“Joshua Reynolds vs. William Blake”

Art History Morning at The Beecroft Gallery: January 2018

In the 250th anniversary year of the Royal Academy of Art, our first Art History Morning at The Beecroft in 2018 will explore the paintings of those early Academicians, the Exhibitions, and the ideals of the Grand Style as espoused by Sir Joshua Reynolds the first President of the RA.

By contrast, we’ll introduce the art of William Blake who declared that Reynolds had been “hired to depress art”!!!

It was a time then of great debate about creativity, the meaning of art to the nation and the role of the artist in society.

Please feel free to add extra references, books, tv & radio programmes or websites below (or email me), and thoughts & ideas are especially welcome!

The Instrument of Foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts, 10 December 1768

The Royal Academy was born when George III scribbled, ‘I approve of this Plan, let it be put into execution’ at the foot of a large, though un-showy, document of four pages – subsequently known as the Instrument of Foundation. It consists of a preamble and 27 clauses laying out the Academy’s constitution and core purpose. More information can be found via: http://www.racollection.org.uk/ixbin/indexplus?record=ART3972
From the “Instrument of Foundation”: 
It is his Majesty’s Pleasure that the following Forty Persons be the Original Members of the said Society. Vizt.
Joshua Reynolds J Baptist Cipriani Nathaniel Dance Wm. Chambers Francis Zuccharelli Benjamin West Jeremiah Meyer Richard Wilson Joseph Wilton George Dance Thomas Sandby Francis Milner Newton G. Michael Moser George Barret William Hoare. Francis Cotes Paul Sandby Samuel Wale Edward Penny Johan Zoffany. John Baker Francesco Bartolozzi Peter Toms Augustino Carlini Mason Chamberlain Charles Catton Angelica Kauffman Francis Hayman John Gwynn Nathaniel Hone Richard Yeo Domenic Serres Thomas Gainsborough William Tyler Mary Moser John Richards
[the artists’ names in bold are discussed below]
The Instrument can be read in full at  http://www.racollection.org.uk/asset_arena/textual/IF/IF.pdf
I can’t find an earlier group portrait of the Academicians than: 
Johan Joseph Zoffany (1733-1810) “The Academicians of the Royal Academy” [1771-72; The Royal Collection]
Zoffany - RA
Zoffany’s image similarly shows the ‘back-of-house’ clutter and the intellectual dignity of working artists, where fine gentlemen sit on packing cases and converse with polish and good-humour. He depicts the Academy’s life-drawing room at Old Somerset House…
The artists are clearly setting up the life-class, and perhaps discussing its importance, rather than actually drawing from the nude. Zoffany uses the scene to convey the importance of the intellect in art and to suggest by a series of visual clues what these artists might find to talk about. They might discuss the importance of the antique and its survival in the sculpture of the Italian Renaissance, pointing to the objects displayed around the walls; or the need to find that beauty for oneself in nature, pointing to the boy unconsciously adopting the pose of the ‘Spinario’, a famous antique statue, as he undresses. They might discuss the relative merit of sculpture and painting, observing the fragment of marble torso and Zoffany’s prominently displayed palette balancing each other at either side of the composition. They could observe the complex outlines of the shadows on the wall or the Newtonian spectra visible in the flames of the oil lamp reminding them that all colour derives from light. Even the hourglass timing the duration of each pose held by the models must remind us of the idea that life is short and art is long…
Sir Joshua Reynolds, the President, recognised by his ear-trumpet, with which he is listening to the ideas of his fellows, is not the most central or prominent figure in the group, but rather a ‘first among equals’.
There is much more information at: 
It’s to be noted that the artists involved in this life class art discussion are all men; the two women named in the Instrument of Foundation, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, are represented by their portraits up on the wall. Amy Bluett’s research essay for International Women’s Day 1915 looks at the role of women at the RA: 
Bluett doesn’t say why Kauffman and Moser are represented only by their painted portraits, however she does note: As women, Kauffman and Moser were prohibited from attending committee meetings and dinners which were, and in many ways continue to be, the main arenas of discussion that determine the direction of the Academy.
Another painting offers further insight into the Royal Academy School in these early years: 
The Antique School of the Royal Academy at New Somerset House (1780-1783) attributed to Zoffany [Royal Academy]
Zoffany - Antique
“During this period it was obligatory for R.A. students to spend several years making studies from classical sculptures before progressing to the life model” [http://www.racollection.org.uk]
