J. E. (John Evan) Hodgson.

The Royal academy and its members 1768-1830 online

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obviously and undeniably the right thing to do, an achievement
in which he himself often signally failed.


Gainsborough the artist is quite unequivocal, but the man
presents strange incongruities. It is absolutely incontestable
on the evidence of his works, that in the very bottom of his
heart he honoured and worshipped what was true and good and
noble and beautiful ; no painter that ever lived surpassed, or
perhaps even equalled, his portraits of women, for the expres-
sion of innocence and moral purity. When he approached
his pictures he purged his mind from all debasing ideas, he
thought the best of his sitters and took them at that, and he
has handed them down to posterity clothed in the unspeakable
graces of moral purity.

Chesneau sees, or affects to see, in Reynolds' portrait of
Nelly O'Brien a masterly and concentrated portrayal of passion-
ate desires. There is nothing of this to be found anywhere in
Gainsborough, no inkling of it ; there is no blush but that of
health, no smile but that of mirth and confidence. And yet it
is said that he was licentious in his speech, as certain letters
addressed to his friend William Jackson, the musician of " Te
Deum " fame, which have come into the possession of the Royal
Academy, abundantly certify. In some of these letters unworthy
and prurient images are associated with subjects which ought
to have held them aloof. There are passages in them which
the licence of eighteenth-century speech and manners fails to
explain. We must make liberal allowances for an age in which
the most refined women, such, for instance, as Mrs Delany
and Swift's Stella, whilst complaining of the coarseness with
which men addressed them, used terms which a lady of the
present day would be shocked to hear ; but for all that the
coarseness of Gainsborough, which is not of words so much as
of thought and association of ideas, appears exceptional, and
the conviction is forced upon us that his correspondent Jackson
must have been more than ordinarily friendly and less than
ordinarily sensitive.

The refinement of Gainsborough as an artist, and his
coarseness as a man, is an anomaly difficult to explain, except


after this fashion. He was a " reality, and not a sham," a lump
of humanity straight from nature's mould ; the polish and the
gloss was that of the beautiful soul which nature had put into
him ; he had an extraordinary genius, exquisite sensibility,
and he took an exalted and just view of the dignity of Art ;
but he was mirthful, pleasure-loving, excitable, passionate ; he
took no pains to improve himself, to make himself appear
other than what he was ; nature had always been his guide,
and he remained a natural, unregenerated man.

His letters to Jackson clearly reveal a rude but genuine and
independent character, based on realities, and scornful and
impatient of conventionalisms and formulas. He thinks his
friend pays too much deference to rank, wealth, and position,
and rates him soundly in the following fashion :

" Mark, then, that ever since I have been quite clear in your
being a real genius, so long have I been of opinion that you are
dayly throwing your gift away upon Gentlemen, and only
studying how you shall become the Gentleman too ; now damn
Gentlemen, there is not such a set of enemies to a real artist in
the world as they are, if not kept at a proper distance. They
think (and so may you for awhile) that they reward your merit
by their company and notice ; but I, who blow away all the

chaff, and by G in their eyes too, if they don't stand clear,

know that they have but one part worth looking at, and that
is their Purse ; their Hearts are seldom near enough the right
place to get a sight of it."

It is clear that Gainsborough, with all his careless, and
unworldly ways, was a man of strong, proud, and self-reliant
nature a man not to be taken in by flummery, and who, more-
over, possessed quite his share of the self-consciousness of
genius. Art and nature were all in all to him ; though stimu-
lated by success and soothed by the flattering unction of fame,
his soul sighed to escape from men of flattery, he yearned for a
simpler and more natural life.


Writing from Bath, he says : " I'm sick of Portraits, and
wish very much to take my Viol da Gam and walk off to some
sweet village, where I can paint landskips and enjoy the fag end
of life in quietness and ease. But these fine ladies and their
Tea-drinkings, Dancings, Husband-huntings, etc., etc., will fob me
out of the last few years, and I fear miss getting Husbands too.
But we can say nothing to these things, you know, Jackson, we
must jogg on and be content with the jingling of the bells ;

only d mn it, I hate a dust, the kicking up a dust, and being

confined in Harness to follow the track, whilst others ride on
the waggon, under cover, stretching their legs in the straw at
ease, and gazing at green trees and blue skies without half my

Taste. That's d n ; d hard. My comfort is that I have 5

Viol da Gambs, 3 Jayes, and two Barak Normans."

