Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

An Alternative National Gallery: Blake’s 1809 Exhibition and the Attack on Evangelical Culture

This essay suggests that Blake’s 1809 exhibition was haunted by the memory of the Irish painter James Barry (1741–1806) and his concerns about the nation’s visual culture. In deciding to include The Penance of Jane Shore c.1793, Blake revisited the scandal associated with the writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) and her advocacy of women’s rights, resisting evangelical concerns about the body and sexual morality

The Irish history painter James Barry (1741–1806) seems to have been in Blake’s mind as he planned his 1809 exhibition and struggled to understand its failure. Although the rambling and overly opinionated Descriptive Catalogue that visitors to Blake’s exhibition were offered for two shillings and sixpence is like no other exhibition catalogue, the closest parallel may be Barry’s 1783 An Account of a Series of Pictures in the Great Room of the Society of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, at the Adelphi that accompanied the most ambitious series of history paintings in the period. Blake’s surviving references to Barry (in the annotations to Reynolds’s Discourses and the draft of a Public Address) seem to date to around the time of his own exhibition, 1809–10.1 Note that when reading Reynolds, Blake characteristically disintegrates the authorial voice giving to Barry and Fuseli the comments that he approves: ‘it>’.2 Both Barry’s success and his failure may have spoken with equal force to Blake in these years.

Barry died in 1806 in tragic circumstances of poverty and neglect, seven years after he was ejected from the post of Professor of Painting and expelled from the Academy – the only academician to have met this fate. The reasons for Barry’s expulsion are debated by modern commentators. Whilst Holger Hoock and William Pressly, for example, explain it in terms of national politics as a result of Barry’s unwise decision to make his radical sympathies explicit, John Barrell has questioned the evidence for Barry’s republicanism and suggested that his expulsion was for the most part a matter of the complex internal politics of the Academy.3 Barry’s expulsion was clearly also driven by the perception of his colleagues that he was odd. Whatever the cause, Barry’s fate clearly moved Blake who wrote in 1800 of his own ‘Nervous fear’4 and Blake’s 1809 exhibition takes on some of Barry’s lost causes, as he rails at the corruption of public art in his country. In this essay I am concerned above all with how Blake may have understood Barry’s outspoken support of the writer and advocate of women’s rights, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797).5

The clustering of positive references to Barry in Blake’s writing may respond to the publication in 1809 of Barry’s Works in two handsome volumes, part of the belated recognition that came after he could no longer annoy his colleagues. The volumes included the 1798 Letter to the Dilettanti Society that had proved the last straw to hostile academicians. In the spring of 1799 the academician Joseph Farington commented in his diary on the ‘abusive’ tone of Barry’s lectures and, worse, the sympathetic response that the lectures seem to receive for ‘At different periods the Students clapped, & Barry bowed.’6 Farington collects gossip about Barry’s strange behaviour and enjoys humorous verses about his aggression as far back as the Irish artist’s time in Rome around 1770. That the Letter to the Dilettanti Society was to some extent merely a pretext is obvious to Farington who points out that it would be unwise to focus too closely on Barry’s ‘democratical’ opinions since many of the Academicians shared his politics and the liberal academicians would be crucial to the campaign against Barry. Academicians of many political colours were concerned at Barry’s disloyalty to the institution he was appointed to represent and for many it was enough that he had displayed his criticism of the Academy to the wider public, attacking the decision-making process and the facilities offered to art students and the public.7 Barry begins his Letter by ridiculing the investment by several academicians in the ‘Venetian secret’, an advertised scam that claimed to give access to Titian’s lost painterly method. His central concern, however, was to persuade his colleagues to purchase the art collection left by Reynolds at his death to form the basis of a national art collection rather than using the money to set up a pension fund for needy academicians.

Barry’s Letter also contained positive references to two known and by 1798 notorious radicals, Horne Tooke and Mary Wollstonecraft. Horne Tooke had been tried for high treason in 1794 and although acquitted was still a doubtful name to cite in the anxious days of the invasion fears of 1798. Barry presents Tooke as ‘a man of genius and abilities, persecuted and driven from one profession to another’. Whereas ‘the great seldom think of arts, but merely, pour se delasser, as an amusing relaxation from serious pursuits’ what the country needs are ‘the men of plain, useful, good sense, with hearts strongly biased to integrity and the public service’.8 As Barry refers to her as ‘long-to-be-lamented’, the extraordinary passage eulogising Mary Wollstonecraft was clearly inserted after her death on 10 September 1797 even though the Letter is dated 25 July 1797. By the time it was published in 1798, however, Wollstonecraft’s name had become synonymous with scandal as a result of the publication that year of Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman which described her personal life including her (unrequited) love for the married painter Fuseli and the birth of her first child out of wedlock to the American lover she had met in France during the Revolution. Godwin’s memoir inadvertently turned Wollstonecraft into a hate figure of reactionary, anti-Jacobin literature. In this context, Barry’s eulogy of Wollstonecraft was inflammatory: only by reference to Wollstonecraft, he writes, can we understand ‘why the conversation of the serpent was held with Eve, in order that her influence might be employed in persuading Adam’.9 The power of the passage is cumulative as Barry argues that the female gender of these figures can only be answered

