Pictures at an Exhibition

In the spring of 1813 Jane Austen visited London as the guest of her brother, Henry Austen. Though fresh from the thrill of another successful novel, Pride and Prejudice had been published in January, earlier that year, the family was subdued. Henry's beloved wife, Eliza de Feuillide, had passed away just a few weeks before, in April. Perhaps seeking some distraction from their grief, Jane and Henry attended several art exhibits being held in the city at that time. Jane writes amusingly to her sister, of her unending search for a portrait of 'Mrs. Darcy', among the collected works.
"Henry and I went to the exhibition in Spring Gardens. It is not thought a good collection, but I was very well pleased, particularly (pray tell Fanny) with a small portrait of Mrs. Bingley, excessively like her. I went in hopes of seeing one of her sister, but there was no Mrs. Darcy. Perhaps, however, I may find her in the great exhibition, which we shall go to if we have time. I have no chance of her in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds's paintings, which is now showing in Pall Mall, and which we are also to visit. Mrs. Bingley's is exactly herself -- size, shaped face, features, and sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her. I dare say Mrs. D. will be in yellow... We were to have gone to the Somerset House Exhibition on Saturday, but ... by the time we had done it was too late for anything but home... Monday Evening. -- We have been both to the exhibition and Sir J. Reynolds's, and I am disappointed, for there was nothing like Mrs. D. at either. I can only imagine that Mr. D. prizes any picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye. I can imagine he would have that sort of feeling -- that mixture of love, pride, and delicacy. Setting aside this disappointment, I had great amusement among the pictures; and the driving about, the carriage being open, was very pleasant. I liked my solitary elegance very much, and was ready to laugh all the time at my being where I was. I could not but feel that I had naturally small right to be parading about London in a barouche. Jane Austen to Cassandra Monday, May 24, 1813
The Spring Gardens, referred to here, might have been a portrait exhibit at Vauxhall Gardens. A renowned pleasure center, the gardens had been known as "The New Spring Gardens" until 1785 and part of the site is now a small public park called Spring Gardens. The portrait she saw at this exhibit, which she claimed to be the very embodiment of her imaginary Mrs. Bingley is is believed to be Mrs. Quentin by Huet-Villiers. Mrs. Quentin was, at the time, the wife of an army officer, and rumored to be a mistress of the Prince Regent. This print was made from an engraving of the original portrait. "The Exhibition" Austen refers to here was, of course, the ongoing exhibition (thus giving her no need to describe it for her sister) of the Royal Academy at Somerset House. The Royal Academy of Arts was founded through a personal act of King George III on 10 December 1768 with a mission to promote the arts of design through education and exhibition. The motive in founding the Academy was twofold: to raise the professional status of the artist by establishing a sound system of training and expert judgment in the arts and to arrange the exhibition of contemporary works of art attaining an appropriate standard of excellence. Behind this concept was the desire to foster a national school of art and to encourage appreciation and interest in the public based on recognised canons of good taste. Sir William Chambers (who redesigned the building) used his connections with King George III to gain royal patronage and financial support of the Academy and the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds was made its first President. When the Royal Academy was founded in 1768 one of its key objectives was to establish an annual exhibition, open to all artists of merit, which could be visited by the public. The first Summer Exhibition took place in 1769; it has been held every year since without exception. Although Joshua Reynolds had been the president of the Academy, it was not here, that his work was exhibited in 1813. It is clear from her references that the exhibit Jane Austen is referring to was the first of "The Old Masters" exhibits, produced by The British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom. It consisted entirely of 143 works by Sir Joshua Reynolds, most of which were on loan from society members. The British Institution (founded 1805, disbanded 1867) was a private 19th-century society in London formed to exhibit the works of living and dead artists; it was also known as the Pall Mall Picture Galleries or the British Gallery. Unlike the Royal Academy it admitted only connoisseurs, dominated by the nobility, rather than practicing artists to its membership, which along with its conservative taste led to tensions with the British artists it was intended to encourage and support. In its gallery in Pall Mall the Institution held the world's first regular temporary exhibitions of Old Master paintings, which alternated with sale exhibitions of the work of living artists; both quickly established themselves as popular parts of the London social and artistic calendar. From 1807 prizes were given to artists and surplus funds were used to buy paintings for the nation. The British Institution was founded in June 1805 by a group of private subscribers who met in the Thatched House Tavern in London. A committee was formed, and in September of that year it purchased the lease of the former Boydell Shakespeare Gallery