- Oil paint on canvas
- Support: 1448 x 1956 mm
- Presented by Robert Vernon 1847
Henry Perronet Briggs 1791–1844
The First Interview Between the Spaniards and the Peruvians
Oil paint on canvas
1448 x 1946 mm
Presented by Robert Vernon 1847
Purchased from the artist by Robert Vernon (1774–1849) in 1827; presented to the National Gallery by Robert Vernon in 1847; transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1919.
This painting portrays the first encounter between a group of Incas (the native rulers of Peru’s highlands) and the Spanish conquistadors seeking to take over their land and convert them to Catholicism, an event said to have taken place in November 1532. Led by their king Atahualpa, the luxuriously-dressed (and partly naked) Incas populate the left of the composition while the Spaniards gather at the right behind Father Vincent Valverde, the black-robed chaplain holding out an open breviary (a liturgical book in Latin) in his left hand. At the far right, in a large black hat adorned with white feather plumes, is Francisco Pizarro, the general in charge of the expedition. With shadowed eyes glancing down and one leg raised mid-movement, his hands draw for the gun in the holster at his waist. Pizarro’s action foreshadows the massacre that followed the depicted scene, in which over seven thousand native peoples were slaughtered for not complying with the demands of the Spaniards.
Briggs exhibited two pictures under the title ‘The First Interview Between the Spaniards and the Peruvians’ in London in 1826 and 1827. The present picture is documented as the work exhibited in 1827 at the annual exhibition of the British Institution. It was purchased at the time of the exhibition, by Robert Vernon, who presented it and much of the rest of his collection of important British paintings to the National Gallery in 1847. The picture exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1826 appears to have been a separate version, known from engravings. These indicate that the composition was largely identical, although extended on the right and with some other variations, most importantly a different treatment of the man kneeling in the foreground.
Briggs took his subject from the Scottish historian William Robertson’s widely read History of America, first published in 1777 and by 1812 already reprinted in ten editions. An excerpt from this text accompanied the painting in the catalogues for the Royal Academy and British Institution:
‘As the Inca drew near, Father Vincent Valverde, Chaplain to the Expedition, explained, in a long discourse, the doctrine of the Catholic Faith, exhorting the Inca to acknowledge the supreme jurisdiction of the Pope, and to submit to the King of Castile as his lawful Sovereign, promising him protection if he complied, but, if he refused, denouncing war and vengeance to his master’s name.’ The conference ended in a general massacre of the Peruvians and the imprisonment of the Inca.1
The quotation within Robertson’s text is from The Royal Commentaries of Peru (1609–17) by Garcilaso de la Vega, ‘El Inca’ (1539–1616), one of the earliest full-length colonial accounts of the region’s history, which had been translated into English in 1688. 2 The quotation would have seemed to have lent additional credibility to Robertson’s account, as the author was born in Peru, the son of a mixed union between an Inca princess and a Spanish aristocrat. Ironically, however, de la Vega’s chronicle presents the king Atalhualpa as a cruel despotic leader feared by his subjects, a far cry from the gentle, sympathetic light in which he is portrayed in both Robertson’s History of America and in Briggs’s work.
Briggs’s treatment of his subject is rich with art historical references. As Tate curator Robin Hamlyn noted in 1993, the grouping of the conquistadors calls to mind the military men in Rembrandt’s famous The Night Watch (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).3 Briggs has also emulated the Dutch master in his treatment of the play of light on armour: Pizzaro’s smooth breast plate, the elbow of the kneeling Spaniard and the helmets of his anonymous companions glint against the matte folds of their cloth tunics. The older man at the left of Pizarro peering anxiously in his leader’s direction is an appropriation of Rembrandt’s portrait known as A Man in Armour (Kelingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow). He has also emulated the Dutch master in his characteristic manipulation of paint to capture textures. Briggs’s emphasis on the various materials of his figures’ costumes is one of the most immediately striking aspects of this painting: metal, leather, silk, velvet, feathers and fur are all painted with careful attention to their distinct surfaces.
