A History of Art in England (24): History Painting (i) – Introduction, Gavin Hamilton.

Wilson, Richard, 1713/1714-1782; Wilton House from the Southeast

[Not Italy, but]

Wilton House from the Southeast

by Richard Wilson (1714–1782) [1760; Yale Center for British Art]

In the decades after 1760 one sees evidence everywhere of the consequences of the British obsession with classical antiquity, the result of the Grand Tour. It was carried out in the spirit of a transference of both a political and cultural empire to the island of Great Britain. At the same time the island’s own ancient cultural traditions were being rediscovered. The progressive urgency was to create out of these two streams a single British culture, one that could simultaneously look back to Greece and Rome but equally to the Anglo-Saxons, the barons of the Middle Ages and the heroes of Gloriana’s England.

– Roy Strong: The Spirit of Britain


As the first President of the Royal Academy, Joshua Reynolds – inspired by his own visit to Rome – promoted the Grand Style of History Painting to his students. In his lectures, he explained that the history painter would find suitable subjects – of “intellectual grandeur”, “philosophick wisdom” and “heroic virtue” – by turning to the masters of the Italian Renaissance and themes derived from classical history, mythology and the Scriptures. Thus armed, John Rothenstein notes, the history painter could address his works to the people of every country and every age.

It was a very ‘hit & miss’ project.

“Theory” summarises Rothenstein “was not matched by practice.”

Roy Strong is similarly dismissive, recognising instead that the end of the 18th century was a period of intense national myth-building, of seeking a cultural identity for a Great Britain composed of four nations, at the heart of a global Empire and now galvanising a patriotic fervour in response to the ongoing wars with France and, especially, the French Revolution.

This was primarily, of course, the programme of the elite – the aristocracy and the government – and, just as with the consolidation of the British art world into the Royal Academy, there was much opposition.

However, what emerges is not failure as such, rather an extravagance of art that ranges from the neoclassical reimagining of Ancient Rome (keenly associated with Britain of course) to alternative visions of an Ancient Britain; from poetic representations of mythic Bards to scenes from Shakespearean plays; from landscape to portraiture, to paintings of military heroism and pictures of everyday life.

And within the ambition of History Painting – which I personally find a fascinating treasure trove – we find ample scope for absolute brilliance and outright eccentricity.

The Scottish artist Gavin Hamilton (1723-1789) is the first ‘history painter’ that Rothenstein discusses; and he’s a perfect example of both the brilliance and eccentricity of the neoclassical form, spending much of his life working in Italy.

Hamilton, Gavin, 1723-1798; The Death of Lucretia

The Death of Lucretia [1760s, Yale Center for British Art; artuk.org]

According the ancient myth, the rape of Lucretia was a pivotal event in the foundation of the Roman republic. Lucretia was a virtuous noblewoman during the reign of the tyrant King Tarquin. After being raped by the king’s son, she stabbed herself in the presence of her husband Collatinus, her father Lucretius, and two companions-in-arms, Lucius Junius Brutus and Valerius Publicola. Dying, Lucretia begged them to seek revenge. Here she is shown collapsing against her husband, who covers his face in grief. Brutus holds up the bloodstained dagger and, joined by Lucretia’s father and Valerius, swears and oath to overthrow Tarquin. From this moment, Brutus leads the revolt. Tarquin and his family are expelled, and the Roman republic is established – and sustained for centuries by the models of the virtue and piety.

And there is a lecture on the painting c/o the Yale Centre here.

This then is a perfect neoclassical composition – a history painting that has a narrative grounded in Roman myth and that speaks to the world of a great foundational morality, of the rights of the individual, of ‘people power’ and the fight for democratic citizenship; liberty against tyranny.

A second painting reflects another aspect of cultural identity that was so important at the time in which Hamilton was working:

Hamilton, Gavin, 1723-1798; The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots

The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots [Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow]

Mary, Queen of Scots is shown imprisoned in Loch leven Castle, being forced to sign her abdication in favour of her infant son, James.The scene is set in the interior of Loch Leven castle, near Stirling, in 1567.

Again, it represents a foundation stone in Scottish history (apparently the first painting showing a scene from the life of Mary) and part of the progression towards a united Great Britain: her infant son, James VI of Scotland would become James I, King of England.

By contrast, a third painting by Hamilton reflects the rather more eccentric side of history painting:

Hamilton, Gavin, 1723-1798; James Dawkins and Robert Wood Discovering the Ruins of Palmyra

James Dawkins and Robert Wood Discovering the Ruins of Palmyra
[1758, National Galleries of Scotland]

As the National Galleries’ website explains:
In 1751, James Dawkins and Robert Wood set out on an expedition to study the remains of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria. Both men were fascinated by exploration. At this time there was a great interest in the discovery of the ancient world. The findings and drawings of men such as Dawkins and Wood helped inform the taste for the neoclassical that was sweeping Europe. Here, Hamilton has shown the men with their Turkish escorts as they approach Palmyra.
Which all makes ‘imperial’ sense, but what is peculiar is that:
It is presented as a scene from classical history with the two explorers dressed in togas.


