WRITING THE LIVES OF PAINTERS: BIOGRAPHY AND ARTISTIC IDENTITY IN BRITAIN 1760-1810 by Karen Junod, Reviewed by Thomas McLean
 


WRITING THE LIVES OF PAINTERS: BIOGRAPHY AND ARTISTIC IDENTITY IN BRITAIN 1760-1810
By Karen Junod
(Oxford, 2011) x + 258 pp.
Reviewed by Thomas McLean on 2012-11-19.

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Karen Junod has had the good fortune (and scholarly nous) to identify a truly understudied literary history: "the emergence and subsequent development of artists' biographies in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain" (2). Since Junod's primary interest is the era's biographies rather than its artists, she does not consider such important later works as John Knowles's Life and Writings of Henry Fuseli (1831) or Alexander Gilchrist's Life of William Blake (1863). But she sees her chosen era as a key moment in the history of British art. "No longer artisans," she writes, British painters "finally became artists" (2). And biographies of artists played a significant part in forming this new identity. Usually short and often printed as pamphlets or "in a miscellaneous assortment of other material" (7), these biographies featured anecdotes rather than the full arc of an artist's life. They evolved from an early focus on artistic production to a later interest in the artist's personality and creativity. Furthermore, as Junod shows, the biographers often had personal motives, seeking to bolster or undermine the reputation of an artist who was also a colleague, friend, or spouse. In examining a rich variety of biographies, Junod tracks the gradual development of a significant subgenre in British literature.

Junod's opening chapter provides a helpful overview of the rise of the artist biography in Europe and Britain from the Renaissance to the early nineteenth century. Though Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550) was not fully translated into English until 1850, Junod argues that its influence was evident much earlier via translated extracts. British biographers of artists also learned from Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-81) and James Boswell's Life of Johnson (1791). But Junod brings into her genealogy an impressive assortment of authors ranging from Pliny to Winckelman. This diversity of potential models helps to explain why it took so long to establish a standard form of the artist biography in Britain. The rest of her book offers case studies of six very different works: two compendia of artists' lives and four biographies of individual artists.

Horace Walpole's four-volume Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762-80) is "usually considered the first serious attempt at a comprehensive biographical history of the arts in England" (51). Working from the unrealized plans and extensive notebooks of George Vertue, Walpole combined engraved portraits of artists with brief biographical notices and longer descriptions of key works. Despite the images and occasional anecdotes, Junod notes, Walpole "never tries to examine the more profound recesses of human and artistic life" (76). His target audience were "gentlemen connoisseurs keen to know how to read pictures and where to find them" (63). Thus Anecdotes includes not only artists who worked in Britain but also foreign artists whose works could be seen in British collections. According to Junod, Walpole's volumes highlight the importance of Dutch and German (rather than Italian) art in the development of a British painting aesthetic, and they enrich the heritage of British art by calling attention to artists who had been overlooked in previously published histories. But Walpole's work, she contends, also reinforces the stereotype of the artist as "a penniless, dissipated, and often drunken genius" (73).

From Walpole's erudite Anecdotes Junod turns to William Beckford's loopy Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1780). Though this slim volume of imaginary artists' lives appeared when Beckford was still a teenager, Junod makes a spirited case for taking it seriously. It interrogates, she argues, "the role and function of biography in the evaluation of artworks" (83). Unlike Walpole, she writes, who "paid little attention to the biographical side of his artists' entries ... Beckford took particular pleasure in making up the most extravagant life-stories for his extraordinary painters" (85). Junod engagingly shows how Beckford's imaginary lives parody the topoi favored by earlier biographers like Vasari: the discovery of artistic genius in a cultural backwater; the drawing contest between rival artists; the mistaking of a lifelike picture for the real thing. And who can forget the cheerful outlaw artist Blunderbussiana, who learns to draw anatomy from the body parts that his bandit father brings home? Though Beckford's fiction might seem out of place in this volume, its inclusion is valuable for prompting us to wonder how much invention shapes the putatively nonfictional lives that Junod examines in the rest of her book.

Having thus considered the biographical compendia of Walpole and Beckford, Junod turns to biographies of individual artists. She argues that the life of William Hogarth, "the first English painter to receive major and relentless coverage after his death" (110), was habitually chronicled by means of anecdote. His "life and work," writes Junod, "have never ceased to be linked to this narrative form" (111). In Junod's prime source, John Nichols's Biographical Anecdotes of William Hogarth (1781), written with the aid of George Steevens and Isaac Reed, Nichols replaced the short biographical notice favored by Walpole with a series of colorful anecdotes, the literary equivalents of Hogarth's series pictures. Junod even suggests that Nichols "fictionalized Hogarth's life to make it conform to, and explain the visual evidence of, his subject's art ... Instead of elucidating the artwork through the artist's life, Nichols inverted the process and elucidated the painter's life through his work" (123). The final pages of the chapter explore the literary and visual afterlives of Nichols's anecdotes and reproduce a series of previously unpublished drawings by John Thomas Smith inspired by episodes in Hogarth's life. Though Smith's debt to Nichols's biography is somewhat tenuous, his drawings offer another biographical iteration of the Hogarthian series.

