Gainsborough: A Portrait by James Hamilton (2017)

Executive summary

Born in 1727, eighteenth century portrait and landscape artist Thomas Gainsborough was far less ambitious and canny than his main rival and the dominating artist of the day, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Early in his career Gainsborough was fairly happy churning out portraits of local worthies in his nearest large town, Ipswich until he was encouraged to go to Bath to seek a higher class of client. Unlike Reynolds (a lifelong bachelor) Gainsborough married young – aged just 19 – the illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat who had settled a £200 annuity on her for life. The earnings from his portraits supplemented this basic family income.

  1. Suffolk (1727 – 1740) childhood in Sudbury
  2. London (1740 – 1748) apprenticeship, prints, acquaintance with Hogarth, marries Margaret Burr
  3. Suffolk again (1748 – 1758) first Sudbury, then the more profitable town of Ipswich
  4. Bath (1759 – 1773: 14 years, first in Abbey Street, from 1767 at 17 King’s Circus)
  5. London again (1774 – 1788)

In his letters we have Gainsborough’s own testimony that he didn’t really like painting portraits, and he actively disliked the ‘ugly’ aristocrats who were his clients. But he was good at it and by the 1760s found himself renting a big town house in Bath, with a coach and horses and servants to run, and paying for tutors for his two beautiful daughters. By 1769 he calculated his annual expenses at £1,000. He didn’t like his clients, he would have preferred to spend his life painting idyllic landscapes. But he was trapped.

By the 1760s Gainsborough was established as one of the best portrait artists of the day and so was invited to join the new Royal Academy of Art set up in 1768, but he repeatedly argued with the hanging committee about the placing of his works in the annual exhibitions, and in other ways kept his distance from the kind of elite London circles which his frenemy, Reynolds, moved in.

Handsome and attractive, Gainsborough had a reputation among his friends as a womaniser and party animal, which he acknowledged in his letters. His wife had to put up with a lot. But the real sadness of his biography is that, although he lavished love and attention on his two beautiful daughters things didn’t turn out as he hoped – one divorced within weeks of her wedding and the other suffering premature dementia.

Detailed review

Far less authoritative and comprehensive than Ian McIntyre’s life of Joshua Reynolds, for at least two reasons. The main one is Gainsborough’s life was far more fleeting and elusive. Reynolds led an active social life among leading figures of the day who all kept records of their dinners and conversations, dedicated their books to him, plus one of his pupils kept notes and wrote a detailed biography soon after his death, plus the minutes and accounts of the clubs and societies he was a member of, not least the Royal Academy of the Arts which he helped found and was the first president of. Reynolds kept a detailed appointments book which recorded all his sitters, the dates and times of their appointments. In other words the biographer if Reynolds has a mass of paperwork and evidence to work with.

Gainsborough is an altogether more fleeting character. He left relatively few letters (150 in all), no diary or journal or accounts book. He didn’t even own many books at his death. He didn’t cultivate the best circles or make sure he was mentioned in their books by the best writers. He painted the rich and famous but didn’t like them very much, unlike super-sociable Reynolds.

For the biographer who requires a constellation of dates to steer by, Gainsborough supplies thin pickings. (p.6)

Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough was born in 1727 into a large extended family based in the Suffolk town of Sudbury. His father was a weaver with ambitions to be a businessman, which got him into financial trouble – he only escaped debtors’ prison because of a family whip-round. A benevolent uncle – also named Thomas – left some money to help young Tom to pursue ‘some light handy craft trade’, and the family decided to send him to London at the tender age of 13 in 1740,

Here he trained under engraver Hubert Gravelot, of Huguenot extraction. Hamilton goes into some detail about the expanding print market of the mid-eighteenth century and the dominating figure of William Hogarth, whose moralised pictures had created a sensation in the 1730s – A Harlot’s Progress (1732), A Midnight Modern Conversation (1733), A Rake’s Progress (1735), Four Times of Day (1738). Gainsborough probably came into contact with Hogarth, but mainly worked for an established painter named Francis Hayman, although details about the period are sketchy.

[During his early years in London] whoever it was that nurtured him, Hayman or Hogarth or Canaletto or Hudson or other painters such as Arthur Devis who took assistants and apprentices, they all gave him something of what follows. (p.59)

The second reason this is not such a compelling book as McIntyre’s is that Hamilton makes an editorial decision to roll with the relative lack of information about Gainsborough and to make his approach a bit more impressionistic. Thus the opening sentences don’t tell us much about Gainsborough, but tell us everything about Hamilton’s style:

Thomas Gainsborough lived as though electricity shot through his sinews and crackled at his finger tips. There is a fire in Gainsborough: it lights up his paintings…

He is going to embroider and speculate – based on facts for sure, but a fairly thin picking of facts meringued up with many a fluffy turn of phrase.

Landscape, however, hovered around him like an old flame (p.84)

Like a family of cats jumping off a ledge, the Gainsboroughs had landed on their feet (p.160)

Whole pages pass wherein we learn a lot about mid-century Sudbury or Ipswich or Bath, embroidered and elaborated from contemporary accounts by diarists and commentators – but where Gainsborough himself doesn’t make an appearance. Other pages pass in speculation and guesswork and Hamilton is fond of drawing comparisons between aspects of Gainsborough’s society and our own.

Just as a salesman or marketing person or builder must drive an expensive car in the twenty-first century to reassure the world that he or she is doing all right, so in the eighteenth century a portrait painter had to look neat, confident and successful to attract the custom he needed. Fine clothes were very expensive indeed, and much aspired to: flash car and flash waistcoat are probably equivalent as status signifiers, if not in monetary terms. (p.120)

Or he quotes a letter where Gainsborough brags about owning 5 viola da gambas, three Jayes and two Barak Normans:

Today, a star of the art world might tell a friend, My comfort is I have 5 Lamborghinis, 3 Ferraris and two Aston Martins’ Their value as status symbols is roughly similar. (p.262)

Hamilton’s relentless urge to give eighteenth century people and customs a 21st century comparison can get pretty annoying, and sometimes offensive. After half a page giving a reasonable enough analysis of Gainsborough’s great portrait of the young women musician Ann Ford, Hamilton concludes:

With Ann Ford, Gainsborough added extra titty to the fluctuating city. (p.188)

Key learnings

Jack the Lad The biggest surprise, which Hamilton announces early and then refers repeatedly is that Thomas Gainsborough was a bit of a lad, a roaring boy, one for wine and the ladies. Hamilton routinely refers to Gainsborough as a lad, to his laddish behaviour, and to his ‘mates’.

There are distinct Jack-the-Lad tendencies about Gainsborough the young man… The 19th century song about Jack-the-Lad ‘swigging, gigging, kissing, drinking, fighting’ had echoes in the young Gainsborough…(p.133)

The idea is that although Gainsborough mixed professionally with numerous aristocratic sitters – ‘the Quality’, in the contemporary term – his tastes remained those of a country boy who came to London in his teens and was introduced to a dizzying world of booze and broads (Hamilton has a section describing the delights of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens) and what letters we have contain rather oblique references to regretting being led astray, particularly on his visits to London.

This is a striking claim but I don’t think he actually backs it up with that much evidence, mostly hearsay collected after his death, for example Joseph Farington quoting the artist’s daughter as saying he ‘was passionately fond of music… and this led him much into company with musicians, with whom he often exceeded the bounds of temperance & his health suffered from it, being occasionally unable to work for a week after’ (quoted page 111). Fine, but she was a small girl at the time and this report comes from decades later. Reliable?

Hamilton asserts that one his visits to London from Bath he had ‘the casual sexual encounters that punctuated his life’ but immediately goes on to say:

How many or how regular these were is impossible to tell. (p.199)

Well, if it is ‘impossible’ to tell how many ‘casual sexual encounters’ Gainsborough had, how come Hamilton is confidently telling us that they ‘punctuated his life’? Throughout the book I had the uneasy feeling that Hamilton was bending or interpreting the evidence to suit his vision of a freewheeling Jack the Lad. The more he asserted it, the more reluctant I felt to acquiesce, the more doubtful I felt of Hamilton’s opinions.

Hamilton quotes the daughter of an Ipswich friend describing him as ‘very lively, gay and dissipated’ (p.118) which fits his Jack the Lad thesis, but then goes on to explain that ‘dissipated’ might have its 18th century meaning of ‘spendthrift, an simply indicated that he spent beyond his means in order to dress his wife and growing daughters appropriately.

In autumn 1763 Gainsborough was very ill, laid up for three months unable to work, and a Bath newspaper even reported that he had died! Hamilton interprets the handful of letters we have to mean the illness was associated with a sexually transmitted disease because Gainsborough describes feeling guilt and regret. But then, to my surprise, Hamilton concedes:

It may be the case that Gainsborough’s long near-fatal illness had nothing to do with his sex life… (p.200)

So Hamilton’s entire speculation about the illness being related to an STD is just that – speculation. This kind of building castles in the sky and then, reluctantly, admitting the castles may all speculation, slowly and steadily undermined my trust in Hamilton as a guide and interpreter to Gainsborough’s life.

Making it up It’s a feeling compounded by the amount of sheer invention which appears on every page.

Now, in his late thirties, he was active, busy, in demand. His sitters’ book in Bath, assuming he had one, would have bulged with the names of old clients, new clients, their friends and relations and their various requirements. (p.203)

‘Assuming he had one’. Hamilton did warn us in his introduction that he would be weaving a certain amount of fantasia around the very thin documentary evidence which survives, and I wouldn’t mind if I thought his spinning were justified, but… his relentless habit of inventing things and then commenting on them didn’t agree with me and I came to dislike reading this book.

Destroyed letters We learn that part of the reason that so few of Gainsborough’s letters survive is because a surprising number were in Hamilton’s view ‘filthy’ – presumably sexually explicit – and so Gainsborough’s executors destroyed them – for example, the cache of letters sent to his friend Samuel Kilderbee and destroyed by Samuel’s heirs because of their ‘obscenity’.

But if they have been destroyed… how can we know what they contained? The generations after Gainsborough’s were not only more puritanical about sex but about religion too, and about family values. I.e. there could be a number of grounds why the letters gave offence to later generations and it was considered best to destroy them.

Spirited What is believable – because we can read it in the letters and in many diary accounts and memoirs of the period – is that Gainsborough was very high spirited. Good-looking, cutting a graceful figure, lively and talkative, he said whatever was on his mind, a fountain of lively observations, so much so that surviving letters and memoirs agree that, next morning, on sober reflection, he often regretted things he said. But being over-talkative and shooting from the hip is very different from being sexually promiscuous.

This high-spiritedness is a quality Gainsborough readily admits in himself, indeed actively promotes in some of his letters, writing:

I am the most inconsistent, changeable being, so full of fitts and starts… (quoted p.257)

or describing himself as:

a Long cross made fellow [who] only flings his arms about like threshing-flails without half an Idea what he would be at. (p.258)

Joshua Reynolds Later memoirists, notably Ephraim Hardcastle, give colourful accounts comparing and contrasting Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. Hardcastle paints Reynolds in conversation as pursuing ‘a steady philosophic course’, while

the lively Gainsborough was a skipping and gambolling backwards and forwards from side to side… none for enthusiasm and vivacity could compare with he. (p.199)

Now this is the aspect of Gainsborough which is most consistently reported – his unbuttoned liveliness and spontaneity.

Margaret Aged 19, Thomas married a local woman Margaret Burr. She was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who acknowledged her and had settled a £200 annuity on her. Thus Thomas was marrying into what counted, in Sudbury, for money. It was to be a difficult marriage. Both were faithful, there was no divorce, Thomas had no mistresses, but Margaret owned and managed her own money, and there is plenty of evidence that she took a strong-willed approach to Thomas’s income, too (from his own letters and the accounts of others). He sometimes felt too much under her thumb. It was an effective working relationship but he writes on a couple of occasions that he didn’t feel worthy of her and the cumulative sense is that it was not a very loving marriage.

A life in five acts The trajectory of his life is indicated by the five parts of Hamilton’s account:

  1. Suffolk (1727 – 1740) childhood in Sudbury
  2. London (1740 – 1748) apprenticeship, prints, acquaintance with Hogarth, marries Margaret Burr
  3. Suffolk again (1748 – 1758) first Sudbury, then the more profitable town of Ipswich
  4. Bath (1759 – 1773: 14 years, first in Abbey Street, from 1767 at 17 King’s Circus)
  5. London again (1774-1778)

Landscapes He knew he was better at landscape than at portraits, and enjoyed painting landscapes more, but portraits paid the bills (in fact, Hamilton tells us that during his time in Ipswich 1752 – 1759, Gainsborough painted so many landscapes that he ended up giving them away, p.108).

Gainsborough’s landscapes are indebted to the style of Dutch landscape painting crossed with his own immersion of the Suffolk countryside around Sudbury. His early landscapes are already a joy to look at. This one was painted when he was only 20 years old. Pretty impressive.

Cornard Wood by Thomas Gainsborough (1748)

Doll paintings Whereas most of his portraits before the 1750s are embarrassingly bad. They look like skinny children’s doll’s with empty dolls’ faces plonked in lovely landscapes. In fact, Hamilton explains that the bodies really were painted from so-called ‘lay dolls’, wooden mannekins with jointed bodies which could be arranged in  different postures. Later, from the 1760s, he pained bodies and clothes from life, but not from the actual sitters, from much cheaper models brought in and made to wear the sitters’ clothes (p.218).

