Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


67 A Bench of Artists 1776

Pen and grey and black ink over pencil on handmade laid paper 27.2 x 54.8 (10 3/4 x 21 5/8)
Inscribed, left to right in ink beneath the figures 'Mr Burgess' 'Mr Scarodornoff.' 'Mr Negri' 'Mr Beechy' 'Mr Riley' 'Mr Grignion.' 'Mr Hayes.' and in ink along the bottom edge 'A Bench of Artists. Sketched at the Royal Academy in the Year 1776 -'


Rowlandson was born in London and he was admitted as a student to the Royal Academy on 6 November 1772, at the age of sixteen.

Rowlandson's drawing is a rare eighteenth-century view of Royal Academy students at work. If Zoffany's famous group portrait of the Academicians of 1771-2 shows the new artistic establishment at its most confident (Bignamini and Postle 1991, no.5), Rowlandson's view of his rather crumpled colleagues reminds us of the workaday side of the student artist's life with all its drudgery as well as its attendant hopes and fears. The solidity of the curved bench on which they are sitting suggests that they are in the Academy for the Living Model rather than in the Plaister Academy, where casts of classical statues were drawn and where seating arrangements had to be movable. Each student is using a porte-crayon - a wooden or metal holder which gripped the lead or chalk. The lampshades were designed to stop the light by which the students drew spilling over onto the model who, placed in front of the bench, would have been posed by the Keeper under a light bright enough to emphasise outline and light and shade. It would have been unusual for a student to take pen and ink into the life class, so Rowlandson first drew his colleagues in pencil (visible under the ink), and then finished the drawing later. To make this sketch he presumably stopped doing what he was there for - which was to study the model. Indeed, Rowlandson is reported as having an agreeably mischievous attitude to the life class: on one occasion he fired a pea from his peashooter at the model and the ensuing disturbance almost resulted in his expulsion from the Academy (Hayes 1972, p.14).

Nothing is known about Mr Negri, but the other students can be identified: on the far left is Thomas Burgess who was admitted as a student on 30 January 1769. He is the oldest person present and is therefore probably the same Thomas Burgess who had been a member of the Incorporated Society of Artists in 1766 (Pye 1845, p.119) and associated with William Shipley's drawing school in the 1750s and 1760s (Allan 1979, pp.82, 88, 152; Wood 1913, p.168); Gavril Ivanovich Skorodumov (1755-1792) who, having won a gold medal at the Imperial Academy in St Petersburg in 1772, travelled to London to study. He was admitted to the Academy on 9 November 1773, went to Paris for two months in 1774, possibly with Rowlandson, and having been a pupil of Francis Bartolozzi and worked mainly as an engraver from 1775 onwards, returned to Russia in 1782 (Cross 1980, pp.211-17); William Beechey (1753-1839) was admitted a student in October 1774, made his debut as a portraitist in the 1776 Royal Academy exhibition and was later knighted; Henry Riley (b.1749) who was admitted in June 1773; Charles Grignion (1754-1804) was admitted as a painting student in August 1769 and won the RA Gold Medal for History Painting in 1776; Joseph Hayes (b.1753), perhaps the son of the ornithological artist William Hayes (1729-1799), was admitted as a painting student in November 1772 (Hutchison 1962).

Among his comments which Skorodumov sent back home in 1777, he listed the best artists in London as Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin West, John Hamilton Mortimer, Nathanial Dance and J.B. Cipriani. At this time Mortimer, physically a powerful man and an equally energetic and inventive painter and draughtsman, exercised a considerable influence over the younger generation of artists, including Rowlandson. In this drawing the bold technique of hatching and dotting in ink is very much in Mortimer's manner (see no.39) and could only have been done with an informed knowledge of his drawings and prints.

Robin Hamlyn

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.170 no.67, reproduced in colour p.171