John Singleton Copley, ‘The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781’ 1783
John Singleton Copley, The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 1783 . Tate

Room 5 in Walk Through British Art

1780

13 rooms in Walk Through British Art

The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781

John Singleton Copley, The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781  1783

France invaded Jersey on 5 January 1781. A young commander, Major Peirson, organised a successful counter-attack. Peirson was actually killed shortly before the battle, but Copley shows him at the centre of this scene, dying at the moment of British victory. The Black man to his left, firing back at the French forces represents Peirson’s servant, whose name was not recorded. He was sometimes referred to as ‘Pompey’. There is no historical evidence that ‘Pompey’ was present at the battle. Contemporary critics argue that Copley included him to suggest the loyalty of the British colonies to Britain.

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1/21
artworks in 1780

Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers

Henry Fuseli, Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers  ?exhibited 1812

This dramatic work was probably inspired by a performance of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. Encouraged by the deceptive prophecy of witches, Macbeth and his wife plot to take the crown of Scotland by murdering King Duncan in his sleep. Here Macbeth emerges horrified from the murder scene off-stage, still holding the bloodied weapons. Lady Macbeth takes control of the situation but by the end of the play, consumed by guilt, she succumbs to madness and suicide. Fuseli treats the scene with an almost supernatural intensity.

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2/21
artworks in 1780

A Child’s Portrait in Different Views: ‘Angel’s Heads’

Sir Joshua Reynolds, A Child’s Portrait in Different Views: ‘Angel’s Heads’  1786–7

This painting shows the head of five-year-old Lady Frances Gordon from five different angles. Reynolds took the idea from 17th-century Italian painting: in seeking to elevate the genre of portraiture he would borrow motifs or styles from the most admired art of the past. Critics praised Reynolds’s artistic ability. One claimed that, ‘The hand of nature never formed a finer face than this: not like the general run … of cherubims, with ruddy cheeks and round unmeaning faces, but sentiment, expression, and clearness, and warmth of colouring, that all must feel, but which the President of the Royal Academy alone can describe’.

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artworks in 1780

King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia

James Barry, King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia  1786–8

Barry was a passionate champion of neo-classical history painting on a vast scale. After initial success he became a martyr to its cause, dying neglected and convinced of the hostility of the art establishment. This is one of Barry's most ambitious paintings, made for Alderman Boydell's 'Shakespeare Gallery', a collection of engraved scenes from Shakespeare by celebrated artists of the day. Boydell held an exhibition of the original pictures in 1789. Here, a heartbroken Lear supports the body of his beloved daughter Cordelia. Barry has set the tragic scene in an heroic landscape with Stonehenge in the background.

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artworks in 1780

Sir Brooke Boothby

Joseph Wright of Derby, Sir Brooke Boothby  1781

Brooke Boothby was a Derbyshire landowner, and an amateur poet and philosopher. Wright depicts him fashionably dressed, reclining by a stream in woodland. His hand rests on a book, his forefinger pointing to the name ‘Rousseau’ on its spine. Boothby was very proud of his associations with the Swiss philosopher. He published the first volume of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiographical Dialogues in 1780. Shown here deep in thought, this portrait expresses Boothby’s sympathy with Rousseau’s philosophies, especially the ideals of harmony with nature and solitary contemplation.

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artworks in 1780

The Blind Fiddler

Sir David Wilkie, The Blind Fiddler  1806

In this early work by Scottish-born David Wilkie an itinerant fiddler is playing for a humble country family. Wilkie focuses on the listeners’ different expressions. Only two people seem to respond to the music: the baby and the boy on the right, who is imitating the fiddler by playing the bellows. When this picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy some critics thought the bust on the shelf represented a dissenting minister, and concluded that the family were nonconformists. The power of music to stir the passions of those supposedly suspicious of pleasure was thought to add to the painting’s subtlety.

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Reapers

George Stubbs, Reapers  1785

As a depiction of labour, this picture is greatly idealised. The workers are spotlessly clean despite their drudgery. The church in the distance, and the farm manager on the horse to the right, serve as reminders of spiritual and social authority. Stubbs’s picture can be seen as a celebration of the order and nobility of rural life, in tune with the concern with efficiency shown by agricultural writers of the time like Arthur Young. Alternatively, you may think that his picture robs these workers of their individuality and denies the harsh realities of work for sentimental effect.

