Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

Reasoned Exhibitions: Blake in 1809 and Reynolds in 1813

This paper considers Blake’s 1809 exhibition in the light of the nascent practice of retrospective exhibitions and compares it with the commemorative exhibition of Reynolds’s paintings organised by the British Institution in 1813.

This paper attempts to situate William Blake’s exhibition of 1809 within the framework of a particular type of exhibition practice, that of the retrospective. A retrospective assembles a significant number of works by an artist and attempts to represent a career, a lifetime’s work. Blake’s exhibition deserves to be considered in relation to the retrospective because of its format, and the selection of works included in it, and also because of the nature of the accompanying publication, the Descriptive Catalogue.1 Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue, I argue, stemmed from the tradition of French catalogues raisonnés, a corollary of which emerged in the nineteenth century as the commemorative retrospective exhibition. Significantly, it was not long after Blake’s exhibition that the British Institution in London staged a comprehensive retrospective of the work of the first President of the Royal Academy and often cited by many as the father of the English School, Sir Joshua Reynolds.2 With this 1813 exhibition, which is discussed in the latter part of this paper, the retrospective was authoritatively transformed into an honouring device by which the collected works of an artist could be examined as an ensemble, revealing similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses and providing a model of emulation for other artists.

The format of the retrospective exhibition, although not named as such at the time, was developed at an earlier date by artists themselves.3 When in 1775 the Royal Academician Nathaniel Hone, motivated by the exclusion of his painting The Conjuror from the Royal Academy exhibition and a desire to safeguard his reputation, resolved to organise an independent exhibition, he rented a room in St. Martin’s Lane and exhibited sixty-six works that spanned his entire career.4 This exhibition is, I believe, the first retrospective known to have been staged by an artist. This was an unusual and daring venture for the time, one that disregarded the conventional exhibition practice of presenting new work in the context of a group exhibition organised by one of the several exhibiting societies. But in the decades between Hone’s exhibition of 1775 and Blake’s exhibition in 1809, while grouping the works of a single contemporary artist in an exhibition had not become common, it does seem to have become more accepted as a practice.5  

With his 1809 exhibition, held at the house he was born and brought up in, Blake followed Hone in attempting to promote his works independently from the established exhibiting societies. Since the 1770s a number of artists had staged one-man shows, some even in private homes. In order to save money, many artists had resolved to show works in their houses, either in the form of relatively permanent showrooms like the ones Gainsborough and Turner had in London or by opening their house for one-off, temporary exhibitions.6 What I believe was rather uncommon with Blake’s exhibition was his decision to show a selection of works that covered a significant period of his production as an artist, yet focusing only on one aspect of his output – his painterly work (not his work as an engraver).

Understanding the objectives behind Blake’s exhibition is far from straightforward. Although this display of sixteen works could be considered as a retrospective exhibition, Blake seems to have had several principal aims. Both the exhibition advertisement issued by Blake and the text of the Descriptive Catalogue itself make clear that the works on display were for sale.7 At the same time Blake was promoting and seeking subscriptions for his engraving of the Canterbury Pilgrims (issued in 1810).8 Moreover, the exhibition displayed Blake’s painting of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims (Pollok House, Glasgow) as a deliberate challenge to Thomas Stothard’s rival version of the same subject, The Pilgrimage to Canterbury 1806–7 (Tate).9 Blake complained that his works were not accepted by the two most important exhibition venues of the time, the Royal Academy and the British Institution, because they were in the form of watercolours (rather than oil paintings).10 That might seem to be motivation for setting up this independent show. However, his works had been accepted at the Royal Academy on six different occasions, the last time being the year before his 1809 exhibition.11 And the exhibition was promoting what Blake called his latest invention: the ‘portable fresco’ (a kind of tempera painting).12 Blake explained that he could enlarge such fresco works and decorate public buildings. The Spiritual Form of Nelson and The Spiritual Form of Pitt (nos.I and II in the Descriptive Catalogue)were intended as monuments to the heroes of his country.13 This aspiration, expressed amidst the Napoleonic wars, at a time of rampant nationalism when several public monuments were commissioned and executed by sculptors, shows that Blake was hoping to gain a state commission. He thus associated his fresco productions with patriotic works and the advancement of the English School of art. 

