published by Rudolph Ackermann in 3 volumes, 1808–1811.
Previous to the institution of a Royal Academy, there was an exhibition at the Lyceum in the Strand. It was denominated THE SOCIETY OF ARTISTS OF GREAT BRITAIN; and the profits were to be applied to the relief of distressed artists, their widows and children. In this place were exhibited some very fine productions by Mortimer and other of our most celebrated painters.
The princes of the house of Hanover had many virtues of a description that adorn and dignify human nature. George II, was a gentleman of high honour and undeviating integrity; but he possessed no portion of taste for the fine arts, the professors of which were very coldly considered during his reign.
The accession of his present majesty displayed a very different scene, and those who had talents found now a sovereign who had taste to discern and appreciate them, and sought every opportunity of affording them countenance and protection.
The Royal Academy
In the year 1774, old Somerset Place was purchased of the crown, and an act of parliament passed for embanking the river Thames before Somerset House, and for building upon its scite various public offices, &c. The part of the building appropriated to the artists, is the object of our present enquiry.
The room on the ground-floor is allotted to models of statues, plans, elevations, and drawings.
The coved ceiling of the library was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Cipriani. The center is by Sir Joshua, and represents the Theory of the Art, under the form of an elegant and majestic female, seated on the clouds and looking up wards: she holds in one hand a compass, in the other a label, on which is written,
Theory is the knowledge of what is truly nature.
The four compartments in the coves of the ceiling are by Cipriani, and represent Nature, History, Allegory, and Fable. These are well imagined, and sufficiently explain themselves.
The adjoining room, being originally appropriated to models and casts from the antique, of which this society has a most valuable and curious collection, is plain and unornamented.
The council room is more richly decorated ; the stucco is in a good taste, and in the center compartment of the ceiling are five pictures painted by Mr. West. The center picture represents the Graces unveiling Nature; the others display the four elements from which the imitative arts collect their objects, under the description of female figures, attended by genii, with Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, exhibited under different forms and modifications. The large oval pictures which adorn the two extremities of the ceiling, are from the pencil of Angelica Kauffman, and represent Invention, Composition, Design, and Colouring. Besides these nine large pictures, there are in the angles, or ospandrells in the center, four coloured medallions, representing Apelles the painter, Phidias the sculptor, Apollodorus the architect, and Archimedes the mathematician; and round the great circle of the center, eight smaller medallions, held up by lions, on which are represented, in chira-obscuro, Palladio, Bernini, Michael Angelo, Fiamingo, Raphael, Dominichino, Titian, and Rubens; all of which are painted by Rebecca.
Sir Joshua Reynolds
Sir Joshua Reynolds was the first president ; and his urbanity of manners, and high rank in the arts, gave him a respectability with the society, which it will not be easy for any of his successors to equal.
It is not proper to pass the name of this great man without some general account of his character:
“His art was nature, and his pictures thought.”
He was born heir to the manor of portrait-painting, the soil of which he has so improved, enriched, and fertilized, as to give this hitherto barren spot in the province of art, an importance it was never before thought capable of receiving. At the hour he began to paint he was the leader of his art, and, whatever improvements were made by his contemporaries, preserved that rank to the last year of his life. He was sometimes praised for excellences which he did not possess, and sometimes censured for errors of which he was not guilty. To analyze his character fairly, it is necessary to consider the state of the arts when he began to paint; and to say a man was superior to the painters who immediately succeeded Hudson, is, with very few exceptions, saying little more than that he was a giant among pigmies. By his fondness for experiments in colours, he frequently used such as vanished before the originals they were designed to commemorate, and many of them the world need not lament.
Every succeeding year of his life he improved; and that some of his later pictures have been painted with colours that fled, every man of true taste will regret; at the same time that the mezzotintoes so frequently engraved from them, shew us in shadow, that such things were. He did not aim at giving a mere ground-plan of the countenance, but the markings of the mind, the workings of the soul, the leading features which distinguish man from man; by which means he has represented real beings with all the ideal graces of fiction, and united character to individuality. Invention and originality have been said to be the leading excellences of a poet or a painter, and the president has been accused of borrowing from the works of others. Let it be remembered, that the merit does not lie in the originality of any single circumstance, but in the conduct and use of all the branches and particular beauties which enter into each composition. Such appropriation has a right to the praise of invention, and to such praise was Sir Joshua entitled. He frequently united the elegance of the French style with the chastity of the Roman; he imitated the brilliant hues of Rembrandt, but never introduced what was either mean or disgusting; he had the richness of colouring of Rubens without his excess and tumult; and by thus judiciously selecting and skilfully blending the colours of the various masters, he has formed a style wholly his own, on the merit of which other painters have separately about as high claim, as the mason who hewed the stones for Whitehall had to the honours due to Inigo Jones.
Considered in every point of view, he has given a new character to portrait-painting, and his pencil may, without exaggeration, be called creative.
The stated professors of painting in its different departments, read lectures to the students in their various branches; and as they possess a most capital collection of casts and models from antique statues, &c. they have what may be fairly deemed a good school for drawing. A school for colouring they still want; and it has been recommended to them to purchase a collection of pictures, to which the students might resort, and compare their own productions with those of the great masters, whose works have stood the test of ages. The Lectures by Sir Joshua Reynolds are published, and are models of elegant composition as well as scientific taste. Those by Mr. Barry were published a few years ago, and contain much original and useful information, blended with some of this singular painter’s peculiarities.
Mr. Sheldon, professor of anatomy, delivers six lectures annually, during the summer season.
Prize medals (of silver), for the best academy figure, are delivered once a year.
Gold medals for historical compositions in painting, sculpture, and designs in architecture, once in two years. The latter are presented to a full assembly, and succeeded by a discourse from the president.
Students have generally during the whole year an opportunity of studying nature from well chosen subjects, and of drawing from the antique casts.
Admission to the lectures is by a ticket signed by an academician; they are held on Monday evenings, at eight o’clock, in Somerset Place.
The annual exhibition generally opens in May, and every person admitted pays one shilling ; and sixpence for a catalogue, if he wishes to have one.
The room in which this is done we have already described; and by the manner in which it is arranged, and their errors being pointed out, a number of our young students draw with great correctness. It is devoutly to be wished that their colouring was as meritorious as their drawing; but for colouring they have not yet a good school, though several of the royal academicians have made many attempts to obtain it; but, alas! those attempts have not hitherto been crowned with success.
This most spirited drawing is covered with the representation of pictures and figures, in a manner with which it would not be easy to find one with which it could be paralleled; nor would it be easy to find any other artist, except Mr. Rowlandson, who was capable of displaying so much separate manner in the delineations placed on the walls, and such an infinite variety of small figures, contrasted with each other in a way so peculiarly happy, and marked with such appropriate character. The peculiar mode by which different persons shew the earnestness with which they contemplate what they are inspecting, and display an absorbed attention to the object before them, is incomparably delineated; and the whole forms an admirable little picture of that busy scene, in which such crowds are annually engaged in watching the progress of the fine arts as annually exhibited at the Royal Academy.