John Opie @ Tate Britain

Tate Britain is labyrinthine enough to have half a dozen side rooms and spaces where it mounts small (and sometimes not so small) ‘spotlight’ exhibitions, focusing on a particular topic or artist.

In a modest room off the main atrium, little more than a glorified corridor, Tate Britain is hosting a small but beautifully formed exhibition about the painting and cultural environment of the late-eighteenth century English painter, John Opie (1761 – 1807).

The Cornish Wonder

Opie’s success is surprising because of his background. In the late eighteenth century artists generally came from artistic families, or from educated, middle-class homes where their interest in such a risky career could be indulged.

In contrast, Opie was born at St Agnes, near Truro in Cornwall, the son of a mine carpenter. Although he did attend school, he was probably largely self-educated. A wealthy local couple later reported that he visited the library in their house and ‘read every book in it’. But Opie’s father opposed his intellectual and artistic interests, and trained him as a carpenter.

Opie’s life was transformed when he encountered the poet and art critic, Dr John Wolcot, who brought Opie to London and launched him on his career. Wolcot became the painter’s manager, taking a cut of his earnings and helped him gain fame as a sort of self-taught genius. Opie’s dramatic style and mastery of light and shade that prompted comparisons with the most admired Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio, and earned him the reputation of ‘the Cornish wonder’.

Portrait of the Artist by John Opie (c.1790)

The common people

When Opie first came to London, much was made of his humble origins. The Peasant’s Family is a good example of his dignified images of ordinary people. One critic wrote:

Could people in vulgar life [the working-class] afford to pay for pictures, Opie would be their man.

Little is known of the early history of this painting. There is no documentation to prove without doubt that Opie painted it, but it has always been accepted as by him.

The Peasant’s Family by John Opie (c.1783-5)

Portraits

Opie produced portraits and subject paintings of striking originality and realism. Although little-known today, his work created a sensation in exhibitions during his lifetime. Opie was working at a time when fame was becoming an increasingly important part of artistic success. Artists jostled to grab public attention, painting more flamboyant and dramatic pictures.

We do not know the identity of the woman in this painting who is depicted as the heroine of Shakespeare’s tragedy Troilus and Cressida, but she is probably a celebrity or actress who contemporary viewers would have recognised.

Portrait of a Lady in the Character of Cressida by John Opie (1800)

Radicals

Mary Wollstonecraft was a ground-breaking feminist. This portrait shows her looking directly towards us, temporarily distracted from her studies. Such a pose would more typically be used for a male sitter. Women would normally be presented as more passive, often gazing away from the viewer like Cressida above.

The painting dates to around the time she published A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). This argued against the idea that women were naturally inferior to men and emphasised the importance of education.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie ( c.1790-1)

The intellectual milieu

In fact Opie was part of the leading radical circles of the day. After the French Revolution broke out in 1789 and then Britain went to war with revolutionary France in 1793, radical beliefs of any sort became dangerous, but Opie was part of a liberal metropolitan circle which included Wollstonecraft, her philosopher husband William Godwin and the ‘sensation’ painter Henry Fuseli.

Aside from the portraits, one of the most interesting exhibits here is an elaborate anti-radical cartoon by the famous Georgian caricaturist James Gillray. It depicts sequences from a long anti-revolutionary poem by George Canning.

The caricature warns of post-apocalyptic world where evil has triumphed, where the president of the French Directory (Revelliere-Lepeaux) is being installed at St Paul’s Cathedral as the head of a new religion named ‘theophilanthropy’, and where the Leviathan arrives accompanied (and ridden) by an extensive retinue of triumphant British followers waving their revolutionary bonnets rouges.

NEW MORALITY, or, The promis’d Installment of the High Priest of the THEOPHILANTHROPES, with the Homage of Leviathan and his Suite by James Gillray (1798)

As intended, it’s fun reading the elaborate caption under the cartoon and trying to identify the contemporary political and intellectual figures who are being so thoroughly lampooned. And the wall label tells us that Opie in fact painted many of these ridiculed radicals – including Charles James Fox, John Nichols, Lord Moira and Samuel Whitbread, the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Stanhope, the scientist Joseph Priestley and the radical John Horne Tooke.

The ‘cornucopia of ignorance’ which the acolytes are emptying before the altar contains works by Mary Wollstonecroft, the playwright Thomas Holcroft, and the novelist Charlotte Smith, all of whom had sat for Opie.