The Royal Academy might have become the most important institution for the teaching of art, but there had been other ‘academies’ in the 18th century, some in artist’s studios, some in their homes, but most well-known was The St Martin’s Lane Academy:
 “A Life Class at St Martin’s Lane Academy(1761-62), again by Zoffany
Zoffany - St Martins
“The St Martin’s Lane Academy was set up in 1735 under the guidance of William Hogarth (1697–1764) and continued to operate until 1767 when its furnishings and materials were removed to Pall Mall for use in the new Royal Academy Schools”
“It was as formal an art school as there could be in London at that time… held in a former chapel, where up to forty students could draw from a nude model raised on a dais… there was light, heat, and adequately visible figure to draw and space for students to work. [It] was not just an art school, but a place of social interchange and excitement, of noise and laughter, discussion and argument which would carry on at Old Slaughter’s [Coffee House just along the road.]”
(from “Gainsborough: A Portrait” by James Hamilton, pp.50-1)
Note the contrast with the RA painting above – that several of the artists here are actually shown working, drawing from the model. 
To become an artist in the 18th century was a difficult business: there was no ‘career ladder’ and very little training unless one could find a willing artist-teacher or enrolled in other disciplines such as engraving or printing. In fact ‘art’ was a difficult concept still in 18th century Britain – the repercussions of Henry VIII’s Reformation and the puritan waves that followed, including of course the Commonwealth years in the mid-17th century, meant that the country was not only cut off from the developments in European art but there was a distaste for – a distrust of? – visual art in Protestant Britain (too ‘foreign’; too Catholic). Where there were portraits and murals painted – among the upper echelons of society, the monarchy, aristocracy and (by the early 18th century) the new wealthy bankers and manufacturers – the tendency had been to invite European artists; there was little desire to train native artists or establish a national art as such.
One ‘art trend’ was that of collecting. The roots of this were in the monarchy: Charles I was renowned collector, having been inspired on his trip to Spain. On his return, his set – which became known as the Whitehall Group – began collecting Old Masters in earnest, a way of displaying their wealth, prestige and ‘cosmopolitan culture’. Despite the dramatic history of the monarchy and the fate of Charles’s collection (see “The Sale of the Late King’s Goods” by Jerry Brotton), the Restoration brought a new wave of aristocratic collectors.
(Keep an eye on BBC iplayer for “Bought with Love: The Secret History of British Art Collections – BBC4; presented by Helen Rosslyn; also, again on iplayer, “Art, Passion and Power: The Story of the Royal Collection” – BBC4; presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon). There is also an exhibition at the Royal Academy: Charles I: King and Collector
(27 January — 15 April 2018) : https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/charles-i-king-and-collector
These collectors, however, were interested primarily in Old Masters, and these were accumulated en masse during that other ‘art trend’: the Grand Tour. 
“The aristocratic collector bought the art of the past to satisfy that part of himself which remained fascinated by the dangerous sides of the image: its sexiness, its sensuality, its magical, almost living qualities. But he employed the British artist, by contrast, to cater to the other, greyer, more stolid and responsible parts of his temperament. The British artist was to paint portraits, pictures not of the naked body in action, but of the clothed body at rest. In the eyes of the native artist, the aristocrat’s love of Renaissance painting and the sculpture of antiquity merely accentuated a terrible lack of imagination when it came to commissioning work from painters in his own country” (from A History of British Art by Andrew Graham-Dixon, p.104).
“James Grant, John Mytton, Thomas Robinson & Thomas Wynn in front of the Colosseum in Rome” (1760) by Nathaniel Dance-Holland (Tate)
Dance in Rome
Moreover, these aristocrats formed a determined and opinionated group, establishing The Society of Dilettani: 
The Society of Dilettanti aimed to correct and purify the public taste of the country; from the 1740s, it began to support Italian opera…
In 1743 Horace Walpole condemned its affectations and described it as such; “…a club, for which the nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk: the two chiefs are Lord Middlesex and Sir Francis Dashwood, who were seldom sober the whole time they were in Italy” (notes from:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_of_DilettantiHowever, the Society would be influential in the founding of the Royal Academy, and the ideals of Joshua Reynolds. 
This ‘fissure’ in art appreciation was problematic throughout the 18th century – artists relied on patronage and commissions but had to gird creativity and experiment (although there were exceptions by the mid- late-century: George Stubbs and Joseph Wright of Derby might be prime examples)
