British Art: The Showcase

William Blake liked to read other authors with his pen poised for riposte: but eventually, the occupation of defacing your own library turns absurd. After littering the margins of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses with many a “Villainy!,” an “Infernal Falshood!,” and a “Damn’d Fool!,” Blake swung around to defend himself against some invisible watcher over his shoulder. “Having spent the Vigour of my Youth & Genius,” he explained in the volume’s front pages,

under the Opression of Sr Joshua & his Gang of Cunning Hired Knaves Without Employment & as much as could possibly be Without Bread, The Reader must Expect to Read in all my Remarks on these Books Nothing but Indignation & Resentment.

It was unlikely, in actuality, that any “Reader” would descend to interrogate a debt-pressed fifty-something designer-engraver living in a rented two-room apartment in a cheap row in London’s West End. But Blake’s marginalia were a respite from his own immediate situation on the margins of London life. They took him back three decades to the late 1770s and to the crowded benches of the lecture room in the city’s Royal Academy, founded a decade earlier. In imagination, he was heckling the Academy’s president.

In the ninth paragraph of his opening Discourse of 1769, Sir Joshua had outlined his notion that the Royal Academy might be a “repository” of inspiring artistic precedents, fit to enlarge the minds of Britain’s eager students. In the next paragraph he conceded, with a characteristic judiciousness, that the Raphael they should aim to imitate had triumphed as an artist without the help of any such institution. But in effect, he claimed, Raphael’s “academy” consisted of his older contemporary Michelangelo:

On the sight of the Capella Sistina, he immediately from a dry, Gothick, and even insipid manner, which attends to the minute accidental discriminations of particular and individual objects, assumed that grand style of painting, which improves partial representation by the general and invariable ideas of nature.

For Reynolds—London’s premier portraitist, the city’s internationally experienced statesman of art—the “grand style” represented the achievable. Canvases and oils might never quite rise to the heights of Michelangelo’s heavenly frescoes, but they could still soar far above the laboriously literal handiwork that English eyes were accustomed to. Exactly wrong, shot back Blake forty years afterward: “Minute Discrimination is Not Accidental. All Sublimity is founded on Minute Discrimination.” And further: “I do not believe that Rafael taught Mich. Angelo, or that Mich. Angelo taught Rafael, any more than I believe that the Rose teaches the Lilly how to grow, or the Apple tree teaches the Pear tree how to bear fruit.”

Two centuries later, it hardly needs saying, it is the malcontent in the margins who seems to run rings around the sophisticate in the center. That is one of the historical ironies that James Fenton has to negotiate in his book on the Royal Academy, School of Genius. Blake has come to outshine his alleged …

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