pictures were to be hung. There is
no mention of the matter, however, in the Council minutes, and
we may conclude that the Council took no official cognisance
of the letter, and humoured him by doing what he wanted.

But when the next year brought a similar letter, couched,
it is true, in less forcible terms, and begging pardon for
giving so much trouble, but stating that " as he has painted the
picture of the Princesses [a group of the Princess Royal, Princess
Augusta, and Princess Elizabeth] in so tender a light, that not-
withstanding he approves very much of the established line for
strong effects, he cannot possibly consent to have it placed
higher than five feet and a half, because the likenesses and work
of the picture will not be seen any higher ; therefore, at a word,
he will not trouble the gentlemen against their inclination, but
will beg the rest of his pictures back again" it is hardly
surprising that the Council decided to inform him that, in
compliance with his request, they had ordered his pictures to be
taken down and delivered to his order. Nor perhaps is it more
to be wondered at that he never sent a picture again. There
must, however, have been some sort of a reconciliation, for in
the Council minutes of I3th September 1787, there is the follow-


ing entry : " Mr Garvey reported that Mr Gainsborough had
promised to paint a picture for the chimney in the Council-room,
in the place of that formerly proposed to be painted by Mr
Cipriani " ; a promise which his illness and death in the following
year prevented the fulfilment of.

With a few slight exceptions, of which the above may be
taken as specimens, no serious discord had arisen within the
Academic ranks under Sir Joshua's rule. But in 1790 differences
showed themselves which ended in his temporary resignation.
The story is told at considerable length in Leslie and Taylor's
Life of Reynolds, all the documents relating to it in the
Academy archives having been carefully gone through by the
former, and compared with Farington's account in his Life of
Reynolds, which is adverse to Reynolds, and with the memor-
anda made by Reynolds himself of the dissention and its cause.
It is probable that, as is usually the case, there were faults on
both sides, but it is difficult to escape from the conclusion that
if Reynolds was in any way to blame, those members who,
as Malone said, "have driven him from the Chair of the
Academy," were much more deserving of censure for their
conduct to one to whom the Institution to which they
belonged owed so much.

The quarrel first began by Reynolds giving his casting vote

Online LibraryJ. E. (John Evan) HodgsonThe Royal academy and its members 1768-1830 → online text (page 4 of 35)