By Simon Holberton
English art gets a bad press. It’s seen as insubstantial in comparison to the Italian, Dutch, French and even German ‘schools’. Indeed, it casts the faintest shadow over European art history of any major school. The proximate reason for this is the 100 year caesura between roughly 1550 and 1650 during which England witnessed wave after wave of destruction of its visual culture. Almost all sculpture, carving, painting, indeed virtually all the exquisite mediaeval decoration in England’s cathedrals and churches, was destroyed first by Protestant reformers in the 16th century, then by Puritans in the 17th century. The intervening Indian summer of Charles the first’s reign failed to stem the destruction. Little wonder then that the English were bookish. The written image was harder to destroy.
There is safety in numbers and there is also status. The Italians (or, more correctly, the Romans) organised themselves into an Academy (the Accademia di San Luca) in 1577 under papal patronage, and the French founded their Academy in 1648 under the patronage of Louis XIV. From that date it took the English another 100 years, years free from the iconoclasm of the previous 100, to found their own Academy. By that time they had had at least two generations of home grown artists come forward, and the position of artistic leadership, so often in the recent past occupied by naturalised foreigners, ‘face painters’ such as Peter Lely and Godfrey Kneller, fall into the hands of local practitioners.
By the mid-18th century there was a critical mass of painters in London and they had begun to organise themselves into groups. The Society of Artist vied with the Free Society of Artists for leadership. It was out of the ashes of a failed attempt at organisation by the Society of Artists, which had been awarded a royal charter in 1765, that the Royal Academy was formed three years later in 1768 with the active support of George III. Sir Joshua Reynolds was elected the RA’s first president.
Highlights of the RA’s collection are presently in Bendigo and visitors will get a fascinating window on the development of English painting from around the 1780 until 1900. The first thing to say is that the English, at the turn of the 19th century, were in the vanguard of European painting. Late Gainsborough, Stubbs, Fuseli, Turner, Constable all contributed to the creation and development of the romantic sensibility and, in particular, its leit motif, the sublime. We have written about that in connection with the Turner exhibition in Canberra last year and I refer readers wanting to know more about the sublime that article. Here, however, one should note the wonderful later work of Gainsborough — so much known for portraits of aristocratic ladies with big hair and frocks to match, wonderfully rendered, but here producing a landscape that bridges the classic and romantic. Dating from 1783, Romantic Landscape with Sheep at a Spring has all the elements of a Claudian idyl: shepherds tending their flock, a ruined temple in the middle distance, and set in landscape. Except it’s arcadia meets the sublime. The jagged shafts of rock above the sheep, the brooding sky, and the grand mountain range and pass in the distance all point to a non-arcadian, romantic sensibility; one that’s overpowered by the awesome spectacle of raw nature.
And it is nature that features in Reynolds’ picture in the exhibition, Theory, from 1779-80. A more Italianate picture by him is hard to recall, possessing, one contemporary remarked, “a most beautiful lightness”. It was situated in the centre of a ceiling dedicated to the key ideas of painting – Nature, History, Allegory and Fable – at the RA’s first home in Somerset House on The Strand. An auburn-haired beauty atop a cloud holds a scroll proclaiming: Theory is the knowledge of what is truly Nature. Reynolds was a serious man and here he is prizing the intellectual pursuit in art above all else. One of the interesting aspects of the show is that the RA pictures are all ‘diploma works’; that is, these were the paintings that were submitted to the RA as proof of talent and proof that the artist was worthy of admittance to the Academy. As such they are among the best works of the individuals on show. Taken as whole, they represent a superb survey of English taste during the period.
There are two fascinating ‘diploma’ works of Indian subjects — Thomas Daniell’s Hindoo Temple and William Hodges’ View of the Ghauts, Benares, attesting to Empire and the enduring interest the English have in topography. A particularly strong interest of painters was in the Levant — from Baalbek to the bazar — a place of contest and conquest between France and England at the beginning of the 19th century. Even our own Tom Roberts was taken with the theme as evidenced in his carefully observed study of a woman sleeping the the shade of the Alhambra.
There is also plenty of evidence of the cloying sentimental narrative that so moved the Victorians. To paraphrase Wilde, one would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at Landseer’s Faithful Hound. As the century unwound the Academy rewarded painters who looked back (Edward Abbey’s Lute Player and Cowper’s Vanity), or, like Singer Sargent and Lavery played safe with aristocratic flattery. They were always good painters but somehow untouched by the modern, unlike their predecessors a century before.
It was at this time that Australian painters started to exhibit at the RA. It is forgotten now (and perhaps too uncomfortable for some to remember) but Australians 100 years ago regarded themselves as British. Indeed, some like Tom Roberts, had been born in Britain. So it was entirely natural that they should seek recognition in London (as well as study there, in Antwerp and in Paris). There are many lovely pictures in this Australian annexe to the RA show. But the one I’d like to highlight here is Streeton’s Corfe Castle of 1909. It’s a brash, bravura example of his painting; it’s a picture that says, ‘I can out Turner Turner’. Compare the two side by side!
Finally, one can’t write about this show without noting the appalling lighting at the Bendigo gallery. There can be no conservation justification for showing oil paintings in near darkness. It is simply absurd. So too is the $70 price tag on the exhibition catalogue. The standard of colour reproduction in the book is very poor and would have rendered it a marginal purchase at $45. At $70, save your money.