Gimcrack with John Pratt up on Newmarket Heath (1765)
George Stubbs (1724–1806)
The Fitzwilliam Museum c/o artuk.org
Stubbs, George, 1724-1806; Gimcrack with John Pratt up on Newmarket Heath
The Blacksmith’s Shop (1771)
Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797)
Derby Museum and Art Gallery c/o artuk.org
Wright of Derby, Joseph, 1734-1797; The Blacksmith's Shop
– and this struggle rankled: the commissioning aristocrats thought they knew better than the artists they employed and painters such as Gainsborough for example, although forced to make his money through portraiture often deplored his wealthy sitters and the nasty necessity of ‘phizmongering’ which took up all the time he would have preferred to devote to landscapes. 
But we are jumping ahead…
Slowly, slowly, then, we might see this as changing. At the start of the 18th, James Thornhill (1665-1734) painted glorious murals in the tradition of European Baroque such as those at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich (see
An Allegory of Apollo and Minerva as Wisdom and the Arts (late 17th/early 18th C.)
James Thornhill (1675/1676–1734)
National Maritime Museum c/o artuk.org
Thornhill, James, 1675/1676-1734; An Allegory of Apollo and Minerva as Wisdom and the Arts
and artists such as Thomas Hudson (1701-1779) had taken on the art of portraiture (see https://artuk.org/discover/artists/hudson-thomas-17011779 ).
James Thomson, Poet (1735)
Thomas Hudson (1701–1779)
Cuming Museum c/o artuk.org
Hudson, Thomas, 1701-1779; James Thomson, Poet
Then, as John Rothenstein put it: “Astonishingly and unheralded there appeared on the scene… [an artist] with enormous gusto [who would] thrust upon English art the very qualities of which it stood in extreme need…” [An Introduction to English Painting, p.45].
That artist was one William Hogarth.
William Hogarth (1697–1764) Self-Portrait [1757; National Portrait Gallery c/o artuk.org]
Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; William Hogarth
Hogarth cut a distinct and unique path in the history of art in Britain as he sought to extricate artists from the need for (wealthy) patronage.
The Four Times of Day: Morning (1736)
William Hogarth (1697–1764)
National Trust, Upton House c/o artuk.org
Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; The Four Times of Day: Morning
His own art (satirical as much of it was) focused a ‘new’ subject matter – contemporary life, the crowded society of the London streets, the (immoral) behaviour of “those who should know better”, the chaos of electioneering – for examples see artuk.org
Despite our enjoyment of Hogarth’s critical commentary, what perhaps is more important is that he was representing the broad canvas of ‘everyday life’ in his paintings.
More than that he was commercial – he recognised the possibilities of earning money through the new print culture and the publication of engravings.
William Hogarth (1751)
Gin Lane
Tate Britain
Gin Lane 1751 by William Hogarth 1697-1764
Hogarth’s illustration of the evils of gin-drinking was published as a pair with ‘Beer Street’, as part of a campaign against the uncontrolled production and sale of cheap gin. It culminated in the Gin Act of 1751, through which the number of gin shops was greatly reduced.
These were cracks through which the artist could slip patronage and make their own individual, independent way (just about).
With this ambition in mind, it’s no surprise that Hogarth set up the St Martin’s Lane Academy to teach a new generation – perhaps the first generation of “Young British Artists” (!) 
And to exhibit these artists’ work? Well, not the private galleries of the palace or the country house. 
The St Martin’s Academy artists did display their talent in the painting scenes that decorated the “supper boxes” in fashionable Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens – such as Francis Hayman’s (1708-1766) “See-Saw” (1742) now at the Tate: 
Hayman, Francis, 1708-1776; See-SawHowever, while the Vauxhall Gardens may have been fun, and certainly a way to advertise and promote the young artists, Hogarth was also working with Captain Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital which became a more prestigious showcase for contemporary artists…
Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; Captain Thomas Coram (1668-1751)
Captain Thomas Coram (1668–1751) by William Hogarth (1697–1764) [1740; The Foundling Museum]
The Foundling Hospital Art Collection began in 1740, when William Hogarth donated his magnificent portrait of Captain Thomas Coram. This painting commemorated George II signing the Charter for the Hospital’s establishment. Encouraged by Hogarth, many of the leading artists of the day supported the Hospital in its early years, and the Hospital became London’s first public art gallery.