Vain aspirations ! The simple soul, the love of nature,
made the strength of his genius, and that genius enforced its
penalties, and dragged him whither he would not go. Not for
him were the simple joys of the old lumbering broad-wheeled
waggon, with its bed of straw and its arched cover of sackcloth ;
he must journey in his coach, with bells on his horses, and kicks
up more and more dust, not to some sweet village, but to the
great capital, to the very heart of London itself, Pall Mall West,
to be plunged into the very vortex of fine ladies, tea-drinkings,
dancings, and husband-huntings ; to solace himself as he best
could with the sweet tootlings of Fischer's hautboy, the long-
drawn vibrations of Abel's violin, and the flashes of Sheridan's
wit ; to die there, and to be borne aloft by posthumous Fame,
whose trembling wings have never lowered him to earth.

As to his merits as an artist, compared with those of Reynolds,
the world is divided, always has been divided, and probably
always will be divided. As long at least as men's minds shall
be differently constituted, as long as there shall be people of an
objective and a subjective turn, as there shall be realists and
idealists, Whigs and Tories, big-endians and little-endians, or
any two ways of looking at things. Those who love law and


science, who bow to prescription and who worship culture, will
always prefer Reynolds ; on the other hand, those who desire
emotion, the thrill of surprise, the indescribable tingling excite-
ment which is evoked by the aspect of the unexpected, will award
the superiority to Gainsborough.

It is not for us to attempt to pass judgment. We will
endeavour only to define the difference between them, a thing
by no means easy to do. Art is subtle, its distinctions, though
important, are delicate ; they belong to things spiritual, and
often baffle the coarse materialism of words and phrases. It
appears the most convenient and promising way to describe
their separate methods of working.

Let us imagine Reynolds to have made an appointment
with a sitter, a young lady of a classic cast of countenance, with
dark hair, and to have made due note of the date and the
hour in one of those shabby little note-books which are pre-
served in the Royal Academy. In the interim he carefully
cogitates his picture. He has long wished to paint a picture
with a mass of amber colour as his principal light, opposed to
red in shadow, with a green blue as a foil. The amber dress and
the flesh shall make the principal light, two other minor lights
must be introduced ; the dark hair will serve for the extreme
point of shade. Those two minor lights must be seen to ;
perhaps if nothing strikes him, he turns over a portfolio of
engravings, and finally gets an idea. When the appointed
hour arrives, and with it the sitter, he is ready ; his picture is
schemed out, it exists in his head. The classic cast of counten-
ance has suggested a reference to Lempriere's Dictionary, or
whatever book of that character existed at the time ; he has
got a subject and a title, and he begins with certainty and

Gainsborough, on the other hand, makes an appointment
which he thinks no more of, trusting to be duly reminded of it
by his faithful Margaret ; he plays on the fiddle with Abel or
listens to his son-in-law Fischer's hautboy, and when the hour


arrives he sits down before his easel with a mind as blank as
the canvas before him. His sitter is a young lady, he eyes her
intently, he chats with her, he 'draws her out, he gets excited,
strange flashes of drollery and absurdity escape him ; she turns
in her chair, her face lights up, and inspiration comes to him.
" Stay as you are ! " he exclaims. He sees a picture, he seizes
his palette and begins. He painted what he could discover in
nature ; Reynolds used nature to help him to paint what he had
already discovered ; his work presents what the French have
called " le voulu," that of the other " 1'imprevu."

We shall be able to enforce the distinction more clearly by
an illustration.

Reynolds and Gainsborough both painted the wife of Richard
Brinsley Sheridan, of whom Mrs D'Arblay said that her beauty
surpassed almost any she had ever seen. Reynolds' picture is
in his finest manner, it is a deep golden harmony painted with
rich unctuous impasto. It is ideally treated ; Mrs Sheridan, in
a golden white drapery, represents St Cecilia playing on a
harpsichord, with cherubs hovering in the air apparently
entranced by the music. The face is seen almost in profile, it
is exquisitely lovely, there is an air of refinement and grace in
the whole figure ; attitude and expression are both idealised.
St Cecilia seems to be in an ecstatic dream, carried away by
the charms of music.

