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.

Partly he has a tale of anguish to record. The notion of “historical painting” allures British artists for nearly a century from the 1760s onward, with Reynolds promoting it in the much-read Discourses; but it proves a chimera, a flame to burn moths. James Barry’s Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture, a thunderous sequence of 1780s neoclassical allegories that still adorns a lecture room in John Adam Street, just off London’s Strand,1 represents the historical project at its most heroic and at its direst, in every sense of that word. Barry ventured to offer an ungrateful nation his graceless bombast free of charge; got into debt; quarreled with his fellow Academicians; was expelled; and ended up as a recluse inhabiting a backstreet “bestrewn with skeletons of cats and dogs,” hounded by a local mob who took him for a wizard.

The career of Benjamin Robert Haydon, a generation later, is equally tragic. Haydon’s attempt to push figure compositions in the “grand manner” on the establishment and public failed to secure an audience and his three decades of feuding with the Academy ended with his suicide in 1846. His frustrations are documented in one of the supreme diaries of the Romantic era. Fenton cites its text extensively, bringing a kind of sorrowing companionability to his reading, commenting that Haydon, with his “many absurdities,” is “a great autobiographer because he is so hard on himself.” On his way to work, the aspirant artist stops for soup at a coffeehouse:

It was such an idle thing in the middle of the day, that I shrunk in, blushing, fearful to look up for fear of meeting the eye of Michel Angelo’s spectre, crying “Haydon, Haydon, you idle rascal, is this the way to eminence?”

Haydon can be even harder on others—witness his description of how the sculptor John Flaxman confidentially disparaged a fellow Academician:

He touched my knee familiarly, & leant forward, and his old, deformed, humped shoulder protruded as he leant, and his sparkling old eye, & his apish old mouth quivered on one side, and he rattled out of his throat, that was husky with coughing, an inward sort of hesitating sound, that meant Wilkie’s reputation was all my eye! In comparison with ours!

All his verbal flair, however, has hardly persuaded posterity to revise the negative verdict on Haydon’s painting. Was there in fact some structural mistake in the whole concept of the great British historical canvas? Should oil painters have left public figural art to the demonic transformative imagination of the caricaturist James Gillray? At best, British efforts in this direction now present a “strictly historical” interest: there is nothing remotely to compare to David’s Oath of the Horatii, let alone Goya’s 3 May 1808 or Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa.

Unless, of course, you treat J.M.W. Turner’s Slave Ship, showing fragments of human cargo atrociously thrown into an indignant ocean, as a Londoner’s engagement with the humanitarian concerns of 1840. That is how many art historians currently like to read Turner’s almost figure-free paint-storms; equally, they stress the political slant of that other great pole of English landscape art, John Constable, devising his traditionalist Tory salutes to Salisbury Cathedral around 1830. But the impact made by these two wasn’t a matter of political allusiveness or of metaphorical finger-wagging—not in the eyes of visitors to the Royal Academy’s summer exhibitions, still less in those of Frenchmen like Delacroix or Monet, whose engaged responses meant that the English artists had a vital part in the rise, first of plein air oil sketching, then of Impressionism. Turner, with a uniquely canny shock showmanship, laid on his gouts of lemon, vermilion, black, and white to stand out from the canvas, blasting the rest of the gallery out of sight, grabbing attention, and producing a giddying effect. Constable sidled toward similar tactics with his broken “snow” effects, arriving at a more crabbed, in some ways a yet more vengeful handling of paint, as a recent show at London’s Tate Britain demonstrates.2

Both men worshiped Reynolds, whose experiments in laying it on thick now look so much less convincing. All three were, in a sense, chancers: they were literally pushing forward their caked oils to secure the attention of an impressionable and capricious London public, in a land where the tradition of oil painting was itself somewhat insecure. That might be a way of characterizing the feel of “Royal Academy art” at its most forceful, insofar as such an entity exists. Probably everyone could agree that Turner—as fond of the Academy as he was ferocious in elbowing aside his co-exhibitors, as eloquent in paint as he was garbled in speech—stands as the jewel in the institution’s crown. The Academy taught students, but it never became intellectually creative, formulating doctrines as its senior counterpart in Paris had done. As Fenton emphasizes, its one abiding objective from its foundation onward was to provide a royally patented showcase for its members’ work. Nikolaus Pevsner, in his history of Academies of Art: Past and Present, pinpointed London’s peculiarities still more sharply:

Nowhere were [exhibitions] given such a central place in the structure of an academy…. The Royal Academy remained a small and conservative institution, and were it not for the social glamour of its exhibitions and annual dinners, its role would be negligible.3

It knew how to look after itself. In 1835 the embittered Haydon persuaded Parliament to review the Academy’s contribution to British art education—and particularly its inadequacy. As he had hoped, further “schools of design” were set up to cater for a larger number of students; but the Academicians, playing to a paternalistic anxiety that the lower orders should not be exposed to nudity, managed to argue that they alone had the right to teach figure drawing from the live model. They thus encouraged a two-tier system in which other parts of the English art system was limited to design on “dry, Gothick,” nonfigural lines. If you consider this aesthetic segregation on the one hand, and the aggressively moralistic criticism of John Ruskin on the other, you have some of the constraints that make the high art of the reign of Queen Victoria now look peculiarly insular, a bizarre national detour.