After Hogarth’s death, the artist’s groups circling around the St Martin’s Lane Academy resolved (for a period) into the Society of Artists. Headed by Francis Hayman, it “became the only public forum promoting the status and cohesion of the profession of artists in Britain”. Lasting until 1791 and rivalling the Royal Academy exhibition to an extent, the Society was however, a nest of “politicking, recriminations and skulduggery” (quotes from “Gainsborough: A Portrait” by James Hamilton, p.208).
It might seem then that the creation of a well-appointed Academy was a logical – perhaps even necessary – development, although many would disagree. And perhaps we should also add in that Britain is by this point an Empire, a global enterprise; yet unlike its European rivals such as France, without a national / Imperial Academy of Arts it’s cultural prestige was somewhat lacking.   
Enter Joshua Reynolds…
Self-portrait (1747-9) by Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) [National Portrait Gallery c/o artuk.org]
Reynolds, Joshua, 1723-1792; Sir Joshua Reynolds
I’m going to draw here primarily on Andrew Graham-Dixon’s brilliantly sympathetic portrayal of Reynolds in “A History of British Art” (pages 103-118); also of note is “Joshua Reynolds: The Life and Times of the First President of the Royal Academy” by Ian McIntyre.
“Reynold’s life is a parable of the awakening of the visual artist in Britain in the second half of the 18th century” writes Graham-Dixon, who goes on to tell us that it was on the Grand Tour that the artist “realised with the force of a revelation what painting could truly be… in Rome [seeing] Michelangelo’s fresco cycle on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel… caused in him an admiration so powerful it was almost a form of pain”. Reynolds returned home ambitious to establish a school of British painting akin to the great schools of the past: the Royal Academy, of course, where as first president he encouraged young students to do so much more than ‘phizmongering’.
Reynolds ideal was that of the Grand Style or Manner –  it meant drawing on the style of ancient Greek and Roman (classical) art and the Italian Renaissance masters such as Raphael. 
Grand manner was strictly used for history painting… 
The term ‘history painting’ was introduced by the French Royal Academy in the seventeenth century. It was seen as the most important type (or ‘genre’), of painting above portraiture, the depiction of scenes from daily life (called genre painting), landscape and still life painting.
Although initially used to describe paintings with subjects drawn from ancient Greek and Roman (classical) history, classical mythology, and the Bible; towards the end of the eighteenth century history painting included modern historical subjects such as… battle scenes…
…but Reynolds adapted it very successfully to portraiture, inventing the high art portrait. (from Tate website under “Art Terms”).
Indeed Reynolds wasn’t especially successful in the ideal he preached and remains to this day noted for his portraits rather than anything in Grand Style…
Recovery from Sickness, an Allegory (1769) by Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) [Dulwich Picture Gallery c/o artuk.org]
Reynolds, Joshua, 1723-1792; Recovery from Sickness, an Allegory
Graham-Dixon notes: “[Reynolds] tried to make his pictures look ancient and Old Masterly by aging them with vinegar and candle wax, but the results were almost uniformly disastrous. Technique aside, [he] completely lacked the imagination and ability to tackle the larger and more dramatic themes in art.” Instead, Reynolds worked much more successfully on “the grand manner portrait, in which he posed and clothed his sitters as if they were the dramatis personae of myth and legend”. 
Mind, these could be quite fabulously bonkers… Here’s “Diana Disarming Cupid”
Reynolds, Joshua, 1723-1792; Diana Disarming Cupid: Elizabeth Dashwood (1741-1832), Duchess of Manchester, and Her Son George Montagu (1763-1772), Viscount Manderville
otherwise known as: 
Elizabeth Dashwood (1741–1832), Duchess of Manchester, and Her Son George Montagu (1763–1772), Viscount Manderville (1769) by Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792)
[National Trust, Wimpole Hall; c/o artuk.org]
Exaggerated, ‘dressing-up’ performances these might be, but the lords and ladies queued up to be painted and Reynolds made a fortune. It was a sham, Reynolds knew it, but it was the only way his ability and ambition could at least attempt to incarnate the Old Masters he so loved. 
With perceptive understanding, Graham-Dixon notes that Reynolds strength was not ‘grandeur’ but humanity; and he points up: 
“Mary, Countess of Bute” by Reynolds, painted around the 1780s and in a private collection
Reynolds - Countess
“We see an old woman, growing older, out for a pensive and lonely walk with a yapping lap-dog, clutching her parasol to her with strange, subtle defensiveness… The effect is poignant and also a little disconcerting, like being plunged, suddenly, into the painful details of someone else’s difficult life” (Graham-Dixon, p.108).
If Reynolds himself was no master of the Grand History painting, then others among the first Academicians certainly were and I thought we might focus on:
Angelica Kauffman, R.A. (1741 – 1807) the following is from the Royal Academy website:

Although Angelica Kauffman was born in Switzerland and spent only 15 years in England (1766-1781) she made a significant impact on the London art scene. Admired and encouraged by Sir Joshua Reynolds, she and Mary Moser became the only two female Members of the Royal Academy. No further women were elected until Annie Swynnerton became an Associate in 1922.

A painter of historical subjects and portraits, Kauffman’s Neo-classical style conformed to the theories advocated in Reynolds’s Discourses.

She was invited to make her mark on the Royal Academy’s first purpose built home in new Somerset House, when commissioned to paint four allegorical images of the ‘Elements of Art’ for its Council Chamber ceiling. The works are now positioned in the Entrance Hall ceiling at Burlington House.

Invention (1778-80)

Kauffman - Invention

The figure of Invention is the most otherworldly of Kauffman’s four elements of art. Her winged head, celestial orb and upward gaze suggest her capability for higher thought.

Composition (1778-80)
Kauffman - Composition
The figure of Composition sits on the boundary between architecture and nature. She contemplates a chessboard while holding a compass, both of which suggest the virtues of planning and precision.
Design (1778-80)
Kauffman - Design
The figure of Design makes studies from the Belvedere torso within a classical architectural setting. Her interest is in proportion, scale and form based on antique prototypes.
Colour (1778-80)
Kauffman - Colour
Colour is depicted as an unrestrained female stealing pigment from a rainbow. She is seated on a grassy ledge with a chameleon at her feet – her hair and costume are loose. In touch with nature, she is more intuitive than the figures of Design or Composition.
Also, more in line with her renown as a History Painter: “Hector Taking Leave of Andromache” (1768) by Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807)
[National Trust, Saltram; c/o artuk.org]
Kauffmann, Angelica, 1741-1807; Hector Taking Leave of Andromache
The beauty of this painting is perhaps its intimacy, even sensuality, as Hector and Andromache lean in towards each other, their hands holding. “ Hector and Andromache fit the Greek ideal of a happy and productive marriage, which heightens the tragedy of their shared misfortune. Once Achilles kills Hector (in the Trojan War), Andromache is utterly alone.” (from Wikipedia).
Kauffmann, Angelica, 1741-1807; Vortigern, King of Britain, Enamoured with Rowena at the Banquet of Hengist, the Saxon GeneralVortigern, King of Britain, Enamoured with Rowena at the Banquet of Hengist, the Saxon General (1770) by Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807) [National Trust, Saltram c/o artuk.org]
Another “Grand Style” painter is: Nathaniel Dance Holland’s “The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas” (1766) was shown at the Society of Artists, but it is clear why he would become an Academician – the use of light and “staging” is particularly dramatic. 
Dance-Holland, Nathaniel, 1735-1811; The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas
“Following the sack of Troy, Aeneas and his followers are shipwrecked on the coast of North Africa, near the city of Carthage. There, Aeneas meets his mother, Venus, disguised as a huntress. She tells him the sad history of Dido, who was forced to flee her home in Tyre and to build a new citadel at Carthage. Venus envelops Aeneas and his compatriot Achates in a shroud of mist to enable them to penetrate Dido’s citadel undetected. Upon entering the temple of Juno, Aeneas sees Dido seated upon her throne, welcoming a number of his fellow Trojans whom he had believed drowned in the recent shipwreck, and expressing her desire to see their ‘king’ Aeneas. At that moment the mist clears and Aeneas reveals his identity to Dido. This is the precise moment portrayed by Dance.” (from
Whilst Grand Style history painting might have been the top of the tree, with portraiture just below, so lurking further down the scale were landscape and still life (we’ll look at these genres in depth at a later date):
Richard Wilson (1713-1782) whose Italianate landscapes would be ‘translated’ to the British Isles…
