British Art and the Seven Years' War
Allegiance and Autonomy
2010 | 352 pages | Cloth $65.00
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Chapter 1. The Standard Bearer
Chapter 2. Mobilizing the Arts
Chapter 3. Pomp and Imperial Circumstance
Chapter 4. Heads of State
Chapter 5. Bleeding Hearts
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
One of the most important early venues for contemporary British art was established, appropriately enough, at London's Foundling Hospital. The portraits, landscapes, and history paintings that were donated to the Foundling Hospital from 1746 were intended, at least in part, to encourage support for the nation's neglected offspring, the pictorial arts. As the upper crust of London society visited the hospital and its neatly dressed orphans, so too could it view ambitious paintings that offered "the public an opportunity of judging whether the English are such indifferent artists, as foreigners, and even the English themselves, pretend," as William Hogarth's friend Jean-André Rouquet frankly put it. Whether a foundling hospital could raise a healthy and productive school of British art remained an open question.
Describing a turn of events as striking as Tom Jones's novelistic transformation from foundling to legitimate heir, Joshua Reynolds reported twenty-five years later that the arts "flourish here with great vigour, we have as good Artists in every branch of the Art as any other nation can boast ... and the King has very seriously taken them under his protection; he has established an Academy which opend [sic] the first of January." In a scant quarter century the status of British art had risen from that of a charity case to that of a cherished royal monopoly. How can this transformation be explained? How substantive were these perceived changes, and how much were they the result of clever marketing or hopeful projection? And most important, why did the visual arts become a pressing national concern at this moment in Britain's history?
Joshua Reynolds's own speculation on the matter, presented in his first discourse to the newly founded Royal Academy of Arts in 1769, remains deeply ingrained in art-historical thinking. Positing the academy as an "ornament" suitable to Britain's "greatness," Reynolds emphasized the "slow progression of things, which naturally makes elegance and refinement the last effect of opulence and power." While Reynolds acknowledged a fact that was obvious to his contemporaries—that culture is integrally related to wealth and power—he was anxious to downplay the significance of immediate social or political levers on the academy's foundation. What Reynolds crafted in this and subsequent Discourses was a powerful and enduring myth about the progress of British art, in which it emerged in tandem with broad economic change—the nation's inexorable rise to greatness—while remaining autonomous from immediate political and institutional pressures. Reynolds's Whiggish art-historical account has undergone significant revision and critique over the years, but the basic parameters and pace of his narrative remain in place. The current art-historical consensus, magisterially established by John Barrell in The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt (1986) and David Solkin in Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England (1993), maintains that over the course of the long eighteenth century British art underwent a polite and commercial reformation in which an urban bourgeoisie gradually shaped aristocratic culture into its own image. Broadly framed by concepts drawn from social and economic history, the accounts of Barrell and Solkin have enabled the field of British art history to become a vibrant locus for research and publication over the last two decades.
There was, however, another art-historical narrative already in circulation by the second half of the eighteenth century in which British art and architecture emerged dramatically onto the national stage, achieving "by one rapid stride" what it had taken Continental rivals centuries to achieve. In this counternarrative the Seven Years' War (1756-63) occupies a transformative place in British culture. To take just one example of this narrative's wide public purchase, an anonymous London resident penned a running history of Britain's military fortunes across the globe in a conflict yet to be named because it was not yet concluded:
The trade of the nation had every year increased; the country abounded with provisions; and the people in general were so wealthy, that many great works, both of public, and private expence, were entered upon, and many of them already finished during the heat of the war. In London, the beautiful building of the Horse-Guards was completed; the admiralty was adorned; the streets were made more commodious by pulling down the old gates; London-bridge, at a vast expence, was new-modelled; and the foundations of another bridge laid at the Blackfriars.
This author, like Reynolds, views the arts as an effect of opulence and power, but he is particularly struck by the immediacy of these changes, by the fact that they take place in the "heat of the war." While this passage is focused on architecture, on the infrastructure of an imperial capital, London artists established compelling links between the improvement of London and a commensurate investment in the arts of painting and sculpture. With the inauguration of annual art exhibitions in 1760 and a series of large-scale public works related to the war, London artists capitalized on the public's mercantile competitiveness and imperial fervor. Early histories of British art make these strategies clear, such as Edward Edwards's Anecdotes of Painters (1808), which traced public artistic patronage back to the protectionist Anti-Gallican Society, whose "patriotic example greatly stimulated their countrymen to exert their talents in those productions," referring here to painting and sculpture, "which were before almost unknown in Great Britain." Within this paradigm, British artists converted a potent conjunction of mercantile competitiveness and global conquest into a genuinely public commitment to contemporary art.
These two art-historical narratives need not be mutually exclusive, and this book entirely endorses the proposition that the development of British art paralleled that of a modernizing economic base over the course of the long eighteenth century. It attempts to recover, however, the impact of political contingency on artistic production and reception and, more importantly, to reveal the catalyzing effect that the first global war for empire had on a national school of art. In short, it sets the pressing questions of politics, religious affiliation, and empire alongside the social and economic narratives that have dominated earlier accounts. If the current economic model of British art's development establishes the basic parameters of cultural development over the long eighteenth century, then this account offers a more flexible and dynamic model of cultural change in a more specific chronological frame. It contends that new artistic styles, genres, and formats often emerged in response to immediate political pressures. While Solkin's Painting for Money demonstrates the extent to which private interests and the division of labor worked against a viable public for British art, this book contends that the military victories of the Seven Years' War bound the body politic together in a renewed sense of national purpose and identity. The sinews of this body politic were mercantile, military, Protestant, and imperial, for they were the shared aims that knit together a diverse public for art at a uniquely consensual moment in Britain's history. That many of these sinews strained and snapped in the 1770s, including a mercantilism at odds with state policy and a Protestantism riven by sectarian strife, reinforces the need for a more precise model of cultural development.
