On 12 November 1759 London’s leading artists assembled at the Turk’s Head pub on Gerrard Street and decided to put on the first ever exhibition of contemporary art in Britain. They became the Society of Artists, and Matthew Hargreaves is the first scholar to tell their story. The Society tends to be written up as an amateur dress rehearsal for the Royal Academy, but what this excellent book shows us is that in its short life — little more than a decade — it transformed the British art scene for ever.
The Society printed 1,000 catalogues for its first exhibition in 1760. In the end, it sold six times as many. The next year Samuel Johnson wrote a foreword justifying the imposition of an admission charge: if it was free, he observed, the room would be too crowded. That decade the Society built a remarkable top-lit gallery, the first purpose-built space for contemporary art in the world.
But public exhibitions changed for ever an art world which had been based upon private relationships between artists and patrons. Firstly, exhibitions brought into being newspaper critics. Hogarth’s ‘Sigismunda’ was criticised so severely that after ten days he took down the picture and never exhibited again. Secondly, and more profoundly, the visitors didn’t like what the Society’s hierarchy thought they should like. The public made stars of young artists such as the wild John Hamilton Mortimer, the surly radical Robert Edge Pine and — above all — Joseph Wright of Derby. His candlelight masterpieces such as ‘A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery’ and ‘A Philosopher by Lamplight’ — a delight on show at Tate’s Gothic Nightmares exhibition — were painted purposefully for the Society’s shows.
The young artists drank together. Why, they asked, should the least popular artists decide the hang? In a bitter but open vote in 1768 they overthrew the ruling committee. Hargreaves argues, convincingly, that their electoral reforms were inspired by the vox populi of John Wilkes; that was the year of the ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ riots. This is where the book gets really interesting.
What did the de-selected committee do? They went to Windsor and begged George III to patronise a rival body which became the Royal Academy. The king underwrote its losses and he had the final say, not a majority vote. Membership was limited in number, creating, in Hargreaves’ words, a ‘self-perpetuating oligarchy’.
This benevolent despotism represented one model of 18th-century identity. The Society exemplified another: professional, independent and meritocratic, it swore to live or die by public support. It died, but the 1770s witnessed as interesting a contest as the British art world has ever seen.
Pine exhibited portraits of Wilkes and his jailed supporters, and Mortimer painted himself as a bandit. The Academy had Reynolds and Gainsborough, the Society had Stubbs, Romney and Wright of Derby. Each had a male life model for its students, but the Society had a female one too. At the Society a chemist lectured on grinding pigments. The Academy was too posh for a pestle and mortar, so Sir Joshua lectured on the theory of history painting with the consequence that vast canvases of Macbeth, Dante, and Lars Porsena have cluttered up a hundred museum stores ever since.
So why did the Society close, ending its exhibitions in the 1780s? Firstly, democracy was divisive. There was quarrel after quarrel, then a punch-up. Its members stopped splitting the bill at dinner and began to tot up who had eaten what. Stubbs was wooed by the Academy, then Romney and Wright left.
The quarrels make for a good read; artists are always more interesting talking about money and each other than about theory. What is depressing is how much the Academy’s victory owed to its state subsidy and its royal patronage, and the snob value of that connection to artists and public alike. By the time of the French Revolution the Royal Academicians epitomised what the Irish rebels of the day called ‘kiss-arse English- men’. A gossipy social climber and mediocre artist like Joseph Farington prospered, while Thomas Banks, the most explosive sculptor of his generation, was cold-shouldered because of his sympathy for the disenfranchised. Pine turned his back on a land without liberty and emigrated to America. The public never got to see Romney’s portrait of Tom Paine, by far and away the most popular Englishman of the age. If only.
To Hargreaves, the Royal Academy was founded upon a ‘dishonourable truth’ — as a refuge for artists unable to impress either the public or their younger colleagues. Indeed, he argues, its very existence is a lucky consequence of a Big Bang at the energetic, fissile and sadly forgotten Society of Artists.
Five years ago the Courtauld reconstructed the Royal Academy exhibitions of the late 18th century in that unforgettable show, ‘Art on the Line’. How exciting it would be to do the same for the Society, and experience the thrill of that very first encounter between artists and the great British public.