Thomas Stothard 1755–1834
Intemperance or Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl; The Original Design for a Painting Executed on the Great Staircase at Burleigh
c.1799–1802, probably exhibited 1810
Oil paint on canvas
495 x 749 mm
Inscribed in paint by the artist across the lower portion of the canvas ‘THE SKETCH OF THE SUBJECT OF INTEMPERANCE PAINTED ON THE WALLS OF THE GREAT STAIR- / CASE AT BURLEIGH THE SEAT OF THE MOST NOBLE THE MARQUIS OF EXETER A.D. MDCCCII’
Presented by Robert Vernon 1847
Probably sold from the artist’s collection at Christie’s, London, 15–26 March 1835 (99), bought by ‘Davis’ or ‘Davies’ for £30.9; with Robert Vernon, London (1774–1849) and presented by him to the National Gallery, London, 1847; transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1897.
The inscription across the bottom of this painting proclaims the work to be a sketch for a large decorative scheme at one of England’s largest country houses, Burghley House in Stamford, Lincolnshire (spelt Burleigh during the artist’s lifetime): ‘THE SKETCH OF THE SUBJECT OF INTEMPERANCE PAINTED ON THE WALLS OF THE GREAT STAIRCASE AT BURLEIGH, THE SEAT OF THE MOST NOBLE MARQUIS OF EXETER. A.D. MDCCCII’.
The painting is a small but exact version of the central work in a triptych of murals Stothard painted in the house’s Great or Hell Staircase: Descent of Orpheus into Hades, Intemperance and The Horrors of War. The Hell Staircase derives its name from its ceiling painting completed by the Neapolitan artist Antonio Verrio (1639–1707) in 1697, a dramatic trompe-l’oeil depicting Tatarus, the depth of the ancient Greek underworld. Stothard’s designed his murals to blend with Verrio’s ceilings and, at first glance, the ensemble today looks as if it might have been completed by the same artist.
To evoke the idea of intemperance Stothard depicted a banquet scene centring on the Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra and her lover Mark Antony, the Roman general. First told by Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD) in his Natural History about a century after the alleged incident, the story goes that Cleopatra, after betting Mark Antony that she could she could spend 10,000,000 sesterces on one supper, tricked him into thinking he had won the bet by serving a meal they both knew to be worth nothing like that amount. She then placed one of her pearl earrings into a highly acidic vinegar before drinking the solution for dessert and asserting her triumph.1 In 1757 the author Sarah Fielding brought the pearl incident into British popular consciousness in her widely circulated book The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia, an account of Cleopatra’s life narrated from her own imagined perspective.2 Stothard’s painting shows Cleopatra taunting Mark Antony with the earring, playfully raising the pearl above her head while he wraps his arm around her torso. A host of languid nymphs, satyrs, sporting putti and other hedonistic mythological personages frame the pair in a loose spiral arrangement. This central scene is viewed through a painted architectural framework, with dark columns to the left and right. Further scenes of revelry can be glimpsed on the far sides of the composition, with the rotund figure of the drunken Silenus on the right.
Stothard exhibited two sketches for the Burghley scheme at two different exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. In 1805 he displayed ‘A design for part of the great staircase, Burghley’, which has been identified as the present work, although without supporting evidence.3 In 1810 he showed ‘Cleopatra dissolving the pearl; the original design for a painting exhibited on the great staircase at Burleigh’ which may be N00321, although, as noted below, there may have been at least two oil sketches of this subject and so this cannot be established for certain. It is also unclear whether or not this work was a preliminary modello the artist would have used as a point of reference while painting walls of the staircase eight years earlier, or a showpiece created after the commission destined specifically for the Academy display. Commencing in 1799, Stothard worked on the Burghley scheme for four consecutive summers, and if this painting was in fact a working modello it would have been painted around 1799–1800, with the inscribed date of ‘MDCCCII’ (1802) referring to the date of the completion of the scheme itself and being added in that year or thereafter. (Stothard may also have retouched the work before it was exhibited.) A letter from the artist at Burghley to his wife dating from 1801 complained that the task of translating ‘small drawings’ into a large scale scheme challenged his eye sight ‘exceedingly’, indicating that he relied on small scale versions of each design while executing the murals. Yet it remains uncertain whether or not the drawings he referred to in this letter related to the version of Intemperance in the Tate collection.4 Another work in the Tate collection, known today as A Battle (N00322), is an oil sketch for the Horrors of War mural. Unlike Intemperance it does not bear an inscription.
