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


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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

A Brief History of Superheroes by Brian J. Robb (2014)

Robb has previously written biographies of Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt. This volume is one of a series titled ‘A brief guide to [or A history of] …’ which includes guides to Stephen King, ghost-hunting, the Roman Empire, Star Wars and any other topics they thought would sell. Written for a popular audience, then.

No illustrations

At 340 pages, including notes and index, it’s quite a long book, but its most obvious feature is that there are no illustrations, none, nada, zip – which is a big drawback seeing as comic books are a largely visual medium. When it gives descriptions of the early artwork for Superman, or how Batman’s look was refined over time, or the visual makeover of many comic book heroes in the 1960s, the reader is crying out for illustrations to show what he’s talking about. But you have to turn to the internet to do your own research…

So the book is solely prose, made up of thumbnail profiles of the writers, artists and publishers who created comic book superheroes, along with a dense account of how they developed and evolved over time.

Superman 1938

Comic Superhero history starts in May 1938 when Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1. In other words, Superman is 80 years old this year, in fact this month!

He was the creation of two schoolfriends from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist). Everything before this date is the pre-history of superhero comics; everything afterwards is the complex unfolding of superhero comic history.

Cultural forebears of superheroes

The prehistory is entertaining because Robb (like many others writing on the subject) feels compelled to give a brisk popular history of the wide-ranging role of ‘the hero’ in myth, legend, history and folklore (the word ‘hero’ is itself of Greek derivation).

Thus a man gifted with magic powers to protect his people can be made to include Moses and Aaron and the Biblical hero Samson. It can include the pantheon of Greek gods and mortal heroes like Heracles, Perseus and Theseus. Robb quotes Joseph Campbell on the importance of ‘the Journey’ in numerous ancient stories about heroes, and references the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey and the Mahabharata as cultural forebears of Batman and Robin. This is both fun and a little pompous.

Folklore forebears of superheroes

More persuasive is the notion of a lineage from more folklore elements of ‘the hero’ through to the popular fictions of the late 19th century. Robin Hood and Dick Turpin are two prime examples. Robin Hood is not only an epitome of schoolboy morality (stealing from the rich to give to the poor) but he wears an early version of the superhero costume: tights and a distinctive cap, all in bright primary colours (Lincoln green with some red thrown in). Dick Turpin concealed his face behind a neckerchief and a pulled-down hat, and wore a cloak or cape.

Pop culture forebears of superheroes

But in fact, historians have no idea what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin wore. The images I’ve described above derive from movies, and it is Hollywood which is probably the prime factor in the origin of the superhero look.

Superheroes didn’t derive from scholarly study of ancient mythology and folklore: they came out of the extraordinary rich, bubbling swamp of popular and pulp culture of the 1920s. If Jerry and Joe knew about Sherlock Holmes or the Scarlet Pimpernel it wasn’t from reading the books about them (Sherlock had debuted in 1887, the Pimpernel in 1905). It was from paying a few cents to sit in the cheap seats of the local movie house, chomping on popcorn and watching the adventure films of a movie star like Douglas Fairbanks, who starred in a movie about Zorro (created 1919, turned into a movie in 1920), Robin Hood (1922) or the Black Pirate (1926).

In a sense superheroes began in the movies before, in our time, returning to the movies.

Like other historians of the subject, Robb pays special attention to characters with dual identities, a standard feature of most comic book superheroes – the classic example being Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

(Although if you stop and think about it for a moment, a dual identity is a basic element of almost all detective, spy and crime fiction of the kind that was growing more and more popular at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th. Many thousands of detective stories take their time working up to the grand ‘reveal’ of the ‘true identity’ of the criminal, of the dope dealer or jewel thief or murderer etc caught by Sherlock Holmes or any one of the hundreds of copycat detectives invented in the 1890s and 1900s. (See my review of The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes a collection of stories about fictional detectives inspired by Holmes.) Spy stories, are by their very nature, about people concealing their true task and intentions.

Anyway, Robb’s book becomes really interesting when it gets to the extraordinarily dense jungle of popular culture which flowered in the 1890s and then just got denser and denser in the decades that followed, proliferating in penny dreadfuls, shilling shockers, pulp magazines, newspaper supplements and then in the new format of moving pictures and related magazines and merchandising.