A recovery of the Seven Years' War as a major cultural event necessarily entails a reconceptualization of the relation between British artists and the "fiscal-military state." According to John Brewer, the fiscal-military state was "dominated by the task of waging war," and the military emerges from his account as Britain's largest borrower, spender, and employer in the eighteenth century. He also describes a political culture that was weak in despotic power—the formal and legal power to deprive its subjects of their property and liberty—but strong in infrastructural power—the administrative ability to implement the military and governmental powers that it had. Brewer's recovery of the actual apparatus of British state administration comes at the expense of a Whiggish view of constitutional monarchy and mercantile independence that preferred to downplay the strength and influence of state bureaucracy. This emphasis also highlights a conventional distrust of direct governmental influence in the social and cultural sphere. The Foundling Hospital provides a telling example of the subtle intersection of private philanthropy and state power in the prewar period, and also how private initiatives could be co-opted by the state as the Foundling Hospital became subject to parliamentary decree during the war. The Seven Years' War challenged London artists to find ways to ally themselves with the fiscal-military state without abrogating their professional independence. While the French Royal Academy of Arts loomed large in artistic debates as the preeminent model of artistic training, ripe for emulation, it also figured as a potentially "despotic" institutional form inimical to Britain's pluralistic and mercantile culture.
The issue was not simply institutional but also representational. London artists struggled with varying degrees of success, in the works examined in this book, to craft an image of the state that respected Britain's constitutional arrangements and mercantile ideals in the face of unprecedented military conquest and domestic political upheaval. These struggles thoroughly validate Edmund Burke's claim that "there is not a more difficult subject for the understanding of men than to govern a Large Empire upon a plan of Liberty." While such representations constitute a relatively small proportion of fine art produced and exhibited in the middle decades of the eighteenth century, they provide insight into a broader set of relations between art and the state. As metapictures of state formation, the works of art examined here reveal through formal compromises, thematic choices, and manipulations of genre many of the anxieties that accompanied a transformative moment in British imperial history.
This study participates, therefore, in a broader scholarly endeavor to locate "the concept of empire . . . at the centre, rather than in the margins, of the history of British art." It argues that the development of British art was insistently linked to the rise of the British Empire, and it reveals a powerful synergy between the raising of artistic and military standards. It also acknowledges significant internal resistance to this new imperial identity. Formal artistic conventions, professional and institutional traditions, and political conventions all worked against the smooth integration of imperial codes into British art. In their creation of an imperial visual culture, British artists had to respond not only to geographic expansion but also to fraught domestic relations between Tories and Whigs, high churchmen and dissenters, and the previously autonomous kingdoms of England and Scotland. Within these fissures British imperial identity reveals itself to be improvisational and the product of art as well as arms.
Ultimately an analysis of the contemporary political stakes of visual art in Georgian Britain draws us back to the years 1759-63 as a pivotal moment. In five brief years Britain gained a new monarch, significant territorial holdings from India to Canada, an unprecedented national debt, and a radical realignment of political party structures. In the same period London artists inaugurated annual contemporary art exhibitions and laid the groundwork for what would become the Royal Academy of Arts. Just as importantly, the victories of the Seven Years' War resounded in English hearts for decades to come as a nearly mythic period of national unity and communal triumph. This experience prepared the way for, and reverberated through, the anonymous artist's characterization of a triumphant Royal Academy in this book's opening epigraph. For "the peculiar merit of the Royal Academy of Britain" is that it has "by one rapid stride . . . attained the pre-eminence of all Competitors." Even and especially in 1780, as the North American colonies struggled for independence, it was reassuring to know that Britain continued to gain major victories over its cultural rivals.
While the language of competition and conquest could be empowering to British artists, it also implied the potential for reversals and defeat. One of the principal aims of this study is to recover both the optimism and the uncertainty that characterized British artistic development between the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 and the declaration of American independence in 1776. This was a period when conceptions of what Great Britain looked like changed day by day. And for many of the same reasons, it was a period in which British artists struggled to formalize their relation to the state, to a national public, and to one another. Contrary to perceptions of a placid golden age in which British art slowly and steadily improved alongside urban wealth, this study argues that few moments in British history saw the visual arts develop as quickly, or called upon them to do more, than in the course and immediate aftermath of the Seven Years' War. Or to work within the existing metaphor, the golden age of British art was forged in the crucible of war.
British Art and Mercantilism
Jonathan Richardson was one of the first, and one of the most influential, authors to speculate on the relationship between Britain's arts and its arms. In Two Discourses from 1719 Richardson declared,
In Ancient times we have been frequently Subdued by Foreigners, the Romans, Saxons, Danes, and Normans have all done it in their Turns; Those Days are at an End long since; and we are by various Steps arriv'd to the height of Military Glory, by Sea, and Land. Nor are we less Eminent for Learning, Philosophy, Mathematicks, Poetry, Strong, and Clear Reasoning, and a Greatness and Delicacy of Taste.… We are not yet come to that Maturity in the Arts of Design…. Let us at length Disdain as much to be in Subjection in This respect as in Any Other; Let us put forth our Strength, and employ our National Virtue, that Haughty Impatience of Subjection and Inferiority, which seems to be the Characteristick of Our Nation in This as on many Other Illustrious Occasions, and the thing will be effected, the English school will rise, and Flourish.
