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Transcript of 'The Piggery', George Morland podcast

This month's picture of the month is a small picture in a small room. It's this picture by George Morland called 'The Piggery'. But in a sense what I would like you to be doing this afternoon is looking at this picture and then in your own time or, if possible, just looking around now, you'll see there's a very large painting by Morland ......... got a title 'Alehouse'........... and then there are another two paintings by Morland which are hanging down in the corner here, one above the other, called 'The Soldier's Departure' and 'The Soldier's Return'.

Looking round you'll have seen in the main entrance hall that there are very very large and substantial and very grand pictures which are made for settings which are also very very grand. They went into very large houses.

One of the things that Lever was very very keen to collect with regard to 18th century art was classical subject matter, whether it was classical designs like the Adam Room behind you there with classical statues like the collections of Roman statues that you can see there to classical furniture, we’re thinking of Hepplewhite and Chippendale and so on.

But he was also concerned to collect things that were successful on a slightly lower level. There's one thing that can be said about George Morland it is that he was arguably the most popular late 18th century British artist. Now those of you who know about British art and I'm sure there are many, will be thinking 'Well what is he on about? Morland, I've never heard of Morland?'. Who has? One, two.

But you've heard of Reynolds and you've heard of Gainsborough, so why haven't you heard of Morland? After all, he was fantastically successful. He was so successful that he ran up a debt of £3000 by the time he was 22. Which is something stratospheric. He was fantastically successful.

The plates became so worn that they had to be recut. These large copper plates which somebody would cut into and engrave for printing would have to be recut within a matter of months so that it could run off another thousand or another two thousand impressions. When you begin to think in terms of a guinea or a half-guinea or two guineas at a time, you get some kind of idea for the scale of it. It's a very modern sort of thing really, isn't it. It's something that perhaps we don't think of but he was successful because of that.

The subject of this picture is pigs. In biblical terms the pig figures as the gaddering swine, they are the vehicle for taking evil things away. I'm not aware of the pig figuring in any way as a symbolic animal in renaissance paintings or sculpture.

I think it's only really in the 20th century we have come truly to love piggy isn't it?

What was it all about making pictures of pigs then?

Why would one choose that as a subject?

- a niche market?

A niche market

Sell it to farmers?


- Was it because there were farmers becoming interesting subject matter?

There's something of that but remember Morland's audience is very, very wide - he's selling prints to St Petersburg.

- Was this part of the rural idyll scene, pigs were an essential part of that?

I think we're beginning to get somewhere there. There was towards the end of the 18th century a modification in people's taste - a change of fashion. Fashion changed and people from about the 1770s onwards started to do peculiar things that were different like going to the Lake District, visiting North Wales, standing around next to trees and waterfalls, wanting drawings of landscapes.

We usually associate this and you can see other examples in this room of landscapes that were done around the same time as this picture which was painted in the 1790s. You can see other examples of pictures that are expressive of this modified and changed taste in what people want. Some sort of idea about the rural idyll.

I think we see it perhaps at its most grand and extreme with someone like Marie Antoinette. How did Marie Antoinette get involved with pigs? She had this model farm. She used to dress up with her maids and then used to go and play at being dairy maids and if you go to Versailles you'll see this model farm. And if you go to Madrid you'll see the Spanish Royal Family were commissioning Goya to do paintings that were made into tapestries and there's all sorts of pictures of ordinary people.

When Mozart writes about a hairdresser or servants, that's all part of this. We're seeing this change of taste towards something to do with ordinary people. Something to do with everyday life, something to do with rusticity. Already people were getting the idea, a very, very modern idea, that we ought to go back to the past, a past that we've idealised and over-refined and this is what this is targeted at, a picture like this. And Wordsworth of course was writing, this picture is more or less, when Wordsworth wrote lyrical ballads in 1797, chiming in and Wordsworth wrote about ordinary people who kept sheep or gathered leeches, things like that.

This is where we sit this picture. It would be an awful lot easier if you could see it. I think it's one of the pictures that desperately needs a clean, because if you could see it properly you would be looking at an absolutely ravishing picture with lovely thick creams and pinks and blues and pinks and blues. It's very much a pastelly rococo picture so all the things you associate with prettiness in the rococo with regards to carpets and tapestries are here in this picture.

The name's a bit strange because I don't think it means a damn thing to be honest, it's just a name that's been stuck on it some time towards the end of the 19th century by James Horrock or whoever it was who supplied Lever with this picture.

There are alternative titles that are given to other examples of this kind of composition, 'Some must work while others sleep', which covers this great big... Who knows about Gloucestershire Old Spots here? Nobody keep pigs here? The Gloucestershire Old Spot with these four piglets here lying down while this man in an unlikely blue jacket is mucking out, while this girl is watching.

