A Century of British Painters

By Samuel Redgrave; Richard Redgrave | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IX
HENRY FUSELI AND HISTORIC ART

VERY soon after the foundation of the Royal Academy a great movement took place in art. Our artists were emulous to distinguish themselves; and, as a body, were desirous of engaging in works which should cultivate the taste of their countrymen for pictorial design. The members of the Academy led the way, and offered to decorate St. Paul's Cathedral at their own expense, with appropriate paintings from Scripture subjects. They selected Reynolds, their president, West, Barry, Cipriani, Dance, and Angelica Kauffmann, for this undertaking, and made this generous proposal in 1773, to the Dean and Chapter, in such terms as they hoped would insure its acceptance and success-- offering to receive the suggestions of the Dean and Chapter for alterations or amendments of their work when completed, and to remove them if not finally approved. This noble offer was accepted by the Dean, who readily obtained the sanction of the King; but the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, who are the trustees of the cathedral, disapproved; and the latter ( Bishop Terrick) strenuously opposed it as an artful intrusion of Popery, and the whole plan fell to the ground, and the ardent desire of the body of artists ended only in disappointment.

Looking back from our present position, and with our advanced knowledge on the subject, we feel confident that this disappointment was on the whole for the advantage of art. The subject of mural decoration had not at that time received the consideration it has since obtained throughout Europe. The principles of pictorial art as an adjunct to architecture had not in the least been studied, and mere pictorial treatment would have undoubtedly prevailed. The vehicle in which the works would have been executed would most likely have been oil; and oil, with all the faulty and insecure pigments then and for a long time after in use. Had the proposal been carried out we might now be contemplating an incomplete series of works far advanced in ruin and decay, unsuited to their situation, incongruous with one another from lacking the direction of a leading mind, and altogether affording an argument against rather than in favour of further attempts.

A few years later the members of the Academy warmly supported the plan of a ' Shakespeare Gallery', which originated with Alderman

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