There is a tension in this passage between the accomplishments of a centralized state and those of its citizens who produce poetry, philosophy, and "taste." One of the great dilemmas of the eighteenth-century art world, and one that Richardson leaves unresolved, was the extent to which a national school of art required state intervention above and beyond that of other liberal arts in order to flourish. The establishment of the Queen Street Academy in 1711, which appointed Godfrey Kneller as governor and James Thornhill and Jonathan Richardson as directors, attempted to provide greater professional organization while retaining administrative independence. Despite its public ambitions, it retained a pragmatic commitment to the training of portraitists, the only figurative genre in which there existed a ready demand. By 1720 the academy had fragmented, and its promise was left unfulfilled.
Despite these setbacks, Richardson remained a potent professional example for Hogarth and Reynolds, who despite their differences both followed in the Richardsonian mold of theorist-painters. While Hogarth shared Richardson's chauvinism regarding the virtues of English art, he remained skeptical of its ability to compete with foreign imports. Particularly dispiriting had been the failure of history painting to take root in England, despite the limited victories of Hogarth and his father-in-law, Sir James Thornhill. It was Reynolds who recovered Richardson's optimism and a great many of his theories in the promotion of a national school of art. This marks a dramatic shift in tone, and one that correlates with a renewed public investment in "Military Glory, by Sea, and Land." What had changed was not the pursuit of military glory per se, but rather a heightened sense of purpose in which mercantile competition, military conquest, and artistic ambitions all converged during the Seven Years' War to elicit a more concentrated public investment in the arts.
A spirit of mercantile competition, in which national strength was deemed to be commensurate with a favorable balance of trade, was deeply ingrained in British identity and culture by the mid-eighteenth century. While art historians have thoroughly examined the relation of British art to urban commerce, there is much to be gained by expanding that frame to encompass British art's engagement with a broader mercantile world. This section provides a general overview of Britain's mercantile culture leading up to the Seven Years' War, and it lays the groundwork for important distinctions, elaborated in the following chapters, between a mercantile aesthetic, of which William Hogarth was the last great proponent, and a jostling set of militant and classicizing aesthetics that emerged during the Seven Years' War.
Economic historians tend to mark the beginning of the mercantilist age with the Portuguese conquest of Ceuta in 1415. Portugal, Spain, and the Dutch Republic dominated the next two centuries of mercantile expansion, with the latter consolidating its position at the center of financial, shipping, insurance, and distribution markets in the seventeenth century. Spared the worst of the Continent's Reformation struggles, the English economy expanded throughout this period, though it struggled to compete with the Dutch navy in European waters, and it proved incapable of challenging the overseas empires of Spain and Portugal. Instead, "English ships roamed the oceans," in the words of Patrick O'Brien, "in search of niches and new markets to trade. Venture capitalists as well as migrants from the nation's growing underclass and Celtic fringes looked to sparsely populated islands in the Caribbean or territories on the ostensibly inhospitable mainland of North America for colonization and settlement."
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 marked a watershed in England's status as a mercantile nation. With the House of Orange now occupying the throne, England turned its attention to France, which had been rapidly consolidating its position as the leading naval power in the Mediterranean. Fearing French invasion and Jacobite rebellion in the North, the English forged the 1707 Act of Union in which Scotland joined Great Britain, with significant implications for the North Sea economy. Previously composed of an agglomeration of Anglo-Dutch cities, the North Sea economy became a national British entrepôt system. As David Ormrod has argued, "The restructuring of the North Sea economy . . . was something more than a merely local or regional phenomenon, since the movement of Dutch commercial capital to London played a critical role in releasing resources for the expansion of England's Atlantic economy." The Treaty of Utrecht (1712-13) strengthened Britain's hand through the acquisition of naval bases in Gibraltar and Minorca as well as the asiento, or sole right, for English merchants to sell slaves to Spanish colonies in South America.
By the first half of the eighteenth century, Britain's mercantile system was robust, expansive, and a formative part of British identity. The Augustan poems of Joseph Addison, George Lyttelton, Alexander Pope, and James Thomson are replete with mercantile themes and reveal a growing confidence in the benefits of global trade. As Suvir Kaul has argued, "The history of English poetry in the long eighteenth century is best written as a history of poets' attempts to endow the nation with literary, cultural and iconic capital adequate to its bourgeoning status as a global power." I am making a similar argument on behalf of the visual arts, although painting and sculpture appeared somewhat later on the scene than epic poetry as an instrument of national consciousness and cultural consensus, which turns out to have significant formal implications. One notable exception is Sir James Thornhill's "Painted Hall" in Greenwich, which provides a contemporaneous analogue to the interests and ideological tensions apparent in the work of the Augustan poets.
One of the few state commissions for a major painted cycle in the eighteenth century, the murals at the Royal Hospital for Seamen in Greenwich, were undertaken by Thornhill from 1708 to 1727. The ceiling of the Upper Hall includes "the four QUARTERS of the World, Europe, Asia, Africa and America, with their several Attitudes, &c. admiring our Maritime Power." Thornhill's cycle shares with David Mallet and James Thomson's lyrics to Alfred: A Masque (1740) a stridency and repetition of rhetorical tropes common to the period:
I see thy commerce, Britain, grasp the world:
All nations serve thee; every foreign flood,
Subjected, pays his tribute to the Thames.
Thither the golden south obedient pours
His sunny treasures: thither the soft East
Her spices, delicacies, gentle gifts:
And thither his rough trade the stormy North. . . .
These stoop to Britain's thunder. This new world,
Shook to its centre, trembles at her name:
And there, her sons, with aim exalted, sow
The seeds of rising empire, arts, and arms.
Thornhill's murals and Alfred's lyrics seek to project a sense of national unity that had yet to arrive, to stabilize a mercantile code in the face of financial upheavals, and to integrate commercial expansion into a benevolent national history.