building at 52 Pall Mall, with 62 years remaining, for a premium of £4,500 and an annual ground rent of £125. The British Institution opened at the Pall Mall site on 18 January 1806. The price of admission remained one shilling throughout the life of the Institution. There were some private openings in the evenings, for members and (separately) exhibitors, these being divided into two by splitting the alphabet. The number of modern works exhibited grew within a few years to over 500. The first exhibition contained 257 works (including sculptures and some enamels and miniatures) with a good selection of the leading British artists, including (selecting on their modern rather than contemporary reputations) two Turners, two Stubbs paintings and five enamels, fourteen Benjamin Wests, four Paul Sandby's, two by Thomas Lawrence, one a huge history painting, three Copley's including his Death of Chatham (pictured below), four James Wards, as well as 24 pictures from the Arabian Nights by Robert Smirke, who was to turn against the Institution. Within a few years the number of works regularly reached over 500, and many had to be rejected. The 1806 receipts for the shilling entries were £534 & 4s implying 10,684 paying visitors above the members and their guests. In 1810 the Institution announced that in its first four years a total of 424 works had been sold, raising £20,900 for the artists (the Institution took no cut of sales); by 1826 this cumulative figure was over £75,000. In 1814 the Emperor of Russia and King of Prussia were among the visitors, apparently without buying. After the first exhibition the gallery was kept open as a free school for artists, with members lending a variety of Old Masters for them to copy; at this stage the public could not see these displays. From 1807 a number of prizes of £100 or £50 were given to students at the school who painted the best companion pieces to works by Old Masters on display at the gallery. These were later increased and extended to other artists, reaching 300, 200 and 100 guineas by 1811. The Old Masters exhibitions were mainly loans from the members. The first was in 1813, entirely consisting of 143 works by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the next year 53 William Hogarth's, 73 Gainsborough's, 85 Richard Wilson's and 12 by Zoffany were shown. In 1815 for the first time the Institution showed foreign art - Dutch and Flemish - and upset many British artists by a preface to the catalogue, implying in a rather too patronizing manner that British artists had a lot to learn from them. Robert Smirke is generally accepted as the anonymous author of a series of satirical Catalogues Raisonnés published in 1815–16, which savagely lampooned the Directors, the great and the good of British art patronage. William Hazlitt rejoined with a long piece of laboured sarcasm in defence of the Institution. At this time the Old Masters were exhibited in the winter, and the living artists in the summer. In 1816 Italian and Spanish works were shown, including two of the Raphael Cartoons and several important works from the Orleans Collection. The foreign schools rotated until 1825 when only selected loaned works by living British artists were shown, and for the next two years only works from the Royal Collection, essentially the new collections of the Prince Regent, by now King George IV. In 1830 all 91 works were by the recently dead Sir Thomas Lawrence, including all the pictures from the Waterloo Gallery at Windsor Castle; his nieces received the £3,000 of ticket sales. In 1838 the living French artist Paul Delaroche was treated as an Old Master to allow exhibition of two of his large works on British history including Charles I Insulted by Cromwell's Soldiers. Later, by 1832 as reported by Passavant, the Institution's routine was to hold a spring exhibition of paintings by contemporary artists, available for purchase, followed by a summer exhibition of old masters. By the time of an 1835 visit by Thomas Carlyle, the gallery had become known colloquially as the Pall Mall Picture Galleries or the British Gallery, and was still among the popular society haunts. The Times called it "the favourite lounge of the nobility and gentry", and artists grumbled that it imposed aristocratic tastes on the viewing public. Tourist guides in the 1840s reported that the spring exhibition ran from the start of February to the first week of May, closing a week after the Royal Academy exhibition opened, and the old masters exhibition from the first week of June to the end of August, with some works remaining in the galleries for a month or more for artists to copy. By 1850 the Queen was Patroness, and the Directors a new generation of Dukes, Marquesses and Earls, with a couple of bankers (Hope and Baring) and the ever-present Samuel Rogers. Despite the apparently flourishing state of the Institution, when the term of the 1805 lease expired in 1867 it was dissolved; according to the The Art Journal the modern exhibitions had been declining in popularity, but not the Old Masters. Even so they reported that 150 pictures were sold from the modern exhibition in 1865, and 147 in 1864. A chance to buy the freehold in 1846 for £10,000 was missed, and it would have cost £25,000 by the 1860s. The remaining funds were used to establish scholarships for artists, and the Royal Academy took over the holding of loan exhibitions of Old Masters. When the gallery building was demolished during 1868–1869, the Banks sculpture from the building's facade was moved to Stratford-upon-Avon and re-erected in New Place Garden.
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