Above all, however, I believe that Blake’s exhibition was intended to present Blake as a painter, and the ‘inventor’ of subjects and techniques. He asserted unequivocally that this was an exhibition of ‘paintings’ or ‘pictures’ and designated them as ‘poetical and historical inventions’.14 His portable fresco, for example, as Aileen Ward has argued, was Blake’s attempt, ‘to circumvent the Academy prejudice against watercolor’ in the hope of being elected at the Academy as a painter.15

So could this exhibition of sixteen works be considered a retrospective exhibition? Is it attempting to represent Blake’s career? At first glance, the answer would be ‘no’. Sixteen works are perhaps not enough to represent a career and if it was intended to be representative of his oeuvre it would surely have included his engravings. The exhibition, however, was accompanied by a comprehensive Descriptive Catalogue, which enabled Blake to expand on his practice beyond the limited space of his family home. It constituted a personal exposition of Blake’s ideas as much as the works did, and complemented them as an additional work in itself.

In the last entry of the Descriptive Catalogue – a commentary on The Penance of Jane Shore (no. XVI) – Blake stated that he did not believe in artistic improvement over time. He asserted that ‘the productions of our youth and of our maturer age are equal in all essential points’.16 It was inspiration and the power of invention that Blake considered as artistic merits and not the kind of artistic practice that improves gradually. This point was made in connection with a drawing that Blake claimed he had ‘done above Thirty Years ago’.17 Most of the works in the exhibition were recent, and so this remark appears to defend his choice to include older works among them. In fact, the literal truth of Blake’s dating of The Penance of Jane Shore has been contested and it is now believed to have been executed around 1793.18 Whatever the actual date of this work might have been, it provided Blake with the opportunity to express his view that an artist’s work remains unchanged by time. The power of art was, according to Blake, principally in the mind and not the hand. Besides The Penance of Jane Shore there were other works that dated about ten or even fifteen years prior to the exhibition (e.g. no.VI A Spirit Vaulting from a Cloud c.1795?, a lost work; and no.XII The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ’s Garment 1800).19

This is not to say that Blake’s exhibition did not put an emphasis on his more recent productions. His latest works were included in the advertisement; they were given priority in the catalogue; and it was with these that Blake hoped to gain a public commission. However, Blake’s exhibition was not a one-man show that simply showcased his recent productions, but an exposition of his work as a painter. Alongside his huge work The Ancient Britons (a lost work thought to have measured 3.05 x 4.25 m) were included intimate works that displayed Blake’s careful execution (his watercolours no.XVI The Penance of Jane Shore and no.XV Ruth – A Drawing), early temperas (no.VI A Spirit Vaulting from a Cloud) and his experimentations with colours (nos.VII The Goats, a lost work; VIII The Spiritual Perceptor, a lost work; and IX Satan Calling up his Legions).20 The exhibition was thus an assemblage of old and new works in different techniques. All were paintings, however, and not a single engraving featured in the show, suggesting that Blake was not only aspiring to be recognised as a painter but also considered himself to be one. It is indicative, as Aileen Ward has pointed out, that Blake refers to himself as an engraver only once in all his writings while ‘he describes himself as “the painter” or “a painter” seventeen times. Engraving for him was “the profession I was apprenticed to” he wrote; painting, on the other hand, was not a business but a calling.’21 Hence, with his exhibition Blake was intending to project a career as he wanted it to be seen, as focused around his paintings, and not aiming at presenting an all-inclusive exhibition. It was Blake’s hope that the show would affirm his status as a painter of elevated subjects drawn from history or poetry, remove in particular the stigma of the reproductive engraver and show he was capable of grand public commissions. The public, however, did not show much interest in the event. The exhibition had poor attendance and negligible impact at the time. The Descriptive Catalogue, however, made a greater impression, providing an insight into Blake’s mind and his views on art that many people found fascinating, others curious and puzzling.22