Next time: History Painting (ii) Angelica Kauffman and James Barry.

Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (24)

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Picture Postcard: Two extraordinary Elizabethan Portraits

I’ve just watched James Fox’s “A Very British Renaissance: The Elizabethan Code” on BBC i-player   (available for the next few weeks) and he highlighted two extraordinary paintings from the Elizabethan Age, well worth watching (from about 14minutes in).

The first stretches the concept of what a portrait might be:

Rambling 4

It’s a “portrait” of Sir Henry Unton, commissioned by his widow in about 1596 and at the National Portrait Gallery. Unfortunately the artist is unknown, but the painting shows scenes from Upton’s life – from birth in the lower right hand corner to his death.

I find it quite amazing – indeed rather exciting! It seems to recall medieval church wall-painting rather than suggesting the ‘face’ portraits that would come to dominate British art.

The second rather fabulous painting James Fox discusses is again a portrait which currently resides in the archives of Northampton Art Gallery:

Rambling 5

Sir Christopher Hatton, by an unknown artist again (although the artist has pictured himself at the bottom left).

In turn the painting includes all sorts of symbolism to decode – and what brilliant colours! – but to fully appreciate the whole it also needs to be turned about as the imagery continues onto the back.

Segar, William, c.1554-1633; Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-1591)

There are some notes about the work online at artuk.org – including the possibility that the artist was from the studio of portrait painter William Segar (1554-1633) and even that an astrologer (depicted at the bottom right?) may have been involved in the painting.

Otherwise there seems to be very little information, so it’s fascinating to see the programme.

And how very intriguing these pictures are, so very “eccentric” – showing, as Fox says, that English Renaissance painting was experimental, rich and sophisticated.








A History of Art in England (23): Gainsborough, a joy of life.

centre: Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) Self Portrait [c.1759, National Portrait Gallery]

right: Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) Self Portrait [c.1749, National Portrait Gallery]

And of course, on the left, our very own John Rothenstein [by Jacques-Emile Blanche; 1927; National Portrait Gallery] whose book An Introduction to English Painting notes the rivalry between Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, explaining it through the words of (art historian and Director of the National Gallery) Charles Holmes:

“Art with Reynolds is made to seem so like a conscious intellectual force that we do less than justice to the aesthetic enthusiasm that inspired it, whereas with Gainsborough this last is plainly to the fore.”

[There’s a discussion about Reynolds and his art – “The Artist as Intellectual” – by Martin Postle c/o the Paul Mellon Centre on 18th June 2020]

That difference between the two artists seems even to play out in the two portraits above: the twenty-five year old Reynolds, with palette and brushes, looking ambitiously into the future, whilst Gainsborough, in his early thirties, gazes at us rather more pleasantly, framed by the leafy branches of a tree.

The ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’ that Holmes notes certainly comes through in Gainsborough’s painting – in his later works especially there is a thrill in the silvery-feathery-creamy strokes of the paintbrush; his colours are lighter than those of Reynolds and it’s often interesting to note the design of his pictures.

Rothenstein says: “[Whilst] Hogarth began the liberation of English portraiture from the formality imposed upon it by foreign masters, Gainsborough completed the process, and in so doing he brought to it a new spirit – fresh, informal and unselfconscious.

There is something else Gainsborough brings to his art – a joy of life.

If we were to choose just one of the nearly 400 painting at artuk.org by which to explore Gainsborough’s work, I’d suggest:

Rambling 3

The Rev. John Chafy Playing the Violoncello in a Landscape [c.1750–2, Tate]

which is as eccentric as “Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen” (1773, Tate) by Reynolds that we discussed last time: why is a religious chap out in the middle of countryside-nowhere playing a viola?!

In his biography of the artist “Gainsborough: A Portrait”, James Hamilton describes

“With music and perhaps birdsong, Chafy, curate of Great Bricett, a village north-east of Sudbury on the road to Needham Market, is shown celebrating enjoyment in life.” (p.91)

And although an early painting, Gainsborough is only 23, it brings so much together.

There is the landscape that Gainsborough loved to paint throughout his life (indeed would have preferred to paint if there hadn’t been money in portraiture).

Note also the ‘cross’ by which the painting is planned: as the tree trunk divides the canvas diagonally one way, the foliage into the architecture divide it the other, seemingly separating culture and nature.

Then, colour-wise, the deep warm hue of the violincello balances a patch of dramatically blue sky, whilst the Rev. himself is in stark black and white.

The classical ruin we see refers to the history of art and music:

The figure in the niche holds a lyre, the attribute not only of Apollo, God of the Arts, but also of Terpsichore, the Muse of dancing and song, and Erato, the Muse of lyric and love poetry.

