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The Piggery, by George Morland


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About the artwork

George Morland, whose pictures can be seen in both the Lady Lever and Walker collections,was arguably the most genuinely popular of late eighteenth-century British artists. During his brief life, according to his contemporary biographers he may have produced as many as 4000 paintings. However this and many other highly-coloured "facts" about him need to be treated
with caution.
 
This painting is a fine example of Morland's characteristic rural subjects - rustic life with plump animals and contented rosy-cheeked peasants that presents an idyllic rather than accurate view of the English countryside. Pigs have had a mixed place in art - appearing as symbols of gluttony, sin or uncleanliness in religious art, or, in contrast like here, as part of a scene of rustic plenitude.

It was the great eighteenth-century portrait painter and landscapist Thomas Gainsborough who can be seen as popularising the pig in British art by his inclusion of the animal in his famous "cottage-door" paintings of the 1780's. Morland was a great admirer of Gainsborough and apparently studied and copied his work as part of his education. Also during the last two decades of the eighteenth century peasant and rural subjects became fashionable throughout Europe in poetry, opera, novels as well as pictures. Morland's art fits in with this fashion.
 
Morland's paintings were much reproduced - as black and white engraved mezzotint images printed from copper plates.  So great was the demand for prints that worn plates had to be reground and recut to print more. One commentator wrote;

"the subjects of his pictures being adapted to common comprehension the prints engraved from them had an unparalleled sale not only in this country but abroad particularly in France and Germany. Of those of "Dancing Dogs" and "Selling Guinea Pigs" five hundred pairs were sold in a few weeks".
 
Morland made arrangements with London print dealers to display groups of his pictures and to charge an entrance fee to view them - with the opportunity to buy a print afterwards.  There are other contemporaneous examples of print-connected displays of paintings in London (in particular the famous Shakespeare Gallery in Pall Mall) but such a one-man commercial venture was unusual. Not surprisingly Morland made a great deal of money.

Listen to a recording of Frank Milner's talk on 'The Piggery' online now.

Morland's early death was caused by alcoholism and it seems clear that he spent a fortune, was often in debt and at times had legal problems as a result. He made money fast and spent it quickly but to the end of his life he remained a bankable proposition. Except towards the end he was a hugely gifted painter. It is true he repeated subjects but this was probably dictated by their popularity. Neither can he be blamed for the many inferior copies of his work.
 
After Morland's death three biographies were published within a few years and they are largely responsible for the legend of Morland the debauchee forever getting into scrapes with creditors and being virtually imprisoned by print-dealers to work off his debts. His life was written up as a cautionary tale starting with a too strict artist-father who apprenticed his son to himself rather than let him study at The Royal Academy followed by a  rebellious bursting free, followed by flight from London after amassing debts of over £3000, followed by arrest as a French spy and then followed by a sinking into poverty and death.

This rather clichéd view of artistic genius gone to the bad had precedents in the life of Caravaggio and the Dutch seventeenth-century painter Adrian Brouwer and, as with these, had little bearing on the quality of the art. There may even have been an element of snobbishness in these biographies of Morland with him being regarded as a painter of "low-life" subjects declining to a low end. Snobbishness or something similar seems to underpin the comment by Joseph Farington the great diarist and art-polititian who wrote in 1797 that "Morland has a venereal taint in his blood."
 
Morland's reputation is still being re-evaluated. As with other artists who have painted undemanding popular subjects executed with quick effortless facility he has been regarded as a lightweight. He was however, within his chosen field, a master. He was an extremely gifted handler of subtle tones and had an unerring feel for what the public wanted.

In his obituary the Monthly Magazine in 1804 described his pictures as being among "the first specimens of the Picturesque". His influence extended to many nineteenth-century artists who painted rural and domestic subjects. Recent scholarly attempts to suggest that Morland hinted at the darker side of eighteenth-century agricultural life remain unconvincing.

Listen to a recording of Frank Milner's talk on 'The Piggery' online now.