Gone to earth

John Barrell

  • Sporting Art in 18th-Century England: A Social and Political History by Stephen Deuchar
    Yale, 195 pp, £24.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 300 04116 0

The post-war saloon-bar modernisation programme began in the era of Macmillan and the Affluent Society. Like most such programmes in England, its main intention was to resist the modern: the character of a pub, or so the landlord would tirelessly reassure his regulars, was not going to be changed, just ‘brought out’, much as monosodium glutamate brings out the true flavour of food. It soon emerged, however, that every saloon bar in England shared the same character, founded on one simple contradiction. To a generation of interior designers for whom to modernise was the same thing as to antiquate, it was a place where everything was to be simultaneously out of date and up to it, pre- and post-industrial. Saloon-bar repro, undistressed and innocent of all intent to lie about its age, was a thoroughly economical way of signifying at one and the same time the venerably antique and the brand new. The twofold character of the bar was signalled also by the repeated opposition of the Dull and the Bright, the relentless contrast of dark wood and recently burnished metal. Tables stained in Jacobean oak were topped with easy-wipe, machine-dimpled copper. Wall-studs were newly exposed or newly installed, painted or stained black, and smothered with freshly-minted brass. On every wall the traditional black-and-gold plastic of Hogarth frames was screwed to the flock wallpaper. Ah, those would be the days, if they were no longer with us!

Almost nobody ever looks at the sporting prints inside the Hogarth frames, and anyone who does happen to give them a second glance can see that they are not there to be looked at. They are not ‘originals’, even in the loose sense in which the word can be applied to reproductive prints. Like the chairs and tables, they are reproductions of reproductions of reproductions, and in the process of transmission the engraved lines have become so attenuated that the titles, ‘Duck Shooting’, ‘Gone to earth’, and so on, have to be inferred from the subjects, the subjects from the titles. Glimpsed from a distance, however, the prints can be judged by the standards of decor, not of art, and now they come into their own. The scarlet and chestnut of coats and horses repeat the ruddy tone of the wallpaper and soft furnishings, which the dazzlingly white, textureless paper punctuates and preserves from monotony.

In this programme of simultaneous modernisation and antiquation, no other branch of art would have been as serviceable as the sporting print. It is so entirely without pretensions. It does not expect to be treated as art at all, and no one is offended by the appallingly low standard of reproduction that is the consequence of its manufacture as an item of decor. Indeed, mass-production seems the most appropriate way of turning out images which all aspire to look as much like each other as possible. To foxhunters, each set of half a dozen may elaborate an excitingly different narrative of the multiple events that intervene between a view and a kill, but to the uninitiated, one print of hunting or shooting is barely distinguishable from another, and all seem to mean exactly the same thing. Conveniently enough, that meaning is the same as the meaning of the saloon bar itself: both employ an indeterminate past tense to rabbit on about the pleasures of relaxation or play (the rural as the opposite of urban toil), of hearty good cheer (our fun is the only fun and everyone else is a killjoy), and of social – and racial – exclusiveness (gents not cads, saloon not public, the English or the British versus whoever the rest happens to be, at one time or another).

If the sporting art of the 18th and early 19th centuries is now both ubiquitous and invisible, so in a sense it always was. As Stephen Deuchar shows in his impressive account of 18th-century sporting art, we know very little about almost all the artists who produced it. The names of some are known to us only through their pictures; of others, we know their names but nothing by them; of very few, other than John Wootton and George Stubbs, do we have the materials to begin to construct a life. This is partly because sporting artists were often itinerant, and worked largely in the provinces, but it speaks also of the lowly status that has always been allotted to sporting art, and of the fact that its practitioners were thought to belong to the sporting rather than to the artistic world. Only two painters who made their living primarily from sporting subjects were elected RA before 1800, and sporting artists were not often members of London societies of artists: when the genre was represented in London exhibitions, it was largely ignored by the press. After 1750 or so, sporting paintings and prints began to be produced in considerable volume, and continued to be at least for another hundred years: pictures of hunting, shooting and racing were everywhere, but almost nobody thought them worth writing about.