The sculptor John Flaxman (1755–1826) nominated his friend and colleague Stothard to decorate the walls of the Hell Staircase.5 Henry Cecil (1754–1804), the tenth Earl of Exeter and Lord of Burghley House, was advanced to the title of first Marquis of Exeter in 1801 while Stothard was finishing the murals. Historian Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd suggests that the scheme was commissioned to celebrate Cecil’s impending elevation.6 His patronage marked an advancement in Stothard’s status, too; having been elected a Royal Academician in 1794, Stothard would go on to be one of the most famous and appreciated artists of the early nineteenth century, and the receipt of the prestigious Burghley commission, a rare opportunity for a British artist, fostered his already growing reputation as a leader of the still burgeoning national school. In her 1977 doctoral dissertation Shelly M. Bennett described the commission as the ‘culmination of Stothard’s growing recognition by the art world’, suggesting that the execution of the murals was a pivotal moment in the artist’s career, one that cemented his reputation as a master of the most intellectually elevated of the genres: historical painting.7
Prior to this commission, Stothard was known principally for his small-scale oil paintings and watercolours, literary illustrations, silverware designs and fashion plates, and accordingly the completion of such a project was a departure from his usual mode of practice. In her short biography of the artist included in a revised edition of Allan Cunningham’s Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters (1880), Mary Margaret Heaton stipulated that the artist may have been out of his depth to some degree in painting human forms eight-feet high: ‘Haydon would have been delighted to have been let loose on such a space of wall, and the work would have exactly suited his powers; but it may be doubted whether it was altogether within Stothard’s range.’8
Measuring just 495 x 749 mm, the oil sketch of Intemperance bears more of an affinity with the artist’s prolific oeuvre than its mural counterpart. Heaton was correct in her assertion that the Burghley project was the type of commission that Benjamin Robert Haydon (1785–1846), a younger contemporary of Stothard and a vocal champion of large-scale historical painting in the heroic tradition, consistently sought to acquire. Yet there were important reasons for choosing Stothard for the Burghley murals, reasons that the small-scale version of Intemperance makes especially visible. Flaxman would have suggested Stothard because, more than any other Royal Academician with a reputation worthy of the job, his style could easily be integrated into the house’s pre-existing decorative schemes. What distanced Stothard stylistically from his fellow leading Academicians was that his approach to painting the human form shunned the austere, sculptural model of antiquity that was dominating historical painting both in Britain and on the continent, the multi-disciplinary movement known as ‘neoclassicism’ that was at its pinnacle in 1799. Although prized for its familiarity and charm, Stothard’s softer style could assimilate with the Baroque intensity of Verrio’s ceiling because it remained formally akin to works by continental masters before and after Verrio, mainly Peter Paul Rubens and Jean-Antoine Watteau, who in the most general sense cultivated the tradition that prioritised undulating lines and richly-coloured flowing forms over a strict conception of archaeological idealism and simple classical disegno. As Richard Redgrave reflected in 1866, Stothard had a ‘catholic love of art’. More than any other Royal Academic painter of the era, his works could be seen to have a certain vivacious, sanguine mannerism in common with Verrio’s proliferation of interlinking naked and draped figures, sometimes stretched and elongated, sometimes deftly foreshortened, often voluptuous.9
The visual harmony and continuity between Stothard’s designs and Verrio’s ceilings relied principally on the fleshiness of his nudes and the vibrancy of his colouring, both of which related to the former’s interest in emulating Rubens. While it was conceived to match Verrio’s designs, the sketch of Intemperance was the most Rubensian oil painting by Stothard. The three nymphs that orbit around Mark Antony and Cleopatra, as well as those that recline, sleep and kiss on the ground beneath them, possess bodies with quivering flesh uncontained by a definite line and much more so than in the mural in which these same forms have a clearer delineation in keeping with Verrio’s more precise mode of painting the body. In her 1851 biography of Stothard, the artist’s daughter-in-law Eliza Bray wrote that around ‘the year 1796 [three years before the painter set to work at Burghley], Stothard began to study attentively the work of Rubens’.10 Bray elsewhere admitted that Stothard ‘agreed with the Flemish painter as to think stoutness an advantage to beauty’.11 In the years just before Stothard received the commission, the landscape painter Joseph Farington wrote in his diary:
Stothard I called on;—He shewed me his specimens in imitation of Rubens: much of the process He learnt from one of the Runicimans, whose father, a painter at Edinburgh, was taught it by a Fleming.—Burnt Bone, is used in it instead of Asphaltum. This washed on a light ground, supports warm lights. The Bone will dry with drying oil only. Stothard uses only drying oil with some colours, linseed oil with others.12
This entry reveals that prior to the commission Stothard was experimenting with special techniques to achieve the kind of hues and finish similar to those produced by Rubens. While the vermillion curtain that cascades about the composition matches the recurring red drapery in Verrio’s ceiling, the vivid yellow of Cleopatra’s dress and the garlands of fruit that link the inner set of pillars radiate with a particularly Flemish glow. Rubens was known for his elaborate oil sketches for larger works13 and there is an intriguing affinity between Stothard’s Intemperance and Rubens’s Mars and Rhea Silvia (The Princely Collections, Liechtenstein), of which there exists a preliminary version basically identical to its larger counterpart (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Although it remains unclear whether Stothard knew this work, the arrangement and tint of Cleopatra’s dress is noticeably similar to the drapery that gathers over Rhea Silvia’s knees, and both compositions include a putto running away with the helmet of the principal male figures. Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s embrace resembles the pairs of lovers in several sixteenth-century Venetian paintings, a paradigmatic example being the figures in Titian’s Venus and Adonis (1554, National Gallery, London), a work that Stothard knew well, and may have owned a copy.14 Stothard’s take on this pose was unusual, in that his Mark Antony assumes the distinct bent-knee pose traditionally afforded to the female supplicant, while Cleopatra commands the agency of the masculine counterpart.
The Rubensian appearance of Stothard’s female forms in the oil sketch version of Intemperance, however, did not necessarily convey the masterly emulation the artist intended. The description of the sketch that accompanied William Chevalier’s engraving after it in the official illustrated catalogue of works on display at Robert Vernon’s mansion published in 1850 was harshly critical. According to the author of the text, the ‘great defects of the work’ consist in the ‘ungraceful … ill-drawn’, and in some cases ‘perfectly distorted’ qualities of the various personages, the naked nymphs in particular. It is lamented that:
with such powers of composition as Stothard possessed, and with an eye for colour scarcely below that of Titian, his pictures should be so frequently shorn of their beauty by his defective drawing: had he been more careful on this point their value would be enhanced tenfold. In all his female figures especially we see purity of design and delicate execution marred by mis-shapen forms and inelegant proportions: in the present instance this is so obvious to render it unnecessary to direct attention to individual examples where they occur, detracting so much from the excellence of the work.15
It is possible that the author of this description had never seen the finished murals, and thus judged Stothard’s work at Burghley by the oil sketch alone. Yet these alleged shortcomings did not ruin the work of art altogether for the writer. In addition to Stothard’s colouring and composition, the author lavished praise on the artist’s consummate chiaroscuro, so ‘full of poetical feeling’. Although the figures in Intemperance were ‘not the most refined and agreeable order’, they were at least ‘free from that offensive vulgarity that a less delicately moulded spirit than Stothard’s would possibly have thrown into such a scene’. This last claim indicated that Stothard was known during his lifetime and fondly remembered posthumously for the innocence of his human forms, which, even when undraped and engaged in illicit activity, appeared graceful, despite their compatibility with the carnality of Verrio’s figures. The criticism of Stothard’s drawing abilities indicated a misinterpretation of the artist’s investment in Rubensian corporeality. Stothard was, in fact, a capable draughtsman, as suggested by, among other drawings, his highly realistic watercolour studies after the living model in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Verrio was also responsible for the wall and ceiling paintings in the house’s adjacent Heaven Room, and it is from this scheme that Stothard derived the sets of pillars that structure Intemperance and split the scene into three bays. Where Verrio’s pillars appeared as stone ornamented with floral festoons, Stothard’s evoke dark green marble and are adorned with fruit garlands. In Intemperance the illusion of a stage is created by the set-like positioning of the principal figures on a linear platform, with the remaining figures caught amid the curtain that reveals sections of an artificially rendered cloudy blue sky, paler in the mural than in the oil sketch. In both Verrio’s and Stothard’s murals every form is in motion, and the figures in the small-scale version of Intemperance possess this same relentless action.
