Painted Stories in Britain 18: Towards a history

John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Isabella (Lorenzo and Isabella) (1848-49), oil on canvas, 103 x 142.8 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Over the last few months, I have been looking at the development of narrative painting in Britain. This final article in the series tries to summarise its history, and provide a table of contents to individual articles.

Narrative painting got off to a delayed and slow start in Britain, compared with other European countries, for reasons including:

  • doctrinal suppression because of the religious beliefs of the Reformation;
  • cultural shortcomings, as the wealthy and powerful overvalued portraits of themselves and frequently lacked a classical education;
  • lack of training, in the absence of any form of royal academy;
  • short-term planning, by hiring established artists from Europe instead of developing home talent.

1: Introduction

James Thornhill (1675–1734), Hersilia Presented to Romulus in Olympus (Assembly of the Gods) (1708), ceiling in the Sabine Room, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, England. Image by Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons.

It was James Thornhill (1675–1734) who started to change this, when he obtained noble patronage to decorate walls and ceilings in prominent buildings. In 1707-08, he painted several at Chatsworth House, the seat of the Duke of Devonshire, including this ceiling in the Sabine Room, showing Hersilia Presented to Romulus in Olympus or the Assembly of the Gods (1708).

2: Before Hogarth

William Hogarth (1697–1764), A Rake’s Progress: The Tavern Scene (1732-5), oil on canvas, 62.5 × 75 cm, Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

One of James Thornhill’s pupils, William Hogarth (1697–1764), started his working life as a copperplate engraver, and went on to paint moralising narrative series to be turned into prints. His first two stories were A Harlot’s Progress (1731) and its sequel A Rake’s Progress (1732-35), including The Tavern Scene above. Each painting is full of fine details that flesh out the narrative, here including black pox marks on prostitutes and others suffering from syphilis.

Hogarth’s work was innovative, and a distinctive form of visual narrative which has been used since.

3: Hogarth’s early series
4: Hogarth extended

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), oil on canvas, 182.9 x 243.9 cm, The National Gallery, London. By courtesy of the National Gallery, Presented by Edward Tyrrell, 1863.

More conventional techniques of visual storytelling also started to appear in the work of other British artists. Among them are the Enlightenment tales of Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), such as his famous Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump from 1768. Like Thornhill, he was able to gain commissions from patrons, particularly rich industrialists. He successfully captured the spirit of the enlightenment with carefully composed accounts of early scientific experiments, dramatised using chiaroscuro.

5: Joseph Wright, the enlightened artist

Benjamin West (1738–1820), The Death of General Wolfe (1770), oil on canvas, 151 × 213 cm, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, ON. Wikimedia Commons.

These remained exceptions to the general rule in British painting in the mid-eighteenth century that narratives weren’t done. It took the American artist Benjamin West (1738–1820) to set out to establish a new form of history painting. He benefited from royal patronage, but fell foul of the artistic establishment of the day. There were even absurd arguments about whether the figures in his Death of General Wolfe (1770) should have been wearing togas!

Ultimately, West’s attempt failed, but he was instrumental in the establishment of the Royal Academy and its first official schools of arts. Slowly but steadily the reasons holding back the development of British narrative painting were being removed.

6: Benjamin West and Modern Histories
7: Benjamin West’s revolution fails

King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia 1786-8 by James Barry 1741-1806
James Barry (1741–1806), King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia (1786–8), oil on canvas, 269.2 x 367 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1962), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, printmakers decided it was time to build their businesses using engravings of what they considered to be a distinctive British school of visual art. This was founded on works showing scenes from the plays of William Shakespeare, then undergoing a revival. Most prominent among these projects was John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery in London, which commissioned many paintings for exhibition, and to be turned into more lucrative prints. Typical of these is James Barry’s King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia from 1786–8, showing a scene from King Lear.

Ultimately, Boydell’s venture failed, but there were many more British painters who could now paint stories as a result.

8: Shakespeare

William Blake (1757–1827), The Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini (The Whirlwind of Lovers) (c 1824), pen and watercolour over pencil, 36.8 x 52.2 cm, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. The Athenaeum.