How is Fenton to deal with Ruskin? That vehement scold of modern industrial society was by no means the Academy’s friend: he made withering remarks about the work of Charles Eastlake, president in 1855, causing Eastlake’s wife, as Fenton records, to neatly respond that he had “all the qualities of premature old age—its coldness, callousness and contradiction.” And yet Ruskin’s reviews of summer shows, cruel and orotund, prove irresistible to quote: out of sheer fascination at their bravura, Fenton succumbs, at length. We have Ruskin’s cat-and-mouse games with the Pre-Raphaelites—in particular, with his keen-eyed but scatter-minded sometime protégé John Everett Millais:

The change in his manner…is not merely a Fall—it is a Catastrophe; not merely a loss of power, but a reversal of principle: his excellence has been effaced, “as a man wipeth a dish—wiping it, and turning it upside down.” There may still be in him power of repentance, but I cannot tell….

And meanwhile Ruskin has been extolling the 1855 Academy debut of Frederic Leighton—a vast, super-slick specimen of historical pageantry—as “a very important and very beautiful picture.” With the rise of Leighton—Lord Leighton, the consummate art statesman who duly takes up the mantle of Reynolds—the “grand style” seems finally, securely triumphant in London. Canvases uniting flawless physiques and sumptuous robes with redolences of Italy and Greece preside over Burlington House (from 1868 onward, the Academy has occupied its present home on Piccadilly). The notion of “Art” thus enshrined by Leighton is more “general,” more distant in its reference points, altogether more blithely and blandly contentless than anything in Reynolds’s loftiest dreams.

Intrigued by the personalities involved in this “Olympian” vogue, Fenton does not say much about contemporary developments outside the Academy—where Ruskin’s yearning for social reform was paired off by William Morris with another notion of “art” altogether, one premised on craftwork and organic design and local tradition. Morris’s ideas, feeding into Art Nouveau and beyond that into modernist design, are an initiative that would prove rather more influential than anything the Academicians come up with.

By the 1880s the Academy is settling into the twin roles it has upheld more or less ever since. In the winter it exhibits old masterpieces loaned to it, mostly foreign in origin, to the edification and delight of all. In the summer, it exhibits a hanging committee’s selection of contemporary works, mainly national, to the exasperation and dismay of anyone involved in British art who considers themselves in any sense progressive. Alternatives are quite slow to form; but then the rather hesitant development of British modernism during the earlier twentieth century is a theme that falls more or less outside Fenton’s scope. He chiefly has to chronicle the Academy’s rearguard attempts to undermine avant-gardists like the sculptor Jacob Epstein, actions which turn increasingly abject as the Academicians fall back on their lowest common denominator, the exclusivity of the club.

A comic nadir of reaction, still frequently remembered in Britain, was reached in 1949 when Alfred Munnings, a slick painter of racehorses, delivered a drunken presidential address to an annual dinner in which he claimed that Winston Churchill wanted to join him in kicking Picasso’s backside. Fenton tells other funny stories and has a wry relish for the bathos of the mid-twentieth-century Academy, but like Pevsner (who was writing his dismissive remarks in 1940), he can’t conceal his disdain for the “rather modest educational attainments” of the artists involved.

In fact what most whets his interest is an issue of administration. Some trouble arises in 1962 as the Royal Academy decides to meet some financial problems by selling one of its two most valuable possessions, a large-scale Leonardo cartoon. (The other being a Michelangelo tondo.) Fenton gets considerably exercised about the impropriety of this procedure; though the upshot of the crisis is simply that the cartoon gets bought by the National Gallery, thus moving back a mere half-mile across the West End from Burlington House to one of the Academy’s earlier homes. At this point, I felt, Fenton was casting about for ways to revitalize a task that, for all its fascination and its sprightly execution, had essentially become rather melancholy. “On the whole,” he writes in his preface, “if words have any meaning at all, one would have thought it was true to say that the Royal Academy is one of our great national institutions.” That comment on the facts of British cultural life, made in the book’s introduction, is factually irrefutable; and yet one can hardly feel that it reflects the happiest of all possible histories for the nation’s art.

Still, through the last thirty years, under a succession of presidencies which Fenton briefly summarizes, the Academy has done its best to turn itself inside out: to become inclusive on principle. True, it has done little to steer London to its current major position in the international art world. But the formerly defensive coterie of Academicians have made efforts to lure back the awkward squad, the latterday Blakes and Barrys, into their fold, and they have studied the contemporary headlines. Most famously, or notoriously, inviting the collector Charles Saatchi to advertise his stable of “Young British Artists” in the “Sensation!” show of 1997. Fenton passes over the episode with a detached, sidestepping comment:

How strange it is that the notorious exhibits from the latter show went for a while to a new private setting, the Saatchi Gallery, in a building that was purposely designed to house the local government of London, while the international collections of the Tate are in a power station…. Nothing in London’s disposition of galleries, museums and collections makes sense when viewed as an overall design. Things only make sense—to the extent that they make sense at all—when viewed in historical terms, as the result of long and complex processes.

With the evaporation of any sustained notion of an avant-garde, the Academy’s project of ecumenical reconciliation becomes altogether simpler. The onetime enfant terrible of “Young British Art,” Damien Hirst, dominated the courtyard of Burlington House this summer with a giant, half-dissected pregnant nude in bronze, a monument of almost Leightonesque vacuity.4

The Academicians might reach out further, to the more intricately unruly imagination of the artist Grayson Perry. Over the past few years Perry has established himself as one of England’s eccentric national treasures, wearing a trademark little girl’s dress while engraving vases with tales of suburban sexual perversion, morbid, insidious, and exquisitely linear. He has recently galvanized attention with a London gallery show in which he staged an exercise in cultural dialogue, conjuring an edgy pathos by inserting these vases and also his own subversively impious embroidery samplers among novelty knickknacks and propitiatory charms from bygone provincial life.5 Invite him in, complete the circle, enshrine the awkward, the laborious, the Gothic. I foresee genuinely democratic innovations in the regal exhibition halls of Burlington House: a Pair of Pigeons in Needlework, a Landscape in Human Hair.

This Issue

October 19, 2006