It was not until this century, when sporting pictures were less often produced than reproduced, that they began to be the subject of a descriptive and critical literature. The first accounts were written by ‘insiders’ from the sporting world, irritated at the neglect of their favourite genre by scholars and critics of art. The claims they made for the genre were not, primarily, aesthetic claims: sporting pictures were of value to sportsmen, it seems, partly because they rekindled memories of adventures in the field, and partly because they illustrated the ‘racial pluck and stamina of Englishman and Scot’. But their especial value was as documentary evidence: they depicted sporting activities and rural society just exactly as they once were. Like the true sportsman himself, sporting art was genial, honest and down-to-earth: its unpretentiousness was the guarantee of its truth.

Art historians continued until recently to give the cold shoulder to sporting artists, treating them as ‘a class unto themselves’, and their works as ‘no business of the historian of art’, or at best as ‘respectable but sub-artistic’. An exception has long been made for Stubbs, whose patrons did not deserve him, and who, because he was a great sporting artist, did not deserve to be classified as a sporting artist at all. More recent attempts to rescue the genre from professional neglect have not been especially successful: offers to demonstrate the ‘true worth’ of sporting art in aesthetic terms have been able to locate it only in Stubbs; have represented the rest of the genre as preamble or epilogue to Stubbs’s work; and have at last been reduced to making the very same claim as the sportsmen-amateurs of earlier in the century, that the value of sporting art is that it is realistic, descriptive, documentary.

It would not have been hard to do better than that, but Deuchar has done very much better. Putting aside questions of aesthetic value, he has concentrated on the claim that 18th-century sporting art shows things as they really were. This claim is made, of course, as much by the pictures themselves as by their 20th-century admirers. At least from the 1730s, and however different they may be in other respects, they all display the signs that they are to be taken as representations of the actual: in particular an unwillingness to idealise in the manner of high art, and an abundance of ‘accidental’ forms, gestures and incidents. What is it, Deuchar asks, that sporting artists and their patrons wished thus to represent as the actuality of sport and of the sporting world? At whom were these representations directed? How and why did they change? By a thorough and thoughtful use of literary as well as pictorial sources, he attempts to situate sporting art in the context of 18th-century social and political history, and has produced the first historical account of the genre which is more than a chronicle of artists and works and of changes internal to the genre and to the sporting world itself. He represents sporting art as the product of a continual and ill-tempered dialogue between sportsmen and their critics that lasted throughout the century. The representations of hunting, shooting and racing changed according to what was being alleged to their detriment, so every sporting picture, by representing the self-image of the sporting world, also embodied an account of the view of sport which that image was an attempt to deny or to ignore.

The history Deuchar proposes has four phases. The first, in the early decades of the century, is treated as more or less a hangover from the times before the revolution, or at least from the days before the Hanoverian accession. In this period, sporting art is a celebration, in effect if not in appearance nostalgic, of equestrian sports as royal sports. It represents them as the appropriate and dignified diversions of courtiers or – for Deuchar sees this as the art, especially, of Tory landowners – of those who think they should be courtiers. Hunting confirmed such men’s gentlemanly and leisured status, but it was also a proof that they were not abusing the privilege of leisure, for equestrian sports encouraged early rising, healthy activity, masculinity, courage: they were a form of military training for a class which still liked to think of itself, in some sense, as owing knight-service. In the paintings of Wootton in particular, gentlemen pose on their prancing steeds like the generals from battle pictures, sometimes in recognisable stretches of their home territory, but often in front of Classical landscapes that look like the stage-sets for what is, evidently, an aristocratic performance.

The notion of equestrian sports as the sports of kings became harder to sustain in the reigns of the first two Georges, who had no great interest in hunting or racing; and the consequent loss of prestige was compounded by the fact that sports of all kinds were becoming increasingly accessible to men in no position to represent themselves as courtiers. At the same time, the Whig intellectuals of the metropolis were inventing the stereotype of the cheerfully brutal and backward fox-hunting squire familiar to us from the novels of Fielding and Smollett. In response to these developments, the sporting world began to turn in on itself, and its art came to concentrate on representing sporting events and practices with a degree of detail which announced that it was addressed only to the initiated.