In terms of its design and printing the Descriptive Catalogue did not feature any innovations. It was, however, much more elaborate than most exhibition catalogues of the time, a fact already revealed in the title and the choice of the adjective ‘descriptive’ which distinguished it from the mere list or inventory of exhibited works presented in the Royal Academy and British Institution catalogues. ‘Descriptive catalogues’ were not as common in 1809 as they would become later in the nineteenth century, and the phrase was only occasionally used in publications. Most, if not all, the precedents for this usage were commercial enterprises and were usually issued to accompany sales. What distinguished them from usual sale catalogues was the extensive commentary and informed approach to their subjects, which made them akin to reference works and implied an expertise on the part of the authors.

The expression ‘descriptive catalogue’ is, I believe, a rendering of the French ‘catalogue raisonné’, which as a term originated before the middle of the eighteenth century and translates as a ‘reasoned catalogue’. Catalogues raisonnés did not, at the outset, aspire to provide an exhaustive account of their subject, such as the complete works of an artist (a meaning with which we are familiar nowadays and which gained predominance in the nineteenth century). But they did provide an extensive discussion on the given subject. The connection between descriptive catalogues and catalogues raisonnés is best illustrated with James Tassie’s 1791 bilingual (in English and French) A Descriptive Catalogue of a General Collection of Ancient and Modern Engraved Gems.23 Its parallel French title was Catalogue Raisonné d ’une Collection Generale, De Pierres Gravées Antiques Et Modernes. This catalogue, with text by Rudolf Erich Raspe, listed over 15,000 examples of engraved gems and was both a reference work and an advertising catalogue of Tassie’s practice.

The person who made popular the term catalogue raisonné was Edme-François Gersaint, one of the most successful art dealers in the first half of the eighteenth century in Paris.24 His success was a result of his skilful marketing techniques and his pioneering conflation of the commercial side of art (that of dealing) with the enlightened world of the educated collector, the gentleman, the connoisseur. His shop and auction house, for example, replicated the environment of a private collector’s cabinet but his long-lasting contribution was in the form of the elaborate, scholarly catalogues that he produced. Catalogues raisonnés was the title he preferred in order to differentiate them from the usual sale catalogues of his time and to signify his intellectual approach to dealing. Thus the catalogue raisonné, as Glorieux has noted, emerged as a hybrid between the sale catalogue and the scientific treatise.25 Gersaint’s last catalogue, entitled Catalogue raisonné de toutes les pièces qui forment l’oeuvre de Rembrandt (published posthumously in 1751) was a true scholarly endeavour aimed to record the print production of Rembrandt.26 Unlike Gersaint’s earlier catalogues, it was not published to accompany one of his sales. This work is considered as one of the first catalogues raisonnés – in its more familiar, modern sense – and its title, by the addition of the phrase ‘toutes les pièces’, specified that the publication included all the works of that artist.

Auction catalogues provided a platform for art-historical discourse, which was in turn passed on to exhibition and collection catalogues. Horace Walpole remarked in 1784 that ‘Catalogues raisonnés of collections are very frequent in France and Holland’, suggesting thereby that they were not so in England.27 But in the nineteenth century James Elmes noted in the entry for ‘Catalogue’ in A General and Bibliographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts that: ‘Some distinguished collectors have published descriptive catalogues of their collections, and which are usually called, Catalogues raisonnés’.28

Although Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue was not intended to serve as a general reference work, like Tassie’s catalogue for example, it shares similarities with the French tradition of erudite sale catalogues. In particular, the conflation of the commercial and the scholarly that was pioneered by Gersaint is apparent in Blake’s catalogue. His catalogue was accompanying a selling exhibition and was using the conventions of the commercial world – such as the expression ‘sale by private contract’ that featured on the title page or the ‘conditions of sale’ at the beginning of the Descriptive Catalogue – to promote his paintings and his forthcoming engraving of the Canterbury Pilgrims.29

