Friday, February 3, 2017

Politics in Late Georgian Art

by Caroline Miley

There was no political art in England in the 1790s and 1800s – no art ‘of or relating to the government or public affairs of a country’1. It is a surprising assertion, given that the era was one of upheaval, change and scandal, and that the arts in general proliferated. It was a period in which exhibiting societies began to proliferate and mushrooming journals offered art criticism to a growing middle class. The annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy, the British Institution, the Society of Painters in Water-colours and their fellows were well attended. And these institutions were supported and patronised by the aristocracy, even royalty. The Prince Regent was noted for his support of the arts.


Among the contemporary and controversial topics which did not appear in the painting of the period were: The French Revolution; the Napoleonic wars; slavery (neither the ownership of slaves nor the Abolitionist movement), food riots, the Luddites, Irish home rule, the American war and the loss of the colonies, prison reform, the Highland Clearances, enclosures, Catholic emancipation, the Mary Ann Clark scandal (in which it was revealed that the Duke of York’s mistress was selling commissions in the army to officers who met with her approval); Peterloo – the list is endless. It was a period of wars, political, industrial and technological change, turbulence, and social scandals.

But look up the words ‘art’ ‘Georgian’ and ‘political’, and you will be pitched instantly into the world of the golden age of British satirical prints. The works of Cruikshank, Rowlandson and Gillray almost exemplify the era. Print shops such as that of the famous Hannah Humphrey abounded, their windows papered with the latest lampoons, with no holds barred as their creators excoriated or ridiculed everyone from the King down, through generals and members of Parliament, the aristocracy, leaders of the ton, famous actresses, and anyone who happened to be in the public eye. England, in fact, was notable for the lack of censorship of such productions.

There was plenty of overt politics, then, and plenty of satire – but it was confined exclusively to the medium of the print and the popular broadsheet. The sphere of the fine arts – painting, and especially painting in oils, the professional’s medium – was a completely different matter. There was a knife-sharp divide between the fine and graphic arts.

Nowhere was this more obvious than the way His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, was portrayed in each medium. In official portrait after portrait, painted carefully by the great and the good of the art establishment from Cosway to Lawrence, he appears as debonair, regal, handsome, a pillar of the monarchy and society (1). But he was also the favourite butt of satirists (2).


The nature of official portraits is, of course, to be official: to convey an image sanctioned by the establishment of the day. As such, paintings of men and incidents in public life can never altogether escape the taint of propaganda, and the agenda of the day was to celebrate the stability and growth of Empire. The death of Tipu Sultan, a Indian ruler who strongly resisted the encroachment of the East India Company into his territory, and was killed by the British at Seringapatam in 1799, might be thought today to have its controversial elements. John Singleton Copley’s painting of the event (3), an unabashed depiction of British expansionism at the point of the sword, is characteristic of the way such events were portrayed, and received by the public.


There were plenty of paintings which celebrated those in public life, such as Benjamin West’s ‘Death of Nelson’ (4), and they concurrently celebrated State patriotism, offering no challenge to or critique of the existing order. And leading artists were themselves part of the establishment: The Royal Academy was under Royal patronage, prominent artists were knighted, and Sir Thomas Lawrence, for instance, had a place in the procession for the coronation of George IV. The idea of artists as critics of society was not to come until after the Romantic era. In the Georgian period, they were solidly enrolled among its members.

There were strict limits, however, to what even a successful member of the Royal Academy could expect to get away with, and political subjects, even when cast in the past, were unlikely to meet with approval. Copley, for instance, trod too close to the edge in 1795 when he exhibited ‘Charles I Demanding the Five Impeached Members of the House of Commons’2, an event which had happened in the 1640s. At a private viewing, Queen Charlotte, after a long and ominous silence, said to the artist, “You have chosen, Mr. Copley, a most unfortunate subject for the exercise of your pencil.”3 It didn’t sell.4 The canon of acceptability had been set out by Royalty.

Was this discrepancy a problem? Probably not. The fine and graphic arts existed side by side, and for a broad audience. The upper class saw both Academy paintings and the wares of the print shops. The middle classes bought at the print shops and saw the paintings at occasional exhibitions – those which were not in private hands, and even they were sometimes exhibited publicly. Among their purchases, though, would be engravings of the most popular of the fine art productions. The print dealers were selling reproductions of West’s ‘Death of Nelson’, for example, for a decade after Trafalgar. This multiple audience had ample opportunity to compare the two approaches. The disjunction between the two distinct art forms was not the result of the views of an elite being forced on the mass of the people; the people themselves shared these views.


A concept prominent at the time although not much in use today is that of decorum. There was appropriate conduct, appropriate dress, and appropriate relationships. One did not wear diamonds in the morning nor a cotton dress to a grand ball. Beau Nash, when Master of Ceremonies at the Bath Assembly Rooms, castigated a gentleman who turned up in boots rather than shoes with the immortal phrase: ‘Pardon me, sir, but you have forgot your horse’5. So, too, appropriate art.

