Paintings have told stories since the dawn of art, and we’re all familiar with the wealth of narrative paintings during the Renaissance, and in the centuries since. While they’re abundant in works made in the two centres of Renaissance painting, the ‘low countries’ of modern Belgium and the Netherlands in the north, and northern Italy in the south, far less is known from Britain. This new series tries to address that, by looking at the history of narrative painting in Britain.
Until the Renaissance, the great majority of narrative painting told religious stories, and has been preserved as part of that heritage. Much of that was destroyed in Britain, and suppressed thereafter.
Prior to the Reformation in the sixteenth century, many churches in the UK had painted walls. When the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope, all the churches were stripped of those paintings. A few were preserved, including this Lily Crucifix from about 1450, which was covered with whitewash, and only rediscovered in the nineteenth century. This is one of two surviving examples of a motif that had probably been much more popular.
Painting in Britain was then largely confined to portraits, with the occasional narrative piece slipping through.
Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723) is known today almost exclusively for his many royal and other portraits, but in 1672-75 painted this narrative portrait of Lucretia. She is here caught in the act of suicide, the dagger piercing her chest. This is comparable to the acclaimed paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi and Rembrandt, but is an isolated example from a sea of seemingly endless portraits.
Narrative painting really got going in the early eighteenth century, when William Hogarth (1697–1764) started painting series to be turned into popular prints. The first of these was A Harlot’s Progress in about 1731, but the six paintings for that series were destroyed by fire in 1755, and only prints remain.
The story was moralising: an innocent country girl arrives in London, falls into the clutches of a notorious brothel-keeper, and begins her descent into prostitution, syphilis, and prison. Hogarth filled each image with narrative cues, and they give fascinating caricatured glimpses into contemporary life in and around London.
No sooner were the prints being made of A Harlot’s Progress than Hogarth was at work with its successor A Rake’s Progress (1732-5), eight paintings showing the similar downfall of Tom Rakewell, who squanders his inheritance on brothels, falls into debt, and ends up insane. Thankfully his original paintings for this series of prints survive in Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.
In the first of the series, Tom Rakewell has inherited a fortune from his father. The latter is portrayed as being extremely miserly by the house full of symbols of meanness, such as a half-starved cat, resoled shoes from the cover of a bible, etc. While he is being measured for new clothes by his tailor, Tom rejects his pregnant fiancée Sarah Young, who is crying at the left edge of the painting, her mother comforting her and remonstrating with Tom.
Moralising narratives continued through into the twentieth century, but new themes also developed rapidly, with the Age of Enlightenment.
Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797) painted his fascination for developing sciences, most notably in An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) which epitomises the culture of the enlightenment. Here the philosopher (red gown) is seen at the climax of his lecture on pneumatics, inspired by the radical chemist Joseph Priestley. A precious white cockatoo has been taken from its cage, at the left of the table, and placed inside the large glass jar at the top. A vacuum pump has then been used to evacuate the air from within the jar, and the cockatoo has collapsed near death.
Following Aristotelian poetics, Wright shows the moment of peripeteia, as the philosopher is about to open the tap at the top of the jar and restore the air to the bird, hopefully resulting in its revivification, and transformation of the anguish and horror being expressed by the two girls at the table.
Wright was also able to obtain commissions from the likes of Josiah Wedgewood, the affluent and successful founder of the Wedgewood pottery, to paint classical stories, such as that of the The Corinthian Maid (c 1782-5), legendary inventor of painting.
In the late eighteenth century, artists brought their narrative skills to Britain to develop the genre. The American Benjamin West (1738–1820) set out to paint modern history, and despite never quite achieving that, became the leading history painter in Britain. His major breakthrough, the painting for which he is still renowned, came in 1770: The Death of General Wolfe.
This shows a scene from an almost uniquely brief battle between British and French forces on 13 September 1759, which lasted only an hour or so. At the end of their three months siege of the French city of Quebec, Canada, British forces under the command of General Wolfe were preparing to take the city by force. The French attacked the British line on a plateau just outside the city.
Within minutes, General Wolfe suffered three gunshot wounds, and died quickly from them. The French commander, General Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, was also hit by a musket ball, and died the following morning. The British line held, and the French were forced to evacuate the city, which ultimately led to France ceding most of its possessions in North America to Britain, in the Treaty of Paris of 1763. Wolfe’s death was quickly seen as the ultimate sacrifice of a commander in securing victory.
In the late eighteenth century there was a more concerted effort to establish a British school of painting, centred on a commercial project to retell the stories in William Shakespeare’s plays.
James Barry’s King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia from 1786–8 shows the closing scenes of King Lear, with the body of Cordelia being cradled by her father the king, while the bodies of his other two daughters are almost being trampled on by the figures at the left.
Although the attempt to establish a British school failed, as did the commercial project, the nineteenth century brought more distinctively British narrative painting.
The most radical works came from William Blake (1757–1827), whose last great project to illustrate Dante’s Inferno gave him free reign to create some of his most visionary works, such as the ‘whirlwind of lovers’ in The Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini (c 1824).
The greatest flowering of story-telling in British painting came with the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates, in the middle of the century.
John Everett Millais (1829–1896) completed one of the earliest examples when he was only nineteen, in his Isabella (Lorenzo and Isabella) (1848-49). Although taken from John Keats’ poem Isabella or the Pot of Basil rather than the original in Boccaccio’s Decameron, this tells the story of the ill-fated love of Isabella for Lorenzo, the household steward. Her brothers murder Lorenzo, and bury his body in a forest. The location of his grave is revealed in a dream to Isabella, who disinters his head and hides it in a pot of basil.
British artists were also leaders in the development of ‘problem pictures’, unresolved narratives that were intended to provoke popular debate. These appeared at a time of great expansion in the sales and readership of newspapers, and the press weren’t slow to exploit this phenomenon. A good example is William Frederick Yeames’ Defendant and Counsel, from 1895, which was illustrated as an engraving in newspapers of the day.
It shows an affluent married woman wearing an expensive fur coat, as a team of three barristers and their clerk look at her intensely, waiting for her to speak. As she is the defendant, the viewer is encouraged to speculate what she is defending: a divorce claim, or a criminal charge?
The press quickly seized on the ambiguities and oddities in the painting. A critic in the upper-class newspaper The Times claimed that the painting was mistitled, and should have referred to the woman not as defendant, but as the respondent in a divorce case. Yeames was besieged with inquiries from people who claimed they were unable to sleep because they couldn’t resolve this narrative. The following year, he agreed to judge the best explanation for his painting, and it became clear that Yeames himself had little idea of the resolution of the story which he’d painted.
I hope you’ll join me in looking more deeply into this story.