Skip to content

Response to Review no. 391

I am grateful to Professor Rosenthal for his generous and thoughtful review and his sympathetic and constructive criticism. The King’s Artists is intended as a contribution both to our appreciation of, in Prof. Rosenthal’s words, ‘artistic practice in particular and cultural life more generally in Britain between 1760 and 1840’, and to the study of political culture, the role of the arts in politics, and the nature of the late Hanoverian state. Professor Rosenthal acknowledges these wider dimensions of The King’s Artists in the examples and case studies he chooses to review. His detailed criticism focuses more on various aspects of the internal politics of the art world and I should like to take the opportunity to respond to his three main critiques in turn.

Firstly, the politics of the founding of the Royal Academy and the role of the Society of Artists. The King’s Artists does, I believe, account for the differences between the visions of the Society of Artists and the new Royal Academy, their respective teaching provisions, and exhibition philosophies (see pp. 19f, 52, 146-8, 204-7). I agree that more could have been said about artists who were not invited at first to become members of the Royal Academy in 1768 and I look forward to reading Hargraves’ thesis (not available when The King’s Artists went into print). Interestingly, two of Professor Rosenthal’s examples, George Stubbs and Joseph Wright of Derby, were in fact elected Associate Academicians in 1780 and 1781, and Academicians in 1781 and 1784 respectively. Although the record is patchy, Stubb’s election was subsequently annulled on the basis that he failed to submit the requisite Diploma work. Wright declined his election to Academician and ordered his name be taken off the Associates’ Roll, as he had been dissatisfied with the way his paintings were hung in the exhibition. Initial exclusion thus seemed to be matched by later self-imposed exile. Influential publications such as John Gould’s Dictionary of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers (London: Gale & Curtis, 1810) endorsed the Academy’s narrow definition of the canon of British painters. Gould’s introductory discussion of British art is confined almost exclusively to Academicians; there are no entries in the dictionary for artists, such as Romney, who did not join at its foundation, or for those at its fringes, like Stubbs and Wright.

Secondly: ‘There is little sustained discussion of periodical or newspaper art criticism’. Building on what little we had before on the subject (John Brewer, Mark Hallett, and David Solkin), I sought to sketch briefly the genres, languages, and functions of art criticism in newspapers, periodicals, and pamphlets (see pp. 130-2). Reviews in several dozen newspapers and magazines were also used throughout to study the reception of Academy politics in general, and of specific exhibits in particular, paying attention to the ways in which the political orientation of specific publications, among other factors, shaped reactions to the Academy. But I certainly agree with Professor Rosenthal on the need for more systematic studies of early British art criticism: presumably these have not been undertaken previously partly because it has been seen as a less rewarding subject than literary-philosophical French art criticism. But if approached as what was seen as a vital means of instruction for both contemporary artists and their audiences, and, from the start, as a politicised genre, the study of art criticism in the English and British contexts should repay the student of the politics of culture.

Thirdly, Professor Rosenthal finds it ‘surprising that the connoisseurs of the British Institution get such short shrift.’ I do not think that they necessarily do get such short shrift, nor can I agree with the reviewer’s reading of the struggle between artists and connoisseurs more generally. I did not have the opportunity to consult Morales’ doctoral thesis. Yet, based on the full archival record of the British Institution and its communications with the RA circle, The King’s Artists considers the ambivalent relationship between these rival yet complementary institutions in a range of contexts (see pp. 8, 53, 56, 234, 298, 263-71). More generally, the vital theme of the struggle between connoisseurs and artists over who had the better claim to aesthetic expertise features in various chapters (see pp. 103, 255f., 270, 288-90). I primarily wish to address Professor Rosenthal’s wider claim that in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries connoisseurs began to challenge artists’ authority in judging fine arts, leaving them ‘no longer the principal arbiter of taste’. As evidence he cites the foundation of the British Institution, and its ‘temerity to mount a Reynolds retrospective’ in 1813, and Academicians’ failure to secure exclusive control over the commissioning of public commemorative sculpture. The best way in which I can express my disagreement with this chronology and trajectory is by quoting a passage in The King’s Artists at some length:

The eighteenth-century connoisseur developed a bifocal vision. The study of the technical minutiae of works of art for purposes of attribution was complemented by a larger vision of the work as a whole. This was founded on a classical education, the Grand Tour, and the collecting of objects of virtu. The Society of Dilettanti enshrined the connoisseurs’ position and from mid-century generated increasingly public debate about art and their own interpretative authority. Artists were, in the first half of the eighteenth century, generally considered incapable of a general vision, nor even of the attribution, of art works, which depended partly on the exposure to many originals; they ought, so went the dominant, connoisseur-inspired view, to confine themselves to executing paintings or sculpture.(p.255)

The foundation of the Royal Academy was the culmination of a generation of artists’ quest for a professional institution operating free from the influence of connoisseurs. The

public became increasingly disposed towards the view that the academic artist should have greater critical authority than private collectors: this was due to Reynolds’ public Academy lectures, Academicians’ aspiration towards morally instructive history painting; and the role of Academy shows (held in the neo-classical surroundings of Somerset House) in disseminating public knowledge of art and taste. The artist was thus stealing the connoisseur’s classical garb. In turn, the connoisseur was satirized as indulging in excessive attention to technical detail in works of art, failing to appreciate their larger meaning. The academic artist could now pose more plausibly as the true aesthetic expert and seek to be seen to deploy his expertise for the general good, not least in projecting an image of national cultural prowess.(pp. 255-6)

In this context, the final section of my book seeks to show in considerable detail how, after c.1790, the British state structured a crucial phase in the contest between the artist and the connoisseur over interpretative authority. Among my prime examples is, first, a discussion of how, at various stages, Academicians and connoisseurs co-operated and competed in shaping the St Paul’s pantheon of naval and military monuments, fully acknowledging that the connoisseurs reasserted their position by founding the British Institution. Secondly, and crucially, in advising Parliament on the Elgin Marbles the academic artist triumphed over the connoisseur as the superior arbiter of public taste. The House of Commons Select Committee adopted the Academicians’ view that the sculptures were of supreme aesthetic value; Richard Payne Knight had dismissed them as second-rate. Just how high the stakes were is perhaps indicated by Haydon’s ‘On the Judgement of the Connoisseurs being preferred to that of Professional Men’, published in the Examiner and other newspapers before the Elgin committee report came out. In no other profession, Haydon cried out, was the connoisseur’s opinion privileged over that of the ‘man who has devoted his soul to excel in it’: ‘No man will trust his limb to a connoisseur in surgery; no minister would ask a connoisseur in war how a campaign is to be conducted; no nobleman would be satisfied with the opinion of a connoisseur in law on disputed property.’(1)

Perhaps rather than a daring challenge to the Academy, the Reynolds retrospective of 1813, the apotheosis of the founding President of the Academy, was – along with the other projects of the British Institution – as much the connoisseurs’ attempt to absorb criticism of their often alleged negligence and to ‘call attention generally to British, in preference to foreign Art’ (2) The British Institution made West an honorary member, and the RA complied with loan requests to the British retrospectives in 1813-17, which after all endorsed their own founding generation as the founders of the English School. The two infamously polemical Catalogues raisonnées which Professor Rosenthal mentions and which were at the time attributed to dozens of people, including Academicians Shee, Smirke, Reinagle, and Landseer, but also to Sir Walter Fawkes, Turner’s patron, and James Perry of the Morning Chronicle, criticised the British Institution’s (foreign) Old Master retrospectives for abandoning the Institution’s original purpose of the patronage of native art in favour of foreign and bad pictures and the puffing of their owners.

The politics of membership in art institutions, of art criticism, and of the public exercise of aesthetic expertise, are key aspects of the cultural politics of the late Hanoverian art world. My main impetus in writing The King’s Artists was to think, and encourage thinking, about the wider politics of culture and to re-inscribe into Hanoverian history, politics and political institutions as agents and sites of cultural change. Professor Rosenthal’s thoughtful review highlights a number of areas open to further debate. If The King’s Artists can stimulate further research and discussion it will have served one of its purposes.


1. 1. Aldous Huxley, ed., The Autobiography and Memoirs of Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846), 2 vols (London: Peter Davies, 1926), p. 233.
2. 2. Richard Payne Knight, ‘Preface’, in Catalogue of Pictures of the Late Sir Joshua Reynolds (London, 1813).