by the eloquent, generous, amiable sensibility of the celebrated and long-to-be-lamented Mary Wollstonecraft, and would interweave very gratefully with another edition of her Rights of Women. Her honest heart, so estranged from all selfishness, and which could take so deep and generous an interest in whatever had relation to truth and justice, however remote as to time and place, would find some matter for consolation, in discovering that the ancient nations of the world entertained a very different opinion of female capabilities, from those modern Mahometan, tyrannical, and absurd degrading notions of female nature, at which her indignation was so justly raised. Civil society has many obligations to that excellent woman, and would do well to discharge some of them, by kind attentions to the two female children she has left behind her, if ever they should need them, which I am happy to say is not the case at present, nor likely to be so, whilst God Almighty spares the life and health of the ingenious Mr. Godwin, the father of one, and the kind and generous protector of the other.10

Barry wrote as a close friend of the recently bereaved Godwin: his name appears over twenty times in Godwin’s diary in 1796 and twenty-one times in 1797. Barry was in close contact in the days after the birth of Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s daughter on 30 August 1797: he called on Godwin on Thursday 7 September when the baby was eight days old, the day that Godwin’s diary records ‘dying in the evening’. He called again the next day (Friday 8) and Mary Wollstonecraft died on Sunday 10 September. Although Barry follows the eulogy of Wollstonecraft with praise of the education of the royal princesses, the temptation to use the passage to remove a problematic colleague was almost irresistible. Sir Francis Bourgeois argued, ‘That this being a Royal Academy it was sufficient ground for suspension or removal to prove that a Member avowed democratical opinions, – which Barry had done saying a Republic was the proper Government for Art to flourish under, – That He has highly commended David, & Mrs. Wollstoncraft & commended their principles’.11  

In the wake of Godwin’s Memoir, many considered a defence of ‘lasciviousness’ to be one of Wollstonecraft’s principles: even Thomas Taylor with whom Wollstonecraft had lodged for a time makes this point in a private letter of 1798.12 If it was offensive to the Academy to publish complaints about what they might justifiably have seen as internal matters, the offence was probably compounded by Barry’s title for in the later 1790s the Dilettanti Society had become increasingly associated with one of its members, Richard Payne Knight, the author of the Discourse of the Worship of Priapus. Not only had the counter-revolutionary T.J. Mathias associated the Dilettanti Society with a programme of obscene researches that threatened the stability of the moral order but Gillray had produced an inventive series of caricatures focusing on Sir William Hamilton which tried to link a fascination with the antique with private sexual obsessions.13 The decision of the Professor of Painting to appeal to the Dilettanti Society to hear his complaints about the Academy threatened to tar the respectability of the campaign for public art that the Academy itself saw as its key mission.

Blake’s 1809 exhibition and his Descriptive Catalogue can be read as an idiosyncratic tribute to Barry and an attempt to fight his battles. Where Barry had opened his Letter to the Dilettanti Society with an attack on the folly of academicians who fell for the ‘Venetian secret’, Blake’s Advertisement for the Exhibition offered ‘real Art, as it was left us by Raphael and Albert Durer, Michael Angelo, and Julio Romano; stripped from the Ignorances of Rubens and Rembrandt, Titian and Correggio’.14 William Pressly argues that Barry’s attack on Rubens covertly announces his republican hostility to the power of royal patronage. Pressly notes that Barry’s late drawing Passive Obedience represents Rubens holding scrolls inscribed ‘Whitehall’ and ‘apotheosis of Mary of Medicis’ and points out that Barry’s fourth lecture criticised Rubens’s paintings for Charles I’s Banqueting House at Whitehall as showing ‘the confusion occasioned by ill-directed flattery, and the jargon of far-fetched and over-refined allegory’.15 John Barrell, however, points out that Barry elsewhere displays a surprising fondness for Charles I: although ‘Barry sheds no tears’ over the death of Louis XVI, his ‘avowal of admiration and sympathy for Charles hardly seems to fit with a wish for the extirpation of royalty in Britain’.16 But Charles I is necessarily a positive figure for Barry insofar as he was a passionate art collector who purchased the Gonzaga collection which was sold during Cromwell’s protectorate. The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, as Barrell points out, was far from glorious to the Catholic Barry whose scepticism about a central myth of his culture derived not just from his religion but also from his belief that Catholicism fosters art.17 Barry’s commitment to public art co-exists with his republicanism and complicates it in much the same way that it does for Blake whose ironic images of the nation’s heroes simultaneously celebrate the occasion provided for public art by the commissions for monuments in St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey and lament the heroes that the nation chooses.

