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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 oppressor on pictorial grounds alone: while the carmine that brought a blush to Reynolds’s portraits swiftly faded and his improvised oil mixes now stud his canvases with inert, ruckled gunk, Blake’s prints and drawings with their rushing lines and radiance, their inspired shortcuts from “Gothick” to Michelangelo, are now held up as the ultimate demonstration of English artistic originality.

As Fenton notes, reviewing Blake’s copious and combative annotations to the Discourses, the game is his when it comes to literary expression as well, whatever supple persuasiveness Reynolds may have picked up from his friends Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke: “At the very least,” Fenton writes, “Blake’s is the superior wit, and the greater gift for the memorable phrase.” But the historical reverse runs deeper. What does the Royal Academy currently stand for? Looking for an annalist to give the institution’s history a twenty-first-century makeover, the Academicians have chosen a writer as level-headed and urbane as their first president. But Fenton entirely lacks Reynolds’s desire to prescribe, to synthesize, to outline a narrative of progress. If he has any agenda, it might well be that defined by Blake: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.”

Fenton has browsed, and asks to be browsed in turn: the Royal Academy’s records prove a paradise for the particularizer. For instance, before ever he brings us face to face with Reynolds, he lingers over a portrait of thirty-four of the Academicians of 1771–1772, grouped around a model posing in their drawing studio. He is detained by the way a knotted cord has been dropped from the ceiling to support the model’s upraised hand, and by the studio lamp “with its two layers of flares, and the white reflecting internal surface of its hood.”

Much of the life of Fenton’s book lies in similar flurries of “minute accidental discriminations,” with the antique-shop curiosity they evoke. Much of the book turns on quirks of opinion and of life history. At the back left of the busy studio gathering of 1771–1772 appears a Chinese face. We learn that it belongs to Tan Chitqua, a ceramicist who thrived on modeling dainty figurines portraying London celebrities (see illustration on page 52). At some unspecified point in Chitqua’s career, he had to abandon the ship he had boarded in order to return to Canton because its English crew took xenophobic exception to his outlandish attire. A pilot boat took Chitqua back to London. There a street mob set upon the pilot for, as they thought, kidnapping a foreigner. A passing gentleman acquaintance rescued the day. After a few more remarks about the figurines, Fenton concludes his three-paragraph narrative thus: “In 1796 Chitqua took poison and died.”

It’s faintly teasing: a nudge so curt it might have been unmeant; a half-shrug, as if to say, “Here is x, here is y, would you care to combine them into some tale of cross-cultural misfortune? It’s entirely up to you.” Perhaps Fenton’s modus operandi—for this refusal to underline significances is entirely typical—is a reanimation of the manner of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives. In that late-seventeenth-century biographical tombola, the reader is continually and hilariously brought up against the sure truth that the full truth will never be available. Dangling dislocated threads of hearsay about Englishmen whose lives might otherwise have passed unrecorded, Aubrey weaves a kind of absurdist poetry. Is that the vision that beckoned to the poet Fenton, as he pored over the Academy archives? Well, to proceed by bricolage is certainly a smart tactic for traversing one of the miriest old battlegrounds of Britain’s national culture. Blake’s denunciation of Sir Joshua and his “Cunning Hired Knaves” was by no means the first such attack. Just how contentious the Royal Academy has always been as a proposition becomes clear in Matthew Hargraves’s recent monograph about the London art wars of the 1760s, Candidates for Fame.

Hargraves takes us back to a fast-shifting, spiteful hubbub. For centuries the English aristocracy had looked to European masters for artistic panache, rather than to native craftsmen, with the result that oil painting had only put down resilient roots in England a generation earlier, during the 1730s. William Hogarth with his dual-media picture operas—canvases for the balconies, prints for the pit—had staked out a new terrain of comic moralizing, setting a bluff burgher patriotism against the hankering for imported sophistication. Satirizing the rising taste for drawing-room wall hangings, he also fostered it. In the picture market that grew as Britain’s economic fortunes soared in the mid-eighteenth century, there were commercial incentives of every kind for artists to band together for mutual promotion and protection. There was also an issue of latecomer anxiety: Should they follow the French example of a century before and subsume all artistic endeavor within a single “Académie Royale” that rationalized and centralized?

Hargraves has uncovered the records of the first exhibiting society launched to capitalize on these circumstances, and a turbid trove they make. Artists joined together to hire from a manufacturers’ organization a showroom in London’s West End, where they displayed wares ranging from Reynolds’s canvases in “the grand style” to “an anonymous lady’s Pair of Pidgeons in Needlework.” Entry to their first show in 1760 was free, and crowds flocked in to gawp. But this free-for-all was an embarrassment to the “free,” the “liberal” artist, the type who wished to stride about town as a self-determining arbiter of culture. As an exhibition committee note remarked, “the intrusion of great Numbers whose Stations and education made them no proper judges of Statuary or Painting” dragged his claims to intellectual dignity into the gutter: it was needful to exclude the working classes. It was needful also, the leaders felt, to segregate the oil painter, with his honored calling, from the more “servile” picture-maker, such as the engraver. Moreover, ought such a high-minded person to be tied in any way to the cause of manufacturing? On this question the exhibitors swiftly split into separate organizations, their rival annual presentations each attracting considerable attention. Seventeen-sixties artistic London, as reanimated by Hargraves, comes across almost as full of itself, as buoyantly, buzzingly impatient, as 1960s New York. Inevitably, correspondence in the press shows the rhetoric of the “liberal artist” starting to get entangled with that of “civil liberty,” then being espoused by the radical politician John Wilkes.

And then an acolyte of King George III, an architect named William Chambers, finds a way to upstage all the different and vying artistic versions of freedom. The “Instrument” for a Royal Academy that he obtains from the King in late 1768 does not actually correspond to the centralizing French model: rather, it’s the ultimate in exclusiveness, a strictly forty-member club. In the kind of compromise that the British love to think of as “typically British,” Chambers and his court cohorts, needing a painter to lend their nascent organization prestige, persuade Reynolds—broadly progressive in his politics—to stand as their frontman. (Five months later he gets knighted.) From this point onward, the prospects of the “free” exhibiting societies start inescapably to darken, even though we are only halfway through Hargraves’s narrative. Ambitious independents, no less than ambitious Academicians, yearn to honor Great Britain with “historical painting” of a loftiness that might stand beside Raphael’s, or Rubens’s, or Poussin’s; but somehow, their attempts keep winding up on the same exhibition wall as those of Philip Passavant, creator of a Landscape in Human Hair, and Peter Paillou with his “picture of a Peruvian horned owl made entirely from feathers.” Novelty numbers, squabbles, and financial crises dog their decline into marginality, until the record gives out in 1791.

Hargraves seems attached to the independents’ cause and quotes extensively from radical railings against “the factious and arbitrary institution” of the Royal Academy. But his tale lacks a hero. The independents had among their number two English originals whose canvases have lasted rather better than Reynolds’s, namely George Stubbs and Joseph Wright of Derby. Neither the great horse painter nor the lyricist of light amounted to much, however, as an art politician, the kind of rallying figure around which one might construct an alternative counterhistory of the possibilities of British art. In either case, their temperament was too speculative, their grip on the London scene too tentative. And since the mainstreams of art history turn on accidents of individual genius and on where these can find an outlet, Fenton, keeping company with the Academicians as they move from location to location around London’s West End, becomes ideally positioned to offer an inside view of the national tradition.

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