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Transcript of 'The Liverpool art scene in the late eighteenth century' podcast

Ladies and Gentlemen,
I’m conscious I’m the one speaker in this symposium whose title overlaps with a contribution to the exhibition catalogue. This puts me in a bit of a cleft stick. I don’t just want to rehash what I’ve said in the catalogue, but I do feel that it would be helpful in the context of this symposium to rehearse some of the basic content of the essay. So I thought I would try to both summarise and further enlarge upon the main points of the argument, and discuss the assumptions contained in them, their potential for further investigation, and their limitations.

The starting point of both the essay and the exhibition as a whole is that Joseph Wright’s arrival in the autumn of 1768 for a three year stay in Liverpool is a critical moment for the visual arts in the town. In the exhibition, the impact of that moment is described visually by the placing of what I take to be Wright’s first Liverpool portrait – it’s the only one known that actually bears the date 1768, and it depicts an instantly recognisable local celebrity – amidst works produced by other Liverpool artists in the 1760s. The image is so arresting, and so curiously modern (what, I invite you to ask yourselves during the rest of this talk, is the explanation of this disembodied line dividing the dark background space?) that words can only dilute its effect. But to elaborate in words: before Wright’s arrival, the story of artistic activity in Liverpool may be briefly told: there are few artists anyone has heard of, scarcely any exhibitions; no art institutions, and no critics. In soundbite terms, mid-18th century Liverpool art is the story of the then portrait-painter George Stubbs and the marine painter Richard Wright (no relation to Joseph, but probably one of the reasons Joseph took the moniker ‘of Derby’) deciding (like the Beatles two centuries later, and for rather the same reasons) to leave Liverpool to seek their fortunes in London. Less than a decade later, Joseph Wright’s arrival unlocks all kinds of artistic patronage and endeavour: the town’s wealthy, hitherto not known for their interest in high art, sit to him in droves for their portraits; he attracts his first pupils and followers; other artists and scientists in his wider circle of acquaintance in Liverpool gain confidence to pursue experimental lines of their own; and in 1769 the first Liverpool Society of Artists is founded, in imitation of the Royal Academy in London. The first President of the Society, Peter Perez Burdett, is the friend from Derby who encouraged Wright to come to Liverpool; and it is surely tempting to suspect that Burdett may originally have targeted Wright, a much more distinguished figure, as President, with himself in a more supportive role; the two men re-enacting, one might say, their roles in Wright’s recent painting ‘Three Persons Viewing ‘The Gladiator’ by Candlelight’, exhibited in 1765, where, rapt in fraternal academic study, Wright nevertheless cuts somewhat the more authoritative figure. The foundation of the Liverpool Society has long been recognised as a portentous moment in the history of provincial art in Britain; and the Society’s almost immediate slide into dormancy, after an existence of only a few months, does not alter that fact that it inaugurated a new era of interest in high art in Liverpool: an era that, one might optimistically suggest, judging by the numbers of you in this room, has lasted to the present time.

Put like that, this contention may seem persuasive and even obvious, but I would be the first to admit that it rests on flimsy foundations. Our knowledge of the whole episode depends more on educated guesses than hard facts. The precise movements of Burdett and Wright, for example, are not known; it’s an assumption, based on a handful of indications, that Burdett preceded Wright to Liverpool, quickly sussed out the opportunities his friend would likely enjoy, and persuaded him to make the move. The two men may in fact have travelled from Derby together. More seriously, it’s unknown precisely much time Wright spent in Liverpool. The evidence consists in a notation in his account book of how many weeks’ rent he owed his landlord, the merchant Richard Tate, over a period apparently lasting between late 1768 and mid-1771, and a second note of the number of portraits he painted in Liverpool in 1769, a number which suggests he was in the town most of the time during that first full calendar year. But there is some evidence to show that, at least by 1770, Wright was dividing his time between Liverpool, Derby and Lichfield, and that it was in Derby that he preferred to paint his trademark candle and lamp-lit interiors, at least the larger ones. If that is true, the reasons for his choice remain elusive; although a comment made by Peter Romney, who was in Liverpool in the autumn of 1769, to the effect that Wright lacked the force of imagination to be a successful history painter, may reflect a more consensual opinion in Liverpool, rather than simply private jealousy. Peter Romney, the brother of the better-known George, was, after all, a member of the new Liverpool Society of Artists; Wright appears not to have been, even though a number of his closest associates in the town were members of the circle that had brought it into being. Wright’s apparent avoidance of the Society begs many questions. Was he afraid of polarising opinion by joining something that some other artists in Liverpool, most notably the town’s elder-statesman portrait painter, William Caddick, were steering clear of? Did his familiarity with Burdett’s dilettantish personality and modus operandi make him doubt the durability of the venture? Were his true feelings about the idea of a Liverpool Society of Artists summed up, with his characteristic fastidiousness and detachment, in what appears to be the first narrative painting he undertook in Liverpool: of a group of youths ostensibly studying a famous piece of antique sculpture, but perhaps, to judge by some of the poses and expressions, enjoying a rather less idealistic encounter with feminine nudity? Was a sense of the inadequacy of this picture – given that no sooner it was finished, Wright embarked on a second, more elaborate version of it – to blame for Wright getting out of humour with the Society? We can guess, but we don’t really know.

