A Century of British Painters

By Samuel Redgrave; Richard Redgrave | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
FIRST HISTORY PAINTERS OF THE
ENGLISH SCHOOL

CONTEMPORARY fame gave to the historical works of Frank Hayman, in the existing dearth, a rank which was not afterwards assigned to them, or to the higher merits of Sir James Thornhill's decorative paintings; and the claim to have possessed a painter of history in the English school was deferred for nearly two generations.

We have already said that Sir Joshua Reynolds painted several historical pictures, as his 'Ugolino',1 'Macbeth',2 'Infant Hercules', and some others. But such hours as he could spare from his sitters, he loved much more to devote to fancy subjects; and he told his pupil, Northcote, that 'history cost him too dear'. Other and younger men, however, stimulated by the love of fame, were anxious to occupy the field which the successful portrait painter had abandoned. Three of these, Benjamin West, James Barry and John Singleton Copley, young men of nearly the same age, within a year or two of thirty when the first exhibition at the Royal Academy took place, deserve especial notice from their continuous and lifelong efforts to produce works of high aim.

They were not academically educated, so that neither their faults nor their excellences can be considered the result of the Academy system; nor were they taught in the atelier of any great artist, but each learnt his art individually and alone. Three artists instructed more variously, and from their early associations more separated from art influences while obtaining their elementary knowledge, can hardly be found. One advantage they had in common. In early life, soon after entering upon the practice of their art, and when their elementary training may be supposed to have been completed, each visited Italy, making a more or less prolonged stay. West went there when twenty-two years of age, and was three years in the various capitals of that country; Barry in his twenty-fifth year, and remained nearly four years; but Copley was in his thirty-seventh year, and stayed only one year in the land of art. What influence had these visits on their future art and practice? Barry and West, who went when young, and made the longest stay in Italy, will be found most imbued with the

____________________
1
Lord Sackville, Knole.
2
Lord Leconfield, Petworth.

-80-

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