Two Cheers for the Royal Academy: Art Treasures of England

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Whatever draws attention to the picture galleries of England deserves praise. For the Royal Academy's exhibition, Art Treasures of England: the Regional Collections, the praise must be curtailed: a hesitant 'Two cheers!', as E. M. Forster once put it. The artistic riches of England were seldom produced by English artists. There are too many English paintings in the exhibition and, amongst those, too many from the late nineteenth century. Some of them have been languidly reshuffled from the Victorian pictures recently shown at the National Gallery in Washington and reviewed by Richard Mullen in the Contemporary Review in July 1997. The principal gallery and five side rooms are reserved for English paintings. Only four of the thirteen rooms available are exclusively devoted to foreign masters.

This does not even represent the balance of the regional galleries. From the Victoria Gallery in Bath, which has The Adoration of the Kings, unquestionably by Hugo van der Goes, comes a sketch of geese in a water-splash by Henry Lathangue, little known outside the West of England and quite unknown abroad. The Royal Cornish Museum in Truro, which has one of the most important and inaccessible paintings by the Elder Cranach in Europe, is represented by Herbert Draper's Sea Maiden. The Isenbrandt, Taddeo Gaddi, Timoteo Viti, Berchem and Moreau at the Bristol City Art Gallery were passed over in favour of a Danby and an Alma-Tadema.

The principal gallery, densely hung in an irrelevant pastiche of how it looked in Victorian times, is dominated by John Martin's The Bard (from the Laing Gallery in Martin's native Newcastle), based on the ode by Thomas Gray. An incensed greybeard on a precipice pours down curses on Edward I from the surrounding crags, cataracts and stupendously towering castle. A lurid Sunset by Martin's imitator Danby is hung so high that, perhaps to Danby's advantage, visitors cannot discern the sensationalism of the lower part. Turner's unpretentious Calais Sands, from Bury Art Gallery, looks out of place beside such excess. Worse is to come on the opposite wall: Landseer's picture (Royal Holloway College, Egham) of polar bears with the bones of an arctic explorer, a work so ghastly that it was always covered up when examinations were sat in the picture gallery there. Slightly less gruesome, but wondrously infelicitous, is Holman Hunt's Isabella and the Pot of Basil (Birmingham City Art Gallery), feverishly cluttered with pointless geegaws. It is almost fascinating to contemplate how a picture can be so intricately and painstakingly repellent.

Before taking refuge in the eighteenth-century room, it is only fair to pay one's respects to four Victorian painters, above all to Turner, but also to the Scottish Nazarene, William Dyce, whose Leicester Jacob and Rachel relieves the overloaded eye with its lucid draughtsmanship; to William Frith, whose Paddington Station (also from Royal Holloway College) is a Dickensian larger-than-life 'slice of life'; and to the underestimated Atkinson Grimshaw, whose Fishing Boats, from Scarborough Art Gallery, is an example of his foggy, moonlit night-pieces, sombre but visionary.

Whilst retreating into the display of earlier works, over-patriotically entitled The English Canon - although Mytens and Lely came from Holland, Canaletto from Venice, Wilson from Wales, Loutherbourg from Alsace, and Benjamin West from Pennsylvania - it is worth pausing at the picture of a gin-shop (Huddersfield) by George Morland, that subfusc British surrogate for Teniers the Younger. In the small company of customers, assembled in furtive comradeship, gaudily dressed matrons are joined by an off-duty footpad. As George Herbert said, vices 'make all equal whom they find together'. Arthur Devis's family-portrait, from the Harris Gallery in Devis's native Preston, also deserves more than a passing glance. The Dr. Coppelius of British painting trimly animates his charming puppets: dapper squires and merchants and their families in an evanescent landscape not unworthy of Stubbs. …