Sarah Kirby and Joshua Kirby by Thomas Gainsborough (1751-1752)

Music Gainsborough was very musical, unlike Reynolds. He was proficient on the violin and a member of the Ipswich Music Club which held regular concerts. He was easily distracted by invitations to play music, and portrayed musicians, with their instruments e.g. Johann Christian Fischer, Carl Friedrich Abel, Ann Ford,

Hamilton quotes the letter to William Jackson, well-known to Gainsborough buffs, in which the artist declares he is sick of painting portraits and wishes he could go off somewhere quiet in the country, just him and his viola da gamba, and live a quiet life of music and paint Landskips (p.260). However, Hamilton marshals the evidence of friends that he wasn’t, actually, that good at music and also that he was very impulsive, taking up a string of different instruments each time he heard one being played, and never becoming proficient on any of them (p.266-270).

Style transformed Hamilton doesn’t really identify how and why Gainsbrough’s depiction of human figures and faces changed, but change it did, drastically, between the early 1750s (when, to be fair, he was still only 23, 24, 25) and the later 1750s. But it amounts to a revolution in style, which allowed him to create depictions of human faces and figures of transcendent grace and beauty, such as this, the famous unfinished portrait of his two young daughters, Mary and Margaret.

The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-1761)

Bath Bath was hectic with social life and also with artistic competition. Over the 18th century as a whole some 160 artists worked in Bath, the majority portrait miniaturists. The most successful, like Gainborough, provided life-size portraits in oil on canvas and had a permanent show room as well as a ‘painting room’ (the Italian word studio was only introduced in the 19th-century).

Until Gainsborough arrived the most successful portrait painter in Bath was William Hoare (1707 – 1792) who Gainsborough quickly eclipsed, though the two men became friends. A flick through his work shows that it is very capable at catching a likeness, but a bit dead and, above all, set inside.

People in landscapes A glance at one of the largest and most ambitious (double portraits) Gainsborough painted at Bath, The Byam Family (1764) instantly shows you how placing his sitters outside, in a kind of generic gentle south-of-England wooded countryside immediately transforms the subjects, giving them a lordly sense of style and movement as well as a sense of ownership of the land they walk through. And gives the viewer a similar sense of breadth and ease

Gainsborough’s painting method The younger painter Ozias Humphrey observed Gainsborough painting on numerous occasions and left detailed descriptions (pp.217-218).

  1. Surprisingly, Gainsborough painted by candlight in a room kept perpetually dark.
  2. He painted the sitter’s face in chalk and arranged the canvas so it was only inches from the sitter’s face.
  3. He was very restless, stepping back from the canvas to size it up, then quickly right back up to it to paint more, in an endless round of fidgety movement.
  4. All he needed was the face; the costume was painted afterwards, worn by a model (often his wife or one of his by-now grown-up daughters was dragooned in).
  5. He painted for 5 or 6 hours a day continuously, quite a physically demanding regimen (although this is from the account of the unreliable witness, Philip Thicknesse, quoted page 339).

Contempt for sitters Gainsborough was fairly open about not liking most of his sitters: he described portrait painting as ‘my dam’d business’ and a ‘curs’d face business’, of the clients as ‘damn gentlemen’ and ‘confounded ugly creatures’ (quoted page 275).

Royalty Ironically, for all his focused ambition, Joshua Reynolds had a troubled relationship with King George III (ascended the throne in 1760) not least because Reynolds associated with writers and politicians associated with the Whig i.e. anti-royal faction. Whereas Gainsborough who was far less professionally and socially ambitious than Reynolds, was asked to do portraits of the king and queen in 1780 and ended up getting on famously with both of them, invited back to do portraits of their large brood of children and individual portraits.

Models No, not that sort. Later in his career, Gainsborough enjoyed making models for landscapes which could fit on a table and were constructed from broccoli, moss and stones.

Prices At the height of his fame, in the 1780s, Gainsborough charged for a three-quarters portrait 40 guineas, for half-length 80 guineas, and for a full-length 160 guineas.

Religion Hamilton describes Gainsborough as ‘a devout Anglican’, though there are almost no references to him going to church and only the most generic religious references in his letters, which are strewn with swearing (lots of ‘Damns’). It was a religiously tolerant family. His older brother, Humphrey, was a non-conformist minister, and his sister Mary, was a Methodist.

Kew Gainsborough is buried, not back home in Suffolk, in fashionable Bath, or in mercantile London, but in the graveyard of St Anne’s Church, Kew. I used to go and sit by his tomb and eat my sandwich lunch, when I worked at Kew.

Concluding image

There are a lot of Society ladies and gentlemen to choose from, but I think one of Gainsborough’s greatest paintings is this portrait of his wife, Margaret, done in the late 1770s. It is an extremely subtle, sensitive, sensuous depiction of his spouse of 25 years, a brilliant portrait of any middle-aged woman, honest and frank and a universe away – not only in terms of art, but of experience – from the silly doll-figures of the 1740s. It is a triumph of technique but also of human wisdom.

Portrait of Mrs Gainsborough by Thomas Gainsborough (1778) @The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London


Related reviews

Blog posts about the 18th century

Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity (2005)

This is the catalogue of a major exhibition of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portraits held at Tate Britain back in 2005. I went, loved the exhibition and bought this catalogue. In my opinion the written content of the catalogue is poor, but the colour reproductions of 100 or so of Reynolds’s best paintings are spectacular.

The catalogue contains a biography of Reynolds by Martin Postle and four essays by Reynolds scholars:

  • ‘The Modern Apelles’: Joshua Reynolds and the Creation of Celebrity by Martin Postle
  • Reynolds, Celebrity and The Exhibition Space by Mark Hallett
  • ‘Figures of Fame’: Reynolds and the printed Image by Tim Clayton
  • ‘Paths of Glory’: Fame and the Public in Eighteenth-Century London by Stella Tillyard

The essays are followed by some 100 full-colour reproductions, divided into the following sections:

  • Reynolds and the Self-Portrait
  • Heroes
  • Aristocrats
  • The Temple of Fame
  • The Streatham Worthies
  • Painted Women
  • The Theatre of Life

With separate sections of images devoted to:

  • Reynolds and the Reproductive Print
  • Reynolds and the Sculpted Image

The concept of celebrity

As the title suggests, the idea is somehow to tie Reynolds’s 18th century art and career to 21st century ideas of ‘celebrity’. In my opinion all four essays fail to do this. Despite frequently using sentences with the word ‘celebrity’ in them, the catalogue nowhere really explains what ‘celebrity’ is.

The authors have a hard time really distinguishing it from the notion of ‘fame’ and the pursuit of ‘fame’ and the risks of ‘fame’ – subjects which have been thoroughly discussed since ancient Greek times.

In Greek mythology Pheme was the personification of fame and renown, her favour being notability, her wrath being scandalous rumors… She was described as ‘she who initiates and furthers communication’… A tremendous gossip, Pheme was said to have pried into the affairs of mortals and gods, then repeated what she learned, starting off at first with just a dull whisper, but repeating it louder each time, until everyone knew. In art, she was usually depicted with wings and a trumpet… In Roman mythology, Fama was described as having multiple tongues, eyes, ears and feathers by Virgil (in Aeneid IV line 180 ff.) and other authors.

In other words, the concept of ‘fame’ and the way it unavoidably attracts a spectrum of public comment, from dignified praise at one end through to scurrilous rumour at the other end – is as old as Western civilisation.

In my opinion the authors struggle to establish a really clear distinction between these multiple and time-honoured notions of fame with all its consequences, and their attempt to shoe-horn modern-day ‘celebrity’ into the picture.

The whole thing is obviously an attempt by Tate to make Reynolds and his paintings more ‘relevant’ to a ‘modern’ audience, maybe to attract in those elusive ‘younger’ visitors which all arts venues need to attract to sustain their grants. Or to open a new perspective from our time back to his, which makes his society, his aims and his paintings more understandable in terms of modern concepts.

I can see what they’re trying to do, and it is obvious that the four authors have been told to make as many snappy comparisons between the society of Reynolds’s day and our own times as possible – but flashy references to the eighteenth-century ‘media’ or to Reynolds’s sitters getting their ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, aren’t enough, by themselves, to give any insight. In fact, these flashy comparisons tend to obscure the complexity of 18th century society by railroading complex facts and anecdotes into narrow 21st notions and catchphrases.

Being modish risks becoming dated

The authors’ comparisons have themselves become dated in at least two ways:

  1. the ‘modern’ celebrities they invoke have dated quickly (David Beckham is given as a current example)
  2. it was written in 2005, before the advent of social media, Instagram, twitter etc, so has itself become completely out of date about the workings of ‘modern celebrity’

There is a third aspect which is – Who would you trust to give you a better understanding of social media, contemporary fame, celebrity, influencers, tik tok and so on – a social media marketing manager, a celebrity journalist or… a starchy, middle-aged, white English academic?

There is a humorous aspect to listening to posh academics trying to get down wiv da kids, and elaborately explaining to their posh white readership how such things as ‘the media’ work, what ‘the glitterati’ are, and showing off their familiarity with ‘the media spotlight’ – things which, one suspects, library-bound academics are not, in fact, all that familiar with.

The authors’ definitions of celebrity

The authors attempt numerous definitions of celebrity:

Reynolds’s attitude towards fame, and how it was inextricably bound up with a concern for his public persona, or what we today would call his ‘celebrity‘ status.

So Reynolds was concerned about his fame, about building a professional reputation and then defending it, but wasn’t every other painter, craftsman and indeed notable figure of the time? As Postle concedes:

In this respect he was not untypical of a whole range of writers, actors and artists  who regarded fame as the standard for judging the worthiness of their own performance against the achievements of the past.

Postle goes on to try and distinguish fame from celebrity:

However, Reynolds [achieved fame] by using the mechanisms associated with what has become known as ‘celebrity‘, a hybrid of fame driven by commerce and the cult of personality.

Hmm. Is he saying no public figures prior to Joshua Reynolds cultivated a ‘cult of personality’ or that no public figures tried to cash in on their fame? Because that is clearly nonsense. And putting the word celebrity in scare quotes doesn’t help much:

Reynolds pandered to the Prince [of Wales]’s thirst for ‘celebrity‘ and fuelled his narcissistic fantasies.

The author doesn’t explain what he means by ‘celebrity’ in this context or why the prince thirsted for it and how he was different in this respect from any other 18th century aristocrat who ‘thirsted’ for fame and respect.

Through portraits such as these [of the Duc d’Orleans], Reynolds openly identified with fashionable Whig society; the Georgian ‘glitterati’ – liberal in the politics, liberated in their social attitudes, and libidinous in their sexual behaviour.

Does use of the word ‘glitterati’ add anything to our understanding?

He was also the first artist to pursue his career in the media spotlight.

‘Media spotlight’? Simply using modern clichés like ‘media spotlight’ and ‘celebrity’ and ‘glitterati’ didn’t seem to me to shed much light on anything. The reader wants to ask a) what do you understand by ‘media spotlight’? b) in what way did Reynolds pursue his career in a media spotlight?

As experience of the modern media tells us, a sure sign that an individual’s fame has been transmuted into ‘celebrity’ is when press interest in his or her professional achievements extends to their private and social life.

I’m struggling to think of a time when there hasn’t been intrusive interest in the lives of the rich and famous, and when it hasn’t been recorded in scurrilous satires, squibs, poems.

People gossiped about Julius Caesar, about all the Caesars. We have written records of the way Athenians gossiped about Socrates and his wife. Prurient interest in the personal lives of anyone notable in an urban environment go back as far as we have written records.

Here’s another definition:

In a process that seems to prefigure the ephemeral dynamics of heroism and redundancy found in today’s celebrity culture, the exploitation of celebrity typified by Reynolds’s representation of [the famous soldier, the Marquess of] Granby depended not only on the glorification, in portrait form, of individuals who had already gained a certain kind of renown within the wider realms of urban culture, but also on a continual replenishment – from one year to the next – of this hyperbolic imagery of bravery, beauty and fame.

I think he’s saying that visitors to the annual exhibitions liked to see new pictures – or, as he puts it with typical art scholar grandiosity, ‘a continual replenishment of this hyperbolic imagery’.

‘The ephemeral dynamics of heroism and redundancy found in today’s celebrity culture’? Does that tortuous definition have any relevance to Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Rihanna et al?

What these authors are all struggling to express is that Reynolds made a fabulously successful career by painting the well-known and eminent people of his day, making sure to paint army or naval heroes as soon as they returned from famous victories, making sure he painted portraits of the latest author after a hit novel or play, painting well-known courtesans, carefully associating his own name (or brand) with success and fame.

It was a dialectical process in which Reynolds’s portraits, often hung at the annual Royal Academy exhibition – which was itself the talk of the town while it lasted – promoted both the sitter and their fame, but also kept Sir Joshua’s name and reputation as Top Painter Of The Famous continually in the public eye.

That’s what the essay writers are trying to say. But you have to wade through a lot of academic rhetoric to get there. Take this questionable generalisation thrown out by Stella Tillyard, which sounds reasonable, until you start to think about it.

Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now, celebrity appears to have been made in the eighteenth century and in particular in eighteenth century London, with its dozens of newspapers and print shops, its crowds and coffee houses, theatres, exhibitions, spectacles, pleasure gardens and teeming pavements. (Stella Tillyard, p.61)

‘Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now’? What would you say defines modern society in 2020? I’d guess the list would include the internet, mobile phones, social media, webcams and digital technology generally, big cars, long-haul flights, cheap foreign holidays, mass immigration, multi-cultural societies, foreign food… things like that.

Quite obviously none of these originated in eighteenth century London.

Tillyard’s essay is the best of the four but it still contains highly questionable assertions. She thinks there is a basic ‘narrative’ of ‘celebrity’ which is one of rise, stardom, fall and rise again. The examples she gives are Bill Clinton getting into trouble because of Monica Lewinsky, and the footballers Francesco Totti and David Beckham. She thinks this basic narrative arc echoes the story of Jesus Christ, rising from obscurity, gaining fame, being executed, and rising from the dead. You have to wonder what drugs she is on.

Nonetheless, Tillyard’s is the best essay of the four because she’s an actual historian and so has a wide enough grasp of the facts to make some sensible points. She also gives the one and only good definition of celebrity in the book when she writes that:

Celebrity was born at the moment private life became a tradeable public commodity. (p.62)

Aha. Right at the end of the four essays we get the first solid, testable and genuinely insightful definition of celebrity.

According to Tillyard’s definition, the really new thing about celebrity is not the interest in gossip about the rich and famous – that, as pointed out, has been with us forever – it is that this kind of fame can be packaged into new formats and sold. It has become part of the newly mercantile society of the 18th century.

Celebrity, among other things, is about the commodification of fame, about the dissemination of images representing the individual celebrity, and about the collective conversations and fantasies generated by these processes. (p.37)

The assertion is that Reynolds was able to capitalise on his reputation. He made money out of it. He was able to exploit the new aspects of mid-18th century fame in order to build up a successful business and make a fortune.

He developed a process for making his portraits well known. The lead element in this was ensuring they were prominently hung at the annual exhibition of paintings by members of the new Royal Academy and so became the subject of the enormous amount of comment the exhibition attracted in the scores of newspapers, magazines, cartoons, lampoons, caricatures, poems and plays which infested Georgian London.

Deftly riding this tide of gossip and talk and critical comment, Reynolds was able to assure his sitters that he would make them famous – and he made himself famous in the process. And, as a result, he was able to charge a lot of money for his portraits.

He was able to turn the insubstantial, social quality of ‘fame’ into hard cash. That’s how the argument goes. I’ve put it far more plainly than any of these four writers do, and it’s an interesting point, but still begs a lot of questions…

Robert Orme’s 15 minutes of fame

When Postle says that the soldier Robert Orme got his ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ (p.27) it strikes me as being a flashy but misleading reference.

Andy Warhol’s expression, ‘in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes’, refers very specifically to the 15-minute time slots allocated on the kind of American TV programmes which are punctuated every 15 minutes or so with ad breaks. Its merit derives from its source in a very specific technology and at a very specific moment in that technology (the later 1960s).

Whereas Robert Orme took part in an important battle of the Seven Years War (surviving the massacre of General Edward Braddock’s forces by French and Indians in July 1755), returned to England and was for a while feted and invited to dinners to give first-hand accounts of the massacre.

OK, so interest in Orme petered out after a while, but his story hardly conforms to the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ description in the very precise, TV-age way Warhol had intended.

It’s an example of the way the authors are prepared to twist the historical record in order to shoehorn in their strained comparisons with modern ‘celebrity’ or the ‘glitterati’ or ‘the media spotlight’.

My point is that just chucking modern buzzwords at historical events doesn’t help us understand the historical events and doesn’t shed much light on the buzzwords or the ideas behind them, either. Not without a much more detailed analysis, anyway.

What was new about 18th century ‘media’

The one place in the four essays which comes alive i.e. presents new facts or insights, is in historian Stella Tillyard’s essay, where she explains that a new concept of ‘fame’ was being driven by some genuinely new developments in mass publication. She suggests four factors which account for the rise of a new type of fame in the mid-18th century:

1. A limited monarchy – the mystique surrounding the Divine Right of Kings which had clung to the Stuart Monarchy (1660-1714) drained away from the stolid Hanoverian monarchs who replaced them after 1714. Their powers were circumscribed from the start by Parliament and this made them much more human, much more worldly and, well, sometimes boring figures, for example. George III, widely known as Farmer George.

2. Royal glamour migrated – instead of surrounding the monarch in a nimbus of glory the human desire to have glamorous figures to look up to and gossip about migrated to new categories of ‘star’ or ‘celebrity’, namely top military figures, successful actors and even writers.

3. The lapse of the Licensing Act left the press a huge amount of freedom. By 1770 there were 60 newspapers printed in London every week, all looking for gossip and tittle tattle to market. Combined with a very weak libel law which allowed almost any rumour and speculation to be printed. Well before the tabloids were invented, the taste for an endless diet of celebrity tittle tattle was being catered to.

4. A public interested in new ways of thinking about themselves or others. This is the tricksiest notion, but Tillyard argues that this huge influx of new printed matter, combined with shops full of cheap prints, to make literate urban populations think about themselves and their roles as citizens of a busy city, and as consumers, in new ways.

Now all this chimes very well with the picture painted in Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds, which clearly shows how almost every incident, not only from his personal life but of the lives of all his famous friends (e.g. the writer Dr Johnson, the actor David Garrick, the historian Edmund Gibbon, the poet Oliver Goldsmith) was quickly leaked to scurrilous journalists, who reported them in their scandal sheets, or made cartoons or comic poems about them.

Reynolds’s world was infested with gossip and rumour.

By contrast with Tillyard’s authoritative historian’s-eye view, Postle’s art critic assertions are less precise and less persuasive:

Reynolds grew up in an age that witnessed the birth of modern journalism.

Did he, though? ‘Modern’ journalism?

Googling ‘birth of modern journalism’ you discover that ‘modern journalism’ began with a piece written by Defoe in 1703. Or was it during the American Civil War in the 1860s? Or maybe it was with Walter Lippmann, writing in the 1920s, often referred to as the ‘father of modern journalism’?

In other words, the birth of ‘modern’ journalism happened more or less any time you want it to have done, any time you need to add this cliché into your essay to prop up your argument. And that little bit of googling suggests how risky it is making these kinds of sweeping assertions.

In fact it suggests that any generalisation which contains the word ‘modern’ is dodgy because the term ‘modern’ itself is so elastic as to be almost meaningless. Historians themselves date ‘the modern period’ to the 1500s. Do you think of the Elizabethan era as ‘modern’?

The modern era of history is usually defined as the time after the Middle Ages. This is divided into the early modern era and the late modern era. (Define modern era in history)

Postle’s assertion that there was something uniquely and newly journalistic about Reynolds’s era sounds fine until you think of earlier periods – take the turn-of-the 18th century and the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) which was packed with coffee house publications and scurrilous poems written against each other by leading figures. Alexander Pope’s entire career exemplifies a world of literary gossip and animosity.

Going further back, wasn’t the court of Charles II the subject of all kinds of cartoons, pictures, scurrilous paintings and poems and plays? Lots of John Dryden’s poems only make sense if you realise they’re about leading figures of the day, either praising or blaming them. During the British civil wars (1637-51) there was an explosion of pamphlets and leaflets and poems and manifestos denouncing the actions of more or less every notable figure, and giving a running commentary on the political developments of the day. Wasn’t Shakespeare’s time (1590 to 1615) one of rumour and gossip and pamphlet wars?

And in fact I’ve just come across the same idea, on page 4 of Peter H. Wilson’s vast history of the Thirty Years War, where he writes:

From the outset, the conflict attracted wide interest across Europe, accelerating the early seventeenth-century ‘media revolution’ that saw the birth of the modern newspaper.
(Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H. Wilson, page 4)

So surely the widespread availability of gossip sheets and scandal mongering publications was a matter of degree not kind. Artists of the late-17th century (van Dyck, Peter Lely, Godfrey Kneller) had earned types of ‘fame’ and certainly tried to capitalise on it. By Reynolds’s day there were just more outlets for it, more magazines, newspapers, journals – reflecting a steadily growing urban population and market for all things gossip-related. Between 1650 and 1750 the British population increased, the population of London increased, the number of literate people increased, and so the market for reading matter increased.

So when Postle asserts that newspapers played an increasingly important part in the critical reception of art, well, they played an increasingly important role in the critical reception of everything, such as war and politics and religion, such as the Seven Years War, the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and every other kind of debate and issue.

1. That is what newspapers do – tell people what’s going on and editorialise about it – and 2. there were more and more of them, because the population was growing, and the number of literate consumers was steadily growing with it.

Reynolds didn’t invent any of this. He just took advantage of it very effectively.

Reynolds’s strategies for success

  • Reynolds was apprenticed to a fellow Devonian, Thomas Hudson, who not only taught him how to paint portraits but introduced him to important patrons
  • Hudson introduced Reynolds to leading gentlemen’s clubs of the time (the 1740s)
  • Reynolds took care to keep a large table i.e. to invite notable people to dinner, specially if they had had a recent ‘hit’ with a novel or play or work of art
  • Reynolds took dancing lessons, attended balls and masquerades, cultivated a man about town persona
  • as Reynolds became well known he was invited to join top clubs and societies e.g. the Royal Society and the Society of Dilettanti
  • he helped to found the blandly named The Club, with a small number of very eminent figures in literature, theatre and politics, including Garrick, Goldsmith, Johnson and Edmund Burke, later to include Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan
  • in the 1770s Reynolds painted portraits of the friends to be met at the Streatham house of his friend Mrs Hester Thrale (who became nicknamed ‘the Streatham Worthies‘)
  • during the 1770s and 80s there was a growth in a new genre, ‘intimate biographies’ told by authors who knew the subjects well, such as Johnsons Lives of the Poets (1781) and Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson (1785) – the intimate portraits of the Streatham Worthies tied into this taste, in fact Boswell considered writing an intimate biography of Reynolds
  • the point of having a cohort of friends like this was that they provided a mutual admiration and mutual support society, promoting each others’ work – for example, Oliver Goldsmith dedicated his famous poem, The Deserted Village to Reynolds, James Boswell’s vast ‘intimate biography’ The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) was dedicated to Reynolds, as was Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777)
  • in former times, getting an appointment to work for the king had been crucial to artists’ careers – by Reynolds’s day, however, it was no longer vital because 1. the monarch no longer had the absolute powers of the Stuarts – the Hanoverian kings’ powers and patronage were much more limited and often determined by Parliament 2. there was a well enough developed domestic market for art for a painter to make a career and livelihood without explicit royal patronage
  • Reynolds very consciously bought a large house in fashionable Leicester Fields; the Prince of Wales owned a big house in the same square
  • Reynolds bought an expensive coach that had formerly belonged to the Lord Mayor of London, renovated it and encouraged his sister Fanny to drive round in it in order to prompt gossip and awe

But was Reynolds unique?

As mentioned above, the four essayists have clearly received a brief to make Reynolds sound as modern and edgy and contemporary and down with the kids as possible.

But the tendency of the essays is also to try and make Reynolds sound unique – in his painterly ambition, in the way he used connections and pulled strings to paint famous sitters, promoted himself socially (by being a member of many clubs and inviting all the famous men and women of the time to large dinners), promoted his work through public exhibitions, tried to wangle key painting positions to the royal family, and by having prints made of his portraits which could be sold on to a wider audience.

The trouble is that – having just read Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds which presents an encyclopedic overview of his times, its clubs, newspapers, magazines, his colleagues and rivals, of the mechanisms of a career in art and an in-depth overview of all Georgian society – I realise these were the standard procedures of the day.

For example, the authors point out that Reynolds was keen to paint portraits of famous people to boost his career – but what portrait painter of the day wasn’t? Allan Ramsay and Thomas Gainsborough, to name just two contemporary painters, lobbied hard to win aristocratic patrons, to promote their portraits to other potential clients, to expand their client base, and so on. It was a highly competitive and commercial world.

The catalogue contains sections on the portraits of aristocratic ladies, military heroes and courtesans as if Reynolds had invented the idea of painting these kinds of figures – but paintings of aristocrats go back at least as far as the Renaissance, and statues of emperors, notable figures and military leaders go back through the ancient Romans to the Greeks.

There’s a section devoted to showing how Reynolds used prints extensively to promote his career, not only here but abroad, where British art prints commanded good prices. (One of the few new things I learned from the essays was that British mezzotinting was so highly regarded as to become known as la maniere anglaise, p.51)

But all his rivals and colleagues did just the same, too – otherwise there wouldn’t have been a thriving community of printmakers and of printbuyers.

And the authors strain to prove that the kind of high-profile aristocrats, military leaders, and top artists-writers-actors of the day that Reynolds portrayed were often discussed, profiled, ridiculed and lampooned in London’s countless scurrilous newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, poems, broadsides, gossip columns and so on.

But this was just as true of all the notable figures that all the other portrait painters of his day painted. It was an extremely gossipy society.