Robb dwells on two Edwardian doers of good deeds who hid their true identity:

  • the Scarlet Pimpernel (real name Sir Percy Blakeney) who rescues aristocrats from the guillotine, leaving a calling card with a picture of the pimpernel flower
  • Zorro, who wears a black face mask and cape, protects the poor of California, and leaves a distinctive ‘Z’ carved into various objects with his stylish swordplay

Just as important for a superhero is the fiendish villain, and these were prefigured by – among many – Holmes’s opponent, the ‘Napoleon of crime’, Professor Moriarty, or the diabolical criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (1913).

British hero fiction included John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay who debuted in 1915, followed by the more thuggish Bulldog Drummond, who appeared in 1920. Lesley Charteris’s crime-fighting hero, the Saint, first appeared in 1928. Biggles the heroic fighter pilot first appeared in 1932. All these heroes were morally unambiguous fighters against Crime and Fiendish Plots.

In America the spread of radio gave rise to a florid variety of heroic fighters against crime: the Shadow, a masked crime-fighting vigilante (1930), the Spider (1933) and Doc Savage (1933), a kind of ‘peak human’, reared to have perfect abilities, who had a base in mid-town Manhattan and a rich armoury of state-of-the-art gadgets, funded by money from a secret Mayan goldmine, to help him fight crime.

In 1936 the Green Hornet, another crime-fighting, masked vigilante was created specially for radio. Also in 1936 appeared The Phantom, who wore a skin-tight bodysuit and a ‘domino’ eye-mask to fight crime.

Off in another part of the rich jungle of popular and pulp culture which exploded around the time of the Great War, was the more unrestrained world of science fiction and fantasy. Important forebears were John Carter of Mars (1912) and Tarzan (1912), both created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip Francis Nowlan’s hero Buck Rogers (1928) and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian (1932), soon joined by Alex Raymond’s newspaper strip hero Flash Gordon (1934).

What these numerous figures have in common is that they are modern, pulp versions of ‘the hero’, who always outwit their fiendish opponents after a string of exciting adventures, and that they appear in series or serials: once invented they can appear in almost limitless numbers of adventures (as Conan Doyle, who came to hate his invention, Sherlock Holmes, knew all too well).

By now you might share the feeling I had that the first appearance of Superman in 1938 was maybe not quite the dazzling innovation I thought it was; in fact reading about this proliferation of heroes might make you wonder why it took quite so long to come up with what seems to be the logical conclusion of all these trends.

Robb tells the story of how two teenagers from Cleveland conceived the idea, developed it over many years, were repeatedly rejected by newspapers and comic publishers, and were forced to work on other characters and projects, until finally given their big break in 1938.

I found the two most interesting things about Superman were:

1. His descent not so much from all these detectives and crime fighters, but from the Victorian circus strongman. These popular performers generally wore tights and pants, a figure-hugging suit to highlight their musculature which was strapped in with an impressive belt, and often stylised boots.

Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the 'superhero look'

A Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the ‘superhero look’

2. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the exclusive rights to their then-new character, Superman to DC (short for Detective Comics) Publishing for just $130 (split between the two of them). Superman was an instant hit and not only went on to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the publisher and the film company that eventually bought it, but to inspire an entire genre of superhero fiction across all media.

As they watched this happen Siegel and Shuster continued to work as a comic book writer and illustrator, respectively, but made repeated attempts to sue for a share of the vast revenue generated by their invention. In fact their heirs are still locked in litigation with DC’s parent company, Time Warner, to this day.

The development of the comic strip

Robb gives a brief and fascinating recap of how the comic strip itself evolved. As far back as the record stretches, human beings have always told stories. Bas-relief carvings on Greek and Indian temples capture moments from religious or legendary narratives. (Robb doesn’t mention it but I’d have thought the 12 Stations of the Cross which appear in tens of thousands of Catholic churches are an early example of a story told through snapshots of key moments.) He does mention the use of ‘scroll speech’ in medieval and Renaissance art work, where a scroll unfolds from a figure’s mouth, containing their speech (something I’m familiar with from my readings of the British Civil Wars).

