Last chance to see Hogarth, Reynolds, Turner: British Painting and the Rise of Modernity – final weekend!

Sir Joshua Reynolds was born on this day in 1723. He is currently one of the star attractions at a immensely rewarding exhibition at the Museo Fondazione Roma, in Palazzo Sciarra. Indeed, visitors to Rome over the last couple of months will surely have seen his delicious portrait of Lady Bampfylde used in posters for the show dotted about the city. The English portraitist may share top billing with pictorial satirist William Hogarth and landscape painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, but visitors will also encounter marvellous works by other major names – Canaletto, Joseph Wright of Derby, Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, and George Stubbs, to name but a few – as they journey through eighteenth-century English painting and into the early years of the following century.

Divided into seven thematic sections - London, Capital of the British Empire; The New World; Towards a National Iconography; The Heroic Age of the Portrait; On the Spot Landscape: the Success of Watercolour; Variations on Landscape; and Inside and Beyond Landscape: Constable and Turner - the exhibition explores how British art evolved from the continental painting traditions of the eighteenth century into an authentically new British school, with its own distinctly “modern” artistic identity, in the nineteenth century.

The City Seen through an Arch of Westminster Bridge
(Collection of the Duke of Northumberland)
Setting the scene for the dramatic social, economic and cultural upheavals to come, the show opens with a series of highly evocative views of eighteenth-century London on the cusp of industrialisation, with Canaletto’s light filled scenes of the Thames and Westminster Bridge (1747) contrasting beautifully with the first factory smokestacks seen in William Marlow’s View of the Adelphi from the River Thames (1789).

There’s a wonderful portrait of Johann Christian Bach by Thomas Gainsborough in the second section, a room which celebrates the great and the good in a changing world order, where composers, such as Bach, but also painters, actors, boxers, scientists, industrialists, and explorers were all lauded through the genre of portraiture. Gazing upon Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a Lamp is put in Place of the Sun is worth the entrance price alone.

William Hogarth’s hugely popular satirical paintings attacking the upper classes of eighteenth-century society - Marriage à-la-mode - were also engraved and achieved wide circulation as prints, so it is fitting that the Thomas Cook etchings are represented in the third section, while Henry Fuseli’s huge, and often nightmarish Shakespearean-themed paintings dominate the rest of the space.

Johann Zoffany
Fra Giovanni Poggi Magnano
(Galleria degli Uffizi, Firenze)
There are some simply stunning portraits in the fourth room. The section is dedicated predominantly to Gainsborough and Reynolds – Gainsborough’s portrait of his friend the politician William Wollaston, in which he holds the attributes of a musician, is exquisite – but don’t miss Johann Zoffany’s portrait of Fra Giovanni Poggi Magnano on loan from the Uffizi.

The invention of watercolour painting and the immediacy and freedom to create “on the spot” landscape sketches is the focus of the fifth section, with several poetic Alpine and Italian views by watercolour pioneer John Robert Cozens, including the strange and atmospheric The castle of Sant' Elmo, Naples (1790). The inclusion of a Thomas Reeves & Sons early paintbox from 1790 is a delightful addition to this room.

The Valley of the Stour with Dedham in the distance
(Victoria and Albert Museum)
The final two sections are dedicated exclusively to landscape painting, with the final room bringing us into the nineteenth century and putting two of Britain’s greatest painters centre stage – Constable and Turner. Gazing at Constable’s The Valley of the Stour with Dedham in the distance (1800-1805) I was struck by the utterly timeless quality of this beautiful, quintessentially English view. It is with Turner’s landscapes, however, a pinnacle of achievement in English painting, that the “modernity” of the exhibition’s title, is reached. Looking at works such as Tivoli, the Cascatelle (c.1827–8), the distance between Turner, a true visionary, ahead of his time, and twentieth-century artists such as Cy Twombly, suddenly seems very small.

Tivoli, the Cascatelle

Exhibition catalogue by Skira
If you’re unable to catch this wonderful show, I can highly recommend the English language catalogue with illuminating essays, detailed information about the works on display, as well as good quality reproductions of the paintings. Click here to visit publisher website.

Hogarth, Reynolds, Turner: British Painting and the Rise of Modernity is curated by Carolina Brook and Valter Curzi and continues at the Museo Fondazione Roma, Palazzo Sciarra (entrance on Via Marco Minghetti) until Sunday 20 July, 2014.

Copyright on all images in this post as indicated (web-resolution, fair use rationale).