Gainsborough's picture, represents Mrs Sheridan seated
under a tree ; she seems to have popped herself down there
suddenly, with her two dainty little feet sticking up straight in
front of her ; she has pulled off her hat, and her hair is ruffled
about ; she looks straight at you. As you look at it, you say
to yourself, this is indeed " the beautiful mother of a beautiful
race," as she was called. There is no attempt at ideality, the
picture is sketchily, carelessly painted, it has none of the
accomplishment, the study, the thorough workmanship of that
of Reynolds, neither has it his dignity and loftiness of treatment.
But it fascinates you, it is like the author himself, lively, witty,


capricious, full of music and passion, waywardness and impulse ;
there is no calculation or forethought, order or tidiness about
it, it is painted in a fit of enthusiasm whe the imagination had
raised itself into the region which is beyond all rules. When
Gainsborough was in this mood, so happy with his subject, his
technique rose to a point of excellence in certain respects which
has never been attained by any other painter. He was uncul-
tured as an artist ; Reynolds in his fourteenth Discourse compares
him " to such men as we sometimes meet with, whose natural
eloquence appears even in speaking a language which they can
scarce be said to understand ; and who, without knowing the
appropriate expression of almost any one idea, contrive to
communicate the lively and forcible expressions of an energetic
mind." He certainly does that, and moreover when in an
inspired mood, as in the portrait of Mrs Sheridan, he reveals an
innate gift arid aptitude for Art which may really be called
unrivalled. The sparkle, the life and animation which he has
imparted to the eyes and mouth, the natural grace, beauty, and
artlessness of the figure, and poise of the head, the way it is set
on the neck and shoulders, the treatment of the tumbled untidy
hair, the colour and composition of the picture generally, all
reveal a rare and peculiar genius, which is, strictly speaking,

His picture of " The Sisters," has the same characteristic
excellencies ; and our readers will no doubt call to mind many
another beautiful woman by Gainsborough, whose sweet ingenu-
ous face seems to beam out upon us from the material canvas
like a thing of life, a creature with a soul, to which his own
responds sympathetically.

It is related that on one occasion after a dinner, Reynolds
rose and proposed the health of " Mr Gainsborough, the greatest
living landscape painter " ; Wilson was present, he jumped up
and added, "and the greatest living portrait painter also."
It has been well said that neither of the speakers was quite
aware how much truth there was in his remark. It happened,


if it ever did happen, in the days before Turner ; we can now
no longer think of Gainsborough as the greatest of landscape
painters, we are compelled to pull down his claims out of the
superlative into the comparative degree. During his lifetime,
he enjoyed a great reputation for his landscapes, everybody
praised them and extolled them and nobody bought them ; the
halls and passages in Schomberg House were hung with them ;
and Reynolds' toast may have been intended in a kindly spirit
as a gentle hint to the world that a great genius was being

In endeavouring to estimate his claims we must make
allowance for the fact that, since his day, landscape painting has
taken an entirely new departure. Ruskin writes of him in these
words : " The greatest colourist since Rubens and the last I
think of legitimate colourists ; that is to say, of those who were
fully acquainted with the power of their material ; pure in his
English feelings, profound in his seriousness, graceful in his
gaiety." And again speaking of his works, "they are rather
motives of feeling and colour than earnest studies, their execu-
tion is in some degree mannered and always hasty, they are
altogether wanting in the affectionate detail of which I have
already spoken and their colour is in some measure dependent
on a bituminous brown and conventional green, which have
more of science than of truth in them."