17th century cartoon with speech scroll

17th century Civil War cartoon with speech scroll

Robb says the next step forward was marked by the popular engravings of the 18th century artist William Hogarth, famous for the series of pictures which depict The Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress. These popular engravings showed the decline of the eponymous rake and harlot with plenty of humorous detail. They gave rise to similar pictorial sequences by Rodolphe Töpfler later in the century, and by the Victorian artist Gustave Doré, among others. Throughout the 19th century Punch in Britain and similar magazines across the Continent used cartoons, often with speech captions, to convey narratives with punch lines.

Capitalist competition creates comics

But all these sometimes dubious historical antecedents are there simply to pave the way for the real start of popular comic books which, as with most things American, came out of ferocious competition to make money.

Starting in 1887 a newspaper war was waged between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empires. One among many fronts in this war was the innovation of cartoon strips with catchy titles and populist characters. In 1892 The Little Bears was created by Jimmy Swinnerton for Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, probably the first cartoon strip anywhere which featured regularly recurring characters.

In 1895 Pulitzer debuted a strip titled The Yellow Kid for his paper The New York World, drawn by Richard Felton Outcault, which pioneered the use of speech text to indicate dialogue. In 1897 the paper added a supplement featuring just Outcault’s strips and expanding it to describe an array of characters from the yellow kid’s neighbourhood – titled McFadden’s Row of Flats – and a new term, ‘comic book’, was invented to describe it.

As a direct response to all this, Hearst’s New York Journal commissioned their own strip, The Katzenjammer Kids, created by Rudolph Dirks. Dirks developed Outcault’s device of speech balloons and invented the ‘thought balloon’, indicated by a series of bubbles leading up to the text balloon itself. The same year saw the first use of colour printing (as the name, The Yellow Kid, indicates).

These kind of narrative cartoons featuring recurring characters proved tremendously popular (nicer, after all, than reading the depressing news) and spread like wildfire to every other newspaper which could find a decent illustrator. By 1912 Hearst was devoting an entire page of the New York Daily Journal to comic strips, a feature which became known as the ‘funny pages’, the ‘funny papers’, or simply ‘the funnies’.

It was quickly realised that the strips which appeared during the week could be repackaged into a bumper weekend supplement. Rather than broadsheet size, it made financial and practical sense to publish them in magazine format, which was easier for readers to handle and read. The comic book was born.

Superhero history

So much for the multi-stranded prehistory of the comic superhero.

The publication of Superman in 1938 transformed the landscape, inventing a whole new genre of superhero. From this point onwards Robb’s book becomes a dense and fascinating account of how numerous newspapers and publishers sought to cash in on the fad by creating their own superheroes. He describes the complicated evolution of the two publishing houses which would eventually become known as Marvel and DC, and reading his book gives you a good sense of the difference between them.

Basically, DC owned Superman (1938) and Batman (1939) who spawned hundreds of imitators but managed to remain ahead of the pack. Through the war years the superheroes performed their patriotic duty with a strong sideline in film noir-style violence against all manner of crime or fantasy baddies.

In the 1950s there was a moral backlash against comics, with a nationwide panic in America that they were one of many influences turning teenagers into ‘juvenile delinquents’. This resulted in 1954 in the establishment of The Comics Code Authority (CCA) which forced comic books to abandon much violence and all references to drugs and sex, tending to replace hard 1940s stories with softer, romance elements.

Marvel began existence in 1939 as ‘Timely Publications’, and by the early 1950s was generally known as Atlas Comics. The Marvel branding began 1961 with a rack of superhero titles created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others. Robb describes the period 1961-62 as a kind of annus mirabilis, during which Lee oversaw the creation of The Fantastic Four and their nemesis Dr Doom (November 1961), Ant-Man (January 1962), the Incredible Hulk (May 1962), Spider-Man (August 1962), the Mighty Thor (August 1962), Iron Man (March 1963), the Avengers (September 1963) and the X-men (1963).

Even if you think comic books are rubbish, this is by any measure still an incredible outpouring of creativity, the creation of characters which would go on to have multi-billion dollar futures in popular culture.