If the precise nature of Wright’s relationship with the Liverpool Society remains opaque, we can nevertheless say for sure that it did not take certain forms that could have been anticipated. Although he had come to Liverpool just after exhibiting in London his ‘Experiment on a Bird in the Air-Pump’, a painting fit for the President of a provincial Academy if ever there was one, Wright did not become President of the Liverpool Society or even, to all appearances, a member of it; and although we know that he had pupils in Liverpool, there is no evidence that he instructed students in the premises of the Society itself. Given that this was his closest friend in Liverpool’s project, Wright’s evasiveness was bound to create negative vibes. It is surely telling that the 1769 Society functioned for only a few months; and it is equally telling that not so long after Wright had definitively left Liverpool for good, the Society was reconstituted, this time with Burdett in a more subsidiary role, and with William Caddick now offered the role of President. One is forced into the awkward conclusion that in respect of the Liverpool Society of Artists, the most obvious potential gauge of his impact on local art life, Wright’s performance was actually sadly lacking. He was very far from being the leader that Burdett may have cast him as.

Such considerations may lead one to the simple conclusion that, after all, the Liverpool Society of 1769 never amounted to much. It is tempting to dismiss it as a typical Burdett operation, an opportunistic publicity stunt, cashing in on the recent foundation of the Royal Academy in London, that never stood a chance of getting off the ground in a town where, as the antiquarian Matthew Gregson later put it, “a print of two shillings’ value could not find a purchaser ... nor was there a painting worth three pounds”. Much of the existing writing about the 1769 Society, explicitly or implicitly, adopts just this point of view: Liverpool was not ready for it; the soil was too barren; above all, from a historiographical point of view, the central figure in Liverpool culture for over sixty years to come, William Roscoe, the man whose great aim in life was to transform Liverpool into a new version of the Florence of the Medicis, was just too young to have played any part in the Society’s foundation, even though he did participate in its revival only four years later. The arrival of Roscoe on the scene in the early 1770s no doubt muddies assessment of Wright’s impact on Liverpool, and certain people in this audience will have worked out that my choice of timespan from 1745 to 1770 was made deliberately in order to avoid the need to fit him into the scheme of things. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to argue that the true years of Roscoe’s reign began only in 1783, when he was the central figure behind the setting up of the Liverpool Society for the Promotion of Painting and Design, which, treating the revival of the 1769 Society as a continuation of the same original institution, was the second artistic society in the town and the real successor to the 1769 Society. Roscoe’s intellectual development as a teenager took place in the years of Wright’s and Burdett’s activities in Liverpool, and I would contend that it was precisely, if perhaps paradoxically, the unfulfilled promise of the Wright-Burdett years that acted as such a spur to his ambitions. One can construct a similar argument about the 1769 Society itself: the fact that initially it only lasted a few months does superficially suggest that Liverpool was not ready for it; but equally, the fact that it could be re-started so easily in 1773, and within a year hold the first exhibition ever of a provincial art society in England argues the opposite: Liverpool really was in some sense ready for it, and its temporary demise in 1770 could be put down so to speak to local factors, not to the absence of culture itself. As one sees if one fast-forwards into the 19th century, the central problem faced by all the early artistic societies in Liverpool, right down to the second Liverpool Academy of the 1820s, was not one of demand, but one of structural integration, of bedding down within the existing cultural mix.