Blake’s 1809 exhibition can be seen as a frustrated response to the failure of the campaign for a national art collection that was close to the heart of many of his friends. The end of the eighteenth century saw the opening of national galleries across Europe which allowed the public to share what had previously been the pleasure of kings and aristocrats: the Medici collection opened to the public in Florence in 1789 and the Museum Français in 1793. Britain, however, did not gain a National Gallery until 1824 despite a series of initiatives beginning with the call by the radical MP (and libertine) John Wilkes for the government to buy up Sir Robert Walpole’s Houghton art collection when it went on sale in 1777. The government went on to turn down a series of ready-made collections: the Orleans collection when it was sold in London in 1798, that of Noel Desanfans in 1799 and the collection of Count Truchsess in 1803.18 Art historian Brandon Taylor puts the slow progress towards a National Gallery in Britain down to the perception that the project smacked of ‘a ‘revolutionary public’ on the French model’.19

Commitment to the cause of a National Gallery and to public art characterised Blake’s friends – as did a degree of scepticism about the Royal Academy. Benjamin Heath Malkin’s 1795 Essays on Subjects Connected with Civilisation dismiss the Academy’s annual exhibitions as a ‘feeble attempt’. What is needed is ‘a national museum, in which every professor should be allowed to deposit his chef d’oeuvre, as a tribute of gratitude for the patronage of his fellow-citizens, and as a memorial of his existence, when all other records of him shall be obliterated.’20 George Cumberland’s 1796 Thoughts on Outline, dedicated to Charles James Fox and illustrated with engravings executed by Cumberland with Blake’s assistance, criticised both the Royal Academy and the aspirations of commercial galleries.21 Cumberland did not believe that Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery achieves the aim of creating public art, since:

It does hurt indeed both to art, to poetry, and the country’s ideas, when such authors, as Shakspeare, are undertaken to be finally illustrated, by exhibitions of pictures, painted according to the orders, and the ideas, of men; who so far from being able to guide this triumphal chariot of the British Apollo, are scarcely worthy to hold the horses heads: pictures painted on the gallop of rivalship, the spur of necessity, and under the lash of power.22

Cumberland dismisses Boydell’s claim that the nation is ‘arrived at the pinnacle of perfection’ as the sales talk of a commercial gallery which ‘promotes their profits’ though ‘taken with large allowance, it does no harm’.

Blake’s support for the campaign is evident in a letter of July 1800 that congratulated Cumberland ‘on your plan for a National Gallery being put into Execution’. Blake’s optimism derived from his sense that the war with France was reaching a climax, which might even have led to the dissolution of English national identity within a wider European state:

     All your wishes shall in due time be fulfilled the immense flood of Grecian light & glory which is coming on Europe will more than realize our warmest wishes. Your honours will be unbounded when your plan shall be carried into Execution as it must be if England continues a Nation. I hear that it is now in the hands of Ministers That the King shews it great Countenance & Encouragement, that it will soon be up before Parliament & that it must be extended & enlarged to take in Originals both of Painting & Sculpture by considering Every valuable original that is brought into England or can be purchasd Abroad as its objects of Acquisition.23

In a letter to Cumberland posted on 1 September of the same year Blake enclosed a draft of a letter he proposed to send to the Monthly Magazine in support of Cumberland’s ‘Proposal […] For the Erection of National Galleries for the Reception of Casts in plaster from all the Beautiful Antique. Statues Basso Relivos &c that can be procured at home or abroad. Which Galleries may be built & filled by Public Subscription To be open to The Public. Their Use would be To Correct & Determine Public Taste as well as to be Treasures of Study for Artists.’24 Barry’s campaign for a national collection of old master paintings and plaster casts (that irritated his Academy colleagues and threatened their pension scheme) was taken up with vigour by Blake and Cumberland.

