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Private View of the Old Masters Exhibition, Royal Academy, 1888

3 of 4 portraits of Sir William Agnew, 1st Bt

Private View of the Old Masters Exhibition, Royal Academy, 1888, by Henry Jamyn Brooks, 1889 -NPG 1833 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Private View of the Old Masters Exhibition, Royal Academy, 1888

by Henry Jamyn Brooks
Oil on canvas, 1889
60 7/8 in. x 106 7/8 in. (1545 mm x 2715 mm)
NPG 1833

Inscriptionback to top

Signed and dated lower left-hand corner: 'H. Jamyn Brooks / 1889'.

This portraitback to top

This complex image, consisting of sixty-six figures, presents a varied portrait of the late Victorian Establishment, with prominent artists and critics alongside politicians and leading members of the aristocracy. [1] It was on loan to the NPG in 1914, at which point Charles Holmes (Director, 1909–16) encouraged the artist, Henry Jamyn Brooks, to write a retrospective account of his experience of creating the work. [2] At the beginning of this richly anecdotal document, Brooks records how he alighted upon the idea for his picture:

I was painting a portrait of Mr Thomas Brock A.R.A. now Sir Thomas Brock R.A. which was subsequently hung at the Royal Academy [exh. RA 1890 (387)]… During one of the sittings, Mr Brock and I were talking about Mr Frith’s group representing a Private View at the Royal Academy. I observed that I would like to try my skill and see whether I could produce an Artistic picture of some similar scene. Mr Brock suggested a picture of the Private View at the Old Masters Exhibition. I thought this an excellent subject possessing great artistic possibilities. [3]

Group scenes of this nature were very popular throughout the period and tended to focus upon specific sporting or artistic gatherings. These combined to form the social ‘season’, a set of events at which the leaders of society would congregate. The opening of the Academy’s May exhibition, as depicted in William Powell Frith’s A Private View at the Royal Academy (1883), was traditionally the most important event of the season and was followed by occasions such as Royal Ascot, the Wimbledon Championship, Henley Regatta, the Queen’s Garden Party and Cowes Week. [4] The private view of the Old Masters Exhibition, more commonly referred to as the Winter Exhibition, was another important fixture in the social calendar. It opened in early January and ran until March, acting as a prelude to the main summer season, which was roughly coincident with the Parliamentary session, February to July. The exhibition itself was a precursor to the now-familiar ‘blockbuster’ shows of the modern day. The first of many temporary loan exhibitions featuring works from private collections in Britain had been staged at the British Institution in 1815. After the closure of this organization in 1867, the Royal Academy assumed a similar role, hosting the first Old Masters Exhibition in 1869. [5] Each year, this was to include important paintings from both public and private collections.

Initially, Brooks needed to provide his figures with a convincing setting; after the close of the Summer Exhibition in 1888, the artist was granted access to the Academy's exhibition rooms and spent a fortnight painting the interior of the room where the old masters had hung the previous winter. He found the perspective of the parquet floor a particular challenge, yet was pleased with the results. [6] In a letter to George Scharf dated October 1888, P.H. Calderon (then Keeper at the RA) recalls encountering Brooks engaged with this task:

He applied some time ago for permission to paint a view of our number 3 room (Big Room)… He has had his picture here for some days to put in floor, walls etc. etc – …On my looking into No. 3 Room a few days ago – I found Mr Brooks at work – He asked me to suggest desirable people to paint and I (who had already pointed out to him that Mr Ruskin was never there) suggested people who really came to the Private Views. [7]

Brooks also took the advice of J.C. Horsley at the RA, and set about securing potential sitters for the portrait. [8] He was relatively unknown when he embarked upon the picture, [9] and for this reason he had some trouble convincing certain individuals to provide sittings. Scharf, for example, was decidedly difficult to pin down. After initially declining on the grounds of ill health, he wrote a cautious letter to Calderon enquiring about the artist’s character. Calderon responded, ‘I know very little of Mr Brooks – but understand he works or has worked for Messrs Dickinson the Art Publishers of Bond Street – he has, I believe, painted similar pictures of agricultural shows etc’. [10] Scharf eventually acquiesced and also sat for photographs in Brooks’s studio, posed with notebook and pen, as he is in the composition. [11]

Although Brooks exhibited five single-sitter portraits at the RA between 1884 and 1900, he specialized in group works. Possibly his earliest example of this type was the portrait of the Council at Abingdon Town Hall, dated 1878. The following year a similar work depicted Reading Town Council. Other examples include Polo at the Hurlingham Club (1890) [12] and the monumental Court of Examiners of the Royal College of Surgeons (1894). [13] The artist quickly developed a method for producing images on this scale, which he clearly documents in his account of NPG 1833:

Of course it is well known that such a picture as this is never painted now entirely from life sittings, but that photography is used to save time and spare the patience of those invited to form the group. Having by advice of Mr Horsley decided upon the position of each person in the picture, and given to each figure in the design a name, I made further designs of the attitudes required in order to produce a natural and effective group. I then took a photographer round to the residences of my sitters by appointment, and personally posed each for the photographer. As might be expected, when each person was drawn upon the canvas they did not all fit in, so in many cases I had to change the position and redraw the figure from a model or from the sitter as circumstances permitted. By making personal visits, taking sketches and notes, I thus became acquainted with each person whom I intended to put in the group. [14]

Brooks found himself mixing with some very eminent and elevated contemporaries. As well as making visits to their homes he occasionally persuaded sitters to visit his West Kensington studio on Vereker road, close to the Queen’s Club, where the picture was largely executed. In an account of one such visit, the difference in social position is strongly apparent: ‘One day Lord Burton drove up in a carriage and pair. He at first seemed out of temper. “I had no idea” he said “that you lived so far out. Why! it has actually taken me twenty minutes to come here” I pointed out that it was no further out than the Queens Club. “Yes” said he “I would never have taken shares in it if I had known how far out it was.”’ [15] (For other reminiscences related to the following sitters, see individual entries on J.C. Horsley, J.E. Hodgson, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais.)

The work itself functions as a reflection of the decidedly mixed nature of what was considered ‘high society’ during this period. A distinct increase in social mobility ensured that wealthy industrialists and renowned artists, for example, were effectively placed upon an equal footing with established members of the British aristocracy. [16] Brooks successfully highlights this through his varied choice of sitters, which includes not only politicians such as John Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer, representative of one of many ‘old money’ aristocrats in the room, but also Sir John Pender, a self-made Glasgow and Manchester cotton merchant. By this stage, Pender was an important art patron, notably of the painting of J.E. Millais, with whom he is shown conversing. [17] As President of the RA, Frederic Leighton hosts the event and is positioned prominently, towards the centre of the composition. The picture speaks of the unusual stability and prestige of the institution at this time, and also of artists’ ability to permeate the upper echelons of society. Both Leighton and Millais made considerable money from their work, owned large and elegant homes and became the first artists to be elevated an baron and a baronet respectively [18].

In order to record the paintings shown at the exhibition, Brooks travelled extensively around the country visiting the homes of the owners. The RA did not allow the copying of works whilst they were on display, so the artist was required to make replicas, a lengthy and tiresome process, but one which Brooks appears to have relished:

The large central picture The Apotheosis of the Duke of Buckingham by Rubens and Jordaens I sketched at Osterley Park the seat of the Earl of Jersey. The pictures each side of the above by Vandyke, are now in the Wallace Collection, but they were then the private property of Sir Richard Wallace at Hertford House. Well do I remember Sir Richard Wallace with his courtly address and charming french manners conducting me through the galleries… For the Sir Joshua representing the Hon Miss Monckton afterwards the notorious Lady Cork I had to go to Mr E.P. Monckton’s. Mr Monckton had a daughter who resembled the Miss Monckton of the picture so they playfully gave her the name of Lady Cork. I was shewn a photograph in which Mr Monckton’s daughter was dressed similarly to the Miss Monckton of the picture and posed accordingly with pillar and landscape. The resemblance was most striking. [19]

For the portrait of Queen Charlotte to the right-hand side of the composition, the artist made a copy from a similar image believed to be by Gainsborough, in the council chamber of the town hall in Abingdon. It was perhaps reproduced from his earlier portrait of the council members (see above), although Brooks possibly made a return visit to the site in order to ensure accuracy. In an annotated copy of the 1888 Winter Exhibition catalogue, Scharf recorded, by way of a quick sketch in the margin next to the entry, the pose of the figure in this work. [20] The replica of this portrait in Brooks’s painting indicates that he took considerable care to reproduce exactly the appearance of the original work. In addition, further study of the catalogue page confirms that he resolutely followed the order of the eleven paintings visible within his composition, as they were hung upon the walls. [21]

In 1904, Graves's Gallery, Pall Mall, staged a small one-man exhibition of Brooks’s work. A reviewer in the Studio praised the ‘sensitive handling’ in a small portrait of W.E. Gladