By Roger Fry
GEORGE III'S reign was a very long one, but its mere extension in time is not enough to explain the fact which stares at one from the plates of the present work, the fact, namely, that almost all the great names of English painting occur in the captions. Here are some of them: Ramsay, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney, Wilson, Raeburn, Hoppner, Zoffany, Lawrence, Wilkie, Crome, Constable, Cotman, Girtin, Turner, Bonington, Blake, Morland. Even Hogarth, one of the few great names which does not occur in this book, has a technical right to appear in it. For he did not die till George III had been on the throne for several years, though, as he is typical of the preceding period he is rightly excluded. It would be impossible to connect eighteen such names not only with any other single reign, but with any other period of sixty years in English history. Indeed, one may say that almost all the painting which creates the spiritual value and importance of the British School are to be found in this list. Such sudden epidemics of creative talent in a particular country are, of course, common occurrences in the history of art, but they are none the less surprising. Art historians are naturally alert to find causes in the economic and political history of the period to explain them, but these explanations, however plausible, however true as far as they go, seem always to affect only ancillary and contributory causes, they never satisfy our minds as being really adequate to the effects we observe. Probably we can never estimate these unseen waves of emotional and mental infection which, at certain moments, sweep through the consciousness of a great many individuals too undistinguished to leave any mark in history, which fire every here and there men sufficiently gifted to give them permanent form and expression. The forces of the spirit are like ultra-microscopic germs, they escape our feeble historical microscopes and pass our coarse-grained documentary filters. They are like high explosives carrying incredible powers of expansion in an almost invisible bulk. A few eloquent words packed into a sentence may be enough at a propitious moment to fire some young man's ambition, as it is said that the elder Richardson's prophecy of a great school of English historical painting fired alike Hogarth's and Reynolds's.
Perhaps the utmost that can be attempted by way of explanation, or at least of making to appear less improbable what we know to have actually happened, is to show that, given such a spiritual contagion, the social and economic ambience was not too unfavourable to allow of its expansion. We might even show, perhaps, some evidence of a positive demand for works of art capable of stimulating the supply.
The political history of the period is full enough of incidents to show the stirrings of a strong vitality. It is a record of cabal and intrigue working through a system of organized corruption and privileged robbery under the leadership of or in opposition to a king of irreproachable domestic virtue; an industrious, conscientious, obstinate and narrow-minded Philistine.
With such a political system amid the struggle of rival governing factions representing no great principles, it is no wonder that England is seen throughout the eighteenth century steering a capricious course amid the complications and surprises of those new circumstances which India and America had brought into world politics. We watch her blundering into huge disasters and no less blundering into scarcely sought-for successes. She acquired empires to East and West without clearly knowing what she was about, lost America by sheer bull-doggish inflexibility and tenacity and finally plunged into the vortex of European politics and the long misery of the Napoleonic wars.