Yet the painting also has the very contemporary vibe of French artist Antoine Watteau:

Watteau, celebrated for his colourful and delicately sophisticated work, introduced a new type of subject into eighteenth century French painting: the fêtes galantes. These were scenes in which exquisitely dressed young people idle away time in dreamy, romantic, pastoral settings.

This must have appealed to the British sense of theatricality, dressing up and play that has so often appeared in our ramblings.

Rambling 4

Indeed there is a print at National Galleries Scotland of Watteau at his easel with his friend and patron playing a viola out in the forest that Gainsborough may well have seen and found as a source of inspiration.

That portrayal of the individual in a landscape was truly fashionable. This was the Age of Sensibility, when the harmony of culture and nature reflected the beauty of the soul.

Gainsborough, Thomas, 1727-1788; Portrait of a Woman

Portrait of a Woman [1750; Yale Centre]

Against a classical and landscape backdrop, this fashionable young woman holds a book on her lap as she looks towards us. The emergence of the novel in English literature raised “new ideals of personal virtue based around emotional sensitivity and the imagination” – another aspect of this Age of Sensibility.

It’s too easy to see Gainsborough’s paintings as ‘fashionable’ in any simplistic way though, for as a student in London he had been part of Hogarth’s circle – those young artists seeking modern ways of painting – and so the fact that he gives a book to the woman in this picture is important, it’s to be noted; it reflects a time of popular, socio-cultural change.

It was probably through another artist of Hogarth’s circle, Francis Hayman, that Gainsborough learnt of Watteau. We might also remember that Gainsborough would have assisted Hayman in painting the decorative scenes displayed at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens – a haven of nightlife, fireworks, supper parties and music that no doubt Gainsborough, ever vital, would have enjoyed immensely.

This returns us to the Rev. Chafy painting, for Gainsborough’s greatest passion was music: Gainsborough is known to have played several instruments with ‘native skill’ and was an active member of the Ipswich Musical Club (described by Hamilton as “a good excuse for some lively men to gather together to drink and play”, ie. rather rowdy!) which may have been where he met Chafy, making this a portrait of both friendship and shared enthusiasm – giving it that “fresh, informal and unselfconscious” flavour of modern, contemporary life that Rothenstein notes.

To keep to the music theme, we’ll end with the portrait of a composer:

Rambling 6

Ignatius Sancho (1729? – 1780) [1768, National Gallery of Canada]

Ignatius Sancho had the most extraordinary life. Born on a slave ship crossing the Atlantic and orphaned at the age of two he was brought to England where, in time, with a patron in Lord Montagu and access to the libraries, he began working at Montagu House as a valet, which is where this portrait was painted by Gainsborough.

As James Hamilton notes,

“Sancho, like Gainsborough, was part of the flow of thespians, artists and literati, and thus it is likely that he and Gainsborough were already acquainted, by reputation if not in person, before he walked through the door carrying the Duchess of Montagu’s mantua. Sancho’s portrait, therefore, might be classed as the portrait of a friend and fellow artist, rather than a portrait of a client sitter’s servant.” (p.242)

Active in the anti-slavery movement and increasingly renowned as a ‘man of letters’, Sancho would go on to publish A Theory of Music, two plays and

Rambling 7

Minuets Cotillons & country Dances for the Violin, Mandolin, German Flute, & Harpsichord. Composed by an African. [1775; British Library]

The “Minuets” can be heard on YouTube.

In “Ignatius Sancho: African Man of Letters” (unfortunately out of print, NPG) Reyahn King notes, according to Wikipedia, that: Gainsborough conveys both the warmth and humour of Sancho’s personality and his refined gentlemanly qualities.


Thomas Gainsborough’s paintings do seem to bring a bright, personal freshness to the long tradition of portraiture in Britain.

Yet his true love was for landscape painting – a genre in the ascendant in British art despite Joshua Reynolds who, as President of the new Royal Academy, diagnosed the necessity for History Painting – the results of which we’ll look at next week.


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (23)

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A History of Art in England (22): Joshua Reynolds

Reynolds, Joshua, 1723-1792; Sir Joshua Reynolds

Self-Portrait [c.1747; National Portrait Gallery]

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) is renowned as the first President of the Royal Academy where his lectures – published as “Discourses in Art” – stressed the Italian Renaissance traditions and learning from the Old Masters. According to John Rothenstein in “An Introduction to English Painting”, Reynolds was a great artist whose influence was as decisive as that of Hogarth.

“[Reynolds] believed that the classical artists of Italy had perfected a tradition to which no others could hold a candle, that they were, in short, masters of the great unchanging principles of painting.”

In turn he promoted art as concerning itself with ideal aspects of nature, its subjects drawn from history or mythology – so-called History Painting.