For the figure of Atalhualpa, the artist has drawn on an aesthetic that was considered stylistically antithetical to Rembrandt during the nineteenth century: that of idealised Greaco-Roman statuary. Atalhualpa stands slightly taller than Valverde, his sculptural limbs providing the main focal point of the composition. From the lean, undisrupted gradation of the thigh muscles down to the slender ankle and foot, his naked right leg divides the canvas, throwing into relief the beauty of the Peruvians in contrast with the shadowy, sinister Spaniards. While Atalhualpa’s limbs are proportionally based on those of the celebrated classical statue Apollo Belvedere, the gesture of the Inca king is markedly different to that of the famous statue. Instead of extending his right arm in the manner of the Apollo’s heroic gesture, Atalhualpa’s hands are interlocked at the top of his thigh so that he appears passive, hesitant. Like Pizarro’s hands that reach for the gun, Atalhualpa’s pose anticipates the violent drama to follow their encounter. The figure is carefully posed in contrapposto, with the figure’s weight mainly on his right foot, so that the torso is slightly turned and animated like a classical sculpture, and he is athletic, but not over-muscular, with perfectly smooth limbs like an ancient god or hero. One author commentating on William Greatbach’s engraving after the 1826 version of the work published in The Amulet, a literary annual that branded itself as a religious publication, attacked Briggs’s decision to portray the Inca with all the refinement of a marble statue and contrasted it with the naturalism of the figure of Father Vincent Valverde:
The head of the monk is quite a study, but the Indians are extravagantly flattered. The painter, as well as the poet, is permitted to exaggerate; but the license should never be abused. Nature should be adhered to — and Nature has not given the wretched and squalid Peruvians elegantly proportioned forms, high foreheads, and limbs like the Apollo Belvidere [sic].4
By referring to the ‘head of the monk’ as ‘a study’ the author implies it would have been based on life study, while the ‘Indians’ are idealised rather than studied directly from nature. This was a matter of interpretation. At least one contemporary reviewer cast this opposition in different terms, presumably matching more closely Briggs’s intentions: ‘the manly gentleness of the Peruvian Chief happily contrasts with the ferocious violence of the bigoted invaders’.5
From the late eighteenth century, when the revival of archaeological antiquity was at its height, there was a tradition of presenting native men in the guise of the Apollo Belvedere.6 But from the 1820s onwards, an increasingly high premium was being placed on both historical accuracy and the naturalistic treatment of form in British academic painting, a development that had significant consequences for the use of classical forms.7 From the evidence of the paintings and his studio contents, Briggs appears to have had a particular concern with undertaking historical research in the preparation of his subject paintings.8 These developments can be seen as outcomes of the widespread backlash against the long-standing authority of classical antiquity in contemporary art, a tide of reaction that had begun to take shape in the wake of the Napoleonic wars and that was fostered by the renewed sense of British national identity heightened during that wartime.9 While Briggs’s classical Atalhualpa would have appeared conventional even a decade earlier, the racist conception of the natives’ physical inferiority in the above extract makes clear that historical painters were now not necessarily expected to classicise their subjects and idealise the flesh and proportions of exposed human forms in representation. From this point of view, Briggs’s Apollonian Inca appears more like an anachronism than a figure portrayed in an appropriately grand, noble style.
Naked from the waist up, Atalhualpa’s wife gazes at the conquistadors with one knee on the ground. With the infant she holds protectively behind her head, she too is classical, like a particularly maternal Venus with her Cupid. Soft and Rubensian rather than marble-like, the white flesh of her delicately modelled breasts radiates from the canvas, again contrasting with the heavily clothed conquistadors. The fleshy appearance of this figure can be related to the success of another painter, William Etty (1787–1849), the artist remembered as the pioneer of painted nudes in Britain during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Etty’s The Choice of Paris (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool) was displayed in the main display space of the Royal Academy exhibition, the Great Room at Somerset House, together with Briggs’s first painting of the subject in 1826. In the following year, when the present work was shown in the British Institution’s display of works by living British artists, Etty was elected to Royal Academician, four years before Briggs received the same honour. By 1830 Etty was considered by many to be the nation’s foremost historical painter.10 In his large-scale works, usually of familiar personages from classical mythology and scenes from early modern literature, Etty radically overturned the conventional academic mode of depicting the human form by supplanting standardized sculptural forms with the individual contours of the living model. Although she is not as strikingly full-figured as some of Etty’s nudes, Briggs’s Inca woman bears traces of the influence of Etty’s devotion to what would have been perceived as a more realistic female form, based more obviously on the direct study of nature in the life schools than on exclusively sculptural archetypes.
