Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 8, 2011
Douglas Fordham British Art and the Seven Years' War: Allegiance and Autonomy Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. 352 pp.; 87 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780812242430)

In British Art and the Seven Years’ War: Allegiance and Autonomy, Douglas Fordham offers an original and provocative re-interpretation of the emergence of public art and art institutions in eighteenth-century Britain. Scholars have long noted that the 1750s and 1760s were marked by increasing concern about the development and institutionalization of a school of British art. “Why,” Fordham asks, “did the visual arts become a pressing national concern at this moment in Britain’s history?” (1) He argues that any answer to such a question must take into account the “transformative place in British culture” (2) occupied by the Seven Years’ War, which was fought in the middle of this time period (1756–63). And indeed, cultural, political, and military history were deeply intertwined at this moment when the British Empire in America was firmly secured through a war that has largely been overlooked by art historians.

Books about art and war usually focus on military painting; Fordham’s book is much more expansive and ambitious, being concerned with the effects of militarism on the development and organization of the arts, as well as on their subject matter. There were fierce debates at mid-century about the benefits of training a professional standing army versus the maintenance of citizen militias. These competing forms of military organization, Fordham claims, also offered potent models for artists struggling with the problem of how best to legitimate and organize the fine arts at a time when mercantilism was declining and the government was reorganized as a “fiscal-military state.” Militant imperialism also provided potent subject matter for many of the artists involved in debates about whether or not the state should directly underwrite the arts. Fordham forcefully argues that party factionalism, religion, and the court had a profound effect on the practice and institutionalization of the visual arts in eighteenth-century Britain.

This, then, is a book that is fueled by historical questions about a fractious artistic culture, where feuds and often fragile alliances were rife, and had a direct bearing on the production and reception of objects ranging from history painting and commemorative sculpture to political satire and coach painting.

Fordham’s book furnishes a sharp counterpoint to the field-changing scholarship of John Barrell (The Political Theory of Painting, London: Yale University Press, 1986) and David Solkin (Painting for Money, London: Yale University Press, 1992). These and other scholars productively employed the political theory of civic humanism (grounded in a republic of supposedly disinterested land owners governing in the public good) in order to understand how British art developed in an increasingly commercial, self-interested society. Politeness became a key term in these “civic humanist” studies of eighteenth-century British art. Defined by a set of social rituals, cultural artifacts, and modes of behavior, politeness offered men of commerce a ground for communal identity that modified civic humanism in important ways. It was based less on military and republican virtue, and more on manners, urbane sociability, and the capacity for sympathy—and, importantly, did not require ownership of substantial amounts of real property. Although politeness had a Whiggish air about it, and both civic virtue and polite sympathy were understood to derive from Christian values, neither political factionalism nor religious controversy played a major role in this strand of art-historical analysis. And although this body of work from the 1980s and 1990s acknowledged that commercial enterprise took place in the context of imperial conflict in the Americas and India, war and militarism never seriously figure in these accounts. While acknowledging the importance of this scholarship, Fordham focuses on these omissions; and because he offers a strong, and often critical, counter-narrative to this earlier scholarship, British Art and the Seven Years’ War will likely be judged provocative, perhaps even controversial. But the lively debate and ongoing reassessment that this work hopefully will generate is precisely what is needed to keep British art history dynamic and relevant to the present moment.