Reynolds’ own art, however, was that of portraiture, which he brought “to a maturity and splendour that caused the work of his predecessors to appear archaic and provincial by comparison” says Rothenstein.

This is a progression rather than a sudden shift, and I’m fascinated by the continuations.

Take one of Reynolds’ most (to my mind) extraordinary paintings:

Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen 1773 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792

Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen [1773; Tate]

The aristocratic Montgomery sisters, Barbara, Elizabeth and Anne, are shown decorating a statue of Hymen, the Greek god of marriage and fertility, with flowers…  The women’s poses are more often associated with the Graces than portraits of aristocratic women.

This is portraiture in the Grand Manner so appreciated by Reynolds: a huge canvas, its subjects mimic renaissance ideals in reference to mythological legend; and note also the inclusion of ‘classical’ busts and columns – all to raise the art of portraiture to create “a moral and heroic symbolism”.

It’s a theatricality we can trace all the way back through the dressing-up masquerades and Roman flavours in the Baroque art of the Stuart court, not to mention the love of the theatre itself that continued to spread amongst the 18th century population of England.

This ‘bringing together’ of antiquity- and Old-Master-style was often criticised:

Rambling 7

Nathaniel Hone: The Conjurer [1775; National Gallery of Ireland]

This beautifully executed satirical painting (the full title of which is ‘The Pictorial Conjuror, Displaying the Whole Art of Optical Deception’) caused an outcry when it was submitted by the artist for exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, in 1775. The reason given was that included in the picture was a nude caricature of the Swiss painter Angelica Kauffman… The true cause of offence, however, was that the picture was seen as an attack on Kauffman’s friend Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy. His practice of borrowing poses from Old Master paintings to ennoble his portraits was seen by Hone as plagiarism.

It’s a harsh critique and I’m not sure entirely fair for whilst William Blake and, later, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood would also criticise Reynolds (for various reasons), JMW Turner had a much more positive view of him as a teacher and role model:

[Turner] once declared that he spent ‘the happiest perhaps of my days’ with Reynolds, and in later life Reynolds was the only English artist that Turner ever discussed – writes Peter Ackroyd in his brief biography “Turner” [Vintage, 2006]

It may be that Turner recognised Reynolds experimentation. There is a fascinating sketch in the Tate collection:

Sketch for 'The 4th Duke of Marlborough and his Family' c.1777 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792

Sketch for “The 4th Duke of Marlborough and his Family” [1777; Tate]

This sketch shows the painter struggling with the problem of integrating the solemn splendour of the adults with a more modern, relaxed informality preferred for young children and dogs says the Tate website, suggesting that Reynolds was actively working on how a modern portrait/ conversation piece might look – the sophisticated adults amidst the ‘Hogarthian’ play of the children.

There is also an intriguing canvas in the Royal Academy collection:

Reynolds, Joshua, 1723-1792; Studio Experiments in Colour and Media

Studio Experiments in Colour and Media

This canvas was used by Sir Joshua Reynolds to experiment on gums, varnishes, oils and waxes as well as various pigments probably to record the effects of time on the colours and materials – RA

A 2015 catalogue “Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint” from an exhibition at The Wallace Collection [edited by Lucy Davis and Mark Hallett] also suggests how Reynolds’s innovations as a painter were often the product of collaboration – in part, with his assistants and his students, but, more importantly, with his patrons and subjects, with whom he continually explored the possibilities of gesture, expression, performance and role-play suggesting again Reynolds’ modernity in an age of scientific research and people’s individuality and self-identities.

Certainly he brilliantly emphasises identity and personality in

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Elizabeth Linley (1754–1792), Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan as Saint Cecilia [1775; Waddesdon Manor, National Trust]

Elizabeth Linley was a renowned singer and writer. She’s shown playing a pipe organ, but – and here Reynolds takes us by complete surprise – Elizabeth appears to stare at clouds and a ray of light that materialise above the organ suggesting perhaps her extraordinary musicality and imagination, recognising certainly Reynolds’ play and enjoyment in his art-making.

Elizabeth was muse to a number of painters, including Thomas Gainsborough, Reynolds’ great rival, who we’ll meet in Rambling (23).


There’s to be an on-line lecture on 18th June given by Martin Postle about Joshua Reynolds called “The Artist and Intellectual” see Paul Mellon Centre.



Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (22)

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A History of Art in England (21): Sporting and Animal Painting

As Hogarth brought the streets of London to the canvas, and Wright the ‘romance’ of industry, so other artists were picking up the threads that would lead to landscape painting. In the 18th century though, rather than ‘pure’ landscape painting, this meant turning the portrait-artist’s eye to animals (principally horses), whilst the social commentary of ‘conversation piece’ painting reflected an apparently stable system of rural working life.