The landscape painter of the present day, the camper-out in
the fields, the earnest follower, in some cases even the slave, of
nature, would be inclined to describe the landscapes of the last
century as representing an impossible universe ; where the sky
was not the vast laboratory in which were distilled the dews
and vapours which hourly fertilise the earth, but a field of
meaningless blue in which were suspended what look more like
feather beds than any known form of water ; where the earth
was without stratification or intelligible structure, and composed
entirely of baked clay and putty ; where the trees had gutta-
percha stems, with no past history discernible in their forms,



no joy or vigour in their growth ; where the grass was a mean-
ingless wash of translucent green which appeared to afford
subsistence to bituminous cows, and an insecure resting-place
to questionable milkmaids.

The universe, as depicted by Gainsborough, is open to
satirical criticism of that kind ; nothing is seriously or carefully
studied, but, as in his figure pictures, he goes to the heart of the
matter, the soul which underlies the outward features, and
represents that. How the aspect of external nature affected
him, Thomas Gainsborough, what solemn emotions it awakened
in him, in other words how nature sympathised with his moods
and feelings that he represents with magnificent power, with
a richness and depth of colouring which, as Ruskin says,
connects him with Rubens.

In a world given over for the most part to artificialities and
impostures of all kinds, to conventionalisms instead of principles,
a world which only took its self-interests at first hand, all the
rest, its thinking and its morals, at second, the figure of Thomas
Gainsborough stands out with the vividness and distinctness of
one of his own pictures. He had grave faults, he had little
sense of duty, he was selfish ; we do not at present know all his
faults ; but he was a man with a fearless, independent mind,
with a warm heart and great soul in him. He cared nothing
whatever for conventionalisms, he took his pleasure where he
found it. In his art he did the thing he loved and left out the
rest. In society he was open and genuine, he said what he
thought about people if he liked them he took them to his
heart, if they were not congenial he quarrelled with them. He
acted on impulse and did a number of foolish unworldly things ;
but with his whole soul he worshipped the " Eternal Veracities " ;
and it is that earnestness, that real depth of insight and of
character, which elevates his art, an art which is slight, sketchy,
imperfect, and careless, which any student can pick to pieces,
but which has never lost its hold on men's hearts and probably
never will, as long as the materials hold together. Reynolds,


alive to every artifice, with a hand trained to obey his will, was
obliged to confess that he did not understand how Gainsborough
got his effects ; and Gainsborough, looking at the works of his
rival, the great eclectic who had formed himself, as he says, " on
the full body of the best general practice," was constrained to
exclaim, " Damn it, how various he is ! " These two sayings
suggests nearly everything that can be said about Art. Genius
of a high order is given only to a few, it produces works which
are inexplicable and inimitable, but it cannot found schools or
be a special attribute of any age or country. Culture is com.
municable, it enlarges the mind and gives a man a wide range
of subject ; if less admirable and wonderful it is perhaps more
useful to mankind.



WE now proceed to deal with the remaining original members
of the Academy, with the exception of Benjamin West, who will
be treated of in a separate chapter.

Although the second clause of the Instrument of Institution
states that it is " His Majesty's pleasure that the following forty
persons be the original members of the said Society," only
thirty-six names are contained in the list appended to this
clause, and of these the two last, William Hoare and Johan
Zoffany, were not nominated by the king till the end of 1769, a
year after the foundation, while the remaining four were elected,
the whole number of forty not being completed till 1773. Strictly
speaking, therefore, the term " Foundation Members " can only
be applied to the first thirty-four. But the term " nominated "
may certainly be applied to Hoare and Zoffany. It may be
recorded as a point of some interest, that of the nominated
thirty-six members no less than nine, one-fourth, were


born in 1727, was a native of Florence. His father was a gold-
smith and worker in filigree, and as a boy he learnt to use the
implements he found in his father's workshop, showing a
precocious facility with the graver, which led to his father



placing him under a historical painter named Hickford or
Hugford, born in Flanders of English parents. For three years
his education was that of a painter ; he became an excellent
draughtsman, both after nature and the antique, and he made
original designs and executed them in colour. Although in
later years the mass of work thrust upon him as an engraver
interfered with his practice with the palette, he never quite
relinquished it, and when he was elected one of the foundation
members of the Royal Academy, it was on the score of his
accomplishments as a painter and an original designer, quite as
much as an engraver. At Hugford's he became intimate with
Giovanni Battista Cipriani, a young man, or rather boy, of his
own age. Their student days over, each went his own way,
Bartolozzi to serve a six years' apprenticeship under Joseph
Wagner, an engraver settled in Venice, and Cipriani to study in
Rome, where he met with Sir William Chambers, who brought
him to England in 1755.