Although other artists and writers were involved, Stan Lee is commonly associated with this outburst of imagination and the key element of it seems to have been his conviction that superheroes must be flawed – realistic characters who often struggle with their own superpowers. Thus Spider-Man is deeply confused about how to use his skills, the X-Men bicker amongst themselves, the Fantastic Four are riven by rivalries, and the Hulk considers committing suicide he is so upset by the scientific accident which has turned him into a monster.

It was this troubled psychology which set them completely apart from DC’s untroubled hero Superman and made them feel more contemporary than their older cousins (although, admittedly, DC’s Batman is a much darker creation).

In a second nod to contemporary concerns, Lee’s Marvel creations were nearly all connected to contemporary paranoia about the atom bomb and atomic energy. It is radioactivity which messes up the DNA of almost all these superheroes, a paranoia about the potentially damaging impact of modern science which remains relevant right down to the present day.

It is this more ‘modern’ way of conceiving superhero psychology, as well as the more modern concerns about science, which possibly account for the relative success of the Marvel characters in the movies, and the rather staid, static quality of the DC movies.

The difference between the Superman era and the Fantastic Four era is recognised by comic book historians who have divided the past eighty years into a series of ‘ages’.

The golden age of comic books was from 1938 to about 1950, when waning interest in superheroes was capped by the baleful influence of the Comics Code Authority.

The silver age of comic books is dated from DC Comics’ new character Flash, introduced in Showcase #4 in October 1956. This led up to the Marvel outburst in the early 1960s which spawned a great sprawling cast not only of heroes but of baddies and enemies. This era also another important Marvel innovation, which was introducing one set of heroes into the adventures or ‘universe’ of another set. As the 1960s progressed, the interactions of heroes from different narratives became not only more complex in itself, but led to the notion of parallel worlds in which the various characters might have different superpowers, fight each other and even die.

The bronze age of comic books runs from about 1970 to 1985. The bright, Pop optimism of the 1960s turned into a nitty-gritty concern with social ‘issues’, such as the environment, feminism, racism and drugs, along with more realistic depictions of alcoholism, addiction, urban decay and so on.

Alongside the two giants of Marvel and DC there arose a new wave of independent comic book publishers who took a whole new approach to the superhero genre. This was crystallised in the epoch-making Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, which set out to deconstruct the entire mythos of superheroes.

Superheroes in movies

Although Robb doesn’t quite make this point, his book ends where it began, with the movies. Not with the distant antecedents of Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, but with the fact that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster loved the movies and were influenced by what they saw, by the sight of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling his way across the screen and that now, we in our time, queue up to watch the Amazing Spiderman, Thor and Iron Man swing across our multiplex 3D screens.

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Radio Robb’s last few chapters give a bewilderingly dense account of the way superheroes were adapted to other media beyond comic books. Radio was the first, and it’s interesting to learn that radio developed catchphrases, plot lines and even new characters, which hadn’t existed in the original comics but which the comics then co-opted.

Television From the 1950s various television series portrayed superheroes, probably the most memorable being the camp classic Batman of the 1960s.

Animations Movies were slower to adapt superheroes because of the technical challenges of portraying superhero action. It was easier to do this in animations, so there have been scores of animated TV shows and movies about superheroes.

The Modern Age of Superhero Movies starts with Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman in the film of the same name, directed by Richard Donner in 1978. Although the special effects look creaky to the modern eye, they were a quantum step up from all previous attempts and made superhero film-making a real possibility. Three sequels were released, in 1980, 1983 and 1987.

The next benchmark was the pair of Batman movies directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton. Robb is great on the showbusiness gossip and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring which accompanied these films, for example the way that Keaton, previously known mainly for light comic roles, was widely opposed by comicbook fans, who mounted a campaign to prevent him taking the role. In the event, Burton’s two Batman movies (Batman, 1989 and Batman Returns 1992) were widely seen as a triumph, and made stacks of money ($411 million and $266 million, respectively).

Robb details the ongoing attempts to stage other superhero movies during the 1980s and 90s, which met with mixed success, and a fair share of dazzling flops. Along with most fans he considers the last two Reeve Superman movies (Superman III, 1983 and Superman IV, 1987) and the Val Kilmer and George Clooney Batmen (Batman Forever, 1995, and Batman and Robin, 1997) to be disasters.