I note this here at the beginning because of a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby that might stand in contrast to much of what follows:

Wright of Derby, Joseph, 1734-1797; Earthstopper on the Banks of the Derwent

Earthstopper on the Banks of the Derwent

[1773; Derby Museum and Art Gallery; artuk.org]

The Derby Museum website notes: An earthstopper was a man paid by local huntsmen to block up foxholes, also known as earths, the night before a hunt so that the foxes couldn’t get back in and would more easily be caught.

(which raises the question of what is ‘sport’ in relation of to animals; fox-hunting)

The painting has all the mysterious ‘romance’ of Wright’s art, the moonlight, the lamplight that singles out this solitary man working through the night with his dog and horse for companions. And yet, as we might have noted from Wright’s blacksmith paintings, a certain ‘social realism’ balances the romance: the hard, lonely toil; that, even as the man works in the pay of the landowner, his ragged clothing pronounces poverty.

The difficult lives of workers in rural Georgian England are rarely pictured. Instead, the ‘gentry’ and the new ‘middling sorts’ who commissioned art for their country houses wanted subjects that announced and celebrated their status.


As with portraiture and decorative painting, the development of art in England is interwoven with the art and artists of continental Europe. Rothenstein notes Jan Wyck (1640-1700), a Dutch-born artist who migrated with his father (also an artist) to England and developed a highly successful career as a painter of portraits as well as battle and naval scenes. One of his students was John Wootton (1686-1764) of Warwickshire who would use his training in the depiction of the battlefield as the basis to become, as Rothenstein says, “the first horse-painter of his day”. As his pictures of the hunt might well resemble battlefield scenes to an extent; many are ‘portraits’ of horses, many of which ran at Newmarket (where there had been horse-racing since the 12th century).

Wootton, John, c.1682-1764; A Grey Horse and Jockey in Red Colours, before a Stable

A Grey Horse and Jockey in Red Colours, before a Stable [1715; National Trust, Clandon Park; artuk.org]

Wootton, John, c.1682-1764; Viscount Weymouth's Hunt: Mr Jackson, the Hon. Henry Villiers and the Hon. Thomas Villiers, with Hunters and Hounds

Viscount Weymouth’s Hunt: Mr Jackson, the Hon. Henry Villiers and the Hon. Thomas Villiers, with Hunters and Hounds [1733; Tate]

“We now have to consider one who stands head and shoulders above the other sporting artists of the English School, George Stubbs [1724 – 1806]. He ranks among the greatest animal painters of the world and as a portrayer of horses he has never been excelled and seldom rivalled” – enthuses Rothenstein:

“He was the first European artist to paint animals as they are”.

Stubbs, George, 1724-1806; 'Hambletonian', Rubbing Down

‘Hambletonian’, Rubbing Down [1800; National Trust, Mount Stewart; artuk.org]

And what is especially significant about Stubbs’s work is that it is based not only on the visual appearance of the horse, but the underlying anatomy. A self-taught artist, he moved from his home in Liverpool to work as a portrait painter in York whilst studying human anatomy and, after an unfulfilling trip to Rome:

In 1756 he rented a farmhouse in the village of Horkstow, Lincolnshire, and spent 18 months dissecting horses, assisted by his common-law wife, Mary Spencer.

“The Anatomy of the Horse” was published in 1766 (many of the original drawings can be seen on the Royal Academy website), and it was this scientific research and knowledge that led to aristocratic patronage and numerous paintings, the most famous of which is no doubt “Whistlejacket” at the National Gallery. Looking through the artuk.org website, it is fascinating to see the range of Stubbs’s work – from the ‘horse-portrait’ to paintings of dogs and wild beats, and he does something more, too:

Stubbs, George, 1724-1806; Mares and Foals in a River Landscape

Mares and Foals in a River Landscape [1763-8; Tate Britain; artuk.org]

The painting is carefully composed. As Tate notes, it exemplifies the artist’s sense of pattern and rhythm:

Mares and Foals in a River Landscape utilises a classical composition which gives an overall symmetry and balance to the group, in which the three mares and their foals are placed so as roughly to form a cone, with their rumps marking the perimeter and their heads the apex. The feeding foals are essential to the composition, allowing the spectator’s eye to be drawn over the whole group in a slow revolving rhythm.

What it also does though is set the horses by themselves – although they are owned, groomed and ‘in service’ as it were – they are shown interacting within their own ‘society’; they have their own relationships with each other.

Stubbs, George, 1724-1806; A Couple of Foxhounds

A Couple of Foxhounds [1792; Tate]

And I can’t resist including these two dogs; their personalities are palpable as is their relationship with us as they gaze out quizzically, uncertainly wondering what we’re looking at!

Two other artists mentioned by Rothenstein are Benjamin Marshall (1767-1835) and James Ward (1769-1859) – contemporaries, but with very contrasting styles.