The fusion of Rembrandtesque costume and surface texture, a rearranged Apollo Belvedere, and Etty’s soft approach to female corporeality is already peculiarly eclectic, and can be aligned with the various different styles apparent among the most established British artists of the time. A reviewer responding to the Royal Academy exhibition in 1827 noted more generally of his work: ‘His pictures combine in their handling the careful finish of [Richard] Westall, and the spirit and boldness of [Benjamin Robert] Haydon, without the sameness of the one or the coarseness of the other’.11
There is a further mode of representation that Briggs has brought to bear on the scene, one that has powerful implications both aesthetic and political. The picture includes several elements which arguably would have evoked in the minds of Briggs’s contemporaries the middle and near east rather than the Americas. In conjuring a visual image of Atalhualpa and his fellow Incas, the artist has fused once orthodox Greaco-Roman bodily idealism with the East, relying upon the dress and accoutrements associated with the mythical past of the geographically nearer Ottoman Empire. Indeed, Briggs’s Peruvians appear as if they belong in a palace from One Thousand and One Nights rather than the mountains of Cajamarca. In particular, the silk turbans worn by Atalhualpa and the two men standing behind him indicate the painter’s decision to convey the exotic unfamiliarity of the Incas through fantasies of Eastern opulence.
Atalhualpa’s moustache is also an important orientalising feature of his appearance. Before the Victorian era when moustaches became the normative style of facial hair for British gentleman, so much so that one could not join the armed forces without one, moustaches were an element of the dominant Western perception of Eastern masculine self-presentation. As well as many portraits in what is an entire tradition of European men painted in oriental dress, the moustached ‘Albanians’ in Mozart’s 1790 comic opera Così fan tutte provide a prominent example of this conflation of style with geographic identity. Writing in El Repertorio Americano, a Spanish language journal for Latin Americans published in London during Briggs’s lifetime and edited by the Venezuelan intellectual Andrés Bello, teacher to the well-known freedom fighter Simón Bolívar, an author with the initials ‘G.R.’ praised Briggs’s work following the Academy exhibition for its anti-imperial feeling, criticising only the facial hair of Atalhualpa. ‘We encountered only one defect in this painting’, writes G.R, ‘and that is that the painter has given Atalhualpa moustaches’.12 The review is concluded with the assertion that all peoples native to South America were clean-shaven. Thus, though this author does not make the connection between the moustache and the East, the veracity of Briggs’s Inca king could be called into question for both his classically ideal lineaments and this incongruously orientalised feature.
Exotic dress gives poetic form to the mysterious majesty of the Inca. The leopard-fur drapery covering the bottom of Atalhulpha’s torso and upper thighs pronounces his royalty. This is no mere ‘noble savage’ but a commanding monarch, and indeed this is how he is frequently conjured in Robertson’s History of America. The passage just prior to the lines Briggs used for the exhibition catalogue describes the procession of the Inca en route to meet the Spaniards:
At length the Inca approached. First of all appeared four hundred men in an uniform dress, as harbingers to clear the way before him. [Atalhualpa] himself, sitting on a throne or couch, adorned with plumes of various colours, and almost coloured with plates of gold and silver enriched with precious stones, was carried on the shoulders of his principal attendants. Behind him came some chief officers of his court, carried in the same manner. Several bands of singers and dancers accompanied this cavalcade13
This excerpt makes clear that in portraying the lavish costume of the Incas, Briggs intensified the details provided by Robertson by reconfiguring them through the seductive guises associated with the East. While Edward Said’s ground-breaking Orientalism (1978) argued that the construction of Arabic identity in the West was forged by extraordinarily persuasive myths and fantasies, classical scholar Jerry Toner has recently explored the way in which for centuries Greek and Roman antiquity provided the lens through which English writers and travellers interpreted and experienced the part of the world once known as ‘the Orient’.14 In Briggs’s painting we see a doubling up of the tendencies identified by these authors: orientalising elements collide with classical forms to evoke native peoples of South America, whose cultural representation was still a relative novelty in early-nineteenth century London.