The Peace of Amiens of 1801–2 enabled the sculptor John Flaxman and his wife along with the president of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West, and the leader of the parliamentary opposition, Charles James Fox, to visit Paris to see Napoleon’s new acquisitions in the Louvre – despite the King’s disapproval for the idea of state patronage of the arts and his dislike of West’s praise for Napoleon’s looted collections.25 A print of March 1802, John Bull and his Friends Commemorating the Peace of Amiens, used a pastiche of Fuseli’s painting of Robin Goodfellow-Puck for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery.26 The parody makes the same point as Cumberland’s 1796 Thoughts on Outline that print sellers had the most to gain from peace insofar as it opened up the lucrative European market for English prints that was crucial to the financial viability of London’s commercial galleries.

For Blake, however, Flaxman’s visit provided a glimpse of a world at peace that recognised the importance of public art. The preliminary articles of the Peace of Amiens were signed in London in October 1801 and Blake wrote with characteristically unguarded excitement to Flaxman the same month: ‘I rejoice to hear that your Great Work is accomplish’d. Peace opens the way to greater still, The Kingdoms of this World are now become the Kingdoms of God & his Christ, & we shall reign with him for ever & ever. The Reign of Literature & the Arts Commences.’27 Blake was open about his admiration of Napoleon’s example of state patronage for art: ‘Now I hope to see the Great Works of Art, as they are so near to Felpham, Paris being scarce further off than London. But I hope that France & England will henceforth be as One Country and their Arts One, & that you will Ere long be erecting Monuments In Paris – Emblems of Peace’.28
 Perhaps it is lucky that the prosecution did not get their hands on this letter when Blake was tried for sedition in 1804. Blake imagines Flaxman working on a monument in Paris, the joint capital of France and England, as grand as the vast naval pillar at Greenwich that Flaxman had proposed in a pamphlet that Blake had illustrated in 1799.

Returning to London at the end of 1803 Blake was delighted at how the capital had changed. ‘Art in London flourishes’ he wrote in his first letter on his return and a fortnight later: ‘The shops in London improve; everything is elegant, clean, and neat; the streets are widened where they were narrow.’29 Blake’s excitement on visiting the Truchsessian gallery in 1803 might have been heightened by the knowledge that this collection was once again on offer to the nation. Blake might still have been optimistic in 1807 when the academician Thomas Phillips was painting his portrait for Royal Academy exhibition to coincide with the publication of an edition of Robert Blair’s popular poem The Grave with his own illustrations.30 The advertisements for The Grave had carried the names of Benjamin West and eleven other academicians. But when The Grave came out in 1808 the engraver Schiavonetti had been employed to reproduce Blake’s designs and was given a higher billing.31  

By 1809 when his public exhibition opened in the private space of his childhood home, above what by then was his brother’s haberdashery shop, Blake’s writing shows him to be more defensive about his own prospects and more despondent about London’s visual culture. Britain was still at war and the chances that London would become a city of public art seemed negligible. Blake was presented by Fuseli in the ‘Prospectus’ for The Grave as a designer of art for the private and domestic sphere, able to imagine the spiritual truths of death and eternal life within images drawn from the ‘familiar and domestic’:

    The Author of the Moral Series before us, has endeavoured to wake Sensibility by touching our Sympathies with nearer, less ambiguous, and less ludicrous Imagery, than what Mythology, Gothic Superstition, or Symbols as far-fetched as inadequate could supply. His Invention has been chiefly employed to spread a familiar and domestic Atmosphere round the most Important of all Subjects, to connect the visible and the invisible World, without provoking Probability, and to lead the Eye from the milder Light of Time to the Radiations of Eternity.32

The words ‘Moral’, ‘Sensibility’ and ‘Sympathies’ fit uneasily in Blake’s own vocabulary. ‘Moral’ is a word that he has particular difficulties with: characteristically, he deleted ‘moral sense’ in his copy of Boyd’s Historical Notes on Dante and replaced it with ‘passions and senses’.33 ‘Sensibility’, the subject of Hannah More’s 1782 ‘Sensibility: An Epistle to the Honourable Mrs. Boscawen’, is a term of particular appeal at this date to a feminine readership whilst ‘sympathy’, although fundamental to theories of a spectator’s response to art in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, is nevertheless a term that Blake challenged.34 Blake may have felt that Fuseli was trying to shunt him into the private sphere.

