Beyond the Cringe

John Barrell

  • Art in Britain 1660-1815 by David Solkin
    Yale, 367 pp, £55.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 300 21556 4

David Solkin’s new book is designed to replace Painting in Britain 1530-1790, a volume of the Pelican history of art by Ellis Waterhouse, which was first published in 1953 and appeared in five separate editions, the last in 1994, nine years after Waterhouse’s death. Waterhouse’s history was quickly recognised as a classic. To a large extent he made the subject he was studying; or as Solkin puts it, ‘he revealed a verdant topography where previous observers had perceived a barren wilderness.’ He found numerous hitherto unknown works and little-known artists, and was able to do this by virtue of ‘a breadth of experience which he alone possessed, after many years of scrutinising pictures in private collections and the sale rooms, and of collecting information from catalogues, archives and primary texts. His outstanding achievement was to forge those fragmentary materials into a magisterial survey that illuminated countless pathways for others to explore.’

I came late to Painting in Britain; when I eventually read it many of those pathways had begun to be explored and I didn’t recognise Waterhouse’s book as the pathbreaking achievement others knew it to be. Looking at the marginal marks in my copy, I see that I too quickly decided it was one of those genteel compilations typical of the history of British art in the decades after the Second World War. I was particularly struck by Waterhouse’s concern with the pedigrees of the painters he discussed, men like Thomas Jones, Richard Wilson and Sawrey Gilpin, all of whom are adjudged to be of ‘good family’, and Sir James Thornhill, who came from ‘good Dorset stock’, a phrase more at home in a book on country cooking than in a serious work of scholarship. Why pedigree mattered to him is rarely clear, as by his own account it seems to have no particular influence on the nature or quality of an artist’s work. There were some exceptions: Thomas Hill was ‘something more like an English gentleman than most contemporary portrait painters’, and accordingly one of his works is remarkable for its ‘gentleness and refinement’. On the other hand, the fact that so many portraits by John Opie ‘are thoroughly dull, if not frankly bad’, was owed to the fact that as the son of a carpenter ‘he had no elegance in his make-up, but was commissioned to do portraits of fashionable persons.’

Remarkable for its range as Waterhouse’s book was, it remained as Solkin describes it, a ‘survey’, more a catalogue than a history. The whole Pelican project, Solkin argues, was based on a series of assumptions that no longer command much credit: the notion that, ‘as a repository of timeless human values, art should be understood as occupying a world unto itself, a realm that transcends the historical circumstances of its creation’; the belief that histories of art should treat ‘matters of quality, attribution and dating’ as the most important questions; that they should consist of a ‘parade of individual “great” male artists or canonical masterpieces’. There can be no room in such a project for artists such as Anthony Devis, adjudged by Waterhouse to be ‘an altogether minor person’; or those whom it is ‘sufficient to mention’ but unnecessary to discuss; or the numerous and nameless ‘journeymen hacks’ who ‘cannot find a place in a general history of British painting’.

Solkin is the author of two or three of the most important books on 18th and early 19th-century British art to have been published in the last quarter-century, including Painting for Money (1993) and Painting out of the Ordinary (2008). In his Pelican history he has attempted something even more ambitious, and has been triumphantly successful. He describes it as a ‘social history of art’, a critical analysis of how the visual culture of the 18th century ‘operated within a social field structured by relationships of power’. The book is extraordinarily comprehensive, its discussion of the different genres of painting as they develop through the 18th century so full, detailed and thoughtful that it will be completely impossible to do it justice even in the generous word count permitted by the LRB.

Solkin treats the history of 18th-century British art as a braid of ‘intertwining narratives’, a series of transactions between opposite, sometimes conflicting qualities, characteristics and influences, associated with the cultures of different social classes and national schools. Though aristocratic culture, Solkin argues, continued to command ‘unsurpassed authority’ in Britain throughout the 18th century, it could not help imbibing the values associated with trade, with the middling classes, or with the ‘exhibition public’, of which more later. In the early 18th century, the more the English/British realised that they were, or were about to become, one of the great military and commercial powers of Europe, the more evident and embarrassing it became that as a cultural power England/Britain ranked far below Italy and France. To some the literature of Britain was doomed to remain second-rate, for how could anything worthwhile be written in the barbarous, ungrammatical language of England, where verbs did not conjugate, nouns decline or adjectives agree? The visual arts laboured under no such handicap, but still artists and patrons, like writers and critics, were divided about what the arts in Britain should be like. Should they be modelled on those of Greece and Rome, France and Italy, and aspire to transcend national character and become, as those cultures were supposed to be, transnational, universal? Or should English or British culture emphasise its Englishness, its Britishness, and along with it the Protestantism and the passion for liberty which were believed to distinguish England from France in particular? If there is any clear outcome by 1815, when Solkin’s history ends, it is that by the time Britain has overcome the French Empire, at Trafalgar and then at Waterloo, it has also overcome its cultural cringe, its posture of humility towards the culture of continental Europe.

In the reigns of the last two Stuart kings, there was little if any expectation of a native English School emerging, and almost all high-end paintings were done by foreigners, either immigrants in search of patronage or sent for especially to produce works supposed to be beyond the competence of native artists. In his ‘Essay towards an English School of Painters’ (1706), however, Bainbridge Buckeridge made a special effort to record as many painters as possible who he could claim ‘belong’ to us, or that were ‘ours’. Under the letter ‘V’ he lists Henry Vanderborcht, John Vander-heydon, Adrian Van-Diest, Sir Anthony Vandyck, William Vander-velde, Francis Vanzoon, Herman Verelst and F. de Vorsterman, and with a little more diligence he could easily have doubled this collection of foreign Englishmen. Of the 106 painters accorded a biographical sketch by Buckeridge, 55 were immigrants or visitors to England. The leading portrait-painters in the period from the Restoration to the Hanoverian accession included the Frenchman Henry Gascar, the Flamand Jacob Huysmans, the Dutchman Gerard Soest and the Schleswiger Godfrey Kneller. Topographical and landscape artists were led by Wenceslaus Hollar, Henrick Danckerts, Adrian Van-Diest, Jan Siberechts and so on. Faithful to this notion of an English School of Painters, the opening chapters of Solkin’s book (Art in Britain, not British Art) contain discussions of far more foreign painters than of artists native to the British Isles.

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[*] Thomas Keymer wrote about Jacob Tonson in the LRB of 5 May 2016.