Friday, July 22, 2011

The Summer Art Exhibitions of 1811
from The Literary Panorama & Annual Register

In July of 1811, as during the other summers of the Regency, was notable for art exhibitions. The Royal Academy, the British Institution, the Society of Painters in Water Colours, and the Associated Painters in Water Colours all held their individual shows. And the critics were out in force.

Posterity and the intervening two hundred years have determined which of the painters of the Regency are now considered great artists. But the opinions of the time are fascinating, and no less pointed than are today's critical remarks.
The Summer View - Royal Academy - 1800
The Royal Academy's exhibition is notable, according to The Literary Panorama, for having removed 'for sale' notations from the catalogue of the exhibit. It is feared the artists will suffer because of it. Chief among the artists discussed by The Literary Panorama is Benajamin West. He exhibited at least four pictures in the exhibition, and was too well known and admired to be seriously criticized. Nevertheless the reviewer does comment acidly:

- on West's Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple "Why must he [West] adopt the nonsensical, traditionary colours of Christ's dress; always red and blue?"

- on West's Death of Lord Nelson "We should also have recommended a more careful portrait of his Lordship's person. He will now be thought by posterity a taller man than he really was."
Benjamin West 'Death of Lord Nelson'
Of another famous artist, the reviewer tartly states "Mr. Fuseli continues to amuse himself with Ghosts and Spectres."
Henry Fuseli - Allegory of Vanity
Of the landscapes exhibited, the writers comments "...they may be very correct as to resemblance; but not all of them are excellent as pictures." The Portraits he dismisses with "...we have seen a better shew[sic] of heads..."
The British Institution 
The critic views the exhibition at the British Institution more favourably, and he wonders if the pictures are more select because of the absence of portraits. Nevertheless, his comments are stringent.

- "Hilton's Entombing of Christ, has the fault of resembling the compositions of the old Italian masters: his Christ also, is rather fifty than thirty years of age..."

- "Hall's Haemon and Antigone, is a good attempt...but why dabble the lights about, like scattered grapes..."

The Society of Painters in Water Colours held their exhibition at Spring Gardens in 1811, and our critic was there also. He says "we passed our time so pleasant in this assemblage, as to forget the hour of the day and the calls of appetite". Nevertheless he is trenchant when necessary:
- "Mr. Heaphy might chuse[sic]better subjects."

Left is Lord Palmerston (1802) by Thomas Heaphy
One of his better subjects?
The Associated Painters in Water Colours exhibited in Bond Street that year, and though our critic enjoyed the landscapes presented, he was less than complimentary about the other works presented.
"If any proof were necessary of the difficulty of managing figures, especially naked, and classical or poetical figures, in water colours, we should appeal to the judgment of any practised eye on performances in this exhibition..."
The art critic from The Literary Panorama had, it seems, a wonderful July in 1811. He left a fascinating legacy in his column in the journal; I wish we knew his name...

Next week, Diane Farr will be visiting to talk about her walk through Mayfair, and her love of Regency London. Diane is an award-winning author of traditional Regency romances and Regency-set historicals. You can join her on Facebook at or follow her on Twitter at @DianeFarr.

'Til next time,



Vic said...

I don't comment enough when I stop by your blog, Lesley-Anne. As always, a most informative article. It drives me crazy when I visit a museum or great house that has paintings plastered on its walls from floor to ceiling, but it was the fashion back then. I surely would have jockeyed for my painting to be positioned at eye level!

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Thank you, Vic! I found this article in The Literary Panorama fascinating. Yes, imagine being very excited that they're going to hang your picture in the Royal Academy show and then discovering it's up at the top of the 15-25 ft wall! What was the point?