By J. B. Manson
THE reign of King George III ( 1760-1820) opened at an auspicious moment so far as painting was concerned. Hogarth ( 1697-1764) had still four years to live. He had painted his last and favourite picture Sigismonda mourning over the heart of Guiscardo the year before, the picture which aroused Reynolds's resentment and led him to rebuke Hogarth's imprudence and presumption in daring to attempt "the great historical style" which should surely be the exclusive privilege of Presidents of the Royal Academy.
The magnificent and ill-fated Wilson, father of English landscape painting, and one of the best portrait painters of the time, was forty-six years old and had returned from Italy five years earlier. Reynolds was thirty-seven, already the "leading portrait painter" and ready to become the first pompous President; Gainsborough, his junior by four years had just moved to Bath. Romney, the most over-rated of painters, had not yet begun "to rise rapidly to fame."
The scene was set; the curtain had already risen on the brightest period of English art. In these days, when our youthful painters have their feet well set in the mud, it is perhaps difficult for us to realize the importance of Hogarth's "return to earth." Yet it was this descent which marked the birth of the modern English School of Painting. The formula of Van Dyck had been so often handled and misused that it was like a well-worn coin on which the inscription was no longer legible.
After Lely ( 1618-1680), Kneller; after Kneller ( 1646-1723), Highmore ( 1692-1788) who, however, had made some attempt at polishing the coin; and there were others, many others, who had exploited the attractive formula which Van Dyck had brought over from Antwerp in 1632 and established three years later. Before the advent of Hogarth ( 1697-1764) English Art had become little more than the mechanical exercise of a lay figure made after the Van Dyck pattern. The painters were mere fantoccini worked for the benefit of a maudlin society of painted jades and pampered pimps.
HOGARTH swept away a deal of humbug by his ruthless realism and his uncompromising seeking for truth. He turned the attention of painters from formula to facts, from imitation to experience, from convention to conviction. And by so doing, he cleared the way for those painters who were to come after him. The influence of Hogarth was more general than personal and direct. By his example, protesting painters had reluctantly to turn to nature for their subjects, and they, were to find that realism demanded greater attention and a higher degree of ability than the exercise of an academic convention had done. Not that any of the great painters who followed him entirely escaped the chains of convention, not even Gainsborough, with the possible exception of Richard Wilson.
And Wilson himself had put his head into the noose when he went to Rome and the price of his freedom was starvation. We do not know that Wilson was directly influenced by Hogarth. They must have met and exchanged ideas at Old Slaughter's Coffee House and other places where artists gathered together, and the two, genuine, downright, uncompromising characters, must have understood one another, even if they were not friends. The influence of Hogarth was subtle; it pervaded the atmosphere; it shifted the point of view; just as the influence of Cézanne has changed the complexion of modern art.
An important event which affected the artists of the time and subsequently, was the foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768. The need for an Academy had become increasingly pressing and several abortive attempts had been