To look through Marshall’s work at artuk.org, we can see his painting is very much in the style of Stubbs, though as Rothenstein notes, there is a real severity with “every visible muscle, artery and tendon starkly emphasised”. Yet many of his paintings also remind me of Hogarth as Marshall catches the sociable atmosphere.

Diamond with Dennis Fitzpatrick Up [1799; Yale Center for British Art; artuk.org]

John Hilton, Judge of the Course at Newmarket; John Fuller, Clerk of the Course; and John Stevens, a Trainer [1804; Yale Center for British Art; artuk.org]

By contrast “Ward’s painting is turbulent. Instead of the severe calm which prevails in Marshall’s paintings, the weather of Ward’s is stormy… [for] he looked to Rubens for inspiration.

Portraits of Blackthorn, a Broodmare, with Old Jack, a Favourite Pony, the Property of E. Mundy, Esq. 1812 by James Ward 1769-1859

Portraits of Blackthorn, a Broodmare, with Old Jack, a Favourite Pony, the Property of E. Mundy, Esq. [1812; Tate]

…commissioned by Edward Miller Mundy of Shipley Hall, Derbyshire. It portrays particular animals he owned – Old Jack, a bay pony, standing on the left, and Blackthorn, a chestnut mare, with a tiny new-born foal on the grass in front of her.

Greatly influenced by Rubens, [Ward] seems in his turn to have been a model for Landseer in the manner in which he endowed animals with human emotions.

Rothenstein agrees with the Tate in regard to Ward’s influence on Edwin Landseer (1802-1873), saying “Landseer created whole mythology of animal experience. His dogs registered the sublimest emotions; his stags were the personifications of nobility and heroism.”

Landseer, Edwin Henry, 1802-1873; Suspense

Suspense [1834; Victoria and Albert Museum; artuk.org]

Landseer’s art might not be everyone’s cup of tea; it reflects the high emotional tone of Victorian art and deep sentimentality, and certainly seems a long way from the Georgian artists of the previous century. Rothenstein is particularly dismissive: Landseer’s appeal perhaps escapes us now… [it all seems] rather facile.”


The chapter on “Sporting and Animal Painting” skips quite a long way (and there is more to be said when we discuss landscape art). Next time though we’ll return to Portraiture through the work of Joshua Reynolds.


However, just to return to the introduction and the recognition that the countryside was a very different place depending on whether you were an earthstopper or a landowner, some of James Ward’s paintings interestingly depict the less decorative ‘working’ side of rural life.

Ward, James, 1769-1859; Interior of a Stable

Interior of a Stable [1830s, Yale Center for British Art; artuk.org]

Rambling 13

Tending the Piglets [no date; Christie’s]




Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (21)

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A History of Art in England (20): Joseph Wright of Derby – a visual alchemy

Wright of Derby, Joseph, 1734-1797; Self Portrait

Self Portrait by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797)
[1780; Yale Center for British Art; artuk.org]

In “An Introduction to English Painting”, John Rothenstein gives only one paragraph to Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) despite marking his equivalent importance to William Hogarth in terms of creating a new and original genre of art in a quite alternative setting: working outside of London, reflecting the growth of industrial culture, finding patrons among manufacturers and the scientific community, and developing “the fullest expression of the romance of the early years of the Industrial Revolution.”

And yet, it seems to me, there is an extremely important difference between the paintings of Hogarth and Wright even beyond these circumstances.

Hogarth’s art, as we have seen, is primarily ‘narrative’, a visual story-telling through a series of developing scenes – akin to book illustration and theatre performance. His subject is the drama of everyday life; a contemporary ‘staging’ that often invites the viewer to enjoy and to think-through ideas of personal morality and social in/justice.

Wright’s paintings also focus the drama of contemporary life, only they record very different aspects of Georgian Britain: scientific research, learning and industry. One of his most famous paintings along these lines is “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” [1768, The National Gallery], but if we look at An Iron Forge, interesting ideas come to light…

An Iron Forge 1772 by Joseph Wright of Derby 1734-1797

An Iron Forge [1772; Tate Britain]

“An Iron Forge” is one of five ‘night pieces’ which Wright made between 1771 and 1773, taking as his subject the blacksmiths’ shops and forges of Derbyshire. In this scene of a small iron forge at work, an iron-founder and his family are bathed in the warm light cast by a newly forged white-hot iron bar, which has been dragged out of the nearby furnace by an assistant. Wright adapted the scale for dramatic effect, compressing the scene to accommodate the machinery and the figures.

The painting is not ‘simply’ a record of life in the forge, however. As the Tate notes:

the modernity of the painting lies in its heroic treatment of a theme from common life. According to the high-minded art theories of the period, such a prosaic scene of ordinary working men did not warrant such a dignified treatment.