The modern age of superhero movies

The Current Age of Superhero Movies was launched with the X-Men directed by Bryan Singer and released in 2000. With an intelligent script, the steadying presence of two top-class British actors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) and state-of-the-art, computer-generated graphics, X-Men inaugurated the modern age.

It cost a lot to make, but it:

a) made a fortune ($296 million)
b) spawned a host of sequels (there are now no fewer than 10 films in the X-Men series)
c) and led to a number of successful television spin-off series

The X-Men movies played an important role in creating the superhero cultural, film and TV universe that we now inhabit.

This is a list of the main superhero movies of the last 18 years, excluding various flops and failures, with an indication of their costs and revenues.

2000 X-Men ($296 million gross on $75 million budget)
2002 Spider-Man ($821 million on $139 million)
2003 Daredevil ($179 million on $78 million)
2003 X-Men 2 ($407 million on $125 million)
2004 Fantastic Four ($330 million on $100 million)
2004 Spider-Man 2 ($783 million on $200 million)
2005 Batman Begins ($374 million / $150 million)
2006 Superman Returns ($223 million / $223 million)
2006 X-Men: The Last Stand ($459 million / $210 million)
2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer ($290 million / $130 million)
2007 Spider-Man 3 ($890 million / $258 million)
2008 Batman: The Dark Knight ($1 BILLION / $185 million)
2008 Iron Man 1 ($585 million / $140 million)
2008 The Incredible Hulk ($263 million / $150 million)
2009 Watchmen ($185 million / $138 million)
2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine ($373 million / $150 million)
2010 Iron Man 2 ($624 million / $200 million)

2011 Thor ($449 million / $150 million)
2011 X-Men: First Class ($353 million / $160 million)
2011 Captain America: The First Avenger ($370 million / $140 million)
2012 The Amazing Spider-Man ($757 million / $230 million)
2012 Batman: The Dark Knight Rises ($1.08 BILLION / $300 million)
2012 Marvel’s The Avengers ($1.5 BILLION / $220 million)
2013 Iron Man 3 ($1.2 BILLION / $200 million)
2013 Man of Steel ($668 million / $225 million)
2013 Thor: The Dark World ($645 million / $170 million)
2013 The Wolverine ($414 million / $120 million)
2014 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($709 million / $293 million)
2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714 million / $177 million)
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy ($773 million / $232 million)
2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past ($747 million / £205 million)
2015 Ant-Man ($519 million / $142 million)
2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.4 BILLION / $444 million)
2015 Fantastic Four ($168 million / $155 million)
2016 Captain America: Civil War ($1.15 BILLION / $250 million)
2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($874 million / $300 million)
2016 Deadpool ($783 million / $58 million)
2016 Doctor Strange ($678 milllion / $165 million)
2016 X-Men: Apocalypse ($544 million / $178 million)
2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($864 million / $200 million)
2017 Superman: Justice League ($658 million / $300 million)
2017 Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880 million / $175 million)
2017 Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million / $180 million)
2017 Logan ($619 million / $127 million)
2018 Ant-Man and the Wasp
2018 Avengers: Infinity War
2018 Black Panther ($1.334 BILLION / $210 million)
2018 Deadpool 2

Quite a few, aren’t there?

The first superhero movie to gross over a billion dollars was Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight, and six other superhero movies have grossed over a billion since then.

The X-Men movies between them have generated $5 billion.

In 2010 Marvel produced the first in a carefully planned sequence of movies designed to maximise revenue from their stable of characters, and which has become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. This is divided into ‘phases’ of six movies each, the first five of each phase devoted to individual Marvel heroes, the sixth bringing the previous five altogether into a grand finale which ties together plotlines from the previous movies.

As I write we are approaching the end of Phase Three, which has just seen the phenomenal success of Black Panther (phase 3, movie 5) which grossed over $1.3 billion, and paved the way for the sixth in this phase, Avengers: Infinity War which has just opened in the States to the usual mass marketing and hype.