Lake Avernus and the Island of Capri (1760)
Richard Wilson (1713–1782)
Tate c/o artuk.org
Wilson, Richard, 1713/1714-1782; Lake Avernus and the Island of Capri
The Thames near Marble Hill, Twickenham (1762)
Richard Wilson (1713–1782)
Tate c/o artuk.org
Wilson, Richard, 1713/1714-1782; The Thames near Marble Hill, Twickenham
And I thought we should just take a look at one of Mary Moser’s paintings: 
Mary Moser RA (1744 – 1819) Spring (c.1780)
Royal Academy
Moser - Spring
Although she painted portraits and historical subjects, Moser is most closely associated with flower paintings. Her skill in this area led to the position of drawing mistress to the Royal Princess Elizabeth and several royal commissions. The most notable of these came from Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, in the 1790s. The Queen had recently been given Frogmore House as a country retreat and she commissioned Moser to decorate a room for which she wanted Moser to create the illusion of an “arbor open to the skies”. Moser designed a complex arrangement of both large-scale canvases and painted walls, all depicting English flower arrangements.
All of these paintings would then be selected and (hopefully) displayed in the annual exhibition – a great performance of painting, a grand social event: 
Sketch: The Selection Committee of the Royal Academy (?) (formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany) (1807)
British School
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery c/o artuk.org
British School; Sketch: The Selection Committee of the Royal Academy (?)
An early RA Summer Exhibition at the Academy’s original home in Somerset House
RA Summer Exhib
By Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) (after) John Bluck (fl. 1791–1819), Joseph Constantine Stadler (fl. 1780–1812), Thomas Sutherland (1785–1838), J. Hill, and Harraden (aquatint engravers) – see above, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4899363
The exhibition (the first was in 1769) was a magnificent showcase, artists could ‘show off’ and hope to gain patrons and buyers. It’s interesting that the Academy Council’s minutes refer to the works sent to exhibitions not as paintings (sculptures &c) but as “performances” [Hamilton, p.209); the exhibitions certainly were performance, flamboyance and great London spectacles (and still are) [more information on the Royal Academy website]
And in that first Exhibition, Thomas Gainsborough certainly “performed” for the viewing audience:
Isabella (1748–1819), Viscountess Molyneux, 1st Countess of Sefton (1769)
Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788)
Walker Art Gallery
Gainsborough, Thomas, 1727-1788; Isabella (1748-1819), Viscountess Molyneux, 1st Countess of Sefton
“…with her shimmering satin and reverberating glance, [this] is a performance of contained grace…” (James Hamilton, p.209)
Portrait of George Pitt, First Lord Rivers, c.1768-1769
Cleveland Museum, Ohio c/o Bridgeman Art Library
Portrait of George Pitt, First Lord Rivers, c.1768-1769 (oil on canvas)
Gainsborough’s friend, Pitt: “well-bred, accomplished and debauched” (James Hamilton, p.209)
Also, Gainsborough possibly showed:
Portrait of an Unknown Youth (The Pitminster Boy) (1768)
Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788)
Gainsborough’s House c/o artuk.org
Gainsborough - Pitminster
“Gainsborough’s determination to show [this small portrait] at the Academy’s first public outing reveals his determination to demonstrate his breadth as an artist – both as a portrait painter on the grand scale, and also as a painter of ordinary people in which he could capture innocence, aspiration, youth, and hope in the future… [This] might be a wistful self-portrait of Gainsborough as a boy, carrying paintbrushes, a palette, and dreaming of a great career as an artist…” [Hamilton, pp.2019-210].
He also showed a landscape – which one is unknown, but here’s: 
Woody Landscape with Building (1768-1771)
Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788)
Tate c/o artuk.org
Gainsborough, Thomas, 1727-1788; Woody Landscape with Building