As it turned out, Fuseli’s support merely provided ammunition for hostile reviewers. The art critic Robert Hunt in the liberal journal The Examiner insisted that ‘the utter impossibility of representing the Spirit to the eye is proved by the ill effect it has on the stage’.35 The project of visualising Shakespeare was crucial to Fuseli ever since his works for John Boydell’s commercial Shakespeare Gallery, and Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue is therefore a defence of his friend’s art as well as his own: ‘The connoisseurs and artists who have made objections to Mr. B’s mode of representing spirits with real bodies, would do well to consider that the Venus, the Minerva, the Jupiter, the Apollo, which they admire in Greek statues are all of them representations of spiritual existences, of Gods immortal, to the mortal perishing organ of sight; and yet they are embodied and organized in solid marble’.36 At least he did not claim, as Barry had done, that Minerva reminded him of Wollstonecraft.

To Jon Mee, Blake’s insistence on visualising the unseen marks him out as tinged with the kind of vulgar religious enthusiasm that had been a concern throughout the eighteenth century.37 Robert Essick, however, points out that the physical representation of ‘gods, spirits of the dead, angels and other spiritual beings’ was standard practice in Western art.38 According to Essick it was the reviewers who were ‘modern’ in their concern ‘that the spiritual should recede to a wispy suggestion, “a cloudy vapour or a nothing”.’39 Mee sees embodiment as subcultural whereas Essick assumes that it is central to the dominant visual language of Western art, the language within which Barry, Fuseli and Mortimer worked. If Essick is right, what was the problem for the reviewers, and particularly the anti-Jacobin reviewer who complained that the ‘beings of another world when depicted on the same canvas as earthly bodies, should be sufficiently immaterial to be veiled by the gossamer, and not, as they are here designed, with all the fullness and rotundity of mortal flesh’?40   Blake’s appeal to ‘Greek statues’ not only recalls the taste of Cumberland and Barry for classical sculpture but attacks the ways in which Evangelicals were increasingly insisting on the immateriality of the spiritual and thus, in Blake’s view, threatening the existence of the visual culture of the nation. Insofar as the responses to the illustrated Grave (fig.1) and to Blake’s exhibition reveal a new anxiety about the representation of sexuality and of the physical body, perhaps he was right. Robert Hunt was worried that ‘an appearance of libidinousness intrudes itself upon the holiness of our thoughts, and counteracts their impression’. The concern for others was as much about eroticism in the home as about the physicality of the imagery: James Montgomery who liked the volume on its first appearance wrote in 1854 that ‘several of the plates were hardly of such a nature as to render the book proper to lie on a parlour table for general inspection’.41

William Blake The Reunion of the Soul and the Body in Robert Blair, ‘The Grave’, London 1808

William Blake
The Reunion of the Soul and the Body in Robert Blair, ‘The Grave’, London 1808
© The British Library Board (c142e11)

Andrew Lincoln has argued that after 1800 Blake’s poetry reveals sympathy for some elements of the evangelical movement.42 Steve Clark has also detected echoes of the missionary project of the early nineteenth century in Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.43 But since the 1809 exhibition takes on some highly visible evangelical and missionary campaigns, the echoes and allusions that Lincoln and Clark rightly detect may well be parody: such a strategy would not be unusual for Blake. Blake’s choice of paintings for his exhibition suggests not just an insistence on the right of the artist to represent spiritual entities in bodily forms but also a specific attack on the evangelical campaign for the reform of sexual morality, a campaign that had centred on the figure of the adulterous woman. An eager visitor to public art exhibitions, Blake is likely to have seen Rembrandt’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery when it was on view in London in 1807, first at Christies then at the home of its new owner John Julius Angerstein. Philippa Simpson describes how the painting attracted ‘rapturous critical response’: ‘For the hordes of artists and cognoscenti who swarmed around this celebrated Rembrandt, even the most hyperbolic praise failed to do the work full justice. The president of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West, said that, ‘All who approached it pulled off their hats’ in reverence.44