Summary

Despite having no illustrations at all, Robb’s book is an eminently readable and very enjoyable overview of the entire history of the superhero comic book phenomenon, which puts it in the context of expanding popular culture, twentieth century history, and the evolving media of radio, TV and film – all told in a light, accessible prose style with a sure sense of the interesting anecdote and fascinating fact.

Great fun, and a very useful introduction to a cultural phenomenon which is bigger than ever, and set to dominate our movie and TV screens for the foreseeable future.


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Opera: Passion, Power and Politics @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A have spent £55 million on a vast new underground exhibition space, named the Exhibition Road Quarter because you enter it from Exhibition Road. It opened in July 2017.

The angled courtyard you walk across is no great shakes, but once inside you go down white steps between sheer, polished black walls to arrive at the huge new, open exhibition space, all 1,100 square metres of it (‘one of the largest exhibition spaces in Europe’), which is currently hosting a wonderfully enjoyable exhibition on the history of opera.

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642)

Opera and me

In my 20s and 30s I developed a passion for opera and, in total, saw about 100 productions, at the Royal Opera House, the Colosseum, at other theatres around the country, at a few experimental venues, and twice at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In my late 20s I was commissioned to write a libretto, an adaptation of the famous Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was set to music by the composer Ron McAllister and performed as part of the Huddersfield classical music festival.

So I have a reasonably good feel for opera, its history and possibilities.

Passion, Power and Politics

400 years of a Europe-wide art form is a big subject to tackle. The curators have taken the neat, practical step of focusing on seven epoch-making or representative works. The huge exhibition space is divided into temporary ‘rooms’ whose walls are plastered with information about the year and city of their premieres, investigating how each one crystallised the history, culture, technology, ideologies and, of course, the music of their times.

Before we get to the specific operas it’s necessary to say something about the layout & content of the show.

The audioguide

First and foremost, all visitors are given a free audioguide which plays wonderful soaring music from each of the featured operas.

As you walk between the ‘rooms’ or sections devoted to each opera, the audioguide automatically senses where you are and changes the music accordingly. It not only plays a popular aria or overture or passage from each opera but also snippets of behind-the-scenes moments from real productions, with orchestras tuning up, the floor manager counting down to curtain up and so on, all of which gives the listener a real sense of being at the theatre.

I think it’s the best use of an audioguide I’ve ever experienced. Not many exhibitions have given me as much pure pleasure as listening to music from Handel’s Rinaldo while looking at paintings showing the London of Handel’s day, or listening to the Venusberg music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser while watching a video installation showing how different directors have staged ‘erotic’ ballets to accompany this deeply sensual music.

Objects, dresses and accessories

Secondly, each section is stuffed with wonderful, rare, precious and evocative objects from each era. Period musical instruments include viols, lutes and cornets from Monteverdi’s time (the 1600s), the very piano Mozart performed on in Prague and a beautifully made pedal harp from the court of Marie Antoinette (both from the 1780s). The Venice section features 400-year-old combs and mirrors used by the city’s courtesans during the annual carnival, and so on.

Each section also features paintings which portray the city or the opera house, the composer, or actual performances. Some of these are really top quality, making it an interesting exhibition of painting in its own right, with works by artists from the late Baroque, some Impressionists (Degas), some of Die Brücke group of German Expressionists and, in the final room, a suite of dynamic Agitprop posters and designs from the early experimental era of the Soviet Union.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) from the Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence bpk.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) The Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence

As you might expect from the V&A, there are also sumptuous costumes from each of the key periods, with a luxury hand-sewn coat, waistcoat and breeches from Mozart’s day, a beautiful white dress to be worn by he character of Violetta in La Traviata.

Right at the start there is a risqué courtesan outfit from Venice, made of thick red velvet in the shape of a leotard i.e. only just covering the loins. This was designed to be worn under a long red skirt, split in the middle which could be teasingly parted to reveal… the 18-inch-high chopines or stylised shoes which the city’s better class courtesans wore. Almost impossible to walk in, the wearer had to lean heavily on a consort or male escort. There are tiaras and top hats from the premier of Tannhauser in Paris in 1861.

If you like historic costumes, there are plenty hear to savour and enjoy.