The Royal Academy Exhibition then was a place in which artists could show off their skills in a variety of ways – certainly that’s how Gainsborough seems to have used the opportunity. It was a huge ‘step forward’ for the history of art and artists in Britain. 
But not everyone approved of Reynolds and his concept of Grand Style. There is a painting on show in Tate Britain at present that focuses many of the negative opinions towards the first President of the Royal Academy:
Nathaniel Hone (1718-1784)
Sketch for ‘The Conjuror’ (1775)
Tate Britain
Sketch for 'The Conjuror' 1775 by Nathaniel Hone 1718-1784
This is the oil sketch for Hone’s satirical painting The Pictorial Conjuror, displaying the Whole Art of Optical Deception (Dublin, The National Gallery of Ireland), a picture that caused one of the greatest art scandals of the British eighteenth-century art world. Nathaniel Hone submitted the finished picture to the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1775. The Academy’s Hanging Committee rejected it on the grounds that it was offensive to one of its female members, Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807). However, the main object of Hone’s satire was not Kauffman but the Academy’s president, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92).
From the 1750s Reynolds had incorporated motifs and attitudes from the old masters into his portraits, on the grounds that such ‘imitation’ elevated his own works to the level of history painting. Hone alluded to Reynolds’s practice in the present picture through the depiction of a number of old-master prints…
for more information, see: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hone-sketch-for-the-conjuror-t00938
Reynolds’ critics included William Blake, who thought Reynolds had been put on the planet in order to ‘depress’ art and creativity…
It hadn’t always been that way. In 1772, William Blake had enrolled to train as an engraver with James Basire (1730-1802) – an apprenticeship that would usually lead to joining the Stationers’ Guild and on towards becoming a professional engraver. “Instead, he applied to be enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools” (Peter Ackroyd “Blake” p.55)
“Joshua Reynolds had suggested that ‘Historical painting ought to be called Poetical’, since it was intended to display ‘intellectual grandeur… heroic virtue…. philosophical wisdom’. This was the tradition to which the young Blake attached himself…” (Ackroyd p.55)
It wasn’t to last, and soon Blake was realising that his own commitment to art was rooted in the certainties of engraving and the style of the Gothic form – that is: out with oil paints, which blurred and muddied, in with clear outlines and defined form; out with drawing from life, in with utilising the imagination, dream and visions.
The one teacher at the RA who Blake respected and admired was James Barry.
Orpheus (painting 1 of 6 in the series ‘The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture’) (1777-1783)
James Barry (1741–1806)
Royal Society of Arts c/o artuk.org
Barry, James, 1741-1806; Orpheus
“Barry’s paintings had a marked effect on Blake’s understanding of the heroic style: his grave or monumental paintings were characteristically placed in situations of grandiloquent passion, as if neoclassicism had been irradiated by the wild energy of his imagination.” [Ackroyd, p.63].
A Grecian Harvest Home, or Thanksgiving to the Rural Deities, Ceres, Bacchus (painting 2 of 6 in the series ‘The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture’)
James Barry (1741–1806)
Royal Society of Arts c/o artuk.org
Barry, James, 1741-1806; A Grecian Harvest Home, or Thanksgiving to the Rural Deities, Ceres, Bacchus
“Barry was a new kind of British artist: the artist as hero. His legacy was, in essence, the notion that a painter could be a person with a vision, someone with a right and indeed a duty to develop and express that vision” [Andrew Graham-Dixon in “A History of British Art” p.126]
Barry would end his days unkempt and neglected, he died in 1806, but remained a revered icon to Blake. 
Glad Day or The Dance of Albion (c.1794)
William Blake
British Library c/o Bridgeman Art Library
Glad Day or The Dance of Albion, c.1794 (etching with w/c)