Marginalia that Thornhill scribbled on his preparatory drawings, well known in the art-historical literature, show him wrestling with the relative advantages of a realistic visual idiom. Thornhill ultimately decided that the landing in England of William III, as well as the subsequent arrival of George I, should be represented "as it should have been rather than as it was." This decision stemmed in part from anxiety on Thornhill's part about "who shall be there to accompany him, if the Real Nobles that were there, then, Some of them are in disgrace now. & so will be to [sic] much Party in Picture." The intense rivalry between Whigs and Tories led to a politicization of a whole array of British cultural endeavors including poetry, the novel, and its close neighbor, historical narrative. Samuel Johnson dismissed James Thomson's Britannia: A Poem (1729) as "a kind of poetical invective against the Ministry, whom the nation then thought not forward enough in resenting the depredations of the Spaniards. By this piece he declared himself an adherent to the opposition, and had therefore no favour to expect from the Court." The late 1720s also saw the publication of Paul de Rapin de Thoyras's The History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688, which helped to place "the Whig interpretation of history" on a solid footing. Most discussions relating to the failure of English history painting in the first half of the eighteenth century emphasize financial and institutional failures, exemplified by a striking dearth of patronage from church, state, and aristocracy. Less consideration has been given to failures of political will—why, for example, history painting proved incapable of joining the struggle, alongside epic poetry and history writing, to define Britain in the wake of the Glorious Revolution. Here again Thornhill's murals are unique, and they suggest just how challenging it could be to represent a modern mercantile nation as a stable visual entity. Thornhill's dilemma would continue to plague the next two generations of artists, including William Hogarth, Francis Hayman, Joseph Wilton, and Benjamin West, who attempted to work out viable pictorial codes for British history "as it was."
Allegorical proclivities never entirely disappear from British art, as the following chapters attest, and they fail to align with any class or political position. The ongoing negotiation between allegory and reportorial detail provides a productive tension in representations of British history and the state. Drawing upon rich conceptions of allegory put forward by Walter Benjamin and Angus Fletcher, this study views mid-century allegories as more than a feudal iconographic recrudescence. In the following account, allegory constitutes an inescapable creative and interpretative mode in ambitious public art, no matter how "naturalistic" the veneer. As representations of the state and of state authority, the works to be examined here depend on allegorical and naturalistic modes of address, and they reveal "the movement from history to nature[,] which is the basis of allegory," as Benjamin conceived it. The frequency with which Britain's arms were paired with her arts in this period suggests a concept of the arts that was itself allegorical.
The tension between allegory and history can be found throughout the Greenwich murals, including the culminating mural on the north wall in which Thornhill develops an allegory of the Augustan Age under George I and the Hanoverian succession (Figure 1). Large allegorical figures, including Providence, Time, and Justice, contrast in both style and scale with realistic portraits of King George I and the Prince of Wales, both in armor. Young Prince Frederick leans on the king's knee while portraits of the young princesses double as "the little GENII of PAINTING, POETRY, and MUSICK." Although Thornhill designed the entire scheme and painted the allegorical figures on the north wall, recent research suggests that a German-born assistant named Dietrich Ernst Andreae painted the royal portraits. This stylistic disjunction draws attention to a broader conceptual awkwardness in which absolutist visual conventions chafe against the representation of a sitting constitutional monarch.
King George I receives his sceptre from Providence as he reaches across a globe displaying the full extent of the Atlantic Ocean and all three points in the highly profitable triangular trade. Thornhill's cycle resonates here with the final refrain of "Rule Britannia," which closes the masque Alfred:
The Muses, still with freedom found,
Shall to thy happy coast repair:
Blest isle! with matchless beauty crown'd.
And manly hearts to guard the fair.
"Rule, Britannia, rule the waves,
Britons never will be slaves."
In both cases the mercantile system produces wealth and naval resources with which to "guard the fair," including that most delicate of muses, the arts.
Alfred and the Greenwich murals contain significant differences, not the least of which was Alfred's integral relation to an oppositional court, that of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Published one year after Admiral Vernon's victory at Porto Bello, "Rule Britannia" sounded less like an ode to national unity than an anthem intended to combat Robert Walpole's timid foreign policy. Another notable difference can be found in Thomson's deployment of "slavery" as a central term, which is entirely absent from the Greenwich murals. Robin Blackburn has argued that in "the period 1630-1750 the British Empire witnessed an increasingly clamorous, and even obsessive, 'egotistical' revulsion against 'slavery' side by side with an almost uncontested exploitation of African bondage," and so it is with Thomson's ode. In the 1780 epigraph at the beginning of this book, "An Artist" continues in the same rhetorical vein, celebrating the ability of the Royal Academy to "break through the fetters" that bound other European academies. It was only in the second half of the eighteenth century that an abolition movement emerged, significantly tempering wholehearted endorsements of the mercantile system. Public concern over the slave trade provides an important index of a shift away from the relatively complacent mercantile optimism of the first half of the eighteenth century.
While "Rule Britannia" and the Greenwich murals reveal internal contradictions and equivocations, it is worth emphasizing the more obvious point that these were genuinely optimistic prognostications about the benefits of mercantile growth. This is all the more striking given that the South Sea Bubble expanded and burst even as Thornhill worked on the Upper Hall of Greenwich Hospital. While the South Sea Company was founded in 1711 to trade with Spanish America, it had begun to deal more with the handling of government debt than foreign trade. The South Sea Bubble of 1720 involved a rash of speculation in South Sea stocks stoked by insider trading, corrupt political manipulation, and an overconfidence born of recent financial stability. John Law's Mississippi scheme, which sought to reduce the national debt in France, both inspired and fueled the South Sea Bubble, lending the episode an international dimension.
