Magazine article History Today

Rule Britannia? History Painting in 18th-Century Britain

Magazine article History Today

Rule Britannia? History Painting in 18th-Century Britain

Article excerpt

The dearth of history painting is one of the most remarkable aspects of any survey of British painting between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and yet art historians have devoted little attention to this phenomenon. Of course, history paintings have almost always been difficult to sell - a form of commercial suicide for both artist and picture dealer alike - and we have only to glance at some past commentaries for confirmation.

As early as the 1750s, William Hogarth's friend, the Swiss miniature painter Andre Rouquet, in his interesting little book The Present State Of the Arts in England drew attention to the plight of the contemporary history painter, noting that `History painters have seldom an opportunity of displaying their abilities in England, that it is surprising there are any at all who apply themselves to this branch'. Some years earlier, James Ralph, a prominent writer for the political opposition and would-be historian, raised the question of why English artists rarely ventured beyond portraiture to history painting in an essay published in the Weekly Register: `Sir James Thornhill and Mr Hogarth are, almost the only Persons who have lately made it their study' he wrote, concluding that the difficulty was English Protestantism: `All Reformations run into Excess, and while we abolish what is criminal, we are apt to trespass upon what is useful'. Ralph went on to make a plea for churches to commission paintings: "Tis my Opinion, that holy and devout Pictures are no Fault in themselves, and "tis certain that they have a very fine Effect in making the Face of Religion gay and beautiful' he wrote, although he almost certainly knew that his ideas would not be taken seriously. Nevertheless, he considered the other possibility for artistic commissions lay with the new public buildings; hospitals, theatres, town halls etc., in fact precisely the areas explored by Hogarth and his friends from the St Martin's Lane Academy - the forerunner of the Royal Academy of Arts (est. 1768) - over the next two decades.

By the mid-eighteenth century the painting of scenes from contemporary history had yet to begin, and unless we include Hogarth's modern comic history pictures like `Calais Gate', or `The Roast Beef of Old England' of 1748 (Tate Gallery) or `The March of the Guards to Finchley' of 1750 (Thomas Coram Foundation), there is nothing to suggest the emergence of the genre. Although after the arrival of the Italian painter, Antonio Verrio, in 1672, decorative history painting enjoyed a few decades of popularity as a means of embellishing the staircases and saloons of the many great houses built at the end of the seventeenth century, by the beginning of the new century the genre was increasingly seen by critics like Sir Richard Steele as merely decorative and operatic; not only out of touch with real events but lacking the moral virtue of works like the Raphael Cartoons (then newly installed in Wren's great gallery at Hampton Court Palace).

In an essay devoted almost exclusively to the Cartoons published in 1711 in the Spectator Steele doubted whether `the most beautiful Venus, the best wrought Bacchanal, the images of sleeping Cupids, Languishing Nymphs, or any other Representations of Gods, Goddesses [etc.]' could excite the sort of `Noble Sentiments' which the portrait painter and theorist, Jonathan Richardson, for instance, thought requisite of a good history painting.

Steele might have been impressed by the series of paintings executed in the 1720s depicting episodes from the life of Charles I. These ten paintings art almost entirely the work of French and Flemish painters and were engraved and published in 1728. One of them - Jean Raoux's emotive `King Charles taking leave of his Children' (prior to his execution) seems to echo Steele's suggestion that history painting should `allude to incidents which come within the fortunes of the Ordinary Race of Men'. The painter, Steele says, should paint not `the Battles, but the Sentiments of Alexander'. …

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