The year 1819 was, by any measure, eventful. In the wake of Mike Leigh’s 2018 film Peterloo, it is now immediately recognisable as the year of the Peterloo Massacre – the brutal suppression of a mass public meeting in St Peter’s Field, Manchester. It was, as social historian and peace activist E.P. Thompson wrote, ‘without question the formative experience in British political and social history’.
During that year there was much political protest and unrest. There was global economic unease and a financial panic in the US, while in Britain the long-reigning George III was on his last legs, and British diplomatic mishandling of the fate of the Christian population of Parga in Greece – seemingly sold to the Ottoman ruler Ali Pasha – gave rise to inflammatory accusations of amorality and venality in government, greatly stoked up by widespread Islamophobia.
For historian James Chandler, who dedicated a weighty academic volume to the analysis of the literary culture of the year, it was a ‘hot chronology’ – a moment when, crudely speaking, a lot seemed to happen. Chandler, indeed, sees 1819 as the moment when the very idea of a year as a meaningful historical unit really gained force.
This annualised conception of history was crystallised by Shelley’s poem ‘England in 1819’, dismissing George III as the ‘old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King’, and lambasting the Church and state as hopelessly corrupt and rudderless. The poem was actually written in 1820, and the single year 1819 was part of a moment of crisis, stretching from 1819 to 1821, that included the Cato Street Conspiracy (the foiled plot to assassinate the entire cabinet), the death of George III and the outpouring of popular sympathy for Caroline, the estranged and abused wife of the much-hated George, Prince of Wales and Prince Regent since 1811 (‘Princes’, wrote Shelley, being ‘the dregs of their dull race’).
It was at this time that the statesman Lord Grey feared ‘a Jacobin Revolution more bloody than that France’. Revolution never came, George survived, rather surprisingly, to have his coronation as George IV 19 July 1821.
The year 1819 is not so obviously auspicious for the visual arts. Peterloo – and the series of public meetings around the country agitating for political reform that preceded it – gave rise commemorative prints and caricatures. Some of these have undoubted visual power, but it would be hard to argue a special flourishing of a directly political visual culture in 1819 as there would be in the later 1820s and 1830s, when technological changes made genuinely popular graphic art an historical reality for the first time.
In the realm of oil painting and watercolour – the ‘fine art’ media that dominate Tate’s historical collections – the elegant portraits and placid landscape scenery of much British painting from 1819 might seem initially radically detached from their historical moment. But 1819 has been singled out as a year of change in the visual arts as well as in politics. In his early history of the Royal Academy, William Sandby noted that there was a ‘complete change among the members’ with the decline and death of the President, Benjamin West. While the last Summer Exhibition held during West’s lifetime, in 1819, ‘retained some few specimens of the works of the early members of the Academy’ it was, essentially, the showcase for a new generation.
The context of the tumultuous year of 1819 provides a sense of momentousness which makes Turner’s England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday more than a picturesque view of a familiar landscape, and instead a rather overblown statement about the nation as a whole. It failed to convince contemporary viewers when it was exhibited in that year. Critics of the time were not kind, and the picture didn’t sell. We can point to several premières in 1819: entertaining theatrical paintings by George Clint and literary genre scenes by Charles Robert Leslie, and Abraham Cooper’s The Battle of Marston Moor in 1644, the first of his historicist battle scenes which provided the backbone of his professional success. Joseph Michael Gandy’s spectacular Jupiter Pluvius was obviously indebted to the example of Turner’s earlier epic landscapes, but with the architectural element ‘ramped up’, attempting a middle route incorporating both high-minded classicism and vulgar spectacle.
Looking at the paintings produced and exhibited in that single year, we may see 1819 as a moment of compromised ambitions and lowered expectations, with the heroic mutating into easy-on-the-eye historicism, the epic and sublime descending into the blockbuster and popular sentiment. It helps confirm the impression that the year was, as historian Dror Wahrman has noted, a turning point in the genesis of middle-class consciousness and middlebrow taste, forged in the recoil from the threatened revolution. With the radical political optimism and despair of that annus mirabilis back in the public eye, we can look again at the art of 1819, not in the vain hope of discovering clear signs of revolutionary sentiment, but as heralding a coming age of uncertainty.
Martin Myrone is Senior Curator, Pre-1800 British Art at Tate.