A further reason for choosing Stothard for the commission was his training in the decorative arts, the fluidity and charm of his manner having been informed by this aspect of his practice. The painter began his career designing patterns for silk brocades in London’s Spitalfields before going on to draw figures for Wedgwood pottery and jewellery in the 1780s. The Burghley project was his first major decorative scheme, but not his last. The two most prominent commissions of this type came toward the end of his life, when in 1821 he was commissioned to execute a painted frieze of various classical figures for the ceiling dome at Edinburgh’s Advocates Library, and later employed to design friezes narrating the history of England for the Throne Room, Grand Staircase and Blue Drawing Room of Buckingham Palace, some of which were never carried out owing to the death of George IV.
Although decorative in character and intended to blend visually with a much earlier pictorial scheme, Stothard’s mural reflected a broader interest of the time in the figure of Cleopatra. In 1759 Reynolds had chosen to portray an infamous courtesan named Kitty Fisher in the guise of Cleopatra while she dissolved the pearl in vinegar (Kenwood House, London). Literary historian Richard Altick noted that Reynolds’s portrait was the first of several British paintings of Cleopatra and the earring,16 while Marcia Pointon connected Reynolds’s use of the incident with Fielding’s 1757 text.17 According to Pointon, Reynolds used the pearl legend to play up to the courtesan’s reputation as ‘an alluring and dangerous consumer of men’s wealth.’18 While Altick suggested that for artists, the subject of Cleopatra or Antony and Cleopatra was an avenue into exploring sensuousness ‘with good conscience’, Pointon argued that depictions of Cleopatra involved an element of risk, as she was seen both as a ‘fascinating, if dangerous, historical figure’ and ‘a trope for rhetorical absurdity’.19 Perhaps this relates to the liminality of the figure of Cleopatra, her position at once outside and inside the cannon of classical femininity: she was a real life historical figure both Greek and Egyptian, embodying an ethnic and cultural miscegenation that distinguished her from the usual cast of ancient females. Her foreignness permitted a sense of sexual dissidence surrounding her reputation for beauty and opulence, making her the ideal candidate for an allegorical representation of excess and debauchery.
The blonde hair of Stothard’s pharaoh makes her an unusual take on the figure of Cleopatra. The artist’s depiction of a definitively European, racially unambiguous female may have been motivated by a desire to detach his image from the previous, darker manifestations of Cleopatra such as Reynolds’s raven-haired courtesan. As a celebrated children’s book illustrator Stothard may not have been inclined to convey in full the sexuality of her reputation, and Cleopatra’s blonde incarnation in Intemperance suggests a purification of her image and her legacy. In a watercolour and graphite study for the Intemperance mural Stothard appears to have produced at around the same time, Cleopatra’s hair appears with an almost translucent glow amid the limpid turquoise of the background (British Museum, London). At 269 x 431 mm, this watercolour is smaller than the oil sketch, and slightly larger than the pen, black ink and blue wash study of the central group, in which both Cleopatra and Mark Antony are as naked as the nymphs that encircle them (c.1799, British Museum, London). Another pen, brown ink and blue wash drawing depicts just Mark Antony and Cleopatra (1799, British Museum, London). In this last image, the fluidity of Stothard’s sketching technique, his tendency to reject the systematic proportions of the classical ideal, is revealed in full.
In Britain commissions for large-scale decorative schemes had a long history of only ever being granted to foreign artists. The opinion that the majority of British painters were not erudite enough to produce allegorical pictures but rather excelled in the naturalism and ‘truth of detail’ that equipped them to be fantastic landscapists and genre painters endured throughout the nineteenth century.20 Cecil’s decision to select a British artist for the scheme thus appeared a resounding triumph for the national school. In his 1826 pamphlet, Some Memoirs of the Patronage and Progress of the Fine Arts in England and Ireland, William Carey reflected on Stothard’s murals, proposing that this ‘sight of so noble an exertion of British Genius’, should be considered a source of national pride. Not only was ‘the execution of this truly grand work … sufficient to immortalize the inspired painter’, but, produced in a milieu of ‘Anti-British prejudice’ relating to the domestic ‘state of taste’, Stothard’s murals were proof that British artists, given the opportunities, could excel in ambitious large-scale projects.21 These claims reveal the sense of inferiority clouding the idea of the professional historical painter in Britain during Stothard’s lifetime, something that he himself managed to evade. Indeed, upon Stothard’s election to Academician, the critic John Williams deemed him ‘the ONLY Artist in this country who can comprehend, with keen precision, a subject dependent on historical fact.’22 At one point Joshua Reynolds had recommended Stothard to a prospective patron as more proficient than himself, while Thomas Lawrence named him ‘perhaps the first genius, after Mr. Fuseli and Mr. Flaxman, that the English school or modern Europe has known.’23 Stothard’s Burghley murals were considered both a decorative scheme and examples of British historical painting at its most accomplished.
