In What Ways Did Art Become More Widely Accessible in England in the Eighteenth Century

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In this day and age we take public art displays for granted; every town has its own small gallery and each city has at least one building for the presentation of art works. However, there were no real public art exhibitions until more modern times, with the exception, perhaps, of in Ancient times when the Greeks and Romans would display artefacts and paintings looted from other countries, and decorated the exterior of their buildings with statues. In Europe they were more forthcoming in presenting exhibitions.

From the sixteenth century an annual public exhibition of art was held in the Pantheon and in other churches in Italy, although this was designed more to honour the saints than to display art. “In France, Napoleon’s plunder of works of art was parade through the streets of Paris in a revival of ancient roman triumph”1. Also in France the French Academy2, exhibited artists’ work in order to familiarise French people with French art as a way of allowing the state to manipulate public taste. In Britain however public art display is a more recent idea.

In the Medieval period art tended to be commissioned and therefore was rarely displayed, it was also only the wealthy who could

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afford to buy paintings. After the reformation in the 1500s when England became a protestant country, puritan antagonism to images and extravagance meant there were far fewer works of religious art3, relenting progress and development of British art. Although the first British museum/art gallery, The Ashmolean Museum, was opened in Oxford, June 16834, it was only in the eighteenth century when art became more general public friendly.

Castle Howard5 in York was the first stately homes to open its doors to the general public, permitting them to enter and see the various paintings and objects on display inside. This also gave the opportunity to expose the work of contemporary artists for the general public to see. William Hogarth6 was a famous eighteenth century artist whose goal was to make art accessible to everyone. He was also a pioneer of ‘conversation’ pieces; painted or engraved scenes with a moral message.

He was mostly renowned for his satirical representations of ‘modern moral subjects’7, generally a sequence of images relating a story of six to eight scenes recounting in each case a reproving tale of conceit, dishonesty and treachery, leading to the downfall of the character and ultimately, to their demise. Hogarth aimed for a lower-class audience and adopted a moralizing approach for his popular remarkably imaginative works, which were overflowing with vibrant characterisations and a wealth of detail8.

Through his choice of subject (every day scenes, the ‘down-and-outs’ of society, etc. ) made his pictures more accessible to the general public, being easier for the lower classes to relate to. Furthermore his depiction (and ridicule) of current affairs in his work made his paintings and engravings more relevant, for example the satirical genre painting An Election9 based on the campaign in the Oxford elections of 1754. Apprenticed as an engraver, Hogarth made engraving of the majority of his paintings so that prints could be made.

These prints were cheaper and thus permitted the lower classes to afford to have art in their homes. After the puritan eradication of holy imagery in churches, the Crown failed to encourage secular art, with an exception of perhaps portraiture, although this was only available for the wealthy due to high costs. Almost the only demand for painting was that of supplying likenesses and even this role was “met by foreign artists such as Holbein and Van Dyck, who were called to England after they had established their reputations abroad”10.

Yet in the mid- 1700s this began to change with native British artist beginning to attain portrait commissions from royals and aristocrats. In the 1740s the Foundling Hospital and Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens11 displayed British history paintings, religious scenes and landscapes to the public. The Foundling Hospital was a children’s home, founded in 1739 by the philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram. William Hogarth set a permanent art exhibition in the building, and encouraged other artists to produce work for the hospital.

Several contemporary English artists decorated the walls of the hospital with their works, including Sir Joshua Reynolds12, Thomas Gainsborough13 and Francis Hayman14. The paintings by Hogarth and others for the Foundling Hospital after 1740 had by 1760 begun to draw a crowd of spectators on a daily basis. “The Foundling had shown artists that it was possible to construct a public sphere united by the bonds of sympathy and benevolence.

However due to the hospital’s charitable quality, exposure of the art was limited; unlike the Vauxhall Gardens, which was first and foremost a centre for public entertainment. Vauxhall Gardens (formerly New Spring Gardens) were “the largest and most spectacular of the capital’s commercial pleasure grounds”16, which became a key element of London evening social life. The gardens were immortalised by several artists in prints or paintings, for example Vauxhall Gardens, the Grand Walk by Antonio Canaletto17, Vauxhall Gardens by Samuel Wale18 and Vauxhall Gardens by Thomas Rowlandson19.

