The Great Room of Art

In a famous letter to the committee of artists responsible for hanging the Royal Academy’s annual summer exhibition in 1784, Thomas Gainsborough announced that he could not possibly allow his full-length group por- trait of the three eldest daughters of George III to be hung at a height “higher than five feet & a half.” By attempting to dictate to the Royal Academy in this way, Gainsborough was asking for a radical dispensation from the rule that full-length or three-quarter- length portraits were hung above the “line,” a projecting wooden molding running around the walls of the main exhibition space at a level of eight feet from the floor. Gainsborough, who was one of the founding members of the Royal Academy in 1768, was well aware of this regulation.

But, he explained, his was a special case. He had painted the picture of the three princesses “in so tender a light, that notwithstanding he approves very much of the established Line for Strong Effects,…the likenesses & Work of the Picture will not be seen any higher.” In other words, he considered the rule about the line to be fair—for showing big, bold pictures that would register from a distance. But Gainsbourgh created the brilliant visual effects for which he was so celebrated in a darkened studio, often by candlelight, using the techniques of scumbling (the rubbing of a light and opaque color over a darker one) and glazing (laying a darker color over a lighter one). All the delicacy of color, subtlety of touch, and nuance of his paint surface would be lost to the public, he said, unless the academicians hung his picture at eye level. His demand for special treatment was, therefore, nonnegotiable. When the hanging committee refused to comply, he removed all eighteen of the pictures he had submitted to that year’s show, resigned from the Royal Academy, and never again exhibited at Somerset House.

Art on the Line, subtitled The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780–1836, a book of essays published to coincide with a recent exhibition of the same title at the Courtauld Institute Gallery in London, helps us to understand the context and wider implications of this quarrel. The subjects covered in the book, edited by David Solkin, include Mark Hallett’s study of eighteenth-century art journalism, Michael Rosenthal’s look at professional rivalry among the academicians, Martin Myrone’s masterly discussion of sensational imagery in the RA exhibitions, and Ann Bermingham’s account of the relationship between high art and popular entertainments such as dioramas and panoramas in London during the later Georgian and Regency periods.

Though the exhibition closed in January, it will, I predict, come to be considered one of the most influential in recent years. What Solkin and his colleagues did was to reconstruct a Royal Academy Summer Exhibition as it might have looked in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the actual spaces in which the exhibitions took place. This was much more …

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