Wright of Derby, Joseph, 1734-1797; A Boy Admiring a Statuette by Candlelight

A Boy Admiring a Statuette by Candlelight

[1760, by a follower of Wright; Derby Museum and Art Gallery; artuk.org]

Like Hogarth, Wright is encouraging the viewer to think about the changes and ethics of modern life, only he doesn’t do so by ‘story-telling’ as such – he calls upon us to look hard and think visually (like a scientist) not only in terms of the subject, but its presentation in the use of light, for example…

Wright of Derby, Joseph, 1734-1797; A Philosopher by Lamplight

A Philosopher by Lamplight (or a hermit)

[1769; Derby Museum and Art Gallery; artuk.org]

Many of Wright’s paintings use the drama of chiaroscuro – the sharp, dramatic contrasts of light and dark (inspired by Caravaggio and his followers) – created by candlelight or moonlight, or as in the forge the fire of heated metal, at the heart of a darkened room or at night.

Symbolically this is the light of enlightenment; the Age of Reason, knowledge emerging from ignorance – and Wright himself was deeply involved with the development of new ideas and understandings by way of, for example, the Lunar Society in Birmingham and friendships, as one can see from his portraiture, with people such as

Wright of Derby, Joseph, 1734-1797; Dr Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802)

Dr Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802) [1790s; English Heritage, Down House; artuk.org]

Erasmus Darwin was an English physician. One of the key thinkers of the Midlands Enlightenment, he was also a natural philosopher, physiologist, slave-trade abolitionist, inventor and poet.

And if we look at the Forge painting again, there is something more…

Wright of Derby, Joseph, 1734-1797; An Iron Forge

The extraordinary light effects and dramatic composition endow the scene with an almost religious grandeur (Tate) – broadly there is a sense of Christ’s nativity, in particular note the ‘mother and child’ – and it’s that religious element that seems to me so very important.

The Tate comments: The different ages of the iron-worker’s family update the old theme of the ‘ages of man’. The presence of his wife and children associate his work with domestic happiness and prosperity.

And elsewhere there is the discussion that, in combining this religious echo with contemporary industry, Wright is recording debates and unease on the relationship between faith and science.

But it is the way he does this that intrigues me, for Wright inspires our thinking about the social meaning of the picture not through Hogarthian narrative and story-telling progression but by purely visual means: that is, through the encounter of a modern, realist depiction with markers traditionally associated with biblical paintings. It’s this interaction of these two visual streams that stimulates our thinking beyond the picture frame. We don’t need narrative here, but we do need a knowledge of painting to create the reaction.

Rambling 3

The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the ancient chymical astrologers [exhibited 1771, reworked and dated 1795; Derby Museum]


Wright is such an interesting artist, expanding the world of English painting and ways of seeing. Moreover,  he is also important in terms of the developing art of landscape painting in Britain:

Wright of Derby, Joseph, 1734-1797; Landscape with a Rainbow

Landscape with a Rainbow [1794; Yale Center for British Art; artuk.org]

as we’ll see soon. But first, we must follow Rothenstein’s lead for, at the same time as Wright and Hogarth, “there grew up another popular art, namely, sporting and animal painting” – which leads us to the art of George Stubbs.


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (20)

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A History of Art in England (19): Creating a Public Visual Culture

The cultural and economic landscape of Britain began to change dramatically as we enter the Georgian 18th century (and if you catch it quick, Lucy Worsley’s 2014 tv series “The First Georgians” is on BBC i-player at the moment) and, as we saw last time (Rambling 18), Hogarth is the perfect example of an artist asserting an independent vision and creating art beyond the circles of royalty and aristocracy.

Another artist of note might be Jonathan Richardson the Elder (1667-1745)

Richardson the elder, Jonathan, c.1664-1667-1745; Portrait of the Artist with His Palette and Manuscripts

Portrait of the Artist with His Palette and Manuscripts
Jonathan Richardson the elder (1667–1745) [c.1700; Fairfax House; artuk.org]

Really of the generation before Hogarth and essentially a portrait painter, he was perhaps more famous for writing about art (hence the manuscripts in this self-portrait). In “An Introduction to English Painting”, Rothenstein notes for example Richardson’s “An Essay on the Theory of Painting” (published in 1715) in which: he displays faith in the power of English artists to do great work which is said to have inspired both Hogarth and, later in the century, Reynolds.

[The] book is credited with being “the first significant work of artistic theory in English.”

Richardson the elder, Jonathan, c.1664-1667-1745; George Vertue (1684-1756)

George Vertue (1684–1756) by Jonathan Richardson the elder [no date; National Trust, Wimpole Hall; artuk.org]

Another important figure in this context is George Vertue (1684-1756) who

From 1713 on, Vertue was a keen researcher on details of the history of British art, accumulating about forty volumes of notebooks. He was a member of the Rose and Crown Club, with William Hogarth, Peter Tillemans and other artists and connoisseurs, and kept some records of it

these records would be written up by Horace Walpole in “Anecdotes of English Painting” which, in turn, led to the founding of the Walpole Society in 1911 which is now an excellent resource for us common viewers.