Bartolozzi rapidly acquired a great reputation as an engraver,
and was, in 1764, induced to come to this country by Richard
Dalton, librarian to George III. Here he found his old fellow-
student already established, and took lodgings with him in War-
wick Street, Golden Square. He continued to reside in London
and to practise his art assiduously until 1802, when he took his
departure, after a sojourn of thirty-eight years. The last )^ears
of his life were spent in Lisbon, where he died in 1815 in his
eighty-eighth year. He was considered the greatest engraver
of his time, and his reputation is only marred by the occasional
production of hasty and inferior works, into which he was
driven by his thriftless habits and his constant necessities ;
for though his industry was enormous, and he made a large
income, he appears to have been a careless, jovial man, who
did not hesitate to spend as quickly as he earned.



was also a native of Florence, and born in 1727. His pictures
are little known, but his designs were widely spread by the
graver of his friend and fellow-townsman, Bartolozzi, and the
diploma of the Royal Academy ranks amongst the best speci-
mens of their joint efforts. The designs for the gold and silver
medals presented to the prize-winners in the Academy schools
were also by Cipriani; and on I3th October 1769, the Council
resolved to present him with a silver cup "as an acknowledg-
ment for the assistance the Academy hath received from his
great abilities in his profession." He continued to live in
England, and died at Hammersmith in 1785. Fuseli has
paid a very handsome tribute to his worth, both for his
talents as an artist, the probity of his character, and the
goodness of his heart.


who succeeded Moser, in 1783, as Keeper of the Royal
Academy, was a native of Geneva and a sculptor, who is said to
have excelled in draperies, as Italian Sculpture has done in its
decay. The texture of silks, velvets, and laces are rendered
with extraordinary skill by the carvers of Italy, who are, at the
same time, entirely ignorant of the true functions of sculpture
and the qualities in which its excellence resides. Carlini
executed an equestrian statue of George III., of which the
Academy possesses a model. His death occurred in 1790.


was born in London in 1725, and was a pupil of George Knap-
ton. His career as a portrait painter was a very successful one,
from the point of view which considers the postal district to


which a man has his letters addressed, and the sort of house he
lives in, as conclusive of his merits. Cotes was able to build
and, what is a greater achievement, to continue residing in, a
house in Cavendish Square, subsequently occupied in turn by
Romney and Sir Martin A. Shee, where, on 2Oth July 1770,
when still in the prime of life, that is in his forty-fifth year, and
with a very extensive and lucrative practice, he died. His death
created the first vacancy in the ranks of the Academicians. It
has been said that the works of Cotes bear a strong resemblance
to those of Reynolds and Gainsborough ; but this is a very dubi-
ous verdict, and the argument put forward to support the asser-
tion is quite comically illogical, namely, that Peter Toms worked
for all the three ; which would go to prove, not that Cotes was
like Reynolds and Gainsborough, but that all three of them were
like Peter Toms. It may happen to any of us to notice on some
summer morning in a garden, that the gravel walk, the marble
pedestal, and the sculptured urn, are scored with the same
glistening trail, which marks the midnight peregrinations of our
enemy Helix aspersa, but does that make them like each other ?
Cotes was a pleasing and meritorious artist, especially as a
draughtsman in crayons. His pictures have a generic likeness
to those of Reynolds and Gainsborough, but it goes no farther,
and to attempt to raise him to the Olympian height, the cloud
level, occupied by the two great fathers of English portraiture,
is to turn on a light more searching than he can bear.

It has happened in our experience to find ourselves in some
country house, whose walls are decorated with portraits of
ancestors, and to have our attention called to some grand or
great-grandmother, whose effigy looks down upon us from a
picture, solidly painted in a good style, somewhat clumsy perhaps

Online LibraryJ. E. (John Evan) HodgsonThe Royal academy and its members 1768-1830 → online text (page 8 of 35)