But the Descriptive Catalogue is obviously more than an unusually erudite sale catalogue. It provided a critical and analytical discussion of the works on view and expressed Blake’s beliefs and tastes in art; it was a personal document that expounded Blake’s ‘Opinions and Determinations on Art’.30 Blake saw the Descriptive Catalogue as an opportunity to engage in an appraisal of the different schools of painting, and their respective exponents; to express his admiration for and align his practice with the works of Raphael, Michelangelo, Giulio Romano and Dürer and at the same time denounce the works of the Venetian and Flemish practitioners and their use of that ‘infernal machine, called Chiaro Oscuro’.31 He proclaimed his preference for outline instead of colour effects, for fresco (or tempera) instead of oil painting and his annoyance at ‘those who separate Painting from Drawing’.32 He also stressed the importance of an artist’s inventive powers and of imagination and his wish to free painting from the ‘sordid drudgery of facsimile representations’.33 The Descriptive Catalogue moreover, extolled his skills as an artist and attacked those that had criticised his works. It was a programmatic, although convoluted document, with which Blake was addressing connoisseurs and fellow artists, joining in the discourse of contemporary art criticism and attempting to defend his art and illustrate its merits.

By the nineteenth century the catalogue raisonné was evolving into a significant art-historical tool, by which the oeuvre of a single, deceased artist is turned into an object of study and admiration. The oeuvre is catalogued, classified and presented in a rational, systematic manner – usually in chronological or thematic order. The catalogue raisonné creates a corpus of authority by attributing some works to the artist and excluding others. It purports to be exhaustive and is interested as much in the objects themselves (providing physical and technical descriptions) as in the identity and reputation of their creators. Its closest counterpart in strengthening the pre-eminence of an individual artist and honouring his or her oeuvre is, perhaps, the commemorative retrospective exhibition. The first such commemorative exhibition ever staged by an institution was the one organised by the British Institution in 1813 in honour of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Looking at Blake’s and Reynolds’s exhibitions together should help to illustrate the tension and rivalry that existed between the works of contemporary and deceased artists.

The predilection of British collectors for old-master works at the expense of the productions of contemporary artists was long seen as detrimental to the advancement of painting in England. The lack of encouragement and patronage of living artists had developed by the beginning of the nineteenth century into a major issue. The painter John Hoppner, in his commendation of Stothard’s painting of the Canterbury Pilgrims, finished his review with the following comment objecting to this situation:

Having attempted to describe a few of the beauties of this captivating performance it remains only for me to mention one great defect – the picture is, notwithstanding appearances, a modern one. But if you can divest yourself of the general prejudice that exists against contemporary talents you will see a work that would have done honour to any school at any period.34

The British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom, as was its full name, had been founded in 1805 by a circle of influential collectors with the aim of promoting the works of living artists. With that aim in mind they devised a plan of two annual exhibitions. The first was intended to showcase and sell contemporary works by British artists (or artists resident in Britain). The second strand of their exhibition programme had a distinctively pedagogical intention and was closed to the general public. It involved borrowing works of ‘ancient masters & other deceased artists’ from the collections of the British Institution’s subscribers in order to put up an exhibition ‘for the study & imitation of British artists and students’.35

If at the beginning the refutation of the old prejudice against living British talent was the paramount objective of the British Institution, a new project soon changed the focus of its exhibitions. That was the formation of a national gallery in the metropolis, something that was felt to be essential, not only for the improvement, but also the promotion of the British School within a European context. The by-laws of the British Institution stated that the encouragement of the arts in the United Kingdom was particularly expedient at a moment ‘when efforts are making in different part of Europe to promote the Arts of Painting, Sculpture and Design, by great national establishments’.36 Thus, from 1813 the Directors of the British Institution inaugurated a summer exhibition, open to the public, with:

The best Works of the Ancient Masters of Italy, Spain, France, and of the Flemish, Dutch and British Schools of Painting; of the latter, the Works were to be confined to those of Deceased British Artists; and they commenced with a Collection of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds alone, who has been justly styled the founder of the British School.37