The figure of the adulteress appears briefly in William Cowper’s 1785 ‘The Task’, a favourite poem amongst evangelical readers, when the poet turns to ‘The adult’ress’: ‘What a theme for angry verse,/ What provocation to the indignant heart/ That feels for injured love!’ The subject is invoked only to be rejected as too polluting for poetry: ‘But I disdain/ The nauseous task to paint her as she is,/ Cruel, abandoned, glorying in her shame.’ 45 In her important 1799 work, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, Hannah More identified female sexual morality as capable even of protecting the nation ‘[i]n this moment of alarm and peril’.46 Recycling Augustin Barruel’s conspiracy theories, published in 1797, More believed that foreign literature aimed to destroy the sexual virtue of British women who must ‘oppose with the whole weight of their influence, the irruption of those swarms of publications that are daily issuing from the banks of the Danube’.fn]Ibid., vol.1, p.39. Readers would have had no difficulty in recognising an attack on Mary Wollstonecraft when More refers to the novel The Wrongs of Woman published in Godwin’s posthumous edition of Wollstonecraft’s works in 1798. Here, More claims, ‘a direct vindication of adultery was for the first time attempted by a woman, a professed admirer and imitator of the German suicide Werter. The female Werter, as she is styled by her biographer, asserts, in a work intitled “The Wrongs of Women,” that adultery is justifiable, and that the restrictions placed on it by the laws of England constitute one of the Wrongs of Women.’47

Blake’s decision to include The Penance of Jane Shore in his 1809 exhibition, a small painting he had probably finished as much as sixteen years before (fig.2), may be seen both as a canny response to the fame of Rembrandt’s painting and a coded reply to the anti-Jacobin focus on the figure of the adulteress. Jane Shore was a bourgeois wife who as the mistress of Edward IV was subjected to public humiliation after his death. David Hume’s History of England (1754–62) described how she was condemned for ‘adulteries and lewdness; and she did penance in a white sheet at St Paul’s, before the whole people’.48 Fuseli may have needed to present Blake’s Grave illustrations as a ‘moral series’ but Blake challenged attempts to redefine morality to focus on female sexual behaviour. Despite its intended function as a selling exhibition, Blake’s exhibition commented on the kinds of paintings that the nation chose to mark its public identity, and Rembrandt was one of the painters that Blake listed as holding the nation back: ‘Till we get rid of Titian and Correggio, Rubens and Rembrandt, We never shall equal Rafael and Albert Durer, Michael Angelo, and Julio Romano’.49 Whereas Rembrandt showed the adulteress as a tiny figure kneeling before a standing Christ and dwarfed within a huge space by a dimly represented but intimidating throne, Blake’s painting shows the dignified figure sharing the forefront of the picture.

When it was first painted in 1793 the subject may have been part of Blake’s plan to produce The History of England, a small book of Engravings but in the context of the 1809 exhibition it stands as evidence of Blake’s potential as a public painter on a large scale.50 In Blake’s watercolourJane Shore stands in shame in St. Paul’s church (which looks oddly like the cathedral that replaced it) but in 1809 Blake also offers his services as a painter for the vast public spaces of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The subject would have been familiar to Londoners since Nicholas Rowe’s 1714 The Tragedy of Jane Shore was one of the most popular and frequently performed plays in the metropolis in the period. Rowe’s play casts Jane Shore as an idealised figure who willingly takes on her status as outcast:

Let me be branded for the public scorn,
Turn’d forth, and driven to wander like a vagabond,
Be friendless and forsaken, seek my bread
Upon the barren, wild, and desolate waste,
Feed on my sighs and drink my falling tears;
Ere I consent to teach my lips injustice,
Or wrong the orphan who has none to save him 51

Jane Shore likens herself to ‘the hireling’ who ‘With labour drudges out the painful day,/And often looks with long expecting eyes/To see the shadows rise and be dismiss’d’ (V.1). According to Lynn Hunt, 1793 marked the expulsion in France of women from the public sphere and the attempt to draw a line ‘between public and private, men and women, politics and family.’52 The performances of Rowe’s Tragedy of Jane Shore in the 1790s reject these divisions, representing the abject mistress as a figure on the public stage. The role of Jane Shore was identified with the actresses Sarah Siddons and Mary Ann Yates, while Mary Robinson, a friend of William Godwin and herself a royal mistress (one of the Prince Regent’s many conquests) had played Alicia, another royal mistress in the play, in 1783 and again in 1787.53 Under the pseudonym of Anne Frances Randall, Robinson published A Letter to the Women of England on the injustice of Mental Subordination in 1799 with an epigraph from Rowe’s equally popular 1703 play, The Fair Penitent: ‘Wherefore are we born with high souls/ But to assert ourselves?’.54 Robinson attacks the sexual double standard by which a man who ‘has the temerity to annihilate the bonds of moral and domestic life’ is ‘acquitted; and his enormities are placed to the account of human frailty.’ She turns to Rowe’s Jane Shore to evoke the consequences for women: ‘But if WOMAN advance beyond the boundaries of decorum, “Ruin ensues, reproach, and endless shame,/ And one false step, entirely damns her fame”.’55

Rowe’s Tragedy of Jane Shore seems to have been particularly important to Godwin and to have become associated in his mind with Wollstonecraft.56 Godwin refers to reading the play on four occasions in 1792 and 1793 but (according to his diary) he first saw a performance of Rowe’s tragedy on 14 April 1796. Earlier the same day, Wollstonecraft had made the bold move of calling alone on him at Chalton Street, returning his call of 13 February. She had seen Imlay for the last time between these two meetings, in March. William St Clair describes how Godwin ‘called on her the next day for tea; she responded a few days later; and before long they were seeing each other regularly.’57 Godwin saw Jane Shore a second time on 27 December 1797, little more than three months after Wollstonecraft’s death, but this time he only stayed for half the play. He went to see the play again in 1800, 1807, 1818, 1823 and 1829. Including Jane Shore in his exhibition, Blake places the ‘harlot’ alongside his own ambiguous images of national heroes. Whilst St. Paul’s Cathedral was being turned into a mausoleum for national heroes, it was also the place where Blake had probably witnessed the annual benefit service for charity children – a great public celebration of childhood innocence as an emblem of the nation’s philanthropy.58 In Blake’s small painting the King’s mistress is dressed in a blue robe like Mary. She stands in contrast to the nation’s avowed heroes: the celebrated adulterer Nelson (fig.3), the hero of Britain’s naval success, and Pitt, whose shift-like garment recalls his caricature identity as the virgin, referring to his apparent lack of interest in sex.59

Central to the meaning of the Spiritual Form of Pitt and the Spiritual Form of Nelson is Blake’s use of the body, whether the naked but feminised body of the womanising Nelson or the carefully modest form of the celibate Pitt. The naked bodies of the lost painting of The Ancient Britons, the vast centrepiece of the exhibition, were strangely red in colour, demonstrating, according to Blake the ‘flush of health in flesh, exposed to the open air, nourished by the spirits of forests and floods’.60 Barry had insisted ‘that the ancient Britons were as naked as other savages’ for the adequacy of the British body as a model for art was important to him as a means of answering J.J. Winckelmann’s infamous claim that Britain will never produce great art; Barry reminds the reader ‘that the practice of boxing alone, in our countries, furnishes more frequent exhibitions of the naked and of the best kind, than any that are now to be met with in Italy.’61 In the 1783 catalogue Barry described stumbling upon a full-length portrait of George I in Northumberland House and being struck by how badly the painter had handled the body. Barry might (silently) have been pointing to the need of more inspiring heroic models than that offered by the corpulent King but his catalogue wondered instead how a writer such as Pope could possibly explain the handling of the body to someone from another culture such as ‘a native of Otaheite, or rather a cultivated Athenian, (whose company would be more acceptable)’. ‘Was it because this Mr Jervoise had studied no more of the human figure than the mere face, that he has managed all the rest of this picture in so incorrect, slovenly, and strange a way: what is this intended for, a leg; and this, and this, what is it?’62 The figure of the Tahitian spectator was familiar in the period because of the huge impact of the visit of the Tahitian chieftain Omai in 1774: in The Task, Cowper imagines Omai musing in regret at the loss of Britain on his return. In another lost painting, The Goats (date unknown), Blake presented the attempt of the missionaries to impose British mores on Tahitian women by concealing their nakedness with clothes as both comic and doomed to failure. The savage girls delight in their nakedness, and imagining them (if he could fight off the demons of Correggio) allowed Blake to create art. In the paintings that Blake exhibited in 1809, the deep hypocrisies of the nation’s attitude to sexual morality are there for the experienced viewer to see.

By 1809 opportunities for seeing art on display in London were myriad. The annual Royal Academy shows lent prestige to the practice and attracted all levels of society from the Prince Regent down. Yet there was also a discernible backlash, and an attempt to reinstate the privacy of the domestic. Published the year before Blake’s exhibition, Hannah More’s evangelical novel Coelebs in search of a Wife warns against exhibitionism in a wife: ‘The exhibiting, the displaying wife may entertain your company, but it is only the informed, the refined, the cultivated woman who can entertain yourself; and I presume whenever you marry you will marry primarily for yourself, and not for your friends: you will want a COMPANION: an ARTIST you may hire.’63 The novel describes how painting can become a form of self regulation in the tale of the extravagant aristocrat Lady Melbury whose failure to pay for the artificial flowers which adorn her at parties leads to the death of a flower girl. Lady Melbury uses her skill as an artist to create an image that will remind her of her moral failings:

