The Growth of the Art World in Eighteenth Century England. 8May 8, 2018
The Struggle for an Academy.
The court room in the Foundling could be considered one of the first galleries of history paintings in England,1 since it was praised handsomely by critics, even by a French commentator who saw them as evidence that the gallery gave the public the chance to judge the ability of British portrait painters to execute history pictures.2 But the genre of history painting “remained marginal,”3 and in order for it to become central in London, and thus more visible to the public, it would take a number of artistic battles resulting in the decision to create a Royal Academy that exhibited pictures which the public could see in halls, like the French had been doing from 1737. Since 1736, there had been suggestions in England to establish an academy based on the French model; but there were inflexible opponents to this plan- notably Hogarth- who wanted a more voluntary organisation, not one supported by royalty. Moreover artists like Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), a member of the Society of Artists, founded in 1761, held more lofty ambitions such as setting standards for tastes, helping to “shape a discerning public.”4 Not only the struggle for artistic supremacy was important, but also the issue of where the public could see the art. The only places were auction houses, but they were sales rooms rather than exhibition halls.5 The Royal Academy Schools were located in old Somerset House, which could only handle 1,000 visitors a day; but even the Royal Academy after its foundation in 1768 had to use an auction house, though one owned by George III’s librarian Dalton.6 The only solution was for artistic societies to construct their own sites, which would require a huge amount of money to purchase a site in the fashionable part of London. Eventually, a new building was created at Somerset House, right on the fashionable Strand. The above painting by John Francis Rigaud shows Sir William Chambers; Joseph Wilton, and Sir Joshua Reynolds.
1Solkin, Painting for Money, 173.
2As mentioned in Jean Andre Rouquet’s “The Present State of the Arts in England” cited in ibid, 163.
3Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination, 228.