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Haymakers

George Stubbs, Haymakers  1785

Like its partner, Reapers, this picture presents a wholesome vision of agricultural work. Stubbs’s painstaking style and his close observation of nature conspire to present an illusion of straightforward ‘realism’. Yet the figures are orchestrated into a sort of rhythmic ballet which presents their labours as graceful rather than full of real effort, and the whole picture is carefully organised in the form of a pyramid. Many contemporaries thought the effect was too contrived: the dominant taste was for more informal-looking pictures of rural life.

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artworks in 1780

A Young Black Man (?Francis Barber)

manner of Sir Joshua Reynolds, A Young Black Man (?Francis Barber)  Date not known

This portrait is now thought to be Francis Barber, servant of English writer Samuel Johnson. Barber was born into slavery in Jamaica, on a sugarcane plantation belonging to the British Bathurst family, and later brought to England. In 1755, after slave owner Colonel Richard Bathurst died, Barber was freed. He later went to work for Johnson. This picture is one of many student copies of a painting by Joshua Reynolds. Previous titles, including A Young Black, may suggest that as a Black man, Barber was being treated as an artistic subject, rather than as an individual.

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Portrait of Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy

Sir William Beechey, Portrait of Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy  exhibited 1793

Scenes of rural poverty and philanthropic kindness were a feature of British art in the latter part of the 18th century. This painting is unusual in featuring identifiable contemporaries rather than generic figures. The well-dressed sitters are the children of Sir Francis Ford a wealthy plantation owner and politician. Facing calls for the abolition of the slave trade, pro-slavery campaigners would claim that the poor in England lived worse lives than slaves in the West Indies. This painting may well be intended to draw attention to that idea.

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Lady Talbot

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lady Talbot  exhibited 1782

Dressed in a robe inspired by Grecian dress, the sitter is shown pouring oil onto burning coals in a sacrificial tribute to the Roman goddess Minerva, associated with wisdom and the arts. The richly textured painted surface and striking colour scheme recall the work of the Venetian Renaissance painter Titian. Reynolds wanted his portraits to be esteemed as a form of painting as artistically ambitious as the work of such universally admired masters. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition in 1782, and engraved in mezzotint, ensuring that the image circulated far beyond aristocratic circles.

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The Battle of Camperdown

Philip James De Loutherbourg, The Battle of Camperdown  1799

De Loutherbourg was celebrated for his dramatic depictions of maritime disasters and sea battles. The subject here is the decisive moment in the battle of Camperdown, off the Dutch coast, in 1797. A British fleet defeated the Dutch, who were then allied with the French. The flagship Venerable fires its last broadside at the Dutch Vrijheid (Freedom). De Loutherbourg, who was chief designer of scenery at the Drury Lane Theatre, was more concerned with dramatic effect than documentation.

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artworks in 1780

John Philip Kemble as Hamlet

Sir Thomas Lawrence, John Philip Kemble as Hamlet  1801

Kemble was one of the most successful English actors of his time. This painting shows him in the starring role of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It was one of four large canvases that Lawrence painted of Kemble in various dramatic roles.
All four works were exhibited at the Royal Academy. Their size meant that they could be been seen above the heads of the crowd. This was a strategy often used by artists to make sure they gained the attention of the press.

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artworks in 1780

Homer Reciting his Poems

Sir Thomas Lawrence, Homer Reciting his Poems  1790

For most of his career, Lawrence featured in the Royal Academy exhibitions as a portrait painter. He became President of the Academy and, like his predecessor Joshua Reynolds, aspired to be a history painter. This early work was exhibited in 1791. It was painted for the connoisseur, Richard Payne Knight, and its subject and style were calculated to suit his classical taste. In a woodland glade, the Greek poet Homer is shown reciting his Iliad to an admiring audience. The nude youth in the foreground was drawn from a famous pugilist (professional boxer) named Jackson.

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artworks in 1780

The Deluge

Jacob More, The Deluge  1787

More’s paintings were admired for their celebration of the beauty and power of nature. Here he creates a mysterious image on the popular artistic theme of the deluge. A story of a deluge, a huge flood sent as punishment by god to destroy a civilisation, is common to many faiths and cultures. This work illustrates a story from the Bible. God sends a flood to kill all life, but instructs Noah to build a large ship, the Ark. This allows Noah to save his family and examples of all the world’s animals.

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artworks in 1780

A Lady in a Brown Dress: ‘The Parson’s Daughter’

George Romney, A Lady in a Brown Dress: ‘The Parson’s Daughter’  c.1785

This portrait was originally exhibited as 'A Lady in a Brown Dress' but became known as 'The Parson's Daughter' in the later nineteenth century, when there was a fashion for giving such imaginative titles to portraits of anonymous sitters. The picture is considered to be an actual portrait rather than a 'fancy-piece', although the identity of the sitter is not known. A pencil sketch of the same subject is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Romney was one of the most successful fashionable portrait painters of his time and a close rival of Reynolds and Gainsborough. His female portraits were particularly admired for their embodiment of the womanly virtues of chastity, simplicity and grace.

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artworks in 1780

Gypsy Encampment, Sunset

Thomas Gainsborough, Gypsy Encampment, Sunset  c.1778–80

Gainsborough famously wrote that he was ‘sick’ of portrait painting, the main source of his income as an artist, and would much rather ‘take my Viol da Gamba and walk off to some sweet Village where I can paint Landskips’. His professed love of landscape is reflected in pictures like this. But we can interpret such images as being more than just personal. A taste for landscape was an important element of the late 18th-century culture of ‘sensibility’ and Gainsborough’s style of painting emphasises the delicacy and spontaneity associated with being a fashionable ‘man of feeling’.

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artworks in 1780

Sir Benjamin Truman

Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Benjamin Truman  c.1770–4

Benjamin Truman (1700-1780) was a wealthy businessman and the director of the Truman brewery in London. The brewery grew under his management and later became the biggest in the world. Truman commissioned Gainsborough to paint this work to hang in one of his homes. Gainsborough was one of the leading portrait painters of the time. He was a founding member of the Royal Academy and shared a rivalry with fellow portraitist Joshua Reynolds, first President of the RA. In 1784 Gainsborough withdrew his paintings from the Royal Academy, following an argument about the way they were shown.

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artworks in 1780

Lieut-Colonel Bryce McMurdo

Sir Henry Raeburn, Lieut-Colonel Bryce McMurdo  c.1800–10

Lieut-Colonel Bryce McMurdo is shown here in rural contentment, on the banks of a misty Highland stream, pursuing the joys of fishing – in his hat are wallets for storing tackle for both coarse and fly fishing. The picture is typical of Raeburn’s broad and forceful style which has been associated with the ‘commonsense’ values espoused by the social and intellectual elite of Scotland and which made him the leading portrait painter of his generation in Scotland.

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artworks in 1780

Roadside Inn

George Morland, Roadside Inn  1790

This work is typical of the rustic landscape scenes most associated with Morland at the height of his prolific career. His paintings of the early 1790s combine fluid brushwork with echoes of the 17th-century Dutch landscapes his artist father compelled him to copy throughout his seven-year apprenticeship. Closer examination of Morland’s apparently sentimental work reveals undercurrents of class tension. His frequent depiction of alehouses in particular did not sit easily with more conservative contemporaries – a reason perhaps why he did not accept commissions and preferred to sell his work through dealers.

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Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Henry Bate-Dudley, Bart.  c.1780

The Reverend Henry Bate (1745–1824) who assumed the name Bate-Dudley in 1784, was a tough-minded journalist and newspaper editor, as well as an Anglican parson. He had famously got into a fight with some young men of fashion in Vauxhall Gardens, earning him the nickname ‘The Fighting Parson’. For this portrait, his friend Gainsborough has included an adoring dog and an outdoor setting to emphasise the idea that he was a nature-loving ‘man of feeling’. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1780. As a journalist, Bate-Dudley did much to promote Gainsborough’s reputation through positive exhibition reviews.

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21/21
artworks in 1780

Art in this room

The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781
John Singleton Copley The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 1783
Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers
Henry Fuseli Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers ?exhibited 1812
A Child’s Portrait in Different Views: ‘Angel’s Heads’
Sir Joshua Reynolds A Child’s Portrait in Different Views: ‘Angel’s Heads’ 1786–7
King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia
James Barry King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia 1786–8
Sir Brooke Boothby
Joseph Wright of Derby Sir Brooke Boothby 1781
The Blind Fiddler
Sir David Wilkie The Blind Fiddler 1806

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