In describing and analysing the development of an art scene in mid eighteenth-century Liverpool, the first task is to establish who the artists actually were and what their works looked like, and this is far from easy. Even in the case of the best known names, the shortage of authentic works is alarming, and this in turn makes the task of attributing potentially highly valuable additions to the frugal sample deeply problematic. As an illustration of this one might consider two works probably of the later 1760s which would have been strong candidates for inclusion in the exhibition, if only it had been possible to establish who had painted them; or more accurately, that they really were what on the surface they appeared likely to be. The little girl as a shepherdess now in a house in North Liverpool, with her overtones of Joseph Wright’s ‘Anna Ashton’, looks as though it might be the lost early portrait by Wright’s Liverpool pupil William Tate of Miss Hibbert, the sister of Tate’s schoolfriend from the Woolton Academy, George Hibbert. This work, described in a letter to William Roscoe of 1825, is known to have depicted a figure with a sheep and a crook; but the skimpy and conflicting indications of Tate’s early style, if such a thing can even be said to have existed, are insufficient to nail the attribution down. A more intriguing case is this sharply observed portrait of an elderly lady, clearly provincial rather than metropolitan in character, traditionally titled ‘Mrs Wright’ and supposedly of an inhabitant of Warrington, which was actually exhibited as a Wright of Derby in the late nineteenth century, perhaps on the assumption that the sitter was some relative of the artist. Even if the face doesn’t look much like Wright’s work, there is no doubt that the dress does, suggesting at the very least an artist who has been in a position to study the fabric painting in Wright’s Liverpool portraits carefully, and even perhaps implying that Wright genuinely was involved. We know that he was not above making copies of earlier portraits for his Liverpool patrons, and it seems perfectly conceivable that here he was asked to finish, or update, a work begun by someone else. Saying who that someone else might be is the challenge. The least intolerable candidate, arguably, is William Caddick, who enjoyed the reputation of being Liverpool’s foremost portrait painter at least by the mid-1750s, and who seems to have been particularly associated with getting a good likeness: as here, one might think. Unfortunately, Caddick is now known only by two small and immature works of the 1740s, plus a handful of works dubiously attributed to him whose authorship may well have been confused with his artist sons. In discussing his artistic trajectory there seems to be no possibility of moving beyond speculation, at least for the foreseeable future.

The same problem is just as pronounced with other mid-century Liverpool artists. No work at all is known from the portrait painter Edward Alcock’s period of activity in Liverpool between 1745 and 1754, and he has generally been thought to have moved on after that date to Birmingham (where his best known work, the portrait of the writer William Shenstone was done), Bath, Bristol and London. Nevertheless, an Edward Alcock, painter, is recorded at an address by the Old Dock in the centre of Liverpool throughout the second half of the 1760s and a Samuel Alcock, perhaps a son, eventually became a member of the first Liverpool Society. Some works by Alcock from this date are recorded but none is of a recognisable Liverpool sitter and it is very hard to tell whether they were produced here. Alcock may simply have kept a base in the town and returned from time to time to regroup. Or again there is George Stubbs, who later in his life informed Ozias Humphry that when he was back in Liverpool for about two years in the mid-1750s ‘pictures in abundance were proposed to him, which he went on constantly executing’ – hardly an indication of a cultural wilderness – but only one painting from these years, the Walker’s portrait of James Stanley, is now securely identified. Or again, only one composition from Richard Wright’s fifteen-year career as the leading marine painter in Liverpool is currently in the public domain, and that in the form of a later engraving. These, I hasten to add, are the best-known names, people who stayed in Liverpool for considerable lengths of time and whose ability to make a living from painting is assumed. They are the converse of the other kind of artist, the itinerants who passed through the town in the hope of pickings, whose chief appeal lay in their novelty at each place they visited. The Mr Ellis who advertised his arrival in the Liverpool press in the summer of 1768 made that his number one selling point, telling prospective patrons to hurry up and sit to him as his visit was going to be a short one. No work by him is known. Much better-known is Henry Pickering, who had made his name in Nottingham in the early 1740 and has been subsequently traced in a succession of northern towns; yet evidence of his presence in Liverpool around 1760 is limited to three works, plus two possibles. Peter Romney, brother of the better-known George, left Manchester in 1768 because Pickering was well set there and moved to Liverpool, claiming in a letter of November 1769 to have a dozen commissions in hand. One of these may be the portrait of the Liverpool sailmaker Paul Pennington, which has recently been attributed to him on stylistic and circumstantial grounds, but none of the others has surfaced, if indeed they were ever completed; Romney complained in the same letter that Wright was swallowing up all the business, and left soon afterwards.

Neither Pickering nor Romney is mentioned in the Liverpool street directories (and nor, come to that, is Wright himself); but in the second half of the 1760s, when the first directories were published, there are at least a dozen other men listed in them who appear to have been professional artists. Two, including William Caddick, are dignified by the description ‘Portrait Painter’, the others are merely termed ‘painter’, a distinction whose import may be in some way significant but which is by no means clear. The one name among these ‘painters’ whose reputation survives, Alcock apart, is Thomas Chubbard, who at that time certainly was a portrait painter, or at least a painter of miniatures. Of the others, (among them – to select four names at random – Francis Gandy of Cleveland Square, Thomas Grimbaldston of Hackins Hey, Apelles Mercer of King Street, and George Worrall of Pool Lane) not a single work by any is known nor as far as I can tell has ever been proposed for attribution. It would be nice to think that a man with the name Apelles was a fine artist, and it is tempting to assume that George Worrall was a relation of the Ottwell Worrall who exhibited portrait drawings at the Liverpool Society of Artists’ exhibition of 1774; but for all we know, these men could have been people who for the most part painted and decorated the insides of ships; or were painters of houses, painters of inn-signs, decorators of the interiors of public buildings; or decorators of cups and plates in Liverpool’s booming ceramic trade. Richard Wright, after all, is said to have graduated to being a fine artist from being a painter on a ship. The more one considers the fact of the total lack of the works of these men today, the more it is evident that they cannot have subsisted solely by making the kind of paintings that Joseph Wright made in Liverpool. Day in day out, they must have had to turn their hand to whatever kind of painting they were asked for, and on the side, they must have been involved in other commercial activities.

In assessing Wright’s impact on Liverpool, it would be idle to say that he offered a completely new, completely unfamiliar or revolutionary model of artistic practice. He could be considered, and he probably considered himself, an itinerant artist in just the same way that Peter Romney did – he just happened to stay longer, and enjoy greater success. He also, as we have seen, took on what to the ‘modern’ artist might be regarded as drudgery – he certainly made copies of earlier portraits, as here, in the case of the mother of his patron John Tarleton, who was alive aged 80 when Wright made this portrait, clearly derived from one painted many years earlier; and as we have seen, he may have reworked at least one existing portrait to make the sitter look more fashionably up to date. Though this is contentious, and the evidence for it slim, he possibly used assistants, even in Liverpool, to complete the sheer number of portraits he was commissioned to paint; and he certainly had a circle of pupils who imitated aspects of his style, both on canvas and on paper. All this seems perfectly conventional. It would be nearer the mark to say that Wright offered just that degree of difference from the existing norms that a booming, mercantile, culture-hungry port was ready to embrace. He was a visitor, free from the associations of local art politics, but he did not advertise his temporary status, and for a time must have looked as if he was here to stay; his portraits were plain, but they were also unusually big and bold; they did not flatter or disguise, they told it like it was, but they had a virtuosity in their depiction of fabrics and surfaces that was exotic and fascinating. Somehow, Wright marketed himself well. He lived with a well-connected merchant who was one of the town’s leading amateur artists, Richard Tate, and when he first came to Liverpool (to return to the point from where I started) he kicked off by making a portrait of a man, Richard Gildart, whose features would have been familiar to every person of consequence in the town. The resulting work cannot possibly have actually been wanted by the 95-year old Gildart himself, and the confrontation between the two men, artist and sitter, was surely engineered by a third party; the results displayed in public, and some kind of buzz created. As to what this buzz might have been, I wonder whether it has anything to do with the mysterious line down the right hand side of the canvas. In simply pictorial terms, this line is hard to explain. The idea that Wright was behaving as a modernist abstract painter of the twentieth century and dividing the background space for formal effect is pleasing, but unthinkable. The idea that he was from the outset representing the corner of the room seems hard to believe too, simply because the perspective and modelling of shadow is so inadequate, so perfunctory; although the fact that Wright seems afterwards to have painted across it a horizontal line more descriptive of masonry may mean that he subsequently intended the downstroke to be read that way. I see Gildart getting up from his chair at the end of his sitting, for perhaps there was only the one, and saying, “aye young man, that’s all very clever, but can you just draw me a straight line now?” – and for answer, Wright picking up his brush and drawing this line in the drying paint. A man who could not only get a likeness but could even draw a straight line freehand? – now there was an artist for Liverpool indeed.