In other words, none of the activities the authors attribute to Reynolds was unique to him – they were being energetically carried out by scores of rivals and colleagues in the swarming ant hill of rivalry and competition that was Georgian London. What is interesting, is the extent to which Reynolds did all these things best (when he did), or where he failed, or where he pioneered a new aspect of this or that activity.

Unfortunately, the four authors don’t really have much space to make their cases. The four essays are relatively short. They have nowhere like the 550 closely-typed pages that Ian McIntyre has in his masterful biography of Reynolds. Therefore, to anyone who’s read McIntyre, the four essays come over as fleeting and superficial sketches of subjects and issues which deserve to be dealt with in much, much greater detail if you want to understand why Reynolds was the towering figure that he was.

It wasn’t that he did all these activities listed above – it’s that he did many of them better, more comprehensively, and more systematically than his rivals.

And also that he just worked harder at it. He was extremely disciplined and professional, working a solid 6 or 7 hour days, every day, often on Sundays. He produced, on average, well over one hundred commissions a year, an extraordinary workrate. This isn’t mentioned anywhere in the essays, but it is a key reason for his success.

Or the even more obvious fact that a his success was down to the fact that he was, quite simply, the best portrait painter of his time. He may well have adopted the canny career strategies listed above, but they’d have been meaningless if he hadn’t also been a painter of genius.


Art scholarship prose style

This section contains no facts and is devoted to an analysis and skewering of pretentious artspeak. Art scholar prose is very identifiable. It has at least three elements:

  1. use of fashionable, pretentious buzzwords such as subvert, interrogate, engage, gendered, identity, desire, site, gaze, other
  2. combined with a curiously starchy, old-fashioned locutions such as whilst, amongst
  3. thin actual content

1. Buzzwords

In terms of his desire to associate himself with the celebrity of others, the most compelling paintings by Reynolds are surely his portraits of prostitutes… (p.29)

‘Wish’ wouldn’t be a better word?

When the ancient philosopher, Socrates, visited the artist’s house with friends, the courtesan was to be found under the gaze of the painter (p.29)

The word ‘gaze’ now has the adjective ‘male’ attached to it in all contexts, and is always a bad thing.

[At the new public exhibitions of the 1760s] the visitor’s encounter with the painted images of celebrities was crucially informed by those other burgeoning cultural sites of the period, the newspaper and the periodical. (p.35)

Do you think of a newspaper or magazine you read as a cultural site? Alliteration is always good, makes your ideas sound grander and more important.

In arranging that his pictures of such women [the royal bridesmaids at the wedding of George III and Queen Charlotte]… Reynolds… was contributing to, and trading upon, a burgeoning cult of aristocratic celebrity within the sites and spaces of urban culture. (p.39)

Tillyard in particular likes the word and idea of the ‘site’:

In response to the overwhelming attention of the London public [Jean-Jacques Rousseau] took himself off to the wilds of Derbyshire and began to write his Confessions, in which he demanded the right to be heard on his own terms rather than to become the site for others’ imaginings. (p.66)

Omai [a South Sea islander Reynolds painted] is both sophisticate and innocent, celebrity and savage, an eloquent but mute subject whose lack of the English language and inability to write allowed his audience and the picture’s viewers to make him a site for their own imaginings. (p.69)

It is surprising that Omai isn’t taken as an example of The Other, an almost meaningless word commonly used to describe anyone who isn’t a privileged white male.

The press functioned as one vital counterpart to the exhibition space in terms of what was emerging as a recognisably modern economy of celebrity… (p.37)

The ‘modern economy of celebrity’ sounds impressive but what does it mean, what is an ‘economy of celebrity’ (and remember the warning about using the word ‘modern’ which is generally an empty adjective used solely for its sound, to make the text sound grand and knowledgeable).

Reynolds painted a number of portraits of aristocratic patrons such as Maria, Countess Waldegrave and Elizabeth Keppel. This allows art scholar Mark Hallett to write:

In being invited to track the shifting imagery of such women as Keppel, Bunbury and Waldegrave, attentive visitors to the London exhibition rooms thus became witness to an extended process of pictorial and narrative transformation, choreographed by Reynolds himself, in which his sitters became part of a gendered, role-playing theatre of aristocratic celebrity that was acted out on an annual basis in the public spaces of the exhibition room. (p.39)

If you read and reread it, I think you realise that this long pretentious sentence doesn’t actually tell you anything. It is prose poetry in the tradition of the mellifluous aesthete, Walter Pater, just using a different jargon.

‘Narrative’, ‘gendered’, ‘theatre’, ‘spaces’ are all modish critical buzzwords. What does ‘gendered’ even mean? That some portraits were of women and some of men? Hmm. And a gallery isn’t really a theatre, no matter how hard art scholars wish their working environment was more jazzy and exciting. It’s a gallery. It consists of pictures hung on a wall. Therefore to say a gallery is a ‘role-playing theatre’ is simply a literary analogy, it is a type of literary artifice which makes absolutely no factual addition to our knowledge.

Translated, that sentence means that regular visitors to the Royal Academy exhibition often saw portraits of the same famous sitters and so could judge different artists’ treatment of them, or gossip about how their appearance changed from year to year. That’s what ‘pictorial and narrative transformation’ means.

The artist’s portrait of Granby can now be understood as just one element within an unfolding iconography of military celebrity that was being articulated by the artist in the exhibition space during the 1760s.

Translated, this means that Reynolds painted many portraits of successful military heroes. As did lots and lots of other portrait painters of the time. But it sounds more impressive the way Hallett expresses it using key buzzwords.

We can even suggest that such details as the Duchess [of Devonshire]’s ‘antique’ dress and rural surroundings… transform her into a figure of pastoral fantasy, a delicately classicised icon of aristocratic otherness… (p.43)

Ah, ‘the Other’ and ‘otherness’, it was the last empty space on my bullshit bingo card. What does ‘otherness’ mean here? That aristocrats aren’t like you and me? That, dressed up in fake Greek robes, leaning against a classical pillar in a broad landscape, they seem like visions from another world? Better to say ‘otherness’. Makes it sound as if you understand complex and only-hinted-at deeply intellectual ideas (taken, in fact, from Jacques Lacan and other French theorists).

2. Starchy prose style

It’s peculiar the way art scholars combine these flashy buzzwords from Critical Theory (interrogate, subvert, gender, identity, The Other) with creaky old phrases which sound as if they’ve come from the mouth of a dowager duchess.

It’s as if Lady Bracknell had read a dummy’s guide to Critical Theory and was trying to incorporate the latest buzzwords into her plummy, old-fashioned idiolect. For example, art scholars always prefer ‘within’ to ‘in’, ‘amongst’ to among, and ‘whilst’ to while – versions of common English words which help them sound grander.

Some contemporary critics thought Reynolds’s experiments with oil and painting techniques meant his works would eventually decay and disintegrate. Mark Hallett says:

The fact that an exhibition including paintings such as these is now taking place, more than two hundred years after Reynolds’s death, helps put paid to such aspersions.

‘Helps put paid to such aspersions’? Isn’t that the voice of Lady Bracknell? ‘I should certainly hope, Mr Moncrieff, that in future you shall keep your aspersions and animadversions to yourself.’

3. Thin content

See above where I’ve highlighted the relative lack of new or interesting insights in the four critical essays, which can’t be concealed by tarting them up with references to the eighteenth century ‘glitterati’ or Andy Warhol.

Sometimes the essays descend to the bathetic. When we read that scholar Richard Wendorf has written a paper in which he observes that

Reynolds was adept at cultivating patrons through observing the rules of polite society

we are straying close to the University of the Bleeding Obvious.

When we learn that Reynolds sometimes flouted these rules in order to create a Bohemian effect, in order to copy the more raffish end of the aristocratic spectrum of behaviour, it feels like a variation on the obvious, and hardly something which required an entire essay to ‘explain’.


Conclusion

Having read the four essays twice, what you take away is that Reynolds specialised in painting portraits of famous people, this ensured the portraits were much talked about, written about and commented on by the larger-than-ever number of daily newspapers and magazines, and encouraged other famous people to commission their portraits from him, all of which boosted his professional career.

And that he was canny in using the means available to him – aristocratic patrons, choosing famous people to paint – famous soldiers, sailors, aristocrats, courtesans, writers and fellow artists – socialising and hosting grand dinners, joining top clubs, getting supporters to talk him up in the press, and encouraging the distribution of prints of his work – to build a successful and profitable career.

All of these were strategies adopted by most of his contemporaries were doing. He just did it better.

I’m confident making a statement like that because I’ve just read Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds which places the great man in the incredibly busy, buzzing, competitive, dog-eat-dog environment of Georgian London, and  gives extended portraits of scores and scores of his peers, rivals, colleagues and competitors.

It shows how British society changed during Reynolds’s long career, from his earliest paintings in the 1740s to his last ones in 1790. He changed, art changed, society changed.

None of the essays in this catalogue have much space to play with and so these art scholars play very fast and loose with the historical record, yanking together quotes and events which were actually far separated in time, in order to impose on the people and culture of a very different society the modish contemporary art scholar concerns of ‘gender’, ‘identity’ and ‘celebrity’.

The point being: these essays are actually quite an unreliable introduction to the life and career of Joshua Reynolds, written at the behest of a gallery with an agenda and a marketing plan. By all means buy or borrow this book for its wonderful reproductions of the paintings. But read the McIntyre biography to understand the man and his times.

Unanswered questions

Having read both MacIntyre’s book and this catalogue, I still have a couple of unanswered questions:

1. They both tell me that History Painting was meant to be the highest and most prestigious genre of the day. In which case, how come the greatest painter of the age, Reynolds, didn’t paint any history paintings, and neither did his closest rivals, Allan Ramsay or Thomas Gainsborough?

2. Why are there so many black servants in 18th century portraits?


Related links

Blog posts about the 18th century

Joshua Reynolds: The Life and Times of The First President of the Royal Academy by Ian McIntyre (2003)

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was one of – if not the – leading English painter of the 18th century. He specialised in portraits, painting about 2,000 of them during a long and busy professional career, as well as 200 ‘subject pictures’, and over 30 self-portraits.

Self-portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1780) Note the bust of Michelangelo, the Rembrandtesque hat, and the text of one of his Discourses folded in his hand © Royal Academy of Arts

Reynolds promoted a ‘Grand Style’ in painting which was less interested in visual or psychological accuracy to his sitters than in placing them in idealised and heroic poses and settings. He was known – and criticised – for pinching aspects from the Old Masters – poses, tints, props, tricks of lighting and so on.

So when you look at this painting – of Reynolds’s lifelong friend, the successful actor David Garrick – you see that not only is he caught between the two allegorical figures representing Comedy and Tragedy, but that the figures are each painted in different styles – the figure of Comedy on the left in a flirty rococo style of Correggio, the figure of Tragedy is done in a consciously ‘antique’ or neo-classical style reminiscent of Guido Reni, dressed in Roman robes with a stern profile – and Garrick in the middle, is wearing a historical costume reminiscent of van Dyck but his face is done in an unashamedly realistic or figurative style.

David Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy by Joshua Reynolds (1760)

Reynolds was a founder and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts. He gave an inaugural lecture and this soon settled into an annual – later, biannual – lecture or ‘discourse’. At the end of his life these were published together as 20 or so Discourses about art, which were influential for decades afterwards.

The biography

Ian McIntyre’s biography of Sir Joshua Reynolds is a big book, weighing in at 608 pages, including index and notes (542 pages of actual text). What makes it hugely enjoyable is the way McIntyre very deliberately widens its scope to become a portrait of the age. Not a page goes by without entertaining and often amusing digressions away from the basic chronology of events.

For example, before we’re ten pages in we’ve had a whistlestop history of Devon and the town Reynolds was born in, Plympton, from Roman times to his birth in 1723. There’s an interesting explanation of the medieval and Renaissance tradition of Emblem Books and in particular the work of Jacob Cats, little known in this country but hugely influential on the continent. A little detour into the life of a well-known gypsy of the early 18th century, Bamfylde Carew. And so on.

The book is packed with footnotes, often as many as six on a page, giving biographical snapshots of every single person Reynolds comes into contact with, reads or meets or writes to or mentions, often with a bit of background about their achievements in art or literature – Reynolds cultivated friendships with the leading writers of the time – or, quite often, the wars or battles they were involved in, as a) Reynolds painted a large number of military and naval personnel and b) Britain was almost continually at war throughout the 18th century.

This blizzard of contextual information is partly explained because, as McIntyre candidly points out, we don’t actually know all that much about Reynolds’s life. We know he went to Italy to study the Old Masters for an extended stay from ages 25 to 27 (1750-52). Then he returned to London, set up a studio, and quickly became very successful. We have annual business ‘pocketbooks’ he kept, and these are packed full of appointments with sitters, practical notes about rents and paints and canvas and shopping (p.94). We have the accounts and minutes of the Royal Academy which he set up and ran from 1768 till his death in 1792, the Discourses he published to the world – the written version of the lectures he delivered at the Academy – and numerous descriptions of him in the diaries and letters of contemporaries – but not much more.

Reynolds didn’t keep a diary or interesting notes and thoughts about art which contain breath-taking insights and ideas. He never married, and so didn’t have either a wife or children to write memoirs about him. He doesn’t appear to have had affairs, or if he did they were kept very secret (the issue is discussed on p.85). His sister, Fanny, was his housekeeper for 25 years, followed by a niece.

