Topographer Royal

William Vaughan

  • The Diary of Joseph Farington RA: Vols V and VI (1 August 1801-31 December 1804) edited by Kenneth Garlick
    Yale (for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art), 447 pp, £15.00, October 1979, ISBN 0 300 02418 5

For over fifty years the diary of Joseph Farington – topographer, academician and formidable art politician – has been recognised as an invaluable source of information about English artists of the Romantic period. Running from 1793, when the compiler was 46, to his death 28 years later, it covers one of the most exciting times in the history of British painting. The two great landscapists Turner and Constable were developing their mature styles, the suave portraitist Lawrence and the startling fantasist Fuseli were at the height of their powers, and that embarrassing outsider William Blake was issuing book after book of illuminated prophecy. Farington himself was not a major participant in this rich flowering: his meticulous, straight-laced art belongs more to an earlier age. But he was a great observer.

Although the diary has been known to scholars for two generations, this is the first time that it has been published in its entirety. The result is that readers now have an edition that supersedes not only Grieg’s eight-volume abridged version (1922-28), but also the typed transcripts in the Print Room of the British Museum and the Royal Library Windsor. Unfortunately, the cost of the whole venture (approximately fourteen volumes in all, currently priced at £15 a volume) will place it beyond the reach of private purchasers, but its presence in libraries should gain it a far wider readership than it has had in the past.

The new publication is as yet only partially complete. The first six volumes take us as far as 1804 (it took Grieg two to cover the same span); at the present rate of production – two volumes per half year – the full text should be available by the end of 1981. The editors have decided, partly because of financial considerations, not to append notes or an index to the individual volumes. This contrasts with Grieg’s version, where the racy and anecdotal extracts (many of which had been serialised in the Morning Post) are made all the more accessible by informative annotations and a separate index to each volume. Garlick and Macintyre have promised us a full index for the complete set, as well as a ‘Farington encyclopedia’ of supplementary explanatory information, and when these appear they should provide a panoramic view of the whole. At the moment, however, there is little to guide us through the copious text. It is to be hoped that this will prompt people to read it right through. Those who do so will certainly be rewarded. Farington writes well and with care (there is evidence to suggest that he made preliminary drafts of some of his narrative), and quite apart from any literary pleasure, a close reading of a diary kept over such a long period should provide a unique sense of familiarity with the London art-world of those times.

There are intimations of crisis and stress – particularly around 1800, the year in which Farington’s wife died – but the diary is in no sense confessional. There is no record of spiritual struggle of the kind that one finds in the writings of Van Gogh, or even of the intellectual and artistic debate displayed in the journals of Delacroix. Farington’s virtues as a writer are similar to those he exhibits as a topographer. He describes the events he witnessed minutely and receptively, with little conscious bias. But whereas as a topographical painter he was one of hundreds – many of whom showed considerably more verve – as a verbal recorder he is unique. No one else described the events of his day from a comparable vantage-point. Few, indeed, kept such exacting accounts, and none of those who did was so deeply immersed in the art politics of the time. Farington was a key man at the Royal Academy when that institution was still the hub of British artistic life. While holding no official position, he exerted decisive influence in such matters as the election of Academicians and the appointment to highly-prized teaching-posts: the text abounds with the visits of hopeful aspirants and with notes on how the votes were going to be cast. He was described by one opponent as ‘Warwick the king-maker’, and those who wished to advance their careers certainly felt it necessary to keep on good terms with him. In the volumes under review the young John Constable makes several appearances. Farington gave him good advice about not taking a dead-end job as a drawing-master. Constable took this advice, but mercifully paid less attention when Farington suggested how he should develop as an artist: ‘I talked to him about his proceeding in art and recommended to him to Study nature and particular art less.’ (Thursday, 8 April 1802.)

Such matters are of greatest interest to historians of art. But Farington also has much for other readers. The Royal Academy and its affairs dominate the foreground of his picture but in the middle ground there are telling details about the social life of the period. There are also glimpses of the background to momentous political events: the execution of Louis XVI, the rise of Napoleon, Waterloo. One of the most fascinating parts of these two volumes is the journey Farington made to France in 1802 at the time of the Treaty of Amiens. The brief cessation of hostilities between England and France provided an opportunity for English artists to visit Paris to see what French artists had been up to since the Revolution and to sample the stupendous collection of artistic booty that had been amassed in the course of Napoleon’s victorious campaigns. Farington travelled in the company of Fuseli, who, despite his dismissal of topography as ‘tame delineation’, seems to have been on amicable terms with his view-painting colleague. Naturally enough, most of their discussion is about pictures. But Farington also keeps an eye out for the changes that France’s political upheavals have brought to the life of the people. During their journey from Calais, he sees little alteration in the country, but Paris is a different matter. Here he notes a general improvement in living standards – ‘Now there appears to be but one order of people, a middle Class as they may be called’ (Tuesday, 14 September) – while deploring the general lack of decorum. Madame Récamier comes in for censure on the low cut of her dress. There are also revealing accounts of major artistic and political personalities, including a description of Napoleon reviewing his troops. Like most acute observers, Farington had no doubts about the briefness of the Anglo-French treaty, or about Napoleon’s ambition to be made Emperor.