Rooms like sets

Because this huge exhibition space has no formal ‘rooms’, the designers have been free to create room-shaped ‘spaces’ for each period, and to design as they wish, with the result that the spaces sometimes incorporate large elements which help make the spaces themselves seem like stage sets.

The most obvious example is the Handel section, where they have recreated a scale version of the actual stage set of the first production of Handel’s Rinaldo. Visitors are invited to sit on a bench in front of it, listening to the glorious music, and watch the stage magic of the early 18th century – namely the way several tiers of wooden waves are made to move across the stage, while a small model ship bobs among them, representing the journey of the hero to exotic foreign lands.

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel's Rinaldo (1711)

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel’s Rinaldo (1711)

This is the most splendid example, but later ‘rooms’ feature an Italian flag, bust and props from Verdi’s time, and an enormous red hammer and sickle dominating the Soviet section.

Referring specifically to the operas and their productions, the show includes original autograph scores, along with stage directions, libretti, set models and costume designs for each of them.

Altogether there are over 300 objects to savour, marvel at, learn about, ponder and enjoy, all the time your head filled with some of the greatest music ever written.

Among these is a new recording of the Royal Opera Chorus singing ‘Va pensiero’ (the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco recorded specially for the exhibition. Just – wow!

The operas

1. Venice L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642) by Claudio Monteverdi. Venice was a Renaissance centre of trade and commerce, famous for its glassware and the colourfulness of its textiles and paintings. Unsurprisingly, it was also a centre for entertainment, gambling and disguise, especially at the time of the annual carnival. The earliest operas were staged in the private houses of the very rich.

Monteverdi mostly wrote church music but he composed a few of the very first ‘operas’, basing them on classical stories. L’incoronazione di Poppea is about the notorious Roman Emperor Nero, his wife and mistress. Poppea premiered in Venice’s Carnival season of 1642-3 and represents opera’s transition from private court entertainment to the public realm.

2. London Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel was premiered in London in 1711, one of the first Italian language operas performed in London, just as Britain was emerging as one of the leading empires in Europe.

It is fascinating to read contemporary criticism by conservatives like the artist William Hogarth and the editors of the Spectator magazine, who heartily condemned this importation of a decadent and foreign art form into good old Blighty.

The paintings of early 18th century London on show here are almost as fascinating as the spectacular stage set, and the Handel music emerged as, I think, my favourite of all that on the audioguide – stately, elegant, refined, other-worldly in its elegance.

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

3. Vienna Le nozze di Figaro (1786) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was premiered in 1786 in Vienna, which had become one of the centres of the European Enlightenment under its liberal Emperor Joseph II.

After the Handel, the Mozart music seemed infinitely more dramatic, concerning itself with recognisably real people and passions: Le nozze di Figaro being a comic story about mismatched love between the classes.

The excerpt on the audioguide synchs up with a scene projected onto an enormous screen on the wall, an aria sung by the pageboy Cherubino who is just coming into adolescence and finds himself flushing and confused among attractive adult women.

On display are a piano Mozart played in Prague, fashionable dresses that would have been worn by the opera’s aristocratic characters, and displays explaining the relationship between the opera’s source – a play by the French playwright Beaumarchais – and the contemporary beliefs of Enlightenment Europe.

4. Milan Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi was premiered in Milan in 1842. Verdi’s operas developed the importance of the chorus, which is often given his most rousing tunes. Verdi was closely identified with the Risorgimento, the political movement to kick out the foreign powers which occupied various parts of Italy (notably Austria) and create a united country.

Hence the big Italian flag draped over this section, the patriotic bust of Verdi, and the choice of the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (‘Va pensiero’) from Nabucco, which became a sort of unofficial national anthem for Italian nationalists.

5. Paris Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner premiered in Paris in 1861. Paris was fast becoming the intellectual and artistic capital of Europe.

Modernists loved the opera with its radical technical innovations: Wagner hated Italian opera which broke the music up into set-piece arias and choruses – by contrast, in a Wagner opera the music flows seamlessly from start to finish in one great engulfing flow. It also shocked because of its daring subject matter, a story about the temptations of sensuality to the high-minded musician of the title. The progressive poet Charles Baudelaire praised it profusely.