Er, that’s about it in terms of a ‘personal’ life.

`So in a way McIntyre’s strategy of padding out the story with reams and reams of information about pretty much everyone else alive at the time was a necessity – a factual account of just Reynolds’s life would be quite sparse. Still, McIntyre’s encyclopedic approach makes for a highly enjoyable account.

As does his rangy, slangy style. He is at pains to emphasise that he is not a stuffy art critic, he’s one of the boys:

  • Then, brushing away a crocodile tear, he [an anonymous critic] put the boot in. (p.319)
  • Reynolds was taking a fair amount of stick in the press… (p.320)

18th century artists

Thus McIntyre doesn’t just place Reynolds in the 18th century art world – he introduces us to quite an intimidating number of 18th century artists, starting with Reynolds’s predecessors in Britain, referencing leading contemporary painters in France and Italy, and then a host of other contemporary painters – the famous, the not so famous, and the downright obscure. They include – and this list excludes all the many sculptors:

  • Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646 – 1723) leading portraitist of his time
  • Francesco Solimena (1657 – 1747) leading Italian painter of the Baroque
  • Jonathan Richardson (1667 – 1745) whose book, An Essay on the Theory of Painting inspired young Reynolds
  • Joseph Highmore (1692-1780)
  • William Hogarth (1697-1764) leading English artist, caricaturist and printmaker
  • Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699 – 1779) ‘the other great middle-class painter of the century’ specialising in quiet domestic scenes, in contrast to either grand historical paintings, or pink and blue rococo
  • John Shackleton (? – 1767) Principal ‘Painter in Ordinary’ to George II and George III
  • Thomas Hudson (1701-1779) Reynolds was apprenticed to him
  • Francesco Zuccarelli (1702 – 1788) Italian landscape painter from Venice
  • Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702 – 1789) French portraitist working mainly in pastel
  • Francis Hayman (1708 – 1776)
  • Arthur Devis (1712 – 1787) started as landscape artist, then portraits of members of pro-Jacobite Lancashire families, then portraits of London society
  • Allan Ramsay (1713 – 1784) rising star arrived in London from Rome in 1738, painted the definitive image of the coronation of King George III and a stream of royal commissions
  • Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714 – 89) landscape and marine painter
  • Richard Wilson (1714 – 82) ‘the classic master of British 18th century landscape painting’
  • Henry Robert Morland (1716 – 1797) Young woman shucking oysters
  • Richard Dalton (1720 – 91)
  • Katherine Read (1721-1778) Scottish portrait painter
  • John Astley (1724 – 1787) portrait painter
  • George Stubbs (1724 – 1806) English painter of horses
  • Francis Cotes (1726 – 1770) pioneer of English pastel painting
  • Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788)
  • Anton Raphael Mengs (1728 – 1779) German artist, precursor of neo-classicism
  • Charles Catton (1728 – 98) coach painter to George III
  • George Barrett Senior (1732 – 1784) Irish, leading contemporary landscape painter
  • Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 – 1806) late Rococo painter of remarkable facility, exuberance, and hedonism
  • Robert Edge Pine (1730 – 1788)
  • George Romney (1730 – 1802) portrait painter in the Reynolds / Ramsay league
  • Sawrey Gilpin (1733 – 1807) English animal painter, illustrator and etcher who specialised in painting horses and dogs
  • Johann Zoffany (1733 – 1810) German neo-classical painter
  • Joseph Wright (1734 – 1797) to become Wright of Derby
  • Jeremiah Meyer (1735 – 1789) Painter in Miniatures to Queen Charlotte, Painter in Enamels to King George III
  • John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815) Anglo-American painter, active in both colonial America and England
  • Benjamin West (1738 – 1820) first American artist to visit Rome, settled in London as a painter of historical scenes, early pioneer of neo-classicism
  • Nicholas Pocock (1740 – 1821) master of a merchant ship aged 26, he became a noted painter of naval battles
  • Ozias Humphry (1740 – 1810) a leading English painter of portrait miniatures, later oils and pastels
  • Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) history painter and portraitist
  • Ozias Humphrey (1742 – 1810) a leading English painter of portrait miniatures, later oils and pastels
  • Mary Moser (1744 – 1819) English painter specialised in flowers
  • Philip Reinagle (1749 – 1833) pupil of Allan Ramsey, specialised in hunting pictures – Members of the Carrow Abbey Hunt
  • Robert Smirke (1753 – 1845) English painter and illustrator, specialising in small paintings of literary subjects
  • James Gillray (1756 – 1815) British caricaturist and printmaker
  • Thomas Rowlandson (1757 – 1827) English artist and caricaturist of the Georgian Era
  • Maria Cosway (1760 – 1838) Italian-English artist and educationalist
  • John Opie (1761 – 1807) English painter of historical subjects and portrait, took London by storm in 1781
  • Thomas Phillips (1770 – 1845) leading English portrait painter of the day, notable for portraits of William Blake and Lord Byron
  • Benjamin Haydon (1786 – 1846) British painter who specialised in grand historical pictures,

As with many of McIntyre’s digressions about contemporary figures, I found it well worth taking a few minutes to look up each of these painters. I was particularly drawn to some of the pictures of Jean-Étienne Liotard who I’d never heard of before.

The Chocolate Girl by Jean-Etienne Liotard (1744)

Provenances

An interesting aspect of Reynolds’s career is the number of portraits which have gone missing or are disputed. That the authorship of works of art can be disputed is significant: it shows you that, when the provenance of a painting is crystal clear, then the experts can confidently pontificate about its distinctive composition and style; but where there is no signature of clear history of ownership, where the authorship is disputed, then style and composition are not enough to determine the identity of the painter. Take this portrait of a black man.

Portrait of an African by Allan Ramsay (1757-60)

It is instructive to learn that it was once thought to be a portrait of Olaudah Equiano and painted by Joshua Reynolds, but is now generally accepted to a portrait of the young Ignatius Sancho painted by the Scottish painter, Allan Ramsay. The point being that the ‘house style’ of 18th century portrait painters was so similar, overlapped at so many points, that even experts can’t tell them apart.

Destructions

McIntyre’s book is extremely thorough. He documents the sitters and the painting sessions for what seems like every one of Reynold’s nearly two and a half thousand paintings. But a theme which emerges is the dismayingly large number of paintings which have been lost or destroyed, by Reynolds:

  • Portrait of Lady Edgcumbe – destroyed by bombing during Second World War
  • Portrait of Thomas Boone – untraced
  • Portrait of Jane Hamilton – untraced
  • Portrait of Mrs Baddeley – untraced
  • Portrait of Alexander Fordyce – untraced
  • Portrait of Elizabeth Montagu – untraced

No fewer than nineteen works by Reynolds were destroyed in a disastrous fire at the family seat of the Dukes of Rutland, Belvoir Castle in Grantham, Leicestershire, in 1816 (in which also perished works by Titian, Rubens and Van Dyck).

Or other artists of the day:

  • Benjamin West’s Cimon and Iphigenia and Angelica and Medoro – untraced

Which gives rise to a meta-thought: I wonder what percentage of all the paintings ever painted, still exist? Half? A quarter? To put it another way – how much of all the art ever created has been ‘lost’?

[The beginnings of an answer are given in Peter H. Wilson’s vast history of the Thirty Years War where he writes that Dutch artists produced several million paintings in the 16th and 17th centuries combined – ‘of which perhaps 10 per cent survive‘ (p.816). 10% – is that a good working guesstimate?]

Miscellaneous notes

Reynolds’s first studio was at 5 Great Newport Street, in London’s West End. It was on the edge of the country, with a good sized garden both behind and in front (inconvenient in rainy weather since rich people’s carriages couldn’t park right outside the door, p.119). His rival, Allan Ramsay (1713 – 84) lived round the corner in Soho Square.

In 1760 he moved to a house on the west side of Leicester Fields, later Leicester Square. The Prince of Wales kept a big house dominating the north side. Hogarth had lived since 1733 in a house on the east side.

Reynolds’s style is considered ‘more masculine and less ornamental’ than that of his main rival, Allan Ramsay, who was therefore generally thought to be the better painter of women portraits (p.117).

Penny-pinching Reynolds was careful with money. Anecdotes abound. He got up early to visit the fishmarket to select the best value fish then returned home with detailed instructions to his servant about which ones to buy. He made a fuss about the value of an old mop (p.122)

Vandal Reynolds was fantastically disrespectful of old paintings. Apparently, he stripped back layer by layer of paint to see how they had been painted, a number of Venetian paintings and one by Watteau – stripped them right down to the canvas until he had utterly destroyed them (p.239).

Factory production None of your romantic waiting-for-inspiration nonsense, 18th century painters painted to order and commission and on an awesome scale. Allan Ramsay’s portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte dressed for his coronation (1761) was so popular that his studio i.e. assistants, produced no fewer than one hundred and fifty pairs of the paintings to meet the market; buyers including members of the royal family, sovereigns, heads of state, colonial governors, ambassadors, corporations, institutions and courtiers.

Knock ’em out, pile ’em high was the watchword. When one aristocratic sitter offered to come for an additional sitting so that Reynolds could have a session devoted to her hands (of which she was very proud) Reynolds casually told her not to bother as he normally used his servants as models for hands (p.137). (This chimes with the revelation in James Hamilton’s book that Gainsborough generally painted the entire body of his sitters from models, often his wife or grown-up daughters.)

Anti-romanticism

It has been the fate of arts to be enveloped in mysterious and incomprehensible language, as if it was thought necessary that even the terms should correspond to the idea entertained of the instability and uncertainty of the rules which they expressed.

To speak of genius and taste as any way connected with reason or common sense, would be, in the opinion of some towering talkers, to speak like a man who possessed neither, who had never felt that enthusiasm, or, to use their own inflated language, was never warmed by that Promethean fire, which animates the canvas and vivifies the marble.

If, in order to be intelligible, I appear to degrade art by bringing her down from her visionary situation in the clouds, it is only to give her a more solid mansion upon the earth.  It is necessary that at some time or other we should see things as they really are, and not impose on ourselves by that false magnitude with which objects appear when viewed indistinctly as through a mist. (Discourse 7)

No good at drawing Reynolds was acknowledged to be more interested in colour and tone than in drawing and design. He himself confessed he wasn’t too strong on anatomy. One of the hardest parts of pure figure drawing is hands and Reynolds’s sitters hands are often ungainly, stylised or hidden. He wasn’t too bothered about strict visual accuracy:

The likeness consists more in taking the general air, than in observing the exact similitude of every feature. (quoted on page 127)

‘Flying colours’ Throughout his career Reynolds experimented with materials that make an oil painting, incorporating at one time or another, asphalt, wax, charcoal, experimenting with non-traditional types of key colours such as incarnadine for red. This was often disastrous, as scores of anecdotes testify, the painter Benjamin Haydon just one who was sharply critical of his over-treatment of his paintings (quoted page 282).

One painting, being carried to its patron, was knocked in the street and the entire creation simply slid off the canvas and onto the street. Many others complained that the colours changed. The sky in Admiral Barrington’s portrait changed from blue to green within months of receiving it (p.362). Hence his reputation for ‘flying colours’ and many burlesques and parodies about them.

Rich As a result of his astonishing industry, Reynolds was by 1762 making £6,000 a year (p.141). By way of comparison, the homely parson in Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village has a stipend of:

A man he was, to all the country dear,
And passing rich with forty pounds a year.

By about 1780 it cost 50 guineas for a ‘head’, 70 guineas for a ‘half length’, 200 guineas for a full length (p.361).

Reynolds’s deafness In Rome in 1751 Reynolds suffered a heavy head cold which left him partially deaf. For the rest of his life he carried about an ear trumpet. There are numerous humorous anecdotes of him pretending not to hear unflattering or critical remarks.

Reynolds’s height Sir Joshua Reynolds was five feet five and one-eighths of an inch tall (p.149).

Reynolds and the king Despite his prolific portrayal of the British aristocracy, Reynolds was disliked by King George III and never got the post of Principle Painter in Ordinary which he aimed for. This post went to Allan Ramsay in 1761. A number of reasons are given for this dislike, for example that when Reynolds was offered the presidency of the newly founded Royal Academy in 1768 but said he’d have to consult his close friends, Dr Johnson and Edmund Burke. Since it was a royal appointment which the king had personally agreed, he was offended that Reynolds hesitated, and particularly offended at the mention of Edmund Burke, a critic of the king. And his friendship with John Wilkes, a radical critic of the king and the Establishment as a whole (p.322).

Reynolds and Dr Johnson I’d like to like Dr Johnson more than I do. At the end of the day, his bluff English pragmatism comes close to philistinism. His rudeness was legendary, as was his greed (the story of a host setting out bowls of clotted cream, strawberries and a jar of cider for a party of guests and Johnson eating the lot, or asking for pancakes and eating 13 in a row) and his addiction to tea. And his depression: letters are quoted in which he describes his morbid fear of being left alone to his thoughts. Which is why it was difficult to get rid of him; he’d pop round for tea then stay, talking interminably, till past midnight. If he was ever left out of a conversation:

His mind appeared to be preying on itself; he fell into a reverie accompanied with strange antic gesticulations. (Reynolds, quoted page 210)

Reynolds and his sister Reynolds’s sister, Francis (1729 – 1807), acted as his housekeeper from when he moved to London in the early 1750s until 1779, when some kind of argument – still unknown – led to her leaving and her place being taken by their nieces. Fanny was an artist in her own right, of histories and portraits. She also wrote and won the support of Dr Johnson, who encouraged her and remained friendly and supportive even after the break with her brother. Mutual friends were critical of Reynolds’s treatment of her, e.g. Mrs Thrale (p.327).