So, Morland I suggest to you is a very, very modern artist. He drank himself to death and he was rather notorious as an individual in London. He gambled, he seems to have spent an awful lot of time with prostitutes. He caused a lot of fighting and he turns up in people's diaries. You see people commenting on 'Morland is going to the dogs', so he's a very conspicuous consumer of whatever was available in naughtiness at the time. There wasn't a Priory clinic for him to be shunted in the direction of.

He died in an absolute dreadful state, but he was written about by three people after his death, three biographers.

It's always easier to write about the sensational aspects of people's lives, whether they are true or not, than it is to actually get down to the business of looking at what the person was about as an artist. Morland's pedigree as an artist was Gainsborough. It was Gainsborough too, who although a great portrait painter and making pretty well all his money making portraits was also a keen landscape painter. Interestingly, Gainsborough also developed a line in pig painting, pig and cottage door painting.

He'd had an absolutely thorough grounding in technique and, in particular, techniques of 17th century Dutch artists. Morland's father was an engraver, Morland's father was a restorer/artist. This again takes us into the realms of dodgy legend really, who was so hard on his son that he wouldn't let him study at the Royal Academy despite the fact that the boy had exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of 10.

He would keep him himself and apprentice him to himself. Morland's got a sophisticated technical education, a sophisticated awareness of what's going on around in terms of public taste. These biographies are not really mentioning that fact, they are more interested in the fact of what he did with his coach, how he got into debt. The most amazing stories that there are are about Morland being arrested as a French spy while fleeing to the south coast in order to get away from debtors.

Morland being imprisoned by print sellers who were keeping him upstairs painting away with a bottle in order that he could work off the debts to him. This of course has an element of truth in it in so far as he owed money, but somebody as successful and productive as Morland could run up a debt of £3000. He couldn't afford it really if he was being sensible but he was an immensely bankable commodity and what we see happening in Morland's life - getting into partnership, never mind being locked upstairs in a room with a bottle, getting into partnership with print dealers on at least two occasions in London where premises were fitted out so that people could come and view for a price a selection of Morland's paintings and then hopefully be sold the offer of a print, a reproduction afterwards.

So he was a very very early participant in one man shows as we understand it today. In some ways I like to think as well it's a bit like somebody bringing out an LP, sorry I'm in a timewarp aren't I, somebody bringing out a record, probably still there, and a tour taking place. A string of concerts taking place which are partly in order to push that. That's where his money was. So Morland at any point could get that sort of money.

He was popular, he was genuinely popular. People very often talk about artists as being popular, but Morland really was the business in terms of what ordinary people wanted. He was very easily digestible. You don't have to know about classical mythology, you don't have to get all the literary connections.

Morland is about what it is, it's very much soap opera art.

That, as I suggest, has been one of the reasons why Morland has been recognised as part of the story of British art but has never really been treated with the full respect he deserves as a great technician, as a great and beautiful handler of paint. Morland was seriously alcoholic and the quality of some of his pictures is pretty poor.

Although these are very good examples of Morland and that one if it was cleaned up would actually shout at you off the wall. There are quite a lot of dodgy Morlands around.

What do you think of it?

- It's not one I would have paused at.

No, I'm afraid that it's like a number of these other smaller pictures, it gets looked at, at best, at being rather assertive wallpaper and not really as a picture, but it does repay looking at and it would help if it was cleaned.

One of the other things that, in this period, in addition to the rustic interest, there is a whole interest in animal breeding. There is a whole pride in breeding animals and a whole genre of pictures which is not represented well in this collection but you can see examples in the Walker collection of paintings of celebrated fat animals.

Outstanding testimony to the progress of agriculture in Britain. So there's all that kind of interesting nationalist take on it.

- They get remaindered round pubs.You go to a pub which is trying to be old-fashioned and you get these big pictures of thatched houses.

Yes, these great big reproductions.

So he suffered from the idea that he was vulgar, he was popular, he was a drunkard. A womaniser. A bankrupt. Possibly a spy. He died young, although interestingly his wife died about three or four weeks later. We don't know to be honest, we can speculate that it does seem that she stuck with him through thick and thin.

- Was he handsome?

I don't know. On that salary maybe you don't have to be.

We very often I think tend when we're looking back at pictures that were done 200 years ago to have a very reverential take on it. Approach it as though it were some glorious thing that we must all shut up about. In fact, we're in the presence here of somebody who was utterly in tune with the market. Utterly in tune with what is being wanted.

We are in tune with the market that was very, very big. English prints sold abroad in enormous quantities. It was like having the equivalent of Toyotas, it was really serious money. When you think of what a print is - a piece of paper and some ink - and you can sell that, hundreds and thousands of those to the French and the Prussians and the Germans, even the Italians, and to the Russians. You can see how important it would be and how somebody taking a cut would make a lot from that.

I don't have a great deal more to say about George, he was recognised in his day, he was somebody who exhibited at the Royal Academy, but he's had a bad press and I don't think there's been a Morland exhibition. There was one in 1951 I think, but I don't think he's really had proper treatment.

Thank you very much.