In the early eighteenth century, European art markets underwent enormous transformation and growth, due in part to the activity of traditional patrons and also to the emergence of a new kind of art buyer who dealt with artists and their work in transactions very similar to those of contemporary art markets. The tastes and economic power of a mercantile class were first beginning to wield influence on both the selling and making of art.
London had a thriving economy that fuelled both the production and acquisition of art. Prints became one of the most successful British exports of the Industrial Revolution. In the early nineteenth century, Francesco Bartolozzi (1727–1815), a Florentine engraver living in London and a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts, was claimed by London’s Morning Post to have ‘added to our revenue at least a million sterling’.
New methods of advertising, marketing and merchandising art were being developed to appeal to Britain’s emerging affluent middle class. This vibrant art market allowed artists such as William Hogarth (1697–1764) to experiment with new means of expression.
Hogarth was a painter and engraver now widely acknowledged as one of the artists responsible for the establishment of pictorial satire as well as an English style of painting which did not rely on European influence. Hogarth was both xenophobic and moralistic. He went abroad only once in his life, to France, and according to a fellow traveller, ‘wherever he went, he was sure to be dissatisfied with all he saw’. He resented the aristocracy’s commissioning of portraits by reputable foreign painters while dismissing contemporary English artists. His early prints criticised the art of Raphael and Michelangelo and satirised Italian opera; he urged young artists not to travel to Italy because it would ‘seduce the student from nature’. Nature for Hogarth, however, was contemporary life – he was intent on depicting what he called his ‘modern moral subjects’ – and his artwork blends documentary reportage with moralistic instruction.
William Hogarth, The Beggar’s Opera, 1729. Oil on canvas, 59.1 × 76.2 cm. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Paul Mellon Collection. Photo by Richard Caspole, Yale Center for British Art.
The Beggar’s Opera was Hogarth’s first successful oil painting, and it depicts the climactic scene of John Gay’s popular English opera. The scene takes place in Newgate Prison, and Hogarth’s painted setting is a hybrid of prison and stage. He in fact compared his new kind of painting, in which each figure is a character playing a specific role, to the work of playwrights and theatre producers. Here the central figure is the character Macheath, a condemned highwayman and bigamist. He is flanked by his two ‘wives’, Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit, who are each in the act of committing perjury towards their fathers – one the crooked lawyer and the other the jailer – on Macheath’s behalf.
The grand observers on either side of the stage are not actors but audience members seated in what were considered the best seats in the house. Light falls across the foot of the stage and illuminates Lavinia Fenton, the actress playing Polly Peachum, who gazes at a man standing alert in the boxed seats. He is the Duke of Bolton, who months after the close of the show installed Fenton as his mistress.
The Beggar’s Opera is an early example of Hogarth’s moral subject matter, for which he is best known. His work is intended as a story or indeed as a sermon and is typically English in that it centres on tales of contemporary life rather than allegory.
In 1757, Edmund Burke (1729–1797) published his treatise Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful and introduced the notion that the visual arts did not have to be agreeable or respectable in tone or content. He discussed art and artists’ abilities to express sublime emotions and argued that even history painting, long accepted as a high-minded, noble genre, could evoke disquiet and passion in a viewer.
William Blake (1757–1827) was a unique, visionary painter and poet who produced prophetic and apocalyptic images in his paintings and illustrated books that affected Burke’s notion of the sublime. Blake was adamantly anti-establishment, considering oil painting the overwrought medium of academic art, and he pursued his inspiration alone. He studied Gothic sculpture in Westminster Abbey and engravings of Michelangelo’s muscular figures; their influence can be witnessed here.
William Blake, Plate 25: “And there was heard a great lamenting in Beulah”, from Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, 1804 ‒ 20 Relief etching printed in orange, with pen and ink, watercolour, and gold on wove paper. 343 × 264 mm. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Paul Mellon Collection. Photo by Richard Caspole, Yale Center for British Art.
Blake invented new methods of production, in particular ‘illuminated printing’, in which the pages of his small books were printed from copper plates that combined text and image. After printing, the illustrations were painted in watercolours, making each book a unique piece of art. Jerusalem, one of his most complex works, was printed in orange and then washed in watercolour, ink and gold. One hundred pages in total, the book’s theme is mankind’s – and in particular the British people’s – worship of materialism and reason, and its subsequent fall from grace. Plate 25 is the final illustration of the first chapter, and depicts Albion (humankind) in the act of being disembowelled. The book ends with the redemption of man through the mercy of Christ. Mellon owned one of the most important collections of Blake’s illuminated books.
In the 1930s Mary Conover Mellon had become deeply interested in the psychology of Carl Jung and decided to publish his writings in English. Together with Paul Mellon, she established the Bollingen Foundation, named after Jung’s Swiss retreat. William McGuire, one of the Foundation’s editors, wrote in Bollingen: An Adventure in Collecting the Past that Blake ‘was drawing upon the same sources as Jung: the Western esoteric tradition, the “perennial philosophy”, in which both were looking for what Coleridge called “facts of mind”’. Paul Mellon wrote of his interest in Blake’s ‘haunting poetry with its arcane mythology’. Literary scholars, predominantly American, did not begin a concerted study of his prophetic books until the twentieth century.
This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department's guide, An American's Passion for British Art: Paul Mellon's Legacy, An Introduction to the Exhibition for Teachers and Students, by Lindsay Rothwell.