Reynolds and Gainsborough The ‘Grand Style’ which Reynolds spoke about in his Discourses meant improving on nature, removing blemishes and imperfections, creating an idealised image.

The likeness consists more in taking the general air, than in observing the exact similitude of every feature. (p.127)

And by ‘idealised’ he often meant aspiring to the style of Roman art and architecture, all pillars and togas. Thus Gainsborough and Reynolds disagreed about what their sitters should wear. Gainsborough, the more informal, casual and bohemian (p.338) of the pair thought it was an important part of capturing a sitter’s personality that they wore their own clothes; Reynolds, by contrast, kept a wardrobe of ‘idealised’ costumes and often painted his sitters in Romanised togas and tunics. The Dowager Duchess of Rutland complained that Reynolds made her try on eleven different dresses before settling on what she dismissed as ‘that nightgown’ (p.151).

Benjamin West, the American painter of historical scenes and second President of the Royal Academy, is quoted criticising Reynolds’s fondness for dressing his female sitters in antique robes, pointing out how much more interesting and useful for posterity it would be to see them in their actual everyday wear.

Technical terms

Conversation piece an informal group portrait, popular in Britain in the 18th century, beginning in the 1720s, distinguished by portrayal of a group apparently engaged in genteel conversation or some activity, very often outdoors. Typically the group will be members of a family, but friends may be included, and some groups are of friends, members of a society or hunt, or some other grouping.

Fancy picture Fancy picture refers to a type of eighteenth century painting that depicts scenes of everyday life but with elements of imagination, invention or storytelling. The name fancy pictures was given by Sir Joshua Reynolds to the supreme examples of the genre produced by Thomas Gainsborough in the decade before his death in 1788, particularly those that featured peasant or beggar children in particular. (Source: Tate)

Profile portrait The profile portrait ultimately derived from coins and medals from ancient Rome. It could be used as a commemoration of the dead, or as a tribute to the living great.

Eighteenth century London courtesans

In terms of his desire to associate himself with the celebrity of others, the most compelling paintings by Reynolds are surely his portraits of courtesans which he began to make from the late 1750s onwards.

I include this list not out of a conscious or unconscious wish to define women by their sexuality, but because these women’s lives are fascinating, and the niche they occupied in the society of their time so startlingly different from our day.

Eighteenth century women artists

  • Katherine Read (1721-1778) Scottish portrait painter
  • Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) history painter and portraitist
  • Mary Moser (1744 – 1819) English painter specialised in flowers
  • Maria Cosway (1760 – 1838) Italian-English artist and educationalist

Those are the ones I noticed in the text, anyway. There’s a full list online:


Blog posts about the 18th century

Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling (2007)

‘We are now launching into a wide and boundless field, puzzled with mazes and o’erspread with difficulties.’
George Washington, autumn 1779

At 680 larger-than-usual pages, this is a very long, very thorough and very heavy book.

I bought it under the misapprehension that it would explain the economic and political background to the American War of Independence, which was a mistake. Almost a Miracle is a highly detailed account of the arguments about military strategy conducted by both sides in the war, and of the actual battles fought during the war.

In this respect its focus on the nitty-gritty of military engagements large and small follows straight on from the couple of books I recently read about its immediate predecessor, the Seven Years War:

The Seven Years War (1756-63)

Put simply, the result of the Seven Years War was that the British Army and its colonial and Indian allies won Canada from the French, seizing its key city, Quebec, and expelling the French from their would-be North American empire. Thus ensuring that America would be an English-speaking nation.

Britain won because:

  1. the British government threw many more men and resources at the war than the French
  2. the British colonists far outnumbered the French, 1.2 million Brits compared to 55,000 French

But the British government, led by William Pitt, had to borrow a lot of money to pay for these military campaigns and, as soon as the Seven Years War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, lost no time in trying to recoup their money from the colonists. A range of new taxes were introduced – via the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act and the Townshend Revenue Act – and existing taxes were collected more stringently.

The colonists didn’t like new taxes

The colonists didn’t like it. There was a long, steady rumble of complaint from the moment the new taxes were introduced in 1763 to the outbreak of war in 1775. A spectrum of dissenting opinion emerged among the colonists, from:

  • radicals like John Adams, who early grasped the need for complete independence from Britain
  • moderates, who accepted British rule but wanted the taxes lightened or lifted
  • Loyalists or so-called ‘Tories’, who accepted everything the British government demanded on the basis that they were loyal subjects of His Majesty and His Majesty’s government

Key way stations along the road to war were:

  • 1768 – the arrival of British troops in Boston, the most important port (and largest city) in the colonies, to support the collection of taxes
  • 5 March 1770 – ‘the Boston Massacre’, when an angry mob surrounded the British customs building, someone let off a shot, the soldiers panicked and killed five colonials
  • the 1773 Tea Act which aimed to promote tea from India in America and led to ‘the Boston Tea Party’ of 16 December, when American patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped £9,000 of East India Company tea into the Boston harbour
  • the four ‘Intolerable Acts’ passed by the British Parliament in May and June 1774, which stripped Massachusetts of self-government and judicial independence following the Boston Tea Party
  • the first Continental Congress in September 1774 when delegates were sent from all 13 colonies to the town hall in Philadelphia to discuss their response to the Intolerable Acts

Although critics of Lord North’s administration in the British Houses of Parliament fiercely criticised many of the British measures, although many British politicians spoke and wrote pamphlets in favour of greater moderation and understanding of the Americans, and although most of the American politicians were themselves conservative and favoured reconciliation with Britain – nonetheless, reading any timeline of the build-up to war gives an overwhelming sense of inevitability – of the Titanic steaming unstoppably towards the iceberg.

The two points of view were just irreconcilable:

  • The British king and his ministry thought they had spent a fortune, and lost a lot of men, defending colonists who paid only a fraction of the taxes which their cousins in Britain paid: it was time they coughed up.
  • The Americans thought victory in what they called ‘the French and Indian War’ had owed a lot to their own men and blood; they didn’t owe anyone anything. Plus, they had all grown up paying minimal taxes and so were outraged when the London government started imposing all kinds of new taxes and tolls on them and their imports.

American resentment crystallised into the expression ‘no taxes without representation’, meaning they refused to pay taxes imposed on them by a legislature 3,000 miles away, in which they had no say.

Because the outcome is so well-known, and because the extremists on both sides (especially the American patriots, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) went on to become such household names, it is most interesting to read about the moderates on both sides, those advocating for peace and compromise.

I learned that the Loyalist members of Congress got together an Olive Branch Petition to send to George III. Their belief that America could quite easily remain within the British Empire, with just a few tweaks and adjustments, have – like the rational, carefully argued opinions of so many moderates throughout history – disappeared from view.

Studying them carefully – putting yourself in their place and trying out their arguments – gives you insights into the fate of moderates in so many revolutions – the French or Russian ones, to name the big two; and by extension, helps you to understand the fate of moderates in modern political situations (America, Turkey, Britain, Iran).

The American War of Independence

This book, by its sheer length and the staggering accumulation of detail, really brings home that the American War of Independence was much longer than you tend to imagine – from first skirmishes to final peace treaty it lasted a surprising eight and a half years, from 19 April 1775 to 3 September 1783.

What should the Americans do?

I think the single most striking learning is that both sides didn’t know what to do or how to fight the war, an uncertainty which persisted right to the end.

Hostilities broke out because the British garrison in Boston was sent in April 1775 to confiscate munitions which Patriot militias had been building up in the towns and villages of Massachusetts.

Patriot spies got wind of this and set off on horseback to warn the militias, who were therefore armed and prepared by the time the 700 or so British soldiers reached the small towns of Lexington and Concord. Small engagements broke out at both places, before the British regulars were reinforced and marched together back to the safety of Boston, shot and sniped at all the way. Their blood up, the local militias rallied across Massachusetts and set up a siege of Boston. The war had, in effect, begun.

On June 14 1775 the Continental Congress voted to create the Continental Army and voted George Washington its commander-in-chief. When news of all this arrived back to London, the government sent a British Army force across the Atlantic under the command of General Howe. It was war.

But what should both sides do next? The biggest learning from the book is that both sides effectively made it up as they went along. I’m used to the Great War where the Allied aim was to defeat Germany on the Western Front, and the Second World War where the Allies demanded the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.

In both wars there were clear ‘fronts’ where the enemies fought, with the Allies pushing the Germans back from the Western Front in the Great War, with the Allies crushing Germany from east and west in the Second War, and pushing Japan back across Pacific islands towards her homeland in the East.

But in this war, where was the American homeland? Where could a knock-out blow be delivered?

And what did the Americans aim to achieve? Was it best to meet the British Army in a head-on, traditional-style battle and defeat it? When you put it like that, you see how unlikely it was that an army made of volunteers who’d spent most of their lives working on farms, with officers and NCOs having been appointed just a few weeks earlier, would be able to defeat the well-armed, well-drilled professional Brits.

So the Americans tended to seek smaller engagements where they had the advantage of surprise and knowledge of the territory – or otherwise they just retreated.

Washington early informed Congress that his would be a war of ‘posts’ (p.136) meaning small specific engagements, and that he would adopt the withdraw-and-fight-another-day tactics of the famous Roman general, Fabius Cunctator.

But not everyone agreed with Washington, and his headquarters was always riven by factions of officers arguing fiercely about strategy. It is the merit of a military history on this scale that it makes it quite clear that the American military command was permanently rife with debates and arguments, sometimes quite bitterly, about what to do, where to strike, when to pull back.

And, as it became clear that the war wouldn’t be over by Christmas, there were fierce and partisan arguments in Congress.

Not only were there divisions about how to fight but, more importantly, where. Were there ‘key colonies’ or areas which must not be ceded to enemy at any cost – and, if so, where? Was it vital to hold Boston, or to retire if the army was imperiled? Ditto New York: should Washington’s army defend New York come what may or, again, make a tactical withdrawal in the face of superior British forces, and live to fight another day?

What should the British do?

But while the Patriot side was riven by indecision and infighting about where to defend, where to retreat, and how much of a big battle to engage in, it was, if anything worse, on the British side.

In particular, there was a fundamental division between those who thought the British should fight with no quarter, ravaging and destroying the land as they went – as the Union army was to do in the Civil War – giving the retreating army nowhere to hide and wearing down the enemy’s agricultural infrastructure, teaching them who was boss – and others who thought that the only practical policy was to fight a civilised and limited war, in order to win the hearts and minds of men who were after all, in a sense, our cousins.

This is one of the main big learnings of the book –  that the men in charge of the British war effort hesitated and prevaricated over and over again, especially General William Howe, general in command of British forces from 1775 to 1777.

At several key moments, for example when he had cornered the American Army in New York, Howe hesitated to push his advantage – and so let the Americans escape.

Great Britain’s last best chance to destroy the Continental army and crush the American rebellion occurred in September 1776, but the opportunity slipped away through a series of monumental mistakes. (p.139)

Howe had been an MP in the Commons during the build-up to war, and had voted for conciliation and compromise with the rebels. While the hawks called for a slash and burn policy, Howe appears to have thought that the Americans were misled by a handful of fanatics and that, if only they could be dealt a bloody nose, the Congress and most of the population would suddenly realise the error of their ways, put down their weapons, and accede to His Majesty’s very reasonable demands.

So although Howe defeated Washington in a series of encounters designed to drive him out of New York, he deliberately let slip a couple of sitting duck opportunities to surround and annihilate his opponent. History remembers Washington as a great general but he was fighting an opponent who was reluctant to really comprehensively defeat him.

Indecisive battles

And so both the British and the Americans hesitated among a variety of choices before embarking on anything coherent enough to be termed a ‘campaign’. What is then notable is how many of these campaigns failed – it seems to the untutored reader to have been a war of failures rather than successes.

Thus the engagements at Lexington and Concord led the Americans to besiege Boston, which sounds like a big bold thing to do. But General Howe threatened to burn the city to the ground unless he was allowed to sail away unscathed, the Americans reluctantly gave in, and Howe sailed off with all his men. Hardly a victory.

Similarly, the Americans launched a twin-pronged campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada, from the British, with Major General Richard Montgomery capturing forts up Lake Champlain while Major General Benedict Arnold led a force through the wilds of Maine, to join up in front of Quebec City.

The section describing the appalling sufferings of Arnold’s men as they hacked their way through swamp and forest, drowned in makeshift rafts on rapids, and began to starve, before finally blundering into the settled territory in Canada, is the most imaginatively gripping part of the whole book, reading like a gruesome novel of backwoods survival.

But the military point is that both the American forces were so weakened by the time they arrived and commenced the Battle of Quebec that their attack was a complete failure. Montgomery was killed and Arnold badly wounded in the assault on the city, before the survivors were forced to regroup and retrace their way back to America.

It had been ‘a calamity of epic proportions’ (p.111).