Farington is, in fact, at all times an assiduous reporter. When touring in Britain he questions all classes of people – nobles, clerics, landlords and urchins. Rural economy interests him in particular – perhaps because he was the scion of a landowning family. He records much about the quality of local produce and the price of crops. At times he almost resembles Cobbett in his attention to such details, though he lacks the radical sympathies of the author of Rural Rides. When visiting Derbyshire in the summer of 1801, he encounters factory children returning from work in Arkwright’s mill at 7 o’clock on a Saturday evening. He notes their hours of employment (13 hours a day, six days a week) and wages (2s. 3d a week for a little girl) without concern. His only comment is that they ‘look in general very healthy’ and he approves Arkwright’s habit of sending them to church and sunday school on their one free day.

Equally symptomatic is Farington’s charting of the routine of his own life. He rarely talks of his emotions, but we know to the minute when he arose each day for the best part of 28 years, and usually what the weather was like. We are equally well-informed about the people he dined with, though less so about what transpired between them. What was the conversation like when he was seated between France’s greatest sculptor, Houdon, and Britain’s most distinguished actor, Kemble, at the public breakfast given by the President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West, in Paris in 1802? Apparently not noteworthy, despite Kemble’s reputation as one of the finest intellects of his time. However, Farington does frequently jot down remarks that passed across the table, even if he is less thorough in this than in his record of the seating-plan. The editors have preserved both, and I think that they were right to do so. Not only does the retention of minutiae enhance the publication’s value as a historical document, it also emphasises that this was essentially a private chronicle. Farington does not seem to have entertained the idea of his diary being published, and one must assume that such details were included for his own satisfaction. It probably gave him pleasure in later years to recall that on Christmas Day 1801 Dick sat next to Eliza, or that on Sunday 2 May 1802 J.F. (himself) was seated between Lord and Lady Thomond. For us, too, it can be a delight to savour such diagrams – especially when they include names like Fuseli, Flaxman and Turner. (On one occasion the company appears to have been particularly grand: Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck – until one looks again and realises that this time the rectangle is not someone’s dining-table but Lord Bridgewater’s picture gallery.)

Farington was a sociable man. Throughout the diary people and pictures are inextricably mixed. His opponents claimed that he had no real interest in art, only in wielding power, but this was grossly unfair. As the many detailed descriptions in the diary show, Farington could be a perceptive critic, even of works he found distasteful. When he was in France he joined in the execration of David expressed by most British artists. They found it unthinkable that a regicide could be a good painter, and preferred minor figures such as Guérin and Gérard to the great master of French Neo-classicism. Yet Farington could still pinpoint the salient features of David’s The Sabine Women – in particular, that the composition was based upon the principle of a frieze.

The breadth of Farington’s artistic judgment may be partly due to the fact that his own creative career was waning. At the time he began his diary he was in the process of turning from artist into art politician. As the editors point out in their valuable and informative introduction, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the Royal Academy, had recently died, and there was no figure of comparable stature to take his place. It was a time when factions developed and relatively light-weight figures could manipulate proceedings. Furthermore, Farington was beginning to be overtaken in his chosen career of topographer by younger and more brilliant men. Trained by the classical landscapist Richard Wilson, his style was placid, harmonious and orderly. His most successful work was his illustrations to Boydell’s History of the River Thames (1794), where there is an abundance of tranquil vistas and stately country-seats. He was a world away from the drama and poignancy that geniuses like Turner and Girtin were beginning to bring to the description of natural scenery. After 1800 his production declined to a trickle. In 1837 the German encyclopedia Nagler’s Künstler-lexikon refers to him as having ‘died around 1805’. The mistake is almost excusable: he exhibited at the Royal Academy only three times after this date, and not at all after 1813.

Yet if Farington was in decline as an artist, there is no evidence of a weakening in his mental faculties. It has sometimes been supposed that his fulsome noting of the opinions and techniques of other artists was due to indecisiveness, but he is more likely to have been motivated by curiosity. Besides, as a man who had taken upon himself the task of adjudicating on the careers of others, it behoved him to be well-informed about their habits and merits.