In the third quarter of the 18th century, the criticism of rural sports became more general and more damaging, as the urban middle-class became more vocal. Hunting and racing were increasingly seen as economically damaging to the nation and ruinous to the individual; as the signs of the very luxury which, earlier in the century, they had been supposed to resist; and as promoting behaviour which was not just laughably impolite, but morally contemptible. This intensification of criticism provoked a division within sporting art: one branch, represented most notably by Stubbs, set about constructing an image of rural sports as the respectable and even sober diversions of the great; the other seems almost to have taken to itself the hostile stereotype of the hunting or racing man, and produced an image of sport as cheerfully gregarious, good-humoured and even irresponsible. This polarisation was probably further intensified by the extraordinary character of Stubbs’s work, which combined the insiderly, descriptive tradition of sporting art with an immense gravitas. Everyone in Stubbs’s paintings – lord and gentleman, huntsman and trainer, jockey and servant, racehorse and dog – has taken lessons in deportment, and probably in transcendental meditation as well. The members of the Grosvenor hunt can contemplate a stag being torn to pieces with all the solemnity of Jaques on a similar occasion.

Stubbs’s work promoted its ‘essential untruth’, Deuchar argues, ‘with great efficiency, precisely because ... its sense of pictorial reality is so convincing’: it is ‘only a small step from admiring the accuracy and precision of Stubbs’s treatment of, say, animal anatomy, to accepting wholesale the truth of his representation of the calm, dignity and social responsibility of the sport and sportsmen themselves’. This effect of the real in Stubbs’s work is still capable of persuading historians of art to admire ‘Stubbs’s skill in portraying the unstudied, uningratiating demeanour of the trusted servants of the great houses and stables of the period’, as if they really believed they were in a position to validate the ‘truth’ of Stubbs’s vision by comparing it with reality. It is this too that prevents us (or prevented me, until I read Deuchar’s book) from seeing anything odd in the sight of Gimcrack winning a big race on a more or less deserted Newmarket heath. Where were the crowds, the bookies, the mass of commoners with whom – in the other branch of sporting art – the lords cheerfully rubbed shoulders? Elbowed off-stage, by the desire of those same lords for an image that would clean up their act.

The century ended, Deuchar argues, with the relaxation of the stigma against sport, and the signs of a rapprochement between the divided branches of sporting art. The French Revolution offered sportsmen the opportunity of claiming that rural sports were at the very heart of the traditional way of life that an English revolution would destroy. Sport could once again represent itself as a patriotic activity, expressive of the natural heartiness and virility of the true Englishman. It was this character of the sportsman, admirable even in his levity, even in his cups, that sporting art carried into the next century, and whose home is now not just the stately home, but the saloon bar.

As we learn more about 18th-century sporting art, some of Deuchar’s account will come to be revised. There are moments when he sees different periods when he might have seen different patrons, and different patrons when what may be at issue are the different functions that could be performed by sporting art. On the evidence of the pictures he discusses, the first two periods he identifies seem to have run more or less concurrently, and the first may come to look less like a Tory art than the second, and may have been less backward-looking than Deuchar suggests. Or perhaps, like so much of the literature of the second quarter of the century, it looks back in a rather different direction: not to the pre-revolutionary Stuart court, but to a place where the ideal of the courtier seems to merge with that of the patrician, whose sport prepares him to act as the aristocratic leader of a citizen militia, and whose concern to assert his masculinity speaks of a fear of the effeminating effect of commercial as well as of courtly luxury. What may turn out to be at issue in the first two modes of sporting art that Deuchar has identified is a distinction between the values which the grandees of the articulate opposition to Walpole appropriated to themselves, and those of the disgruntled and permanently rusticated squirearchy, turned in on itself and its own activities. But the divided character of the art of the age of Stubbs may not be the result of a division between two kinds of patrons, as Deuchar seems to suggest. There are different rooms in the country house, some public, some private, where the sober image of sport would have been more or less appropriate than the riotous; and it is easy enough to imagine sportsmen anxious to have their pastimes depicted one way or the other, as the occasion demanded and the space allowed.

I found myself wondering, too, whether the only critics of sportsmen to influence sporting art were urban and middle class – Deuchar nowhere discusses the hostility of the rural poor (there is plenty of evidence of it) to the rural sports of the rich. But it is the value of his book that it raises questions like these, and enables us to begin to think in historical terms about a genre of art which hitherto has been almost entirely exempt from interrogation. It is a remarkable achievement to have made so huge a body of artistic production visible, and to have invented a means of distinguishing its different phases and varieties. The book does much more than I have been able to suggest: I have concentrated on its account of pictures of equestrian sports, but its discussion of the rather different history of pictures of shooting, though briefer, is no less thoughtful and informative. Not many books on British art read as well as they look, and this one looks exceptionally well: the reproductions are excellent, and their placing in the text is careful and inventive in a way that has become typical of Yale’s British branch.