The great collector of British art Robert Vernon (1774–1849) purchased Briggs’s painting from the British Institution display in 1827.15 It was subsequently in the dining room of his mansion alongside Edwin Henry Landseer’s Deer and Deer Hounds in a Mountain Torrent (‘The Hunted Stag’) (1833; Tate N00412), William Hilton’s Rebecca and Abraham’s Servant at the Well (1833; Tate N00338), and William Henry Pickersgill’s A Syrian Maid (1837; Tate N00417), these last two paintings attesting to the wider fascination with orientalist themes in British art at this point.16 Hamlyn observed that Briggs’s painting was among the first large history paintings purchased by Vernon, and signalled his intentions as a collector of British art.17
As previously stated, the work was engraved in 1829 by William Greatbach and printed in The Amulet alongside a lengthier extract from Robertson’s text beginning the morning of the encounter as the Incas are assembling their finery in preparation to meet the Spaniards. In Greatbach’s engraving, the skin of Atalhualpa is considerably darker than the cool, marmoreal pallor of his flesh in the original.18 Likewise, though she is a shade lighter than her male counterpart in accordance with the gendering conventions of historical painting, the Inca woman does not possess anything like the lily-white luminosity Briggs affords her in the original. Arguably, this alteration in flesh-tones was intended to render the depiction of the Incas more anthropologically legible. Furthermore, in this engraving Pizarro’s gun may appear more prominent, granting the viewer more a more immediate sense of the action about to occur. This print allowed the painting to receive new attention in the public journals. In a review of The Amulet, the women’s magazine La Bell Assemblée made passing reference to ‘Briggs’s well known picture of the First Interview between the Spaniards and the Peruvians’, suggesting the work had made an impact when exhibited, while the Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction praised Briggs’s original as ‘a triumph of art’.19
The inclusion of Greatbach’s engraving in a publication such as the Amulet may help shed light on Briggs’s choice of subject. Founded in 1826 by Samuel Carter Hall, the future editor of the Art Journal and leading cultural critic during the Victorian era, this literary annual identifies its alignment with the subtitle ‘A Christian and Literary Remembrancer’. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine lauded the Amulet as:
the first Annual that affected - or we ought rather to say exhibited - a more serious, solemn, and even sacred character, than one might, perhaps, without due reflection, have thought altogether suitable to a volume, which, from its mode and season of publication, was naturally expected to be a volume chiefly for amusement or entertainment.20
We can, then, ask what the inclusion of Briggs’s image, of a subject in which Christianity is being called into question by beautiful pagan natives, offered to the readers of a religious anthology, moreover one of a ‘serious, solemn, and even sacred character’? Congruent with the rise in nationalistic sentiment in Britain following the Napoleonic wars was a nation-wide renewed investment in both the culture of Anglicanism and Protestant Evangelicalism.21 The emergence of publications such as the Amulet are symptomatic of this intensification in religious feeling that would only become yet more visible into the Victorian period. From the sixteenth century, widely-circulated written and visual material portraying the Spanish Catholics as sadistic by nature had been a powerful force both in Britain and on the continent, so much so that since Julián Juderías’s 1914 book on the subject, such propaganda has come to be known as the ‘Black Legend’ or La Leyenda Negra in Spanish.22 As art historian Hilary Macartney states, this tradition of propaganda was responsible for the ‘perception of the Church in Spain as the most extreme and dangerous form of Catholicism’, an established point of prejudice in Britain that had not subsided in the slightest by the time Briggs conceived of and painted this work, and could only develop in the context of a rise in nationalistic religiosity.23 The first account of Pizarro’s cruelty towards Atalhualpa and the Incas translated into English was A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolomé de las Casas, first published in London in 1583 and reprinted as Tears of the Indians in 1656, a text that Robertson, a Presbytarian minister as well as scholar, had clearly been familiar with when writing his History of America in the late 1770s.24 Although de las Casas was a (pacifist) Dominican friar, his first-hand narration of the mistreatment of native peoples in the hands of his countrymen served to condemn Catholicism in the eyes of many Europeans outside Spain. When it first appeared over two centuries later, Robertson’s History of America was banned by the Spanish monarchy for its unabashed bias against the Spanish and their religion. Spain’s Charles III suspended the translation of the book, and went as far as to ban its English edition throughout the empire.25
