A Century of British Painters

By Samuel Redgrave; Richard Redgrave | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XV
THE BRITISH INSTITUTION AND THE
WATER-COLOUR SOCIETIES

THE impulse to promote art which followed the establishment of the Royal Academy was manifested in many ways, leading to one important result in the foundation of the British Institution in 1805. Its defined objects were 'to open a public exhibition for the sale of the productions of British artists, to excite the emulation and exertion of younger artists by premiums, and to endeavour to form a public gallery of the works of British artists, with a few select specimens of each of the great schools'. That these laudable aspirations were not fulfilled may have partly arisen from the entire absence of any man on the committee--composed solely of great people and art patrons-- who was capable of giving professional advice on art subjects. The directors opened exhibitions and awarded premiums to which they generously devoted large sums, but their awards did not always please at the time of competition, and have not always been endorsed by the judgement of posterity. Perhaps their greatest failure was in commissioning James Ward, R.A., who had competed with others in sending in a sketch to illustrate ' The Successes of the British Army in the Peninsular War', to paint this sketch in a large size, namely ' The Battle of Waterloo, an allegory', for £1,000. Ward was highly distinguished as an animal painter. He had great power of execution, and we have no doubt that his sketch was a vigorous bit of painting, and as such would be likely to allure a judgement not tempered by professional knowledge. But the subject was not suited to a great work, which would have been, from its allegorical treatment, a trial and a task to Rubens himself. The result was fatal to the judgement of the directors. This great allegory when completed was never exhibited. The directors presented it to the Royal Hospital at Chelsea. Like the Vicar of Wakefield's family group, 'it was so very large they had no place in the house to fix it', and it is stowed away on a roller in an oblivion which is perhaps happy for its really talented painter.

But James Ward's powers as an artist should not be estimated by our opinions on the ambitious work which, on the mistaken commission of the directors of the British Institution, he was induced to attempt. He came of an art family. George Morland married his

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