And, just to pick up also that mention of the Rose and Crown Club, as it suggests – along with the crowd that would gather at Old Slaughter’s Coffee House – what artistic society in London was like. Formed in 1704 for “for Eminent Artificers of this Nation”, the club was –  though initially” a bawdy assembly of younger artists and cognoscenti, which met weekly” –  among the more important of clubs for artists and connoisseurs, all known as the ‘Rosacoronians’.

Aside from the ‘romantic’ bawdiness this conjures up (and the all-male culture) these clubs and venues suggest the expansion and exposure of artists and painting into the Georgian public sphere, as does the increased writing on art and artists in England. That painting was being discussed further afield than previously in turn helped create an interest and a trade in contemporary works.

Rambling 3

William Hogarth: Conversation Piece (Portrait of Sir Andrew Fountaine with other men and women) [1735; Philadelphia Museum of Art]

The aristocracy had been primarily interested in the ‘old masters’ they’d bought on their grand tours; now a new class – “the middling sort” – were the audience, and the buyers. And it’s within the context of this new demand that Hogarth had both set up the St Martin’s Lane Academy and valued the Foundling Hospital as an exhibition space:

Artists associated with St Martin’s Lane were also, under the leadership of Hogarth, prominently active in providing the decorations for the charitable Foundling Hospital set up by Sir Thomas Coram. The opening of this scheme in 1746 constituted what was in effect the first public exhibition of contemporary British art, helping to establish the political and cultural relevance of artists as a professional group.

(Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

It was all about networks, connections and promotion.

left: Francis Hayman and Grosvenor Bedford
by Francis Hayman [c.1750; National Portrait Gallery; artuk.org]

right: Portrait of the Artist at His Easel
by Francis Hayman [c.1750; Royal Albert Memorial Museum; artuk.org]

An artist closely associated with Hogarth and the Academy was Francis Hayman (1708-1776) – and aren’t these two self-portraits great? In one he is well-dressed, bewigged, standing extemporising skilfully and respectfully with his client; in the second he’s in relaxed ‘bohemian’ mood!

There are more than 70 paintings by him at artuk.org including portraits and conversation pieces – often of actors and theatrical scenes. Hayman began his career as a scene painter (and had apparently taken minor roles on stage) which is no doubt why he was invited to paint (with Hogarth and the Academy) “decorative scenes” to display at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens – and how better to promote contemporary art?

Eminent 18th-century scholar John Barrell, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, brings out Vauxhall’s significance. “Vauxhall pleasure gardens, on the south bank of the Thames, entertained Londoners and visitors to London for 200 years. From 1729, under the management of Jonathan Tyers, property developer, impresario, patron of the arts, the gardens grew into an extraordinary business, a cradle of modern painting…

…the interiors of the supper boxes were painted by members of Hogarth’s St. Martin’s Lane Academy, prominent among them Francis Hayman. Hayman provided most of the subjects, which were rapidly executed by students and assistants.

The style was determinedly rococo – light, sensuous and intensely decorative; playful, such as:

Hayman, Francis, 1708-1776; The Milkmaid's Garland (Humours of May Day)

The Milkmaid’s Garland (Humours of May Day) (decorative painting for a supper-box at Vauxhall Gardens, London) [c.1741; Victoria and Albert Museum]

This painting was one of 50 supper box pictures at Spring Gardens, Vauxhall. They each formed the back of one ‘arbour’ or supper box, an ornate wooden shelter formed of two side walls and a roof, framing picturesque views through the Gardens, where guests could take supper. At a certain moment in the evening’s entertainment, the paintings were `let fall’ to enclose the diners at the back. The front was left permanently open for the fashionable occupants to view and be viewed [V&A]

 The V&A also have “The Wapping Landlady”, again for Vauxhall Gardens

Hayman, Francis, 1708-1776; The Wapping Landlady

and subtly exalting the pleasures available there (I’m sure that chap has a look of Hayman himself!)

There was, then, the increasing public presentation and a widening appreciation of painting through the 18th century; and there were also new subjects.

Again, Hayman is at the forefront:

Rambling 8

A Cricket Match at Mary-le-bone Fields [1740; Lord’s MCC Collection]

Along with the theatrical conversation pieces, the scenes of London street life and the entertaining decorative scenes made for Vauxhall Gardens, popular genres such as sporting and animal paintings were a dramatic change from the extraordinary art of the Baroque that had dominated just a few decades earlier.

But whilst Hogarth and his circle concentrated on London life, Joseph Wright of Derby was painting a very different aspect of society: the industrial culture emerging in the Midlands and the North, as we’ll see in Rambling (20).

Happy viewing!



Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (19)

If you are enjoying this little series and are able to ‘donate’ – please do! Many thanks and all best wishes.