Amelia Opie

And he married someone from this progressive world – the liberal novelist and poet Amelia Alderson.

Amelia Opie by John Opie (1798)

Amelia was the daughter of a successful physician. She was already gaining notice as a writer with strong liberal and radical sympathies when she met John around 1796. He probably painted this wonderfully feeling portrait in 1798, the year of their marriage. As Amelia Opie she went on to achieve success as a novelist, poet and political activist, especially against the slave trade.

Early death

Despite his unconventional manners and his resolutely working class origins (his father in law was revolted by his table manners; even his wife admitted his studio was like a ‘pigsty’), John carved a career for himself in London’s fast-moving and competitive art market. He had just been made Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy when he died suddenly, at the early age of 45. For the rest of her life, Amelia did much to promote his memory and achievement.

Thoughts

This is a charming, funny and interesting little display. There must be hundreds of similarly obscure and forgotten British painters who would benefit from the same care and attention.


Related links

  • John Opie continues at Tate Britain until 23 February 2020 and it is FREE

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Every room in Tate Britain (part one)

Tate Britain is dedicated to exhibiting British art from 1500 to the present day.

It is housed in a beautiful neo-classical building facing onto the river Thames. To the left a ramp and steps lead to the lower floor with a large exhibition space (currently showing Artist and Empire). To the right of the main building is the Clore Galleries (opened 1987), nine rooms on the ground floor housing the gallery’s big collection of JMW Turner paintings, watercolours, sketches etc, along with a room of Constable and, upstairs, a room of pre-Raphaelite drawings/paintings, and a room of William Blake engravings and paintings.

If you enter up the grand steps through the main entrance you arrive at a long central hall, home to changing displays and currently housing Susan Philipsz’ War Damaged Musical Instruments, an entirely audio display, tannoy speakers emitting the mournful sound of brass music played by instruments damaged in war, which she has rescued and refurbished. Sweet haunting sounds drift through the galleries as you saunter through the history of British art.

The west wing contains ten rooms covering British art from 1540 to 1910. Then you cross the entrance hall to the east wing and pick up the story in 1930, walk through another ten rooms containing the twentieth century exhibits.

Off to the side of these chronological sequences are single rooms dedicated to ad hoc displays of art ancient or bang up to date.

The rooms

1540

  • Full length portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Steven van der Meulen. I like the still-medieval feel, the flatness, the compaction, and the gorgeousness of the detail, the tremendously patterned gold background to the left, but also the idealised plants, flowers and fruit to the right.
  • Sir Peter Lely Two Ladies of the Lake Family (c.1660) I love the stylised round-cheeked cherub look of all Lely’s women. He was Dutch and emigrated here to become the principal portrait-painter at the court of Charles II, filling the position Sir Anthony van Dyck held for Charles I.

1730

  • Samuel Richardson, the Novelist, Seated, Surrounded by his Second Family 1740–1 by Francis Hayman. This isn’t a particularly good painting, I’m just surprised to learn of its existence. Richardson was a printer whose long epistolary novel about a 15-year-old serving girl named Pamela who writes letters to her parents about fighting off the ‘attentions’ of her country landowner master, Mr B, became the first bestseller and prompted a flood of merchandising and imitations. I enjoyed the attention paid to the silk of the dresses and the detail of the leaves on the trees.
  • William Hogarth The Painter and his Pug (1745) embodying a certain kind of pugnacious bully-boy philistinism. I’ve always enjoyed his O the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’) which is a pictorial list of reasons why the French are rubbish.
  • Hogarth’s crudity is highlighted by comparison with Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen (1773). Here the focus not now on the depiction of static fabric, as in the Hayman painting of 30 years earlier, but on the effect of the overall composition, the diagonal made by the three women, and the softening effect of light and shade on the numerous decorative details, flowers, rug, plinth, jug and so on.
  • Sir William Beechey Portrait of Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy (exhibited 1793) reflecting the later 18th century fashion for ‘sentiment’, for subjects depicting finer feelings.
  • Henry Fuseli Titania and Bottom (c.1790) stands out from the other 18th century works, mainly portraits in the country, for its dark fantasy, note the tiny old man with the long white beard at the end of a lady’s leash in the bottom right.