Dutch satirists made short work of the crisis, and their emblematic prints circulated throughout Europe. A number of these satires inspired a twenty-four-year-old engraver named William Hogarth to produce what appears to be the only original Bubble print by an English artist (Figure 2). It was reported that Londoners cried out, "break Janson and Lambert on the wheel," referring to two South Sea Company directors. Hogarth indulged this impulse even as he reframed the sacrifice as "honesty" broken on the wheel by "self interest." While Hogarth's South Sea Scheme borrowed heavily from Dutch predecessors and the prints of Jacques Callot, it helped to inaugurate an indigenous tradition of graphic satire that would become one of the most vigorous and original in Europe. A few years later Hogarth began to paint with oils even as he began to court Sir James Thornhill's daughter, Jane. Success in both of these endeavors turned his work away from political satire and overt allegory. Hogarth's return to explicitly political satire in the 1760s, at the very end of his career, stunned his contemporaries and sent ripples throughout the London artistic field, as the following chapters attest.
For all of the investors that it ruined, the South Sea Bubble ultimately strengthened the hand of the Bank of England and increased the efficiency and transparency of public credit, thereby enabling England "to spend on war out of all proportion to its tax revenue" later in the century. It also ushered in a new administration, with Robert Walpole as first minister, that would remain in power for over twenty years. The first real challenge to Walpole's hegemony came in 1738 with growing pressure from Atlantic merchants and a parliamentary opposition to declare war on Spain. The clamor became so great that Walpole was forced to declare war in October 1739 in what became known as the "War of Jenkins' Ear," synecdochically relating the entire conflict to an appendage that the captain of a British merchant vessel lost to Spanish coast guards in 1731.
The British public then seized upon the victory of Admiral Edward Vernon at the Spanish port of Porto Bello in November 1739 as a glorious national triumph, in no small part because it impugned the administration's halfhearted prosecution of the war. Vernon was already known as a stern critic of the Walpole administration, and his victory sparked celebrations across England, Scotland, and the American colonies. Kathleen Wilson has recovered the extent of these celebrations as well as a distinct ideological valence. Vernon was hailed as a "Free-born Briton" who provided those with an economic stake in the nation's mercantile success a model of national strength free from Continental entanglements and the threat of a standing army. The widespread embrace of Admiral Vernon solidified ties between global expansion and parliamentary opposition, which provided a formative education for the young William Pitt who went on to perfect just such an association as the "Great Patriot" of the 1750s.
Popular support for Vernon's cause manifested itself in urban illuminations, commemorative pottery, and celebratory prints. Wilson concludes that "the Vernon agitation laid the groundwork for popular support for, and ministerial exploitation of, Britain's greatest imperial effort in the century, the Seven Years' War." Vernon's victory may have also prepared the groundwork for a heightened investment in contemporary art, albeit more subtly. Vernon was the subject of numerous portraits and maritime paintings, but these were already established, lucrative genres among London artists. In 1740 an anonymous pamphlet titled Satirical and Panegyrical Instructions to Mr. William Hogarth, Painter, on Admiral Vernon's Taking Porto Bello with Six Ships of War Only, called on Hogarth to
take thy Pencil with exulting Pride,
Full of the Glory of thy Britain fraught,
Truth in thy Hand, and Freedom in thy Thought;
Thy animated Colours shall relate
How Vernon rais'd his Country's drooping State.
By addressing his request to Hogarth, and by doing so in these terms, the author clearly desired more than a portrait or sea piece. In addition to Hogarth's cultural standing, this request may have been informed by Hogarth's willingness to engrave an admission ticket for the original production of Alfred. But having abandoned oppositional satire in the late 1720s, Hogarth refused to enlist on Vernon's behalf and, by extension, on behalf of the patriot opposition.
It took the Seven Years' War to spur London artists into action. Unlike Vernon's victory at Porto Bello the military victories beginning in 1759 appeared coextensive with the nation in all of its political, religious, and economic diversity, thereby opening up a tremendous opportunity for the nation's artists. Contemporary art exhibitions and new artistic organizations emerged at this propitious moment, and they participated in a collective reassessment of the terms upon which commerce, citizenship, and the right of imperial conquest rested. William Hogarth's oeuvre occupies a complex position within this reassessment, and his professional decline provides a powerful indication of a broad artistic shift from a mercantile aesthetic predating the Seven Years' War to a host of imperial aesthetics that sought to supplant it. My own account begins, therefore, at the height of Hogarth's professional fortunes, which coincided with the War of the Austrian Succession. More specifically, it begins with Hogarth's engagement with the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.
One Rapid Stride
The Duke of Cumberland's crushing victory over Jacobite forces at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 helped to consolidate political power in London and contribute to the nation's subsequent imperial prowess through the integration of Highland Scots into the armed forces and diplomatic corps. While few could have imagined that Culloden would be the last Jacobite rebellion, much less that it would be the last major military engagement on British soil, contemporaries still understood it to be a pivotal moment in the consolidation of the British state. This was certainly the case for William Hogarth, who saw in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 provocative themes for two innovative history paintings. Moses Brought before Pharaoh's Daughter (1746) and The March to Finchley (1750) were steeped in the lessons and collective memories that stemmed from the recent Jacobite conflict. To the extent that Hogarth has come to seem stereotypically English, and even to be viewed as a merchant of visual stereotypes, it is easy to miss one of the most important contributions that he made to British art. For Hogarth made the nation, in all of its chaotic glory, the subject of his art. More specifically, he turned the intractable problem of the artist's role within a Protestant, constitutional monarchy into a formal problem with implications for a national school of art.