Both Robertson’s History of America and Briggs’s painting can be seen as fitting into this long-standing tradition of anti-Spanish propaganda centring on both what was perceived as their intensive brand of Catholicism and the legacy of imperial cruelty. Briggs’s painting communicates its sympathy with the Inca and its preference for the natives over the Spanish principally through the elevated style in which he has painted the body of Atalhualpa and the corresponding innocence and pulchritude of his female counterpart. The same contributor to Blackwood’s who expressed approval for the Amulet’s religious character deemed Greatbach’s engraving ‘one of the most elegant compositions’ they had recently seen, appreciating in particular the contrast between the two groups which, in their view, represents truthfully ‘the ferocious duplicity of those who come to destroy, and the noble-the heroic simplicity of shape and soul of the doomed Inca, and his Queen, and their plumed retinue.’26 The author continues to describe the picture:
it is the opening scene of a bloody tragedy,-’coming events cast their shadows before;’ and the catastrophe, yet unacted, darkens the unsuspecting sunshine. In one part of the background, between the Inca Atahualpa (sic), and Father Vincent Valverde, chaplain to the expedition, is seen the ominous mouth of a cannon; and, on another, a mounted warrior burning for the combat, in which that fearful chivalry will tread behind him spears athirst for blood, bristling in the gloom that darkens all that region of the sky with prophetic shadows27
Included in the Amulet, Greatbach’s engraving underscores the ideological bent of the original oil painting. Prefacing the excerpt from Robertson that accompanied Greatbach’s image was the statement: ‘The track of the Spaniards in South America was invariably marked with blood – towards the innocent and confiding people of the newly-discovered country they were as merciless as they were rapacious’.28 The fact that, as previously stated, Pizarro’s gun is rendered more conspicuous in the engraving, further invites the viewer to censure the cruelty of the conquistadors. This had not gone amiss when the work was first exhibited. One journalist reviewing the oil painting of the composition exhibited in 1826 received the work in terms of its revelation of Spanish cruelty:
As a whole, this performance does not make up, as the painter’s term it, but in point of character and expression is inferior to none of this artist’s former productions. His subject is of a nature to appal while it interests us; and it is painful to contemplate the malignant and unfeeling ferocity of the Spaniards, prepared for, and even anticipating, the deed of blood that followed the interview.’29
That sun-worshipping heathens are favoured over Christian Europeans to articulates the depth and entrenchment of anti-Catholic feeling in Britain during this stage in the nineteenth century.
Beyond this specifically religious and nationalistic context for the painting, we can note that the 1820s also saw a more general revival of British interest in the economic potential of Latin America, supposedly, as Paul Costeloe noted in 2008, ‘untapped and unexploited by the Spanish colonial masters of the southern continent … there was a widespread belief that if the continent could be freed from Spanish rule, a whole new world of unlimited trade opportunities would be opened up’.30 Costeloe documented the success of the entrepreneur William Bullock’s anthropological exhibition of Mexican material shown at his Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London, in 1824–5, which Briggs would surely have known.
Peru’s recent independence from Spain in 1824 would have further stimulated Briggs’s choice of subject. The Battle of Ayacucho in December that year had sealed the victory of pro-independence fighters, including Bolívar, over Spanish troops, though the Spanish state refused to recognise Peru as an independent nation until August 1879.31 The information available in Britain on the revolutions taking place across South and Central America during the early nineteenth century remained sparse and incomplete, although the public journals reveal consistent interest in the fortunes of the region that tend always to sympathise with the subaltern natives. Writing for the London Magazine in 1824, one journalist commented on the recent independence, noting that ‘Peru, it seems, was the strong hold of Spanish despotism’.32 In 2000 Timothy E. Anna pointed out that the Peruvian independence movement was unique among those in South and Central American countries, in that the majority of the nation’s inhabitants were not actively participating in the fight to separate from the Spanish monarchy.33 Most likely unaware of the subtleties of this particular war against imperial rule, Briggs harked back to the initial encounter between the Incas and the Spaniards to acknowledge and commemorate the contemporary battle for liberation.