Foreign painters in England

À propos Fuseli, it’s worth pointing out how many of these ‘British’ painters are foreign. Not featured at all here is the great Hans Holbein (German Swiss painter to the court of Henry VIII), but other foreign painters ‘incorporated’ into the British tradition include van Dyck (Flemish), Rubens (Flemish), Lely (Dutch), Fuseli (Swiss), James Tissot (French), Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Netherlands), John Singer Sergeant (American), Percy Wyndham Lewis (Canadian).

  • I liked George Stubbs’ Reapers (1785) rather than the several dramatic horse pictures on display because it is unusual and it shows a very human, almost Dutch landscape-type scene.
  • Next to Reynolds the other great genius of the 18th century is of course Thomas Gainsborough, represented here by half a dozen enormous portraits and a few landscapes. I liked Henry Bate-Dudley: it is not a magnificent picture, the opposite, it has a quiet, a calm superiority or confidence. Note Gainsborough’s distinctively loose brushstrokes on coat, silver birch bark and among the leaves, but somehow coinciding with precise detail.

Looking back down the long 1780 room to compare them, you can see that Gainsborough is dainty and Reynolds is stately.

No religion

After five rooms I noticed a striking contrast with the National Gallery with its in-depth collection of European paintings from the same period – the lack of religious paintings. Overwhelmingly, the works here are portraits, with some landscapes. I counted only two religious paintings in these rooms:

  • Henry Thomson The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter (exhibited 1820) with the stagey Poussinesque figures to the right but the rather haunting central figure of the dead daughter.
  • William Dyce’s Madonna and Child (c.1827–30) a sport, a freak, a careful pastiche of a Raphael painting and completely unlike anything else being painted at the time.

Our British tradition of painting may be thin until the time of Reynolds (1770s) but I think it is typical of the national culture that it focuses on real people and places, and very often on touching and moving personal stories, rather than the tearful Maries and crucified Jesuses of the continental tradition.

All of that, the heavy earnestness of the Baroque tradition of languishing saints, weeping Madonnas and annunciating angels, is completely absent from these displays. For me the religion is in the attention to ordinary life, the valuing of people and their feelings, the same emphasis on psychology and the human scale which saw the English pioneer the novel, the art form which more than any other penetrates the human mind. This sensitivity and refinement of everyday human feeling is exemplified in:

  • George Romney Mrs Johnstone and her Son (?) (c.1775–80) Sure they’re rich, sure it’s partly to show off the sumptuousness of the fabric. But it also shows real love.
  • It’s actually at the National Gallery, but Gainsborough’s unfinished portrait of his young daughters, The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (1761) epitomises the English ability to capture love and affection, not Holy Love for a Martyred Saint, but real human love, and childishness and innocence and intimacy and aliveness.

Even when we do intense and visionary, rather than angels floating round the heads of saints, it is embodied in people and real landscapes:

  • Take Samuel Palmer’s paintings strange, vivid, jewelled depictions of the landscape around Shoreham in Kent, eg The Gleaning Field (c.1833)
  • And striking because it is so unlike Constable and Turner and his other contemporaries is William Etty’s Standing Female Nude (c.1835–40), very modern in its frankness, not trying to be Greek or statuesque.

The Turner Collection

There is so much Turner. Enough to fill eight good size rooms in the Clore Gallery off to the east of the main building, and this is only a small selection of what Tate owns. Turner’s history paintings, Turner’s classical landscapes, Turner’s mountains, Turner’s figures, Turner’s watercolours. And in all states of finish, from vast formal commissions to sketches to unfinished canvases to the wispiest watercolours. Despite trying hard I find Turner difficult to really like, and the task is not helped by the sheer volume of material. There is a room here dedicated to ‘Turner and the human figure’ which proves conclusively how bad he was at it:

He went on the Grand Tour and I find the resulting huge Roman landscapes strained, pretentious, overblown, bad in a number of ways:

Senses blunted by the vast Roman landscapes, I perked up when I saw the much more modest, and therefore impactful:

All in all, I preferred the one room dedicated to Constable, which is hidden away in a corner of the Clore Gallery, to the eight preceding Turner rooms:

  • Fen Lane, East Bergholt (?1817) Like gently sloping farmland I’ve seen in my walks around Kent.
  • Glebe Farm (c.1830) the church nestling among trees, the solitary cow at the pond, the thoughtful little girl, all artfully composed to create a stock feeling, but a feeling I like.

