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Putting history into art history: on 18th-century British Art

Recent scholarship examines the social context

by David Bindman  |  8 July 2016
Putting history into art history: on 18th-century British Art
Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe (1770) was an example of a successful intervention in the public space of the Royal Academy because it raised questions about the painting of contemporary events in the grand manner
David Solkin’s Art in Britain 1660-1815 is a very welcome successor in the Pelican History of Art series to Ellis Waterhouse’s Painting in Britain 1530-1790. The latter first appeared in 1953, and a fifth edition was published in 1994, with an introduction by the late Michael Kitson.
Waterhouse’s title unambiguously restricted the scope of his volume to painting. Solkin’s title Art in Britain suggests a range beyond painting and it does have some room for printmaking, but sculpture is not considered at all; it could have had the same title as Waterhouse’s volume, except for the dates.

Solkin’s book begins with a historically significant date, 1660, the year of the restoration of the monarchy after Cromwell, but ends much later than Waterhouse’s, in 1815, also a significant historical date, which allows him to include discussions of Blake, Fuseli, Turner, Constable and English watercolours. Waterhouse’s terminal date, 1790, gave him an excuse not to write about Romantic artists, with whom he was not in sympathy. He once admitted to me that he hated Blake, and no doubt felt the same about Fuseli and other history painters.

Far more significant are the differences of approach. For Waterhouse, artists are influenced mainly by other artists and have individual temperaments and occasional patrons; the world of events and social change has little effect on them. Aesthetic judgements and claims of artistic influence are given freely and confidently.

Behind Waterhouse’s often cavalier opinions is an impatience with any British art that is not portraiture or landscape. Indeed, it is the treatment of history that is the biggest difference between the approaches of the two authors. For Solkin, history is not just something that happens in the background to the practice of art, but is an inextricable part of it; and it is the history of social change, rather than of events and personalities. Solkin is much influenced by the writings of recent historians of 18th-century Britain such as Richard Sennett, John Brewer, John Barrell and John Pocock, who have tended to see the art and literature of the period in terms of the cultural struggle between the landed interest and newly wealthy City merchants and professionals.

This struggle was around such issues as politeness and refinement (and their opposite—vulgarity), luxury, civic virtue, sensibility and disinterestedness (the last claimed on behalf of aristocrats rich enough to be supposed to be beyond corruption). Art, and especially portraiture and landscape painting, is seen by Solkin not only as the product of individual negotiations between artist and patron, but also of the latter’s ideological interests and the artist’s need to make a living in the rapidly changing society of 18th-century England. It is hardly controversial any more to look at 18th-century British art this way, but we should remember the hysterical and shameful attacks, led by the late Denys Sutton and the Daily Telegraph, on Solkin’s excellent Richard Wilson exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1982.

Despite the strong historical framework that Solkin imposes on British art, it does not come at the expense of looking closely at paintings. He examines paintings meticulously and integrates them elegantly into his wider discussion. His account of van Loo’s success in portraiture, for example, depends on an analysis of the effect of the painter’s technique in comparison with that of contemporary London artists, which Solkin notes is impossible to discern from reproductions.

The central theme of the second half of the book is the importance of exhibitions—the Royal Academy’s and others’—which often have a subtle but decisive effect on the practice of painting and its relation to the public. The prospect of exhibiting paintings brought artists into a highly competitive market, where their ability to make a public statement and, with luck, sell their paintings, had a transforming effect on subject matter and on all genres from landscape and portrait to history painting.

Causing a sensation with a striking work on the walls of the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy could be the way to a successful career as a painter. Painters could literally become the talk of the town, and public exposure provided an opportunity for Fuseli, for example, to make a dramatic impact by the calculated use of horrific subjects. This relatively new public role for art remained decisive into the early 19th century and beyond, and it enabled what Solkin calls a “national visual culture” to emerge from the period of the French Revolution.

Solkin has created a coherent and persuasive account of the growth and development of British art, based on a fine-grained understanding of the larger historical movements of the periods he considers and an intense engagement with the works themselves. But there are some omissions that are likely to govern any future attempts to cover such a wide field in one volume. It is intrinsic to Solkin’s approach that the emphasis of the coverage is firmly on the side of public art rather than the more private. To give one example, George Romney is discussed as a portrait painter but no consideration is given to his frenetic and inconclusive drawings for history paintings.

There is an unexpected whiff of Anglocentrism that may be implicit in the original remit of the book. Although Allan Ramsay and Alexander Runciman are considered, there is no sense of their Scottish context at all. Lely, Kneller and other foreigners are discussed thoroughly but not in terms of their continental origins.

There are discussions of paintings that relate to the emerging British empire, but it is not as strong a presence as one might expect. Zoffany’s Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Fight is discussed, but Tilly Kettle gets only a passing mention. Nor is there any discussion of the empire’s contribution to the British economy and how that fed into the art market.

Though there is a page on the imagery of slavery, there is almost no mention of the presence of black slaves in a number of formal portraits. Nor is there any consideration of the relationship between American and British painting, which absurdly is almost always treated separately, though almost all 18th-century American painting was the work of artists who had come directly from Britain.

Despite a title that suggests that it might be an earlier volume of the Pelican histories, Painting in Britain 1500-1630 is a totally different kind of book. If the normally single-author format of the Pelican histories connects them to a long tradition of scholarly work, this one bears the stamp of the British Academy’s relatively recent emphasis on cross- disciplinary work in the humanities, carried out by teams on the model of science research. It has input from the National Portrait Gallery and two university departments, the Courtauld and Sussex, and is written by a team of academics, curators and conservators.

This might suggest an impenetrable technical conversation, but the authors make a commendable attempt to make it comprehensible to non-specialists. An essay by Aviva Burnstock explains the enormous advance in the analysis of paintings over the past few years that enables greater accuracy in dating and identifying materials.

All of this new knowledge of the dating of wooden supports and the paint used to identify workshops and artists is brought to bear in an illuminating way on the principal artists of the 16th and early 17th centuries. It is now possible to reconstruct the oeuvre of artists like Hans Eworth with a new certainty. The volume also considers the movement of artists and their markets. It does not claim to have all the answers—too much has been lost over the centuries for that—but it does begin to clarify what has always been a somewhat neglected and underrated field of study.

• David Bindman is the emeritus professor of the history of art at University College London and a fellow of Harvard University

Art in Britain 1660-1815
David Solkin
Yale University Press in association with the Pelican History of Art and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 384pp, £55 (hb)

Painting in Britain 1500-1630: Production, Influences and Patronage
Tarnya Cooper, Aviva Burnstock, Maurice Howard and Edward Town, eds
Oxford University Press in association with the British Academy, 436pp, £150 (hb)

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