The first version of the composition was reportedly purchased from the Royal Academy exhibition by William Wells (1768–1847) of Redleaf, a shipbuilder and prominent collector of art.34 As well as being included in the Amulet, this was engraved for G. Hamilton’s bilingual The English School, published in London and Paris in 1832–4.35 This print shows the variations between the two versions of the painting, such as rearing horses in the background behind the Spaniards, additional Incas surrounding Atalhualpa, and a carpet beneath his feet. In this engraving Pizarro is less obscured by shadow and appears with a more approachable facial expression. Yet despite this alteration in the conquistador’s character, accompanying this engraving was nonetheless another description of the moment, presumably written by Hamilton, condemning the Spaniards for their ‘treachery, artifice and cruelty’.36
One journalist evaluating the painting following its exhibition at the Academy disapproved of the subject, but valued Briggs’s technique, his colouring in particular:
We cannot but think the subject of this picture altogether ill-chosen; as it presents no prominent points of historical interest, no scope for the delineation of character and passion, and no material for that almost dramatic effect, which may be produced by a skilfully composed picture. Its only merit is, that it offers a sufficient variety to the colourist. But notwithstanding these defects of subject, Mr. Briggs has produced a picture full of merit. As a piece of colouring it is excellent; with the group of Spaniards is composed with great skill; the Peruvian girl on the left is coloured and expressed with a blending of richness and sweetness that we greatly admire in this artist; and the whole is handled with a breadth, a freedom, and at the same time a force, which make us wish that Mr. Briggs would try his hand upon some grand historical or poetical subject, in which design, expression, and colouring may be equally blended and balanced, and not fritter away his time and powers upon matters which no skill can turn to any really valuable and striking account.37
This review regards Briggs fundamentally as a historical painter, when in actual fact his career was marked by oscillation between portraiture and the most elevated of the genres.38 Although it is not known exactly when Briggs began The First Interview between the Spaniards and the Peruvians, the work played a key role in his recognition by the Royal Academy. It was the first exhibited picture after his election as an Associate Royal Academician in 1825, and as an obituary writer noted, it helped ‘To confirm the justice of the Academy in his election’.39 In 1826 he secured a commission from the British Institution to produce a large historical picture of The Visit of George III to Howe’s Flagship, the Queen Charlotte, on 26 June 1794 (presented in 1828 to Greenwich Hospital; National Maritime Museum Greenwich). Large in scale and conceptually ambitious, these works helped Briggs secure election as an Academician in 1832 after the death of James Northcote.
The picture was fondly recalled after Briggs’s death by Anna Maria Hall, the wife of Samauel Carter Hall, who had published the engraving in the Amulet and would later issue an engraved record of the Vernon collection (including this work):
A picture I remembered – from long ago – with extreme interest, I saw the other morning at Mr Vernon’s. What a delight, and what a glory it is to visit that house of true taste, genuine feeling, veritable liberality, and judicious patronage! … The picture I so well remembered is ‘The First Meeting of the Spaniards and Peruvians;’ which to me, who understand the sentiment of a picture far better than its execution, seems the most striking and the most sterling of all the works of Mr Briggs. There is a grace, a tenderness, a beauty in the Inca Atahualpa and his wife, which enhances the knowledge of their helplessness and natural good faith; the unconscious child, which clings to the Peruvian Princess, seems terrified, as the mother is indignant, at the stare of the Spanish grandee, who crouches like a serpent on the earth. Valverde, of notorious memory, is a most powerful contrast to the gentle Inca – a portrait of intolerant violence and bigotry, caring far more for the crown than the cross; while his brutal and insolent followers are preparing for the attack, stimulated by passion for plunder and blood. It is, indeed, a noble historical work, full of eloquent truth, well entitled to the place it has obtained. It seems improved in tone, and firmer and softer in colour than when I first saw it, some fifteen years ago, when it so strongly impressed me, that I looked forward, as a rich treat, to the privilege of spending an evening at the house of the Artist.40