XCF7043 Glad Day or The Dance of Albion, c.1794 (etching with w/c) by Blake, William (1757-1827); British Museum, London, UK; English, out of copyright

William Blake
The Good and Evil Angels
Tate Britain
The Good and Evil Angels 1795-?c. 1805 by William Blake 1757-1827
William Blake
The Angels hovering over the body of Christ in the Sepulchre (c.1805)
Victoria & Albert Museum
Blake - Sepulchre
Whilst Blake, like Barry, was thought of as not only eccentric but mad in his own lifetime, he is now revered (far above Reynolds, perhaps) in the league of British artists.
Whilst the Royal Academy certainly became a hub for art in Britain, it was widely criticised for its exclusivity, the expected style of art-making and so on; yet without it, would we have had JMW Turner?
Next month:
“William Blake, Samuel Palmer & The Ancients” 
Art History Mornings at The Beecroft: Saturday 24th February (10.30am-12.30pm)

Art History Mornings @ The Beecroft 2018

In the 250th anniversary year of the Royal Academy of Art, our first Art History Morning at The Beecroft in 2018 will explore the paintings of those first Academicians, the Exhibitions, and the ideals of the Grand Style as espoused by Sir Joshua Reynolds the first President of the RA.

By contrast, we’ll also look at the art of William Blake who declared that Reynolds had been “hired to depress art.”

It was a time then of great debate about creativity, the meaning of art to the nation and the role of the artist in society.

Glad Day or The Dance of Albion, c.1794 (etching with w/c)

XCF7043 Glad Day or The Dance of Albion, c.1794 (etching with w/c) by Blake, William (1757-1827); British Museum, London, UK; English, out of copyright

Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney: The Archers 1769 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792 

 Joshua Reynolds: Colonel Acland & Lord Sydney – The Archer (1769); Tate Gallery]

The introduction of William Blake will lead us to Samuel Palmer and The Ancients, our subject for February (24th). And in March (24th) we’ll look at the work of The Norwich School of Painters.

Meetings are held 10.30am – 12.30pm in the Beecroft Gallery lecture theatre.
Each talk costs £10 and includes tea/coffee (biscuits!)
For further information please contact Mark Banting by email chasingtales@rocketmail.com or via twitter @TheCommonViewer
These monthly Saturday morning art history talks are educational yet informal and open to anyone with an interest in art.