Unlike popular art forms, the fine arts were the subject of canons of taste, which were no mere arbitrary principles laid down by a coterie of snobs. At this period, and for a very long time indeed, art was seen as the expression of a society and its natures and functions were debated and theorised, then as now. Art had its own rules of decorum. In the era in question, the greatest theorist was Johann Winckelmann, whose ground-breaking The History of Ancient Art (1764) swayed several generations. His ideas were absorbed and transmitted by, among others, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Founder of the Royal Academy. They were the single greatest influence on the art of the Georgian era throughout Europe.

Winckelmann idealized Greek art for its ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur’. His central doctrine was that the point of art is beauty, which he elevated to the status of a general good. Beauty, in his view, could only be achieved by subordinating particular characteristics, for example of a nude, so as to depict an ideal type rather than a flawed individual (5). Total, overall harmony was the desired end. Or, as Reynolds put it, “the whole beauty and grandeur of the art consists, in my opinion, in being able to get above all singular forms, local customs, particularities, and details of every kind.”6


Art which adhered to this concept of grandeur was considered appropriate – appropriate to a civilised society, a cultured drawing-room. Controversy, scandal, impropriety, vulgarity, riot, revolution, and all such topics did not aspire to beauty, to ‘quiet grandeur’, to ‘noble simplicity’. They were deformities which must be brushed away, lest they injure overall harmony.

In some countries, political subjects were not uncommon. In a stark contrast, the era in France saw fine art come to the fore as a propaganda medium. A large number of artists – not only David, but Boilly and others painted overtly political subjects. Many were simply state propaganda, but others offered a distinct perspective or critique. The death of Marat (6), or the execution of the King, are subjects that could not have appeared in England. ‘French Revolutionary Art’, in fact, is a whole category, almost a genre.


In a characteristically pragmatic English manner, the proprieties were maintained. Fine Art continued – for a while – to exemplify all that was most uplifting, in the rooms of the Royal Academy and the British Institution, while around the corner at the print shops, the citizenry forked out their penny plain and twopence coloured for scandalous broadsheets that exposed every carbuncle on the behinds of the dignified gentry whose porcelain features graced the salons.

If the Georgian era was anything, it was a time of rapid transformation. So, too, in art. The taste for the Grand Manner was ebbing. In 1812 Benjamin West exhibited ‘Christ Healing the Sick’ to enormous acclaim. In the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of the same year, JMW Turner exhibited ‘Snowstorm – Hannibal Crossing the Alps’ (7) and Constable ‘A Water Mill’. Change was on its way, but it was necessary to wait until the Victorian era for Turner’s Slave Ship (1840) although the scandalous event it refers to took place in 17817  and it was in the Victorian era that work, controversially, with its potential for critique of ruling-class politics, for the first time became a subject for art.


1. Oxford English Dictionary

2. Exhibited at Wigley’s Rooms at Spring Gardens in 1795. “King Charles I accused five members of the House of Commons of treason and demanded their surrender. The House refused, considering this a breach of their rights, and the event proved to be the foundation for the civil war that led to the king's execution.” “Process and Paradox: The Historical Pictures of John Singleton Copley”

3. Brushes were called pencils at this period.

4. “No customer made his appearance for Charles and the impeached members.” Allan Cunningham The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Volume 5, John Murray, London 1832, p. 181.


6. Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourse III.

7. The infamous Zong matter, in which over a hundred living slaves were thrown overboard to avoid financial loss to the owners. The subsequent court cases caused a scandal in England and contributed to the anti-slavery movement.


(1) ‘The Prince Regent in Garter Robes’, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1816

(2) ‘The Prince Regent’ by George Cruikshank, 1816

(3) ‘The Last Effort and Death of Tipu Sultan’ by John Singleton Copley, 1800

(4) ‘The Death of Nelson’, from the painting by Benjamin West, engraved by James Heath.  Published 1 May 1811.

(5) ‘Cimon and Iphigenia’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1780

(6) ‘Death of Marat’ by Jacques-Louis David. Marat was one of the leaders of the Montagnards, the radical faction ascendant in French politics during the Reign of Terror until the Thermidorian Reaction. Charlotte Corday was a Girondin from a minor aristocratic family and a political enemy of Marat who blamed him for the September Massacre. She gained entrance to Marat's rooms with a note promising details of a counter-revolutionary ring in Caen.

(7) ‘Snowstorm: Hannibal Crossing the Alps’ by J M W Turner, 1812

[All illustrations are in the public domain]

Caroline Miley is an art historian and writer with a long-time passion for literature, art, the English landscape and history, especially the late Georgian era. She has published several non-fiction books on art, craft and social comment. The Competition, in which she brought together her enthusiasms for the Regency art world and the Industrial Revolution, is her debut novel.

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  1. Extremely interesting especially the different approaches with respect to English and French art. The broadsheets in England were racy- when I think of Georgian political cartoons, I think of Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire campaigning. I haven't considered before that political statements weren't really included as a subject for English artists.

  2. Interesting article, which I much enjoyed reading. I'm wondering though why you think the term 'political art' refers exclusively to art that critiques the ruling orders. (William Blake would be an obvious example of such political critique in the regency era, if you're looking for it!) Have you encountered Holger Hoock's work? His "Empires of the Imagination" is very good in discussing the way art (sculpture as well as painting) was harnessed for political purposes in the period.


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