William Blake (1757–1827) was an early product of the Royal Academy Schools, a trained engraver, and a visionary creative genius. From the late 1770s until his death in 1827 he painted a succession of innovative narrative works, drawing on stories from Shakespeare, the Bible, contemporary poetry, and literary masterpieces such as Dante’s Divine Comedy. His influence on British painting has lasted to the present, in unique works such as The Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini (The Whirlwind of Lovers) (c 1824), from his last series to accompany Dante’s words.

9: William Blake

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829), oil on canvas, 132.7 × 203 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

JMW Turner (1775–1851) also trained at the Royal Academy, where he was taught that history painting was the queen of the genres. Although now most famous for his landscapes, he was an accomplished history painter, and as innovative in that genre as in landscape. His Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus from 1829 must be the finest visual account of the Polyphemus episode in Homer’s Odyssey.

Turner went on to paint new stories, such as his Slave Ship in 1840, part of the campaign to end slavery.

10: JMW Turner

John Martin (1789–1854), Macbeth (1820), oil on canvas, 86 x 65.1 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

There were other fine British narrative artists in the first half of the nineteenth century, including John Martin (1789–1854), whose painting of the witches scene from Macbeth is a fine example, and the less apocalyptic stories of William Dyce (1806–1864).

11: John Martin
12: William Dyce

John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Isabella (Lorenzo and Isabella) (1848-49), oil on canvas, 103 x 142.8 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Although each of these artists advanced narrative painting in Britain, it wasn’t until the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 that there was a coherent British school as such. A group of young men studying at the Royal Academy Schools then demonstrated how the earlier barriers had been removed.

Initially, their themes were less distinctive than their style. Early literary sources included classic European literature and the Bible. John Everett Millais’ Isabella (Lorenzo and Isabella) from 1848-49 is starting to move away from those: although the original story appeared in Boccaccio’s Decameron, Millais’ painting is based on John Keats’ retelling in English in 1818, and two verses of his poem accompanied the painting when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849.

13: Enter the Pre-Raphaelites

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), The Lady of Shalott (1888), oil on canvas, 153 x 200 cm, Tate Britain, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Pre-Raphaelite narrative paintings were commonly based on contemporary British poetry, or tales from Arthurian legend as told in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur from 1485, which had recently been republished. JW Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott (1888) has as its source Tennyson’s popular poem of the same title.

14: British poetry and Arthurian legend

William Powell Frith (1819–1909), The Derby Day (1856-58), oil on canvas, 140.5 x 264 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

At the same time, other British narrative painters were developing novel forms of storytelling. William Powell Frith (1819–1909) worked more from Hogarth’s narrative techniques in assembling many small stories within a single large view, the human panorama, as shown in his most famous painting of Derby Day (1856-58). Commercial return came in the form of mass-market prints, which had been regulated in early copyright law as a result of the many unauthorised copies of Hogarth’s prints.

15: Human panoramas

William Frederick Yeames (1835–1918), Defendant and Counsel (1895), oil on canvas, 133.4 x 198.8 cm, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol, England. The Athenaeum.

The other novel form of storytelling is open narrative, the unresolved story, or problem picture, of which William Frederick Yeames’ Defendant and Counsel (1895) is an excellent example. This painting was exhibited to crowds, illustrated as an engraving in newspapers, and so became the first mass-market painting of this kind. Although problem pictures became popular in other countries, and there are many other fine examples, they remain distinctive of British visual storytelling.

16: Open narrative and problem pictures

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), Botticelli’s Studio: The first visit of Simonetta presented by Giulio and Lorenzo de Medici (1922), oil on canvas, 74.9 × 126.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

British narrative painting continued well into the twentieth century, as seen in Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale’s Botticelli’s Studio from 1922, but it had become a minority interest, and was squeezed out by the rush to modernism. Thankfully it has since enjoyed a revival, and there are now many fine British narrative artists again, once you’ve got past the surface layer of fads, fashions, and frauds.

17: The end of history