Magazine article The Spectator

Posh versus Popular

Magazine article The Spectator

Posh versus Popular

Article excerpt

CANDIDATES FOR FAME by Matthew Hargreaves Yale, £40, pp. 244, ISBN 0300110049 . £32 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

On 12 November 1759 London's leading artists assembled at the Turk's Head pub on Gerrard Street and decided to put on the first ever exhibition of contemporary art in Britain. They became the Society of Artists, and Matthew Hargreaves is the first scholar to tell their story. The Society tends to be written up as an amateur dress rehearsal for the Royal Academy, but what this excellent book shows us is that in its short life -- little more than a decade -- it transformed the British art scene for ever.

The Society printed 1,000 catalogues for its first exhibition in 1760. In the end, it sold six times as many. The next year Samuel Johnson wrote a foreword justifying the imposition of an admission charge:

if it was free, he observed, the room would be too crowded. That decade the Society built a remarkable top-lit gallery, the first purpose-built space for contemporary art in the world.

But public exhibitions changed for ever an art world which had been based upon private relationships between artists and patrons.

Firstly, exhibitions brought into being newspaper critics. Hogarth's 'Sigismunda' was criticised so severely that after ten days he took down the picture and never exhibited again.

Secondly, and more profoundly, the visitors didn't like what the Society's hierarchy thought they should like. The public made stars of young artists such as the wild John Hamilton Mortimer, the surly radical Robert Edge Pine and -- above all -- Joseph Wright of Derby. His candlelight masterpieces such as 'A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery' and 'A Philosopher by Lamplight' -- a delight on show at Tate's Gothic Nightmares exhibition -- were painted purposefully for the Society's shows.

The young artists drank together. Why, they asked, should the least popular artists decide the hang? In a bitter but open vote in 1768 they overthrew the ruling committee.

Hargreaves argues, convincingly, that their electoral reforms were inspired by the vox populi of John Wilkes; that was the year of the 'Wilkes and Liberty' riots. This is where the book gets really interesting.

What did the de-selected committee do?

They went to Windsor and begged George III to patronise a rival body which became the Royal Academy. The king underwrote its losses and he had the final say, not a majority vote. Membership was limited in number, creating, in Hargreaves' words, a 'self-perpetuating oligarchy'.

This benevolent despotism represented one model of 18th-century identity. …

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