The gardens also inspired further artworks; the clientele were satirized in the work of Thomas Rowlandson. Admittance to the gardens was charged at one shilling20 thus this garden and the treasures within were restricted to those who could afford it. William Hogarth provided artistic guidance for a Ridotto al’ fresco when Tyers updated and relaunched the gardens in June 173221. “He added supper boxes decorated with paintings, statues, arches and a cascade. Also installed were a music room, Chinese Pavilion and a Gothic orchestra boasting fifty musicians”22.

Possibly the most renowned statue that was erected in Vauxhall gardens was that of George Frederick Handel23, who had provided musical entertainment in the garden. Each supper-box was decorated with a vast mural painted by Francis Hayman24, for example The Milkmaid’s Garland25. They way art began to be incorporated into popular social environments, such as Vauxhall gardens, illustrates the way in which art was becoming more widely accessible to the general public of Britain. New royal interest in the arts further elevated the status of the artist in society.

From 1760 London’s earliest public exhibitions of the work of living artists were held at the Society of Arts26, predecessor of the more exclusive Royal Academy (RA) summer exhibitions. Through activities and societies who held annual exhibitions – notably the Society of Arts and the Society of Artists, contemporary fine arts had begun to occupy an increasingly public position. George III27 felt one of his public duties was to promote the arts28, consequently he gave his patronage to the RA, and this was critical for its status as the most prominent establishment in British artistic life of that time.

Founded in 1768 the RA’s membership comprised of forty academicians and twenty associates, “the founders’ intentions were to raise the status of their profession by providing thorough academic training, the free exhibitions of works chosen by a jury of academicians, and the promotion of a national school of art”29. Originally housed in Pall Mall, the RA moved to the larger premises of Somerset House in 1780, before relocating to Wilkins’ Trafalgar square building (which was shared with the National Gallery) in 1837 before ultimately transferring to its current premises in Burlington House, Piccadilly, in 1869.

The academy began to hold general exhibitions each summer to display the work of academicians and members, it was at such exhibitions where the artists’ reputations could be made or broken. The Academy gave artists a prestigious organisation powerful enough to promote professional status and provide the kind of organised training that had become associated with the visual arts. The first president of the RA, Joshua Reynolds claimed that the purpose of the Royal Academy exhibitions was “not to enrich the artists, but to advance the art”30.

The RA did, however, have its drawbacks; due to the very strict selection process the academy had an unforgiving influence on the instruction of artists and on public preference31. This meant that the public was not exposed to as wide a range of styles and genres as could have been possible and to an extent this suffocated the development of art in the eighteenth century, by restricting and stifling the imagination and progress of those artists who were members.

Despite this, simply the existence of any kind of public art exhibition was a great step forward in making art more widely accessible in eighteenth century Britain. Furthermore, the popularity of the RA’s exhibitions promoted a more widespread opening of private collections in the provinces. By 1770 the commercial exhibition had become an important element of modern artistic life. Those who hadn’t the means to buy a painting could still appreciate the oeuvre that was on display, and perhaps purchase an engraving of a favourite piece.

In England, prior to the establishment of the Royal Academy in 1768, exhibitions were largely commercial, staged by dealers and auctioneers32. The eighteenth century was a key transitional period bringing art closer to the public with the introduction of public exhibitions of art. One of the main issues was charging to get into some of the exhibitions which made it less accessible to the lower classes. By the end of the eighteenth century the exhibitions moved away from being so commercially based with a view to sell the art to all.

Additionally artists began to experiment with subject matter; art which was more related to the lower classes began to emerge notably in Hogarth’s conversation pieces. Through the increased number of public exhibitions, availability of cheaper engravings of paintings and new choices of subject which made it easier for the lower classes to relate to, art became more physically and emotionally accessible to the general public.

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