Pre-Raphaelite Works on Paper

In the far corner of the Clore gallery is stairs up to the smallish room displaying pre-Raphaelite works on paper, lots of sketches but some oils as well. A wall label reminds me that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) only lasted from 1848 to 1853. I liked the strange, visionary, angular, amateurish but atmospheric work of early Rossetti, like Arthur’s Tomb (1860). Technically not as innovatory as Constable or Turner, but these small works convey an experimental psychology, using medieval motifs for very modern reasons, to convey the troubled inter-personal relationships of the Brotherhood and their various muses, anticipating the tensions of, say, the Viennese Expressionists fifty years later.

But there are also examples of Rossetti in his smooth, glowing, bosomy phase: Monna Pomona (1864). I liked the wall label’s description of the medievalising tendency in PRB work, its use of: ‘shallow space, tight interlocking composition and rich colour of medieval manuscripts’. A handy description of what I like about medieval art.

I liked Ford Madox Brown’s Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852–6) the oddities of composition riffing off medieval ideas of space to create a very modern psychology.

The glory years

Although the earlier rooms contain many good paintings, in my opinion British art explodes into a glory of masterpieces between the mid 1880s and the Great War, the period which saw Victorian academic art reach its height of verisimilitude before being swept away by the exhilarating eruption of the new Modernism. Rooms 1840, 1890 and 1900 contain painting after painting of pure visual pleasure, greatest hits which make everything before them pale by comparison.

  • James Tissot The Ball on Shipboard (c.1874) Illustration of a Trollope novel.
  • John Singer Sargent Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–6) Barely a century after Reynolds, and how far not only painting, but the understanding of mood and psychology, has expanded and deepened.
  • John William Waterhouse Saint Eulalia (exhibited 1885) Exotic realism.
  • William Logsdail St Martin-in-the-Fields (1888) The figures, hmm, but the depiction of the church itself is amazing, conveying the cold and drizzle…
  • John William Waterhouse The Lady of Shalott (1888) Late Victorian Arthurianism.
  • Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema A Silent Greeting (1889) A fantasy of the classical world.
  • Stanhope Alexander Forbes The Health of the Bride (1889) Illustration for a Tomas Hardy novel.
  • Anna Lea Merritt Love Locked Out (1890)
  • Sir George Clausen Brown Eyes (1891) Haunting the way strangers glimpsed in a crowd sometimes are.
  • Henry Scott Tuke August Blue (1893–4) Why is it always naked women? Why not some beautiful boys for a change?
  • Thomas Cooper Gotch Alleluia (exhibited 1896) Peculiar, odd, immaculate in some ways, but look at their lips.
  • John Singer Sargent Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer (1901) The figures are impressive but it’s the vase that takes my breath away. Close up to the painting in the flesh you can see the casual mastery of oil with which it’s done.

And then, suddenly, bang! It is the Modernists with their Futurism and Vorticism and Fauvism and fancy European ways:

In the 1910 room are works for well after the Great War, like Eric Gill sculptures or Stanley Spencer or Alfred Wallis, but I’ll leave them for part two.

One-off rooms

  • One room contains three big bright double portraits by David Hockney. Hockney’s art has always seemed to me bright and empty, and also badly drawn, but I know I am in a minority.
  • Jo Spence Feminist artist-activist in the 1970s and 80s, member of the Hackney Flashers who spent a lot of time interrogating traditions, exploring issues, situating their practices. This seemed to involve quite a few photos of herself naked or topless, especially after being diagnosed with breast cancer. No doubt making serious feminist points, but also a treat for admirers of the larger woman.
  • Art and Alcohol Half a dozen historical paintings on the subject of the English and alcohol, one wall dominated by Cruickshank’s famous panorama of a pissed society (at one stage place in a room by itself with lengthy commentary). The highlight is the series of b&w photos Gilbert and George took in the 1970s of them and others getting pissed in a pub in the East End, the photos treated with various effects, blurring and distortion conveying a sense of the evening degenerating.
  • Anwar Jalal Shemza (1928–1985) Never heard of him, a leading artist, novelist, playwright and poet born in north-west India, which then became Pakistan, where he made a reputation before moving to England in 1962 – presumably he’s represented here because Tate bought his works thereafter. The wall label explained that he used Islamic texts as the basis for his abstract-looking paintings, but I was caught by some of the images which reminded me powerfully of Paul Klee, one of my heroes.

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