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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About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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