These art-historical exhibitions of deceased artists were intended to show that British artists were comparable in talent to their European counterparts. Reynolds, who had died twenty-one years previously in 1792, could scarcely qualify as an old master in the conventional sense, but having been the first President of the Royal Academy he was considered as the natural choice to inaugurate a series of exhibitions devoted to artists of the British School. The old master exhibitions that were previously staged by the British Institution were primarily for the benefit of artists and students and the enjoyment of the Institution’s subscribers. With this new scheme the focus changed from educating artists to educating the general public. Paintings belonging to the various European schools were to be juxtaposed with the works of national artists ‘in order to create’, as the art historian Francis Haskell put it, ‘ephemeral museums’ to rival the public collections of other European nations.38

In May 1813 the British Institution opened with great pomposity a retrospective of around 140 works of Sir Joshua Reynolds. The preparations for the Reynolds exhibition, which started a year in advance, as well as the substantial costs for mounting the show, which amounted to £486 16s 11d,39 show clearly that this was no ordinary exhibition but an elaborate, celebratory event. Special lighting arrangements were made for the gallery,40 the opening hours of the exhibition were extended from eight in the morning to seven in the evening,41 and extra attendants proved necessary for the duration of the exhibition.42 In addition, security precautions were tightened and it ‘was ordered that the Rail round the Room be brought six inches further into the Room, & raised to the height of three feet’.43 The exhibition was the occasion for a prestigious commemorative dinner with the Prince Regent as guest of honour.

The preface of the Reynolds exhibition catalogue, written by the connoisseur Richard Payne Knight, provided an explanation for this undertaking and tried to answer any objections raised against the commemoration of deceased masters at the expense of contemporary artists:

It is not the purpose of opposing the merits of the dead to those of the living; nor even merely to do honour to the memory of one, who has done so much honour, and conferred so much benefit on the country, that this public Exhibition of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds has been undertaken. On the contrary, its chief object is to call attention generally to British, in preference to foreign Art, and to oppose the genuine excellence of modern, to the counterfeited semblance of ancient productions, which too frequently usurp its place.44

The catalogue, thus, claimed its chief aim to be one of national concern: to emphasise the merit of British productions in general and not of any artist individually. If that was the objective, it was perhaps better served in the exhibition organised by the British Institution the following year, which collected works by Hogarth, Gainsborough, Wilson and Zoffany, and not this one which singled out Reynolds from the British School and eulogised him.45

The catalogue of the 1813 show emphasised that Reynolds achieved perfection gradually, ‘a result of long and continued exertion’ until he managed to raise ‘himself in public estimation, and obtained a rank in society which no artist, except Raphael, Rubens, and Vandyke had ever held’.46 Of special interest also is the fact that the catalogue emphasised the pedagogic nature of the display. The exhibition was intended to instil a correct taste of the arts in the public and provoke young artists to emulate the achievements and success of Reynolds. Both good and bad pictures had the potential to instruct, as we read in the catalogue:

The finer pictures may teach the Collector what to value, and the artist what to follow, in the only branches of the art in which examples can instruct … the inferior pictures, also may be of service, by teaching the young practitioner, who compares them with the best, not to despair; and the young or old collector to value the name by the work, and not the work by the name … Even the very few faded pictures may be of some use, in teaching the Artist what to avoid, and the Collector what to distrust.47

Unusual as it may seem nowadays, the catalogue acknowledged that not all works are of the same quality or in a good state of preservation. What becomes obvious, though, is the wish to extol Reynolds despite any shortcomings in his work.