These two paintings tapped into a spirit of national revival that enabled Hogarth to link his own professional ambitions to the fate of the British nation. Between the War of the Austrian Succession and the unprecedented victories of the Seven Years' War, Britons became increasingly anxious about their commercial and military rivalry with France. These anxieties would rise and fall, but not significantly relent, until 1759 when Britain claimed a series of victories over the French. It was in the anxious mercantile period, roughly 1748 to 1759, Bob Harris has argued, that London's political, cultural, and commercial pursuits cohered within the framework of "national revival." While the impulses behind this revival were as various as its forms, Harris argues,
Crucial to its emergence and nature were a major crime wave which followed the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle , perceptions of rivalry with and the threat from France, the revival of a sense of active providence, and deeper-lying awareness that British society was undergoing crucial structural changes, that trade and commerce were shaping social relations. Whatever the terms in which it was conceived, the challenge remained fundamentally the same: could Britain restore to her society moral health, order and discipline, economic competitiveness, and last but by no means least, regain the favour of God.
British art historians have thoroughly examined how trade and commerce shaped social relations, particularly between artists and their public. Much less has been said about the ways in which military conquest and religious belief contributed to "a sense of active providence" in the cultural sphere. It is telling that Hogarth's preeminent biographer, Ronald Paulson, has done the most to bring the influence of politics and religion to bear on British art in these years, and his voluminous writings constitute a significant precedent for my own analyses. By responding to the full panoply of national anxieties described by Harris, Hogarth helped to launch British art on a bold new path.
The March to Finchley captures this anxious revivalist moment with such imaginative force that it becomes a paradigmatic example of the relation between art and the state prior to the Seven Years' War (Figure 3). Moving decisively beyond the allegorical expression of nationhood in Thornhill's murals, Hogarth invented a new genre that his friend Henry Fielding dubbed "comic history painting," which integrated aspects of English graphic satire into a formally rigorous emblem of British identity. The painting is fundamentally preimperial, however, in its skeptical relation to state authority and in its refusal to sentimentalize the kinds of sacrifices that citizenship requires. While The March to Finchley anticipates military success beyond England's borders, it remains grounded in a carnivalesque London geography. Hogarth's mercantile aesthetic will be distinguished, in the following account, from a set of aesthetic alternatives, including heroic and cosmopolitan visual modes, that attempted to supplant it in the wake of the Seven Years' War.
The very logic of mercantilism, with its never-ending quest for a positive balance of trade, made commercial expansion synonymous with the national interest. It was a pursuit that cut across class lines and political allegiances, becoming, in Linda Colley's terms, "creative, in that a cult of commerce became an increasingly important part of being British." The perceived convergence of commercial and national interests provided a significant rhetorical opening through which London artists could promote their profession in the 1740s and 1750s. Oil painting and stone carving were two of the purest examples, after all, of the conversion of inert raw materials into refined consumer goods.
As a commercial rivalry with France expanded into a frontier war in the Ohio Valley in 1755, and as a series of disastrous military defeats befell British forces across the globe, public debate raged over the appropriate relationship between commerce and conquest. When military fortunes began to improve in 1758 with the capture of Louisbourg on Cape Breton, Samuel Johnson remained skeptical of the value of such conquests, and even more skeptical of the ways in which Londoners represented that conquest to one another. Writing in the Universal Chronicle about the unseemly parading of captured French standards before the London public, the king, and the bishops of Oxford and Bristol, Johnson noted,
Every public act either raises or sinks the honour of a people. . . . But how were these colours got, whence did they come, and what did they cost? . . . They were not torn down from the walls of Paris or Toulon; they were not brought from Minorca, in return for those which we lately lost. They came from a place so obscure and inconsiderable, that its name is known only to the French and English; and are purchased at an expence, which would be barely countervailed by the conquest of a province on the Continent, or the defeat of a royal army.
The Duke of Newcastle, who as a government minister was responsible for prosecuting the war, was notoriously ignorant of North American geography and was reputedly astonished to learn that Cape Breton was an island. How much more likely, then, that "the English rabble," to use Johnson's term, might be misled as to the purpose and relative value of imperial conquest: "They have drank to the conquest of Louisbourg, till they take Louisbourg to be the seat of the Empire, and believe the rest of the world to be of the same opinion."
London artists were fully embedded in this circuit of representation, celebration, and professional calculation. In the 1750s London artists fell into a heated disagreement over the shape of artistic organization and the appropriate degree of state intervention. Public debates related to military reform, including the controversial establishment of an English militia, offered a rhetorical matrix within which London artists promoted new forms of artistic organization. The most significant trace of this professional debate is now to be found in graphic satire, particularly in the dueling prints of Paul Sandby, William Hogarth, and George Townshend. While an attempt to link the visual arts to the fiscal-military state carried enormous risks in the 1750s, it proved to be an astonishingly successful strategy for proponents, like Sandby, of a more regimented public academy of arts. At the same time, the confidence born of subsequent military victories should not be projected back onto a deeply fraught decade. Many of the anxieties that propelled national reform were suspended and diffused by the victories of the Seven Years' War, which has tended to obscure their urgency. Similarly, retrospective knowledge of professional artistic success has tended to occlude the seriousness of debates preceding the establishment of contemporary art exhibitions in 1760.