Similarly, Howe launched a great campaign to take New York City from Washington’s army ,and this involved a whole series of engagements as Washington slowly withdrew back through Long Island, then up Manhattan, and over into new Jersey. But the real story is that Howe missed several glaring opportunities to surround and exterminate Washington’s army, letting it live on.

Similarly, much is made of the Battle of Saratoga, a supposedly great victory by the Americans in October 1777. But when you read about it in as much detail as Ferling supplies, you first of all realise that it wasn’t a battle at all. British General Burgoyne had led an army down from British Canada, hoping to link up with General Howe’s army from New York, and another one coming east from Lake Ontario. Neither turned up and Ferling’s account shows how Burgoyne’s force was steadily weakened and depleted by small engagements along the way, loss of food and supplies, the necessity of leaving detachments to guard all the little forts he captured on the way south and so on and so on. So that by the time Burgoyne’s weakened force approached the American stronghold of Albany, at the northernmost point of the River Hudson, his depleted forces were perilously short of ammunition and supplies. Eventually Burgoyne’s force was surrounded by outnumbering American forces and he surrendered. There was no battle.

A lot of American mythology surrounds the Battle of Trenton, when Washington led his forces across the half-frozen River Delaware to take by surprise detachments of German mercenaries stationed in the small town of Trenton, who were outliers of Howe’s larger British Army stationed in New Jersey.

Yes, it was a daring pre-dawn raid, yes it caught the Hessians completely unprepared, and yes it led to the capture of almost all of them (22 killed, compared with just 2 dead on the American side).

But its importance was far more psychological than military. The Americans had done nothing but retreat from New York for six months. Trenton wasn’t a victory at all, it just showed that the Americans weren’t completely beaten and still had some kick left in them. Trenton stemmed the tide of defections and desertions from the Patriot army and showed sceptics at home and abroad that American troops could win something. But it didn’t gain much ground or defeat a major British force.

There is much more like this. Ferling quotes lots of contemporary eye-witness testimony to give really impactful accounts of the endless marching, of long gruelling campaigns like Arnold’s trek north or Burgoyne’s trek south, of the endless arguments at British and American HQ – which make up the majority of the text.

The suffering and hardships, the climatic extremes, the lack of food and shelter, are quite difficult to read sometimes. I was particularly struck by the way many of the Continental soldiers had no shoes or footwear of any sort. On numerous marches their fellow soldiers followed the blood from bleeding feet left in the snow or mud. In fact, the two Patriots who died at Trenton died from advanced frostbite, and thousands of American soldiers lost toes and feet due to lack of basic footwear.

Skirmishing aside, really large full-scale battles didn’t happen that often, but when they do Ferling’s accounts are appropriately gory and bloodthirsty, over and again bringing out how war amounts to the frenzied butchering and dismembering, skewering, hacking and eviscerating of human bodies.

War in the south

By 1779 and 1780 Washington was in despair because he didn’t know what to do next. Ferling makes it clear that right up to the last moments of the war, Washington was fixated, obsessed, with returning to fight a big battle for New York – despite the fact that the Americans never had enough men to retake it against Britain’s well-entrenched forces.

That or maybe another stab at taking Canada from the British – another phantasm which haunted American military minds, despite the catastrophe of the Arnold campaign.

Washington’s obsession with the north meant that he missed the region where the war was eventually won, which was in the southern states. About half way through the book Ferling switches focus from New England, New York and Pennsylvania, to the southern states of Maryland, North and South Carolina and Georgia.

This second half feels different from the first half for two reasons: the French had got involved, and there was a lot more guerrilla and partisan fighting.

France and world war

American representatives had been in Paris since before the start of the war, negotiating trade deals etc. Once conflict broke out, Ferling devotes sections to describing in detail the lengthy negotiations between American representatives and the French government, with the former trying to persuade the latter to join in and support the revolution.

Both sides had many considerations to weigh up: some Americans worried that any victory with the help of the French would mean handing over territory in North America to them – maybe they’d want Canada back, and so become a threat to the young country from the north; or maybe the French would demand the rights to Louisiana (at that point all the land along both sides of the Mississippi) and would thus block any further American expansion to the west. Risky.

Other Patriots worried that any even-handed military alliance with the French might mean that Americans would get dragged into France’s endless wars in Europe: having begun a war to get free of entanglements with Britain and her power politics on the Continent, the Americans might find themselves ending up worse off than they began.

Many on the French side weren’t that thrilled either, and the French minister who managed the war, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, was presented with a sequence of obstacles, opposition and unexpected dilemmas which Ferling presents with great clarity.

I had no idea that, once the French had overtly allied with the Americans in 1778, they again began planning for one of their many attempts to invade England, and sent privateers to board and confiscate British shipping.

In the event, massive French loans to America enabled Congress to feed and clothe and supply its armies, and the fleet France sent turned out to play a vital role in ‘victory’. The Americans couldn’t have won their ‘freedom’ if it hadn’t been for French support.

War in the South

As 1780 dawned the British were as puzzled as the Americans about what to do next. A series of events led the British to conceive of mounting a ‘Southern strategy’ and General Henry Clinton (who had succeeded the indecisive General Howe in 1778) despatched General Charles Cornwallis to raise Loyalist forces across the south.

Cornwallis did attract Loyalist forces and – as Ferling brings out throughout his book – substantial numbers of slaves defected and/or ran away from their southern plantations to join the British forces who promised them their freedom.

But it was never enough. Loyalist support was defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain (October 1780), and the British Legion, a cavalry force led by swashbuckling Banastre Tarleton, was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781).

Cornwallis marched into North Carolina, gambling on a Loyalist uprising but it never materialised. He was shadowed by the American general Nathanael Greene, who dominates the American side of the story for this whole southern campaign and emerges (from my amateur perspective) as a much more energetic, successful and important American general than Washington, who spent all these last few years holed up in the north, vainly fantasising about recapturing New York.

It was very typical of this prolonged and indecisive war that a key engagement was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on 15 March 1781, where Cornwallis’s army beat Greene, but suffered large casualties in the process. As in so many battles of the American War of Independence, Cornwallis held the field but the other side had won.

Because it wasn’t a war of decisive victories; it was a war of attrition where the winner was the one who could wear down the other side. This describes the American failure at Quebec and the British failure at Saratoga – and that is how the war finally ended.

British surrender

In 1781 the French arranged to send a significant fleet to the Americas. In fact it went first to the West Indies to secure French territories there, before asking its American allies where along the coastline it should be sent.

This prompted feverish debate among the Americans and their French allies about whether the French fleet should be sent to New York to revive Washington’s endless dreams of recapturing the city. But in the end it went to Virginia, partly under the influence of the French officer Lafayette, who had been fighting alongside the Americans almost from the start, and was now embedded in Greene’s southern army.

Before he left North Carolina for Virginia, Cornwallis had been receiving confused orders from his commander-in-chief, Clinton, holed up in New York. At some moments Clinton asked him to come all the way back north to help protect the city, but in other despatches ordered him to stay where he was. The one clear message that emerged from this confusion was that Cornwallis should hunker down in a coastal port and await the Royal Navy.

So Cornwallis marched to Yorktown on the Virginia coast, built outworks, prepared for a siege and awaited relief. But it never came. Instead the French fleet arrived and Nathanael Greene’s army was joined by a steady flow of Continental soldiers and militias from all across the south, who were able to block off all Cornwallis’s escape routes.

As so often during the narrative, there were several windows of opportunity when Cornwallis could have escaped the siege and fled north, or embarked at least some of his forces across the Cooper river to land east of the city.

But he had been ordered to await the Royal Navy and await them he did until it was too late, he was completely surrounded and, with food beginning to run short – giving in to reality – Cornwallis surrendered his army on 17 October 1781.

The British give up

It cannot be emphasised too much that the Americans did not win the American war of Independence through a battle. They simply surrounded a British army which had let itself be taken by a series of accidents and bad judgements, and which decided to surrender.

And the Americans couldn’t have done it without the French naval force which blockaded Yorktown, thus preventing any hopes of relieving supplies or escape.

When news of this disaster arrived back in London in late November 1781 the British government… gave up. The British still had 30,000 troops garrisoned in New York, Charleston, and Savannah, could have recruited more, and the war could have been prosecuted for another six years, if anyone had wanted to.

But enough of the ruling classes were fed up with the loss of men and money to make it untenable.

Although the vote in Britain was limited to a tiny percentage of male property owners, nonetheless Britain was a democracy of sorts, and on 27 February 1782, the House of Commons voted against further war in America by 19 votes.

The minister responsible for conducting the war, Lord Germain, was dismissed and a vote of no confidence was passed against Lord North, who had led the government throughout.

A new government led by the Whig party came to power and immediately opened negotiations for peace. So it goes.

Conclusions

I’d never read an account of the American War of Independence before. It was a real eye-opener. There was:

1. a lack of focus, as both sides racked their brains to decide what they were trying to do

2. a lack of fighting – especially in 1779 and 1780 long periods passed with no fighting at all – I think Washington didn’t see any action at all in the final two years of the war

I was really, really struck by the way that a handful of events from the first months of the war have become so mythical that even I have heard of them – Paul Revere’s Ride from Boston to warn the Patriots that the British were coming; the first shot fired at Concord which inspired Emerson’s poem:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

And the Battle of Bunker Hill outside Boston.

But all these happened within the first few months of the war. American mythology dwells on these early, idealistic, and entirely positive events, and then – the following six years of failure and stalemate, well… you hear a lot less about them.

The exception is Washington’s night-time crossing of the Delaware river, ferrying his army across to launch his surprise dawn attack on Trenton, because it was a daring, dashing undertaking and it inspired a number of heroic paintings depicting the scene.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

But it’s as if the events of those first few months have become super-iconic, overflowing with revolutionary zeal and idealism and then…. as with all wars, when it wasn’t over by Christmas and in fact dragged on for six long, gruelling years more, during which thousands of men died, thousands of citizens lives were destroyed by marauding militias or Indians, and the entire economy of America was undermined by a lack of supplies which led to galloping inflation, well… you don’t hear much about that.

Ferling’s long, detailed account shows the gruelling reality which lay behind the handful of mythical highlights which we remember.

3. Above all, there was a lack of inevitability. 

Again, I am used to the kind of war where ‘the tide turns’ and the Germans start to be defeated on the Western front or the Japanese are fought back across the Pacific, so that the conclusions of World Wars One and Two possess a grinding sense of inevitability.

But there was no decisive ‘turning point’ in this war and the end, when it comes, is oddly anti-climactic, almost an accident. Oh well. We’re surrounded. Better surrender, chaps.

This sense of contingency is heightened by the way Ferling, at all points, investigates very thoroughly all the arguments and logics underpinning everyone’s strategies. There was no inevitability to Cornwallis deciding to invade Virginia or deciding to retreat to Yorktown – in fact, historians to this day struggle to account for it.

Indeed, for the last few years of the war, there was a mounting sense that either side might sue for international arbitration. This had happened in previous wars, where mediators such as Russia or Prussia were invited to arbitrate between warring sides in European conflicts.

As 1781 dawned, all sides – American, French and British – were fed up with the war and wanted it to end somehow, but the Americans in particular lived in fear that an international peace treaty might be imposed on them, and that – as was traditional – territory would be allotted to whoever held it when the deal was signed.

This wish to hold on to territory partly explains why commander-in-chief Clinton was reluctant to leave New York, which would be a jewel in the crown if Britain was allowed to retain it, and also explains Cornwallis’s energetic attempts to clear the southern states of rebels, and to raise Loyalist forces to keep them secure.

If peace suddenly broke out, they would have been retained by the British Empire.

Ferling brings out how this nightmare scenario kept men like Washington and John Adams awake at night – the notion that after six years of sacrifice, and watching the American economy go to hell, the Patriots might end up rewarded only with the New England states, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, while New York state (which extends north to the border with Canada) and the entire south would be retained by Britain.

Worse, if the French insisted on reclaiming Louisiana, the new American republic would be surrounded on all sides by enemies and barriers.

It was not to be – but it might have been – and it is one of the many pleasures of Ferling’s long and exhaustingly thorough account, that the reader develops a real sense of just how contingent and arbitrary this shattering war and, by extension, all human affairs, really are.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)


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The Global Seven Years War by Daniel A. Baugh (2011)

(This long book is part of the Routledge ‘Modern Wars in Perspective’ series. Since some of the wars date back to 1460 you have to query the definition of ‘modern’.)

Although an American, the author, Daniel A. Baugh, is a distinguished historian of the British Royal Navy from the Restoration to the mid-Victorian era. In many ways this book is the summit of his career.

Baugh was born in 1931 so was 80 years old when this book was published. This may partly explain why it is so very readable. Baugh was brought up in a more leisurely, less technocratic age and his prose is relaxed and amiable, devoid of modern academic jargon and in many places has a sweet, human touch. Though long, the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish.

Baugh’s naval background

Also, Baugh himself served in the American navy. This gives his accounts of the naval battles a special authority, but more particularly underpins his accounts of naval and military discipline. When Admiral Byng’s flotilla fails to prevent the French seizing Minorca (May 1756) or when General Braddock’s forces are massacred in woods beside the river Monongahela (9 July 1755) Baugh not only describes the events but gives thorough explanations of the mistakes the commanders made, what they should have done differently, and continues on to explain in detail why this or that action was rewarded or blamed, according to the military code of the day.

It’s one of the learnings of the book that praise and blame was so immediate and extreme; a general or admiral who won a battle might be knighted (as the admiral George Pocock was, for his aggressive engagements with the cowardly French fleet off the Indian coast) whereas losers might pay the ultimate price – Admiral Byng, court martialled and executed by the British for losing Minorca; Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally, tried and executed by the French for losing their main base in India, Pondicherry, or Charles François Emmanuel Nadeau du Treil, governor of Guadeloupe, forced to surrender it to superior British forces, for which he was sent to prison for twenty years.

There was obviously a lot at stake for each nation-state in major battles – it is a revelation to learn how much was at stake for the military leaders on the ground.

A big complex war

Including the index, this book weighs in at a hefty 736 pages. It claims to deal mainly with the global aspect of the Seven Years War i.e. the fighting between France and Britain in North America, India, the West Indies, with two campaigns late in the war against Spain, in Cuba and the Philippines – and the war in Europe is specifically addressed by a sister book in the same series, The Seven Years War In Europe by Franz A.J. Szabo, itself a weighty 530-page tome.

But in fact Baugh does devote substantial space to the European war. He has to, because his aim is to give a comprehensive overview of the strategy of the two protagonists of the global war – France and Britain – an aim which involves detailed consideration of the key personnel on both sides. These were, on the French side, King Louis XV, his mistress and adviser Madame de Pompadour and their Foreign Minister, the duc de Choiseul – and on the English side, King George II, the Duke of Newcastle and ‘the Great Commoner’ as he was nicknamed, William Pitt. And the global strategy of both sides was inextricably linked with their strategy on the continent; the one just doesn’t make sense without the other.

Therefore this book has much, much more about the war in Europe than the two other books I’d read on the subject to date, 1759 by Frank McLynn and Battle For Empire by Tom Pocock, and is vastly better for it. In fact, it’s the first account I’ve read that really makes sense of the whole war.

Understanding in depth

The Pocock and McLynn books emphasised that everyone suspected hostilities would break out again after the cessation of the War of Austrian Succession in 1748, but only Baugh’s book explains why that was.

The treaty which concluded that war – the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle – was drawn up in a hurry, as both sides were exhausted and running into unsustainable debt. It left many issues about who owned what unresolved, kicking them into the long grass by declaring they’d be sorted out by a ‘Boundary Commission’. But this commission never really got established with the result that conflict on the frontier between French and British North America festered on and, although the British were handed back Madras (in south-east India) in the Treaty, the lack of clarity about Indian affairs also made conflict there inevitable.

The Diplomatic Revolution

Thus (for example) Baugh’s account is the first one which fully explained to me the importance of the abrupt reversal of a century of tradition which took place when Louis XV surprised Europe by suddenly allying France with Austria in the so-called Diplomatic Revolution. They had been enemies for decades.

It happened because in the 1740-48 war Prussia had seized the Hapsburg territory of Silesia and Austria wanted it back. So Prussia was scared of an Austrian attack. Now France wanted to terrorise and/or seize Hanover, the north German principality which was still ruled by George II of England, in order to wrest maximum concessions from Britain when the war ended. If France attacked Hanover, Prussia would see that as a threat to its hegemony over northern Germany. So Britain could see that it would be in her interests to pay King Frederick of Prussia to defend Hanover for her.

And thus a constellation of interests crystallised into the alliances which dominated the war: France and Austria (and Russia, which threatened Prussia’s eastern front) allied against Prussia – who was herself supported by money, and then by troops, sentPhi from England.

Map of the territories involved in the Seven Years War

Map of the territories involved in the Seven Years War

Bargaining chips

The biggest single thing that comes over from reading this long enjoyable account is that warfare was just an aspect of Diplomacy. Nobody expected to fight a war to the complete unconditional surrender of the enemy (as in 20th century wars). Battles were fought to capture strategically important cities or islands or territory, with more than half an eye on the final and inevitable peace negotiations, where they would be used simply as bargaining chips.

Thus the French captured Minorca not because it had any economic or strategic usefulness, but solely to use as a chip in the endlessly complex game of diplomacy which gripped all the nations of Europe: first, they thought they could use it to bribe Spain into entering the war on the French side; when Spain refused, Minorca became just another bargaining chip to be played in the negotiations which led up to the Peace of Paris in 1763. Sure enough, it was handed back to Britain in exchange for the (far more valuable) West Indies islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. (It is striking to learn that little Guadeloupe produced more sugar than all the British islands combined, worth about £6 million a year.)

Similarly, thousands of British soldiers and sailors died in the twin campaigns to capture Havana in Cuba and Manila in the Philippines, so it is disconcerting to the modern reader to find out the British government never intended to keep either of them, but just wanted them as bargaining chips with Spain in the final settlement. And, sure enough, shamefully, both ports were simply handed back to Spain, a mockery of the immense suffering of the soldiers and sailors on both sides who perished.

At every point, from before the war even began, statesmen of all the European nations were engaged in playing this game at multiple levels not least because, as Baugh, again, amply shows, the government of each nation was itself made up of sharply conflicting visions, strategies and goals.

Thus, in Britain, King George II was understandably obsessed with his hereditary territory of Hanover in Germany, and so detested William Pitt who had built a parliamentary career on criticising the government’s attachment to a distant and unimportant bit of Europe while ignoring the colonies which were vital to its commerce and economy. Following Henry Pelham’s death, George’s other ministers had to work hard to persuade the king to take Pitt into the government – he was widely admitted to be the most capable parliamentarian of his time – and Pitt proved to be a strategist of genius, but they never got on. When the old king died in 1760 and was replaced by his grandson, George III, Pitt’s days were numbered, and so all the other countries of Europe knew a change of British policy was inevitable.

Much the same level of back-stabbing and politicking took place at the top of the French government, except it’s obvious from Baugh’s account how much more limited and limiting the French setup was: King Louis XV didn’t want to be bothered with details, he was in thrall to his former mistress-turned-confidente Madame de Pompadour, and all their ministers had to tread carefully not to cross her strong opinions.

And no-one in the French government was prepared to face up to the acute financial crisis the war created – Baugh shows the king and Pompadour repeatedly not wanting to be bothered with petty details of money – in their minds, France had a God-given right to be top dog in Europe. But this was to lead to financial ruin, specifically to a financial collapse prompted by the loss of Quebec to the British in 1759.

Both Pocock and McLynn give lively accounts of the battle for Quebec (both probably better, more vivid, than Baugh’s) – but only Baugh goes on to explain in detail how the military and strategic loss led to a cataclysmic financial crash in which virtually all the French government’s paper credit became worthless, scores of bankers and contractors to the army and navy went bankrupt and the king and nobility were reduced to sending their silver plate to the mint to be melted down to create coins to keep the economy going (pp.447-452).

So the actions of generals in Canada could have seismic impacts on their home governments of Europe, which in turn affected how all the other players in the game assessed their ally/enemy, and adjusted their diplomatic and military plans accordingly. It’s like reading about a true life and vastly complex combination of the board games ‘Risk’ and ‘Monopoly’.

Unpopular bargaining

Some of these bargaining chip exchanges were very unpopular. American colonial forces had been involved in a bitter 46-day siege of Louisbourg, the main French port on Cape Breton Island which protected the mouth of the long St Lawrence Waterway, in 1745. There was widespread resentment when statesmen in faraway England simply handed the port and island back to the French in exchange for Madras at the peace in 1748. (I was amused to learn that Aix-la-Chapelle was so unpopular in France that it gave rise to a popular expression, bête comme la paix = as stupid as the peace.) Apparently, being treated by pawns in this giant game was one (of the many) grievances which slowly bubbled under among the men who went on to spark the American Revolution.

So it was only reading Baugh’s book that made me realise quite why a renewed outbreak of war was inevitable and made sense of the way statesmen on both sides spent the intervening years calculating how their countries could best benefit from another war, and drawing up and debating various strategies.

The rise of William Pitt

I now understand much better that the cautious Duke of Newcastle owed his place as prime minister to the king because of his steady adherence to the cause of Hanover’s safety but how, when Newcastle’s man in the Commons, Leader of the House Henry Pelham died in 1754, he needed someone who could command authority in the Commons but also fall in with his policies. William Pitt fulfilled the first criterion but had publicly criticised the government for its adherence to Hanover-based policies (thus incurring the undying enmity of George II). So when Newcastle promoted him to secretary of state and took him into the small wartime cabinet he knew he was recruiting a man entirely devoted to pursuing Britain’s overseas interests in America and India (and the West Indies). But the gamble paid off.

It is one of the many merits of this book, and the reason why it’s so long, that Baugh takes you right into the heart of these continual political debates and discussions among the most senior statesmen, quoting letters, diaries and journals to show how strategic thinking about each theatre of war changed and evolved, but how the statesmen also had to keep an eye on how things would play out both among the public at large, and in the clamorous House of Commons, and how they’d be taken by the continental-minded king, and how they might be used against them as weapons by the uneasily jostling members of the cabinet itself.

Baugh’s account reveals the layer upon layer upon layer of power politics and Machiavellian manoeuvring which underpinned every event in the long war; it makes for a fascinating and gripping read.

Specific things

I learned some specific things from this book:

  • The Seven Years War actually lasted eight years, since Baugh shows that hostilities broke out in early summer 1755. Quite a lot of naval and land battles took place before war was formally declared the following year.
  • Privateering – It is astonishing how lawless the sea and land were. Before the war proper is declared, in 1755, the British started simply intercepting legitimate French merchant ships, sailing them to English ports, stealing them and their cargo and putting the crews in prison. Some 400 ships were sequestered like this and some 10,000 seamen imprisoned. Whenever any army appeared anywhere it thought it had the right at the very least to plunder the surrounding countryside (in Europe as much as India) and sometimes ravage it (burn crops, food, stores, towns and villages) in order to deprive its enemy forces of food or shelter. Baugh mentions these continual acts of piracy and devastation in passing, but the modern reader is appalled at the sheer scale of wanton destruction.
  • Silhouette – Étienne de Silhouette tried to sort out France’s pitiful finances and his name became synonymous with penny-pinching. Around that time a fashion for cutting out black outlines of people became fashionable as a stylish and cheap alternative to painted portraits. In derision these were given the insulting name of ‘silhouettes’ which has stuck to this day.
  • The Watershed principle – France claimed that if any of its explorers had named a river they automatically owned all the territory encompassed by all the tributaries right up to each tributary’s watershed. Hence the its territory of Louisiana looked like a balloon on the map since it covered every single tributary of the massive Mississippi.
  • Wilderness warfare – handy term for the style of fighting required in the vast virgin forests of Eastern America.

Maps

There are 17 maps in this long book, and all are better, clearer and more detailed than those in Pocock or McLynn – but it still isn’t nearly enough. A book like this needs 100 maps. When Baugh says that Frederick II launched his surprise attack on Saxony in August 1756, seizing Dresden before marching on to besiege Prague and fighting a big battle at Lobositz in Bohemia on 1 October … there is no map of this at all; no map showing the borders of Prussia, Saxony or Austria; no map showing the route of Frederick’s army or the location of Lobositz. Why not? I had to google them all. Why? You can never have too many maps.

The Treaty of Paris February 1763

The wars I’m familiar with (especially the first and second world wars) have generated vast mountains of analysis devoted to explicating their beginnings. Apparently, the great controversy about the Seven Years War was how it ended. The French had been thrashed to a standstill, unable to supply their army in Germany (which kept being defeated), defeated in India and Canada and driven out of the disputed Ohio territories, then losing the key islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique; the Austrians were fought to a standstill and had to accept they could never regain Silesia and, when the Empress Elizabeth died and was replaced by the pro-Frederick Peter III they realised they had to quit; while the Spanish failed in their attempt to invade Portugal and then lost Havana and Manila to the British, who destroyed a fifth of their fleet and kept the French fleet locked up impotently in its ports.

Tentative moves to peace began in 1760 but the conflict dragged on for two more years of almost unalloyed British victories and the extraordinarily complex machinations not only between the main nations’ ministers and ambassadors, but also disagreements within governments, especially within the British government, take Baugh over 100 pages of describe. This is a little difficult to follow and then a little hard to care about. The main points that come over are:

  1. Given the hopelessness of their position, credit must go to France’s duc de Choiseul who managed to wring significant concessions out of Britain.
  2. How? It is difficult not to feel contempt for the Earl of Bute – who replaced the meticulous and visionary Pitt as Prime Minister on the accession of George III – and was devoted to achieving peace as quickly as possible regardless of the cost, strategic, financial or reputational. Both Bute and the king lied to Parliament and their own cabinet colleagues, continually reassuring and coaxing the (heavily beaten) French and in the event handing over completely unnecessary concessions in India and Newfoundland.

Ten years later the French would be conspiring how to support the American Revolutionaries and subvert British interest yet again (1775-83), a dedicated enmity which would blossom after the French Revolution (1789) into the twenty year war against Republican and then Napoleonic France (1794-1815). With hindsight Bute’s craven appeasement of France looks unforgiveable.


Credit

The Global Seven Years War by Daniel Baugh was published by Pearson Education Ltd in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2014 Routledge paperback edition.

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