Hall also noted, however, that ‘He had no difficulties to encounter or overcome, having a fair inheritance, but not enough to prevent his painting portraits.’41 Briggs’s father had held a lucrative position in the Post Office, but Hall’s note suggested that even this financial support meant that he was unable to pursue a career dedicated entirely to the higher genres of art. For example, his obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine laments that he was ‘unwilling to risk his newly acquired reputation’ and thus, ‘devoted his whole time to portraiture, swelled out the catalogues of the Royal Academy, and filled his rooms with kit-kats and three-quarters of squire and noble, clerk and layman, heads of colleges and chairmen of quarter sessions.’42
For many commentators Briggs’s retreat into portraiture signalled the artist’s desire for professional security, something that was not guaranteed by producing pictures such as The First Interview between the Spaniards and the Peruvians. William Makepeace Thackeray, writing in Fraser’s Magazine under his satirical pseudonym ‘Michael Angelo Titmarsh’, cited ‘Baron Briggs’ as ‘out and out the best portrait painter’ of the Academy’s recent history.43
The shift in Briggs’ career from aspiring historical painter to portraitist, though, as Thackeray makes clear, an eminent one, underscores the risks involved in the bold pictorial and political allusions at play in this demanding work. In 1847, the year Vernon bequeathed his now extensive collection to the nation, another writer commented that it is ‘to be lamented that the talent of Henry Peyronet [sic] Briggs should have been diverted from (historical painting). In a vigorous and sound style of execution he has been surpassed by no modern artist’.44
This shift came to characterise Briggs’s legacy. In 1862, when the work would have been on display at that year’s International Exhibition, the London Standard scathingly described him as an artist remembered ‘chiefly to the present generation as a painter of portraits, to which he exclusively devoted himself after his admission into the Academy in 1824’, his capacity as a historical painter being merely a ‘guise he appeared (in) exclusively before he could tack R.A to his name’.45 Despite this indictment, this article goes on to praise The First Interview Between the Spaniards and the Peruvians as Briggs’s finest work:
The figures in this painting are remarkably well grouped, and the colouring is exceedingly harmonious and effective. The contrast between the simple candour of expression and easy grace of attitude in the Inca and his followers, and the bigotry, guile, and truculence of the priest and his attendant soldiery, is well carried out.46
However, the Redgraves in their influential overview of modern British art posited the painting as representative of both the strengths and the notable weaknesses of Briggs’s work: ‘The drawing is usually correct, the colouring forced and somewhat rank, and the flesh has often a polished and shining look, very different to the tender and somewhat absorbent nature of its true surface’.47
The painting was subsequently put on loan by the National Gallery to Nottingham.48 The reputation of Briggs and of this painting in particular has not been high in more modern times. In 1924 a letter writer in the Hull Daily Mail, responding to a report of the mistreatment of Brigg’s The Progress of Civilization at the Ferens Art Gallery, suggested that the works were nothing but bad art and virtually worthless in financial terms.49 Nonetheless, in 1927, a newspaper noted that in that year the Home Secretary selected The First Interview Between the Spaniards and the Peruvians to hang in the main stairway of the Home Office, along with Pickersgill’s Amoret and Aemylia and Prince Arthur in the Cottage of Schlaunder (1845; Tate N00445), another work from the Vernon bequest. Showing minimal regard for the history of these works and for British art in general, the journalist states that Briggs’s work dates from 1742 and Pickersgill’s from 1820. ‘They are greatly admired’, writes the author, and are ‘hung in an admirable position for light effect from the tall windows facing the cenotaph’.50
Arguably, The First Interview Between the Spaniards and the Peruvians is a more rich and complex work than has previously been recognised. It might be interpreted as an anti-imperial statement that seeks to vindicate the plight of the massacred Peruvian Incas in light of the nation’s recent independence from Spain: conversely, Briggs’s historical painting is also legible as a relic of prejudicial anti-Spanish, anti-Catholic feeling in Britain, one can be easily integrated into an entire canon of propaganda. Through its eclectic amalgamation of Dutch naturalism, sculptural classicism, Rubensian corporeality via the work of William Etty, and myths of orientalism and ‘exotic’ identity, the work stands today as a rich document of changing approaches toward representing unfamiliar peoples in art, and also, in the light of the artist’s move towards portraiture not long after the work was exhibited, the financial hardships of the aspiring historical painter in Britain.
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