Contemporary reviews hailed the exhibition as ‘the greatest triumph of the Arts’, a ‘brilliant national exhibition’ and ‘an example of respect, never before paid to any Painter, in any age or country’.48 In their report The Times noted that the British gallery ‘is entirely filled with the works of the late Sir JOSHUA REYNOLDS who so highly exalted the native talents of this country, and whose fame it is the object of the Institution to commemorate’.49 It appears, in fact, that in this first attempt at a commemorative retrospective it was the fame of the artist that was of primary concern and not the works themselves. The preface of the 1813 catalogue acknowledged that it does not ‘mean to enter into any comparative estimate of the different styles and stages of painting, or into any critical examination of the general or particular merits of the pictures thus submitted to public inspection’.50 Moreover, the arrangement of the works in the galleries was not chronological, which might have presented a progressive development of Reynolds’s career, but was governed instead, as Francis Haskell observed, ‘by the need for symmetry and a general pleasing effect’ and ‘in accordance with social protocol’.51 Considering the Reynolds exhibition as a prelude to the modern old-master exhibition, Haskell further noted that it ‘was important not because it added much to an understanding of Reynolds, but because it added vastly to his glorification’.52 It was precisely this that the directors of the British Institution wanted to achieve: the apotheosis of a British artist and the creation of a native master. In their report the governors claimed ‘that this display of part of the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, will enable us to call upon modern Europe, to produce the Pictures of any one individual, in this or in the preceding century, who can enter into competition with our British Artist’.53

Conceived and organised by an influential institution, the Reynolds retrospective aimed, besides its educational aspirations, to foster the artist’s posthumous reputation and consolidate his greatness. The British Institution’s authorisation of the retrospective format not only implied the usefulness and acceptance of such a practice but also denoted the retrospective as the ultimate means of honour to the career of an artist. Furthermore, the exhibition led to the institutional retrospective that dominates temporary exhibitions nowadays. Blake’s 1809 exhibition was, in contrast, a candidly commercial venture. At the age of fifty-two, for the first and only time in his life, he decided to experiment with a selective display of his works, as a speculative attempt at self-promotion. Blake’s venture belonged to a tradition of artists’ private exhibitions – with Nathaniel Hone as a pioneer of that development – whereby using the medium of the exhibition, artists themselves were responsible for creating and convincing of their greatness. These artist-initiated exhibitions clearly defied the monopoly of institutions like the Royal Academy or the British Institution over the staging of exhibitions. Without rules and limitations, selection or hanging committees, these shows testified to two significant facts; on the one hand they were a sign of displeasure with institutionalised exhibitions, and on the other they exemplified living-artists’ desire for autonomy, for taking matters in their own hands and presenting their works and their careers as they saw fit. The exhibitions themselves had, however, mixed receptions and their outcomes were uncertain. In Blake’s case, the enterprise was a failure. Given that few living artists had attempted by 1809 to present large scale exhibitions of their works, Blake’s undertaking was both audacious and uncommon. In particular, it would have been considered unusual for a contemporary artist to collect and display a body of works that belonged to different periods of his or her career. Moreover, Blake’s 1809 exhibition illustrates in the best possible manner the importance of the selection process and the significance of the works that are omitted from a retrospective show. Specifically, works that do not blend in with a projected image of a career (in Blake’s case his engravings). Thus the works that were finally included in the exhibition were assigned the task of promoting a preferred impression of the artist.

Despite their differences, in some significant respects the Blake and Reynolds exhibitions were closely aligned. Unlike most temporary exhibitions at the time, they did not simply showcase newly produced works but were prompted by other motivations. Both exhibitions entailed a degree of glorification of the works and their creators, projecting a particular image of the artist. Blake’s exhibition presented him as a painter and inventor of poetical and historical compositions. In 1809, a group of early and late examples of painterly works in tempera and watercolours were displayed, which Blake hoped – among his other objectives – would prove his suitability for state commissions. The British Institution’s exhibition of 1813, on the other hand, affirmed Reynolds as the father of the English School and helped construct a lineage of British artists that followed. It glorified Reynolds’s career and used his works both as an educative mechanism and as the means to propagate the merits of British talent as widely as possible. In these respects both exhibitions can be seen as programmatic. Both Blake’s and Reynolds’s were exhibitions with a reason, working within the emerging conventions of the retrospective, and were aimed at shaping perceptions.