In the course of telling a revised story about the rise of British art, this book offers new accounts of well-known artists and also highlights artists who were of great contemporary import, but are now virtually unknown (or worse, known but ignored, as in the case of Allan Ramsay). Given how much has been written about William Hogarth, it is amazing to discover how much the problems he encountered late in his career have been ignored. Drawing on the scholarship of Ronald Paulson (Hogarth, 3 vols., New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991–93), Fordham argues that, in one of the artist’s most significant later comic history paintings, The March to Finchley (1749–50), Hogarth exposes the chaos that British militarism wrecks on private individuals by representing this English march against the Scottish Jacobites through the visual language of the carnivalesque and the fair. In the following chapter Fordham shows how this lively form of satiric history painting failed to gain ground as a high-status art form, in part because of its similarity to the printed political satires and caricatures that appeared in ever increasing numbers from the 1760s. He attends closely to the satiric productions of artist Paul Sandby, who was attached to the professional army and was a powerful advocate of artistic professionalization paralleling this military model; he was also a fierce critic of Hogarth. Sandby figures largely as a landscape artist in standard histories of British art, but Fordham reminds readers that he was also a strong presence in the debates around the nature of the British school. These debates were carried out not only in dinners and meetings but also in printed satires such as Sandby’s scathing attack on Hogarth in The Painter’s March from Finchley (1754) and his satiric series A New Dunciad (1753–54). Fordham goes on to trace the complex story of how these debates about the militia and about art played out in the works of these and other artists, especially George Townsend, a passionate advocate of the militia and also a highly successful caricaturist, who used his prints to attack his political enemies. Because of their obvious partisanship these works threatened the very legitimacy of Hogarth’s comic histories, aided and abetted by Hogarth’s own publication of increasingly personal and partisan satires.

One of the strengths of British Art and the Seven Years’ War is that Fordham does not confine himself to painting and prints, but also seriously considers monumental sculpture; he shows how these art forms attempted to forge ties between the individual and the state through various devices and strategies, such as biblical allusion, referencing of monarchical iconography, and appeals to sympathy. In the third chapter, for example, Fordham examines Joseph Wilton’s sculptural monument (1760–72) for the fallen hero of the Seven Years’ War, General James Wolfe, who was a commoner with strong support among the populace. He contextualizes this sculptural project through the contemporary discourse on Wolfe that emerges through public eulogies and debates around the monument commission. By focusing here on the monument for Westminster Abbey, not Benjamin West’s famous 1770 painting, The Death of General Wolfe (which he addresses in a later chapter), Fordham makes a welcome intervention on the artistic discourse on Wolfe, bringing into play not only new objects, but also new sources and issues, such as the politics of a monarchy beset by a rise in populism.

In succeeding chapters Fordham analyzes how sentiment (so crucial to dominant interpretations of the polite progress of the arts) is harnessed to state ceremony and authority. This focus on the state is in contradistinction to the traditional association of sentiment with images and venues pertaining to the domestic or commercial spheres. Attending to the shifting venues for art in the eighteenth century, he demonstrates that the establishment of the Royal Academy, in response to the bitterness of partisan politics in the 1760s, represented a rupture in the relationship between art and the state. Eschewing a less stridently imperial militarism found in earlier art, the Academy, he argues, embraced a seemingly disinterested aestheticism that was, in fact, deeply subordinated to the state.

It will be the task of readers to assess how to square Fordham’s account of the development of British art with the potent earlier interpretations of Solkin, Barrell, and also of scholars like Ann Bermingham, whose important work on politeness and sensibility has provided a way to understand the role of women and of the feminine in the narratives of British art (Ann Bermingham, Learning to Draw: Studies in the Cultural History of a Polite and Useful Art, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). Is it fair to ask what the consequences are for understanding the role of women and of femininity in an artistic culture when the mode of analysis turns on party politics and militarism? Fordham does devote detailed attention to works with female subjects, such as Hogarth’s Moses Brought to Pharaoh’s Daughter (1746) and Sigismunda (1759), as well as West’s painting of Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1768). While these are rich and intriguing analyses, however, they are far from feminist in their aims and interests. Serious and sustained feminist analysis is lacking in many, if not most books on British art, not just Fordham’s, and this lack is one that deserves serious attention. Fordham’s provocative and original book, however, provides the tools with which to continue to theorize and historicize British art in a way that can take the serious measure of all of its “subjects”—including those marked by difference.

Kay Dian Kriz
Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Brown University