The information panels tell us that it was traditional for French composers to arrange a short ballet to start the second or third act. This was because the more aristocratic patrons generally didn’t arrive till after the interval, and mostly came to see pretty girls dancing (many of whom were their mistresses). In a deliberate act of defiance Wagner placed the ballet number right at the start of act one.

6. Dresden The Biblical story of Salome, the sensual step-daughter of King Herod, who dances a strip-tease for him in order to get him to behead St John the Baptist, was a central obsession of the Symbolist movement in all the arts at the end of the 19th century, combining heavy sensuality, perversion, death and the exotic.

Oscar Wilde wrote a play about Salome (in French) for which the wonderful fin-de-siecle artist Aubrey Beardsley created his matchlessly sinuous line illustrations.

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

In 1905 Dresden saw the premiere of a heavily sensual and violent opera based on Wilde’s play composed by Richard Strauss. It was the era of Expressionism in the arts, and the exhibition features not only a selection of Beardsley’s illustrations (and Strauss’s copy of Wilde’s play, with Strauss’s own hand-written notes and underlinings) but also a selection of powerful woodcuts and paintings by artists from the German art movement, Die Brücke).

There are two large posters on the same subject by Parisian poster designers, including La Loïe Fuller Dans Sa Création Nouvelle, Salomé by Georges de Feure.

Dominating this ‘room’ is a huge screen displaying an excerpt from a modern production of the opera, showing the climax of the action where Salome, in a slip covered in blood, sings an aria to John the Baptist’s severed head, before gruesomely kissing it.

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

7. St Petersburg The blood-soaked theme is continued in the final choice, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk  by Dmitri Shostakovich, which premiered in Leningrad in 1934.

This final section is dominated by a huge model of a red hammer and sickle. Next to it is a blow-up of a woman’s face from a Soviet agitprop poster (the full poster can be seen at the excellent exhibition of Soviet art and posters currently at Tate Modern).

To one side is a mock-up of Shostakovich’s study with writing table and chair. Behind it is projected a clip from a Soviet publicity film showing the great man knocking out a composition at the piano. The walls are decked with fabulously stylish Soviet posters and art works.

Installation view of the Shostakovitch section of Opera - Passion, Power and Politics

Installation view of the Shostakovich section of Opera – Passion, Power and Politics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is based on a 19th century novel about a woman who is unfaithful to her husband, has an affair with one of his farm workers, poisons her father-in-law, and much more in the same vein.

Unfortunately, the opera premiered just as Stalin consolidated his grip on the Soviet Union and his cultural commissar Zhdanov promulgated the new doctrine of Socialist realism, i.e. that all art works should be optimistic, readily understandable to the proletariat, and show the new Soviet society in an upbeat, positive way.

Very obviously Shostakovich’s opera did the exact opposite and in 1936 was savagely criticised in a threatening article in Pravda which most contemporaries thought had been written by Stalin himself. The production was hurriedly cancelled and Shostakovich not only suppressed it but also cancelled preparations for his huge dissonant Fourth Symphony. He quickly turned to writing more ‘inspiring’ music – specifically the moving Fifth Symphony which was ostentatiously sub-titled ‘a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism’. The opera wasn’t performed again in the USSR until 1961.

In other words, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk not only represents a nexus of violence, lust, revenge and class conflict in its plotline, but stands at a key cultural moment in the development of the twentieth century’s most important event, the Russian Revolution and the Great Communist Experiment. The threat to Shostakovich was in effect a threat to an entire generation of artists and composers.

Opera around the world

Only here at the end do you realise that the exhibition rooms are arranged in a circle around a big empty central area. This big space contains half a dozen huge screens onto which are projected excerpts from 20th century and contemporary operas such as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, all making the point that opera is as alive and kicking as ever.

Summary

This is an enormous, ground-breaking, genuinely innovative exhibition which manages to convincingly cover its enormous subject, shedding light not only on opera and music, but the other arts and the broader history of Europe across an immense sweep of time.

So big, so many beautiful objects, so much inspiring music, that it probably merits being visited more than once to really soak up all the stories, all the passion and all the beauty on display (I’ve been twice and might go again before it closes).


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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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