English Painting Comes of Age
Hogarth, Reynolds, Turner. But also Fuseli, Stubbs, Constable (a good 8 of them), Joseph Wright of Derby and Canaletto. So, swopping Venice’s Canale Grande for the Thames, it is with the Italian – arrived in England as the behest of Joseph Smith, diplomat and wheeler-dealer to Britain’s Royal and rich – that the exhibition begins. Albeit with blue skies that seem more Venetian than English, Canaletto in super-photographic detail provides two depictions from (and through) Westminster Bridge, part of a building boom that had continued apace since London’s Great Fire (1666) and made the city the biggest metropolis since Roman times. The bridge’s construction in 1742 is recalled in an earlier painting by Samuel Scott.
Before tv or video-camera painting as a means to record events is again evident in William Hodges’ blissful ‘Tahiti Revisited’, along with his portrait of Captain Cook, for whom Hodges was ship’s artist. The Italian connection is resumed in Ibbotson’s ‘Balloon from St George’s Field’s’, that bulbous Union Jack floating above the suburbs carrying one Lunardi, ambassador for the Kingdom of Naples and a pioneer of flight. It was an age of new cultural icons: Other examples celebrated include inventor/industrialist (Richard Arkwright), scientists (in Thomas Wright of Derby where scientist and new instrumentation are not so much depicted as meticulously illuminated). There is even a boxer, Jack Broughton, who would go on to found ‘ ‘Broughton’s Amphitheatre’ and invent boxing gloves after an opponent had died following a knock out.
Room 3 just manages to contain Fuselli’s almost stage-size paintings from Shakespeare, initially for a museum devoted to the Bard between Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres. Non-Shakesperian but equally dramatic is Hogarth’s ‘Marriage à la Mode’: Etching I. Businessman’s daughter for mercenary reasons is contracted in marriage to full-scale Lord; II. New husband sits exhausted after night in brothel, his wife equally tired signals to lover sneaking off right but not without first overturning chair and dropping his violin; III. Aristocratic husband, having contracted syphilis, visits a quack doctor; IV. Wife conducts the morning levée. Etching V. Husband stabbed while lover (same or different) escapes through window and a skull smirks from nearby sideboard. Alongside, like a proto-Goya, is his grotesque ‘the Dance’, middle-aged pot-bellied periwigs indulging in an 18th century rave.
The next room consists of portraits. Reynolds had put his own Grand Tour to excellent use to produce effects worthy of a Titian: ‘Portraiture,’ to quote one critic, ‘on a level with the Renaissance masters’, making Reynolds England’s highest paid artist to date. Hitherto rather staid, ‘British portraiture was beginning to lose its poker face’, to repeat one of the touch-screens with which the exhibition comes equipped. With a hint of smile, here, modeled on the Medici Venus, is his enchanting portrait of Catherine Bampfylde. (Keeping her company in nearby Museo Roma is one Catherine Bishop. The background may be London, the spaniel archetypically English, but the figure of the girl is a variation on the ancient statue of ‘girl with a dove’ then in the Capitoline Museum. Reynolds during his time in Rome (1749-50) would have dutifully entered it into his sketchbook for just such a future use.) A touch of Titian mixed with Rembrandt is also there in Matthew Peters’ portrait of Lord Montague, who after then years of Middle East travel shored up in Venice ‘with the manners and magnificence of a Turk. ‘ Indeed to have one portrait’s taken was something of a Grand Tourist’s sine qua non – a sort of ‘selfie’ made to last. If Reynolds or Peters were too expensive, Italian artists Pompeo Batoni and Rosalba Carriera were willing to oblige. Rivalling Reynolds for excellence, Gainsborough (here with his exquisite ‘Couple in a landscape) was, however, something of a stay-at-home.
The invention water-colours helped push landscape, hitherto and however consummately in the background, into the forefront. Pride of place in Room 5 goes to Thomas Reeves’ first commercial paint-box of 1790, ideal for theGrand Tourist and making up for any lack of camera. Painting became quicker and easier, making it possible to paint on the spot, before the next shower. So in 1804 the Society of Painters in Water-colours was established. Here are examples by Towne, Cozens and Thomas Girton. The tradition continues through to Turner, two of his water-colours on displayed later. Transparent colours provided greater flexibility, helping painters concentrate not just on the landscape as surface, but on the underlying geometries beneath.
How the new intimacy of artist and landscape also benefitted oil painting is shown in the next room. Joseph Wright depicts to visionary effect a grotto near Salerno from the inside out. (Another version is the museum of his home town, Derby.) Stubbs meanwhile conjures an unlikely lion (instead of the usual horse) against a Derbyshire crag. These and other paintings by Italo-phile Richard Wilson prelude the exhibition’s climax – a face- off between 11 Turners and 8 Constables. In contrast to Turner, the latter anchored himself in the British landscape, a genius of millstream, foliage, and cloud – ‘Nature’s chiaroscuro’. Whether before Flatford Mill, Hampstead Heath, or Salisbury Cathedral – Constable’s technique involved ‘body to body engagement with Nature’ to cite the catalogue, any number of sittings before the scene depicted.
Turner, on the other hand, would often paint from Memory. Having internalized the scene conceptually, he would even add touches – small or major – to works already hanging on display. In his time he was often rewarded with mockery and misunderstanding. One cartoon has him applying colours with a mop. The catalogue notes how during his Rome stay, ‘Qui la gente non capisce in alcun modo il suo stile’. Had his detractors realized, he was simply ahead of his time, the ultimate exponent of the exhibition’s subtitle – ‘Pittura inglese verso la modernità.’ Travelling to Italy to seek out the landscapes of Claud Lorrain, Turner in his own ‘Landscape in Nepi’ (Lazio) and ‘Ulysses deriding Polyphemus’ surpasses his master, the primacy of light prefiguring the Impressionists and even Mark Rothko, other abstractionists beyond.
Till 20 July
Fondazione Roma Museo – Palazzo Sciarra
via Marco Minghetti, 22 (Via del Corso)
Entry fee €11.50, reduced €9.50
Mon 2pm-8pm, Tue- Thurs and Sun 10am-8pm, Fri-Sat 10am-9pm