The next chapter, subtitled "Life in a Sketch, Sketch of a Life," examines the handful of early biographical works on Thomas Gainsborough. They range from Sir Joshua Reynolds's fourteenth discourse, where Gainsborough is compared to Titian (i.e., not a Raphael or Michelangelo, but the best of the Venetian school), to Alan Cunningham's Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1829), which aims to recuperate both Gainsborough the man and his contribution to a British school of art. While noting the surprising "paucity of major biographical accounts" that followed Gainsborough's death, Junod finds the "genre of the sketch" a key motif in the earliest appreciations and deprecations of the artist (157). Philip Thicknesse's 60-page A Sketch of the Life and Painting of Thomas Gainsborough (1788) gets extended attention. Considering Thicknesse's unsavory reputation, one suspects that few knowledgeable readers would have trusted his account. His Sketch obsesses over Gainsborough's inability to keep his word and finish a promised portrait of Thicknesse--a full quarter of its pages concern this one event. Junod reads retribution in Thicknesse's declaration that his own memoir is "a hasty sketch," done "at one sitting" (quoted on 169), and her close attention to Thicknesse's bittersweet prose makes this wide-ranging chapter especially rewarding.

Unlike the passing of Gainsborough, the death of the landscape and genre artist George Morland inspired a flurry of biographical works that no doubt hoped to capitalize on public fascination with his scandalous behavior. Though Junod cites few examples of this behavior, she links Morland to several interesting developments: the growing importance of art dealers rather than patrons in late-eighteenth-century Britain (several shops specialized in Morland's works), and the emergence of the bohemian artist as a literary figure. Most of her chapter concerns William Collins's life of Morland, which was modeled on Johnson's Life of Savage (1744). Collins gets the prize for the strangest location of a biography: his nonfictional Memoirs of a Painter takes up the second of three volumes in his 1805 novel Memoirs of a Picture. Junod notes that Wilkie Collins approved his grandfather's genre-bending (190), and one suspects that Beckford would have too.

The final full chapter explores Amelia Opie's 50-page Memoir (1809) of her husband, the portrait and history painter John Opie. John, the "Cornish wonder," was seen as an unpolished outsider whose early career relied on the puffing of John Wolcot (alias Peter Pindar). Amelia's Memoir, which was published with shorter panegyrics to her husband as well as John Opie's own Royal Academy lectures, attempts to correct the public picture of him. But Junod persuasively argues that it does much more. It presents a moral version of the artist couple (contra William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft); it showcases the simplicity, industry, and masculinity of its lamented subject; and, as the life of a man written by a woman, it makes Amelia her husband's equal. She was guided, Junod contends, not only by conjugal affection but also business acumen: as the author of several successful "Moral Tales," she had a moral position and a career to protect. Junod suggests that Opie's "impulsive need for self-publicity" informed her description of John's final illness, wherein she "exaggerate[es] her own suffering" (222). Personally I found the description of John's last hours rather affecting--surely it was a shock for Opie to lose her 46-year-old husband. I was also surprised (given the conservative turn that Junod and other scholars trace in Opie's writings) to find her evoking Thomas Holcroft and Tom Paine in her Memoir. Opie's descriptions arguably tame these radicals, but it still seems striking that she actively linked them with her husband's memory.

The conclusion briefly considers James Northcote and his Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1813). Junod also mentions this book in her introduction (she takes her title from it), and Reynolds often appears elsewhere. But the lack of a chapter devoted to him means that this study lacks something of a center--a solar system without its sun. And given Junod's effective metaphorical conceit--that crucial elements of an artist's visual output (the series painting, the sketch) informed contemporary biographies--surely Reynolds would have fit somewhere: as the finished portrait, or (given his self-selection of biographers) the self-portrait. To be fair, Junod herself calls attention to this "absence" in her introduction, and she directs her readers to recent scholarship on Reynolds (10-11). And one might give this absence a positive turn, since it allows Junod to consider the lives of some lesser-known artists out of the shadows of more famous contemporaries.

'Writing the Lives of Painters' is a pleasure to read, and I learned much from it. Alongside Julie F. Codell's survey of later painters' biographies and autobiographies, The Victorian Artist (2003), it belongs in every research library. We still lack a study that covers the first half of the nineteenth century--not only the lives of Blake and Fuseli, but also those of West, Lawrence, Romney, Nollekens, and many others. Furthermore, Junod's chapter on the Opies reminds us not only of the close connections between many Romantic-era writers and artists (John Keats and Benjamin Haydon, Walter Scott and William Allan, Jane Porter and Robert Ker Porter) but also of artists who wrote poetry (Blake, of course, but also J.M.W. Turner and Martin Archer Shee). But this is what a fine study like Junod's does: it illuminates, creates, and expands areas of scholarly research.

Thomas McLean is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Otago in New Zealand.


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