One of the clearest indications of the speed with which the Seven Years' War transformed British visual culture comes through the dramatic marginalization of Hogarth's aesthetics and practice. In a few brief years, Hogarth's fairground aesthetic yielded to an "improved" urban aesthetic that accommodated royal pageantry, imperial ambitions, and polite commercial progress. Among major London artists, Hogarth alone clung to a mercantile, preimperial notion of artistic training and practice, the following chapters attest, and his reputation suffered accordingly. The Times, Plate 1, published by Hogarth in September 1762, shows the popular wartime leader William Pitt fanning the flames of imperial enthusiasm on a street sign representing the Earth, while London goes up in smoke (Figure 4). In this return to explicit political satire, Hogarth recalled his earlier print of the South Sea Scheme, in which the Great Fire Monument of 1666 was rededicated "in memory of the destruction of the city by the South Sea in 1720." In both prints, Britain's mercantile fortunes are judged according to their impact on the city of London, and they excoriate moments when "A Trading Nation," as Hogarth desired it, succumbed to the temptations of greed and demagoguery. For Hogarth, London's unruly nest of neighborhoods and diverse array of inhabitants represented, indeed guaranteed, English constitutional freedoms. But while the South Sea Scheme condensed public outrage with accuracy and concision, The Times, Plate 1, appeared out of joint to many Londoners. Hogarth's mercantile aesthetic was already giving way to an imperial urbanism that would gain full expression in John Gwynn's "improved" city plan of 1766.
The Seven Years' War proved capable, I argue, of interrupting not just Hogarth's professional momentum, but also broader cultural shifts. At the discouraging outset of war in 1757 John Brown published his Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times, in which he asserted that a "vain, luxurious and selfish Effeminacy" threatened to ruin the body politic and the ambitions of the state. This popular tract belongs to a century-long preoccupation with the baleful effects of "luxury," and it provides a potent example of the ways in which bourgeois commerce impacted cultural notions of civic virtue and masculine identity. More specifically, however, Brown's jeremiad belongs to the anxious revivalism of the 1750s, prior to a turn in Britain's military fortunes. The evangelical poet William Cowper, who adored Brown's Estimate, acknowledged through a skeptical interlocutor in 1782,
Th' inestimable estimate of Brown,
Rose like a paper-kite, and charm'd the town;
But measures plann'd and executed well,
Shifted the wind that rais'd it, and it fell.
He trod the very self-same ground you tread,
And victory refuted all he said.
This accords with Kathleen Wilson's account of the cultural politics of patriotism when she notes that the losses of the 1750s "constituted the symbolic emasculation of the British nation," while "the war and its representation at home reconstituted national masculinity, potency and power." By reactivating civic virtue, heroism, and William Pitt's patriot agenda, the Seven Years' War provided a propitious cultural environment for artists to eclipse Hogarth's mock-heroic precedents. It also enabled them to turn decades of organizational frustration into vital public academies.
Francis Hayman's representation of recent military victories at Vauxhall Gardens and Joseph Wilton's monument to General Wolfe in Westminster Abbey fully register this shift. These works embody an ethos similar to that expressed by Oliver Goldsmith, describing the euphoria that overtook London following the news of General Wolfe's victory in 1759: "How blest am I, said I to myself, who make one in this glorious political society, which thus preserves liberty to mankind and to itself; who rejoice only in their conquest over slavery, and bring mankind from bondage into freedom. . . . My king, my country, and I, are friends together, and by a mutual intercourse of kindness and duty, give and receive social happiness." Public art commemorating the Seven Years' War shares with Goldsmith's passage an appeal to polite social values conducive to "social happiness" within a commercial nation. But Hayman's and Wilton's works also share with Goldsmith's narrator an appeal to royal authority and divine providence. Like a new Israel, Britain delivered mankind "from bondage into freedom," a narrative that conveniently suppresses the actual slave trade in Britain's mercantile system. By grafting imperial enthusiasm onto allegorical, and even royalist, visual conventions, Hayman and Wilton contained the more radical implications of British territorial conquest. They also contained the "sublime" exertions of General Wolfe, a member of the lesser gentry who was memorialized in the burial place of English kings.
A unique conjunction of two independent historical events facilitated Wilton's and Hayman's iconographic maneuvers. The first was the dramatic shift in Britain's military fortunes, epitomized by Wolfe's victory at Quebec in September 1759. The second was the accession of the first "trueborn" English monarch, George III, in October 1760 and his coronation in September 1761. Capitalizing on this serendipitous conjunction, London artists finally turned the corner on internecine debates over organization, public exhibitions, and formal relations to the state. By combining allegorical, reportorial, and religious visual modes, Wilton and Hayman pioneered an imperial iconography that ostensibly appealed to all Britons.
The communal goodwill that marked the period between the capture of Quebec and George III's coronation, what the opposition leader and aristocrat Earl Temple referred to as "an intoxicated unanimity," gave way with unnerving speed to a fractious debate over the terms upon which peace should be concluded. As the Peace of Paris preliminaries were hammered out in 1762 and finalized in 1763, opposition propagandists flooded London coffeehouses with written tracts and graphic satires that opposed any territorial concessions to the French or Spanish. One of the most virulent and creative of these opposition efforts was John Wilkes's periodical, The North Briton, which made the young monarch's "dearest friend" and first lord of the Treasury, Lord Bute, the unceasing aim of his satire. Satirical etchings and engravings against the Scottish-born Bute swarmed, and they developed a critique of royal prerogative, ministerial incompetence, and imperial decline in a unique visual register.
The reemergence of patriot rhetoric in the 1760s made it vital for London artists to establish a relationship with the state that was professionally advantageous yet immune from oppositional critique. Full-length portraits of statesmen brought this challenge to the surface, as artists and politicians navigated the treacherous waters of Wilkite politics. State portraits of King George III, Lord Bute, and Lord Rockingham came to be viewed through the cross-eyed leer of "Wilkes and Liberty." More than individual likenesses, these portraits attempted to personify national community in the face of anti-Scottish rhetoric. One of Reynolds's greatest imperial representations, a full-length portrait of the Tahitian Omai, constitutes a unique "state portrait" in the following account, as Reynolds sought to personify a unified British state in the face of domestic and imperial dissent.
It was largely through the mediation of the "Wilkes and Liberty" movement that imperial politics impacted fine art and vice versa in the 1760s and 1770s. The representation of British imperial identity took shape in tandem, it must be emphasized, with a virulent anti-Scottish xenophobia. This book argues that the cosmopolitan ideals of the Royal Academy of Arts were shaped by the bitter partisanship of Wilkite politics. One telling feature of this cultural development is that militant, imperial themes played a more pronounced role in public art before the foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts than after. While popular enthusiasm for the war against France helped to make contemporary art a national concern, the Royal Academy sought to repress those ties in favor of a "disinterested" conception of fine art. The very notion of an autonomous "Republic of Taste," emphasized in John Barrell's account of the emergence of the Royal Academy, can be understood, at one level, as a strategic dissociation from the emergence of modern political parties.
Some of the most important artists of the postwar period, including Thomas Gainsborough, Angelica Kauffman, and Richard Wilson, are absent from my account precisely because they captured the polite, disinterested values of the academy so flawlessly. Reynolds and fellow artists such as Allan Ramsay, Benjamin West, and James Barry appear in my narrative at moments when their commitment to a cosmopolitan art faltered or when they struggled to escape from shifting political sands. It is in these moments of political engagement, moments when artists became irregular combatants in the messy process of state formation, that we gain surprising insights into British cultural practice. These moments also tend to produce irregular works of art—works that defied artistic expectations, confused genre distinctions, and flaunted formal conventions.
Benjamin West's The Death of General Wolfe, exhibited before the Royal Academy public in 1771, is a particularly potent example of this, even though it now tends to be viewed as a politically anodyne member of the Western canon. Given that West's painting of Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus inspired George III to found a Royal Academy of Art, West's exhibition of a contemporary painting featuring "breeches and cock'd hats" three years later seemed like a retrograde return to Hogarthian practices and a reckless professional gamble. And yet Agrippina and Wolfe both deploy visual and rhetorical tropes of "massacre" and "martyrdom" that were intimately linked to Wilkite and American dissent. Through the lens of imperial politics West's early history paintings constitute an extraordinary artistic gamble.
My account draws to a close with the American War of Independence, which shattered Britain's imperial confidence and altered popular conceptions about the purpose and meaning of a transatlantic empire. India factors surprising little into the following account, gaining slight traction in the debates and representational problems examined here. Likewise, Ireland appears here only in reference to James Barry's professional rise in the 1770s. To the extent that artists and the London public conceived of a national school of art in these years, they triangulated it through English, Scottish, and North American identities.
That changed dramatically in 1776, when Joshua Reynolds exhibited a full-length portrait of Omai, and William Hodges exhibited monumental landscapes of the South Pacific. While historians have debated whether the "first British Empire" constitutes a distinct sociopolitical period, it is a concept with significant interpretative potential for the history of British art. From the mercantile and revivalist aspirations of Hogarth in the 1740s to the imperial and classicizing ambitions of Royal Academicians in the 1770s, Britons (both north and south of the Tweed) retained a distinctly circum-Atlantic cast of mind. With the onset of the American Revolution, imperial aspirations and representations began to shift east.
As a final demonstration of the dramatic manner in which imperial circumstances impacted artistic production, I conclude the book with John Singleton Copley's The Death of Major Peirson, exhibited at a private exhibition in the Haymarket in 1784 (Figure 5). The painting's debt to Benjamin West, particularly The Death of General Wolfe, is unmistakable and deliberate. More surprising is the painting's resonance with The March to Finchley. Unified by a strong X-composition with a Union Jack dominating the center, The Death of Major Peirson turns the chaotic preparations of the previous canvas into an active military engagement. Unwilling recruits become valiant, implacable fighters. Anchoring the strong diagonal, Copley's wounded drummer becomes the equivalent of Hogarth's drunken foreground soldier, now dignified through sacrifice. Copley's brash, beautiful canvas transfused The March to Finchley's antebellum corpse with entirely new blood.
Untroubled by Finchley's simmering tensions between state power and individual rights, empire and liberty, The Death of Major Peirson made the British both victims and victors—a highly alluring combination at the end of the American Revolution. The painterliness and visual sophistication of the work announced a maturation of contemporary history painting as well as a now unquestioned equivalence within the genre between the aims of art and those of the state. While the historical canvases of Hogarth deployed complex visual, literary, and art-historical allusions, The Death of Major Peirson spoke directly to its audience in a language that embodied a new political culture emphasizing sincerity, authenticity, and sacrifice. The British Empire had acquired its own artistic genre carved, so to speak, out of the ostensibly cosmopolitan prerogatives of the academy. It is with this development, in which contemporary history painting established its own realm of moral and imperial competence within the academic system, that my account comes to an end, for the American-born artists Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley had finally cut Sir James Thornhill's Gordian knot. Contemporary history painting now claimed, and the London public now proved willing to believe, that British imperial history "as it was" was also "as it should be."
The politely progressive model of artistic development, epitomized by Reynolds's Discourses, emerges in the following account as a creative fiction intended to provide the foundling arts with a long and distinguished pedigree. Without undermining the nobility of British art in what has become known as its golden age, this narrative sets out to recover its wayward, picaresque youth. But this is also where British art history diverges from Henry Fielding's "history of a foundling." For while the serendipitous wanderings of Tom Jones kept him blissfully ignorant of military conflict just over the horizon, a significant number of London artists willingly enlisted in the pursuit of an imperial visual culture. If the following tale narrates a loss of innocence, it also lays bare a history of repression and displacement, in which institutionalized state violence paradoxically brought about the formation of a modern art world defined by its autonomy.