A detail from Intemperance was published in an 1812 edition of Poems, a celebrated anthology of verse by Samuel Rogers, Stothard’s lifelong friend and patron. Rogers was also a collector of master works, including an oil sketch and other works by Rubens.24 On the last page of the book there is a drawing of the figures of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, their bodies reversed but in the same position, with Cleopatra dangling the pearl over her head as Antony embraces her. Stothard illustrated several collections of Rogers’s poetry, but this drawing is not attached to a particular poem.
We know that Vernon, the great collector of British art, did not purchase this painting at the Academy exhibitions either in 1805 or 1810 where it had attracted little attention in the press, yet it remains unclear at what point it became part of his collection. In a posthumous sale of Stothard’s works that was held at Christie’s, London, 17–19 June 1834, a work identified as ‘Sketch for the subject of intemperance, painted upon the walls of the staircase at Burleigh; splendidly coloured’ (from its position in the catalogue apparently an oil painting) went up for auction as part of a ‘large collection of original sketches, drawings, and studies, and some finished pictures’, all by the artist, some of which also ended up in the Vernon collection. The work fetched the highest price at £90 and 6 shillings25 and was purchased by a Mr Pickering on behalf of a Corbould (possibly one of the artist brothers Corbould or a relation).26 According to Bray in 1851, the painting, having been purchased by Corbould, was later obtained by the Marquis of Exeter, so was apparently not the work that Vernon owned.27 However, there is a chance that the artist’s niece could be mistaken, as there are no traces of another version of the design being kept at Burghley. Just one year after the Corbould purchase, a work identified as ‘Intemperance, a beautifully coloured design for the same [Burleigh]’ from went up for auction from Stothard’s collection listed among ‘Pictures and Studies in Oils’. This was purchased by a Mr Davis (or Davies), potentially an agent working on behalf of Vernon. It is also possible that the work became part of the Vernon collection at some point in the 1840s, as the work is not mentioned in the earliest published article listing his acquisitions.28 The 1847 inventories of Vernon’s collection state that Intemperance had been hung on the staircase of his mansion on Pall Mall.29 A lithograph of the work was made as late as 1869, suggesting sustained interest in the design well into the Victorian period (British Museum, London). In the early 1890s, the oil sketch of Intemperance was displayed in the room dedicated to the British school at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square. In 1897 these works were transferred to the Tate Gallery.
Although esteemed in his lifetime, Stothard fell from favour in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries.30 In her 1992 book Burghley: The Life of a Great House, Lady Victoria Leatham, daughter of the sixth Marquess of Exeter, for example, went to great lengths to condemn Stothard’s style, viewing his murals as technically incompetent rather than exemplary of an under-researched chapter in British art history:
As far as we know, the walls (of the Hell staircase) remained blank until an artist named Thomas Stothard painted them in 1802. You wish he hadn’t. He obviously lacked experience when painting the female form unclothed, and his women writhe round the walls afflicted with every known disability of the spinal column; orthopaedic surgeons could write award-winning theses on the women in here. It is a mercy that, owing to the appalling lighting, it is almost impossible to see the full effect of the humps. One day, I suppose, we shall be forced to clean the walls, but I cannot bear to think about the horror that will spring to the eye and mesmerize the luckless visitor.31
The oil sketch of Intemperance, however, can be seen as a significant representation of one of the most important private commissions in the history of British art. It is a work that at first glance does not appear to align with the era in which it was made, yet upon closer analysis it can also be seen to embody and to challenge the established discourses surrounding the state of contemporary painting at the turn of the nineteenth century.