It consisted of a detached figure in the background of poor Stokes, seen through the grate of his prison on a bed of straw: and a groupe, composed of his wife in the act of expiring, Fanny bending over a wreath of roses, withered with the tears she was shedding, and myself in the horrors in which you saw me,
Spectatress of the mischief I had made.
Wherever I go, this picture shall always be my companion. It hangs in my closet, my dear friends,’ added she, with a look of infinite sweetness: ‘whenever I am tempted to contract a debt, or to give into any act of vanity or dissipation which may lead to debt, if, after having looked on this picture I can pursue the project, renounce me, cast me off for ever!’64

More here quotes from Rowe’s The Fair Penitent where Sciolto describes his daughter Calista: ‘Amidst the general wreck, see where she stands/ Like Helen, in the night when Troy was sack’d/ Spectatress of the mischief which she made.’ In this climactic scene, Calista laments her fall: ‘It was because I lov’d, and was a woman’. Whereas for Rowe, to be a woman is to love and to fall, for Hannah More female adultery is antithetical to the nature of woman. More’s allusion to The Fair Penitent simultaneously conjures the image of Helen, the woman whose sexuality brought down Troy, and denies female sexuality, transposing the quotation to a scene in which the aristocratic woman’s sin is economic rather than sexual. This is both a moralised version of the famous captive in Laurence Sterne’s novel A Sentimental Journey (1768) and an anticipation of Dorian Gray’s portrait in Oscar Wilde’s tale, a painting that belongs in a ‘closet’ insofar as it represents the conscience of its owner. For Hannah More it is the middle-class woman who holds the key to the conscience of the nation.

The failure of the 1809 exhibition seems to have intensified rather than ended Blake’s need to appeal to the public. Not only did he draft a ‘Public Address’ in his notebook, but plate 3 of Jerusalem which may also date from 1809–10 is again addressed ‘To the Public’. Like the ‘experiment pictures’, here, too, is visible evidence of a struggle with ‘blotting and blurring demons’ in the deletions on the plate. What Blake shows ‘To the Public’ is the damage left by ‘temptations and perturbations.’ What goes from Plate 3 are words of positive affect: ‘love’, ‘friendship’, ‘blessed’. What stays is the obstinate loyalty to ‘The Enthusiasm of the following Poem’ and the curious framing of the title ‘To the Public’ by the separated words ‘heep’ and ‘Goats’. But whereas the Public may have been concerned with the identification of Wollstonecraft as the scapegoat, Blake resists the encroachment of evangelical moral concerns: ‘Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have governd their Passions or have No Passions but because they have Cultivated their Understandings’ he wrote in his Vision of the Last Judgement.65 In Jerusalem, Blake revises the biblical account of the virgin birth to insist on Mary’s sexual experience and portrays Mary’s passionate defence against the accusations of Joseph that she is ‘a Harlot & an Adulteress’:

Joseph spoke in anger & fury. Should I
Marry a Harlot & an Adulteress? Mary answerd, Art thou more pure
Than thy Maker who forgiveth Sins & calls again Her that is Lost
Tho She hates. he calls her again in love. […]
if I were pure, never could I taste the sweets
Of the Forgive[ne]ss of Sins! if I were holy! I never could behold the tears
Of love! of him who loves me in the midst of his anger in furnace of fire.66

Looking back on Barry’s expulsion and the Wollstonecraft scandal, Blake would have been correct to identify the links between the anti-Jacobins and the evangelical campaign of moral reform. His choice of paintings for his 1809 exhibition confronts head on the ambivalence about the visual and the body as a subject for art which, like Barry, he saw as fatal to the growth of visual culture in Britain. The upstairs room of the house in which he was born becomes both private and public space, the location of a display of the giant forms of national heroes like Nelson and Pitt, posed like Christ in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement (a drawing of which was displayed in the Royal Academy when Blake trained there), but directing like a conductor the forces of the apocalypse whilst dressed (in Pitt’s case) in a nightgown and (in Nelson’s) in pants. The impure of mind might even see Nelson caught in a kind of vagina dentata. To be fair, Hannah More seems to have shared Blake’s scepticism about the public adulation of military heroes and was shocked by the national mourning at Nelson’s death in 1805, writing to Wilberforce: ‘It is not a funeral but an Apotheosis’ and adding, ‘However it will I hope encourage other great men to be shot’.67