British art in the eighteenth century
We’re here in the 1760 to 1780 room which is a brief period, 20 years, and it’s a small room but its of vital significance in the history British Art and this is because 1768 was the foundation of the Royal Academy. The room is dominated, just like the art world of the period was, by Sir Joshua Reynolds whose extraordinary large paintings you can see here of the Montgomery sisters with the ‘Term of Hymen’ and behind us here ‘the Archers’. Reynolds was essentially a society portraitist, which meant that he painted people faces for money. But for Reynolds there was a way of elevating his art which was by referencing the history of art and each of the paintings in this room use some kind of a motif, usually by referencing the Old Masters. In this painting, you can see a good deal of what made Reynolds the popular and great artist that he was at the time. It’s a painting on a very, very grand scale although it is just a portrait of two young aristocrats Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney, engaged in a hunt leaving a trail of dead behind them as they go. But this is no naturalistic scene this is a Renaissance hunt scene essentially referencing Titian and Frans Snyders. It’s a way of elevating what is a simple portrait to a level of grand style painting. Not everybody took Reynolds view that portraiture elevated to a new level by historical references was enough if you are going to do intellectual painting, Benjamin West thought, then you really needed to do intellectual painting and subjects like this which are almost impenetrable to modernise are exactly the sort of thing that they had in mind. West painted this painting in 1760 and it’s a subject from Euripides in which Iphigenia, who’s the priestess of Diana here, is about to pronounce a sentence of death on these two guys here, who are Pylades and Orestes, for their attempt to steal this statue up here. And what Iphigenia is about to find out is that Orestes is her long lost brother and although it ends well and these two are let off, essentially the person whose looking at this in the 18th century who has read their Euripides, is supposed to know and get that feeling of that terrible moment at which Iphigenia may just have sentenced her brother to death. If for Benjamin West the problem with Joshua Reynolds was that he simply wasn’t intellectual enough for another painter, Nathaniel Hone there was a sense in which Reynold’s method was essentially a form of trickery and in this painting, 'The Conjurer' Nathaniel Hone paints an old figure, who’s clearly meant to represent Reynolds who’s basically magicking an oil painting out of old Master Brint and if you look very closely we can actually see that this is the composition that was used on the Montgomery sisters decorating the ‘Term of Hymen’ over on that wall there. There was something of a scandal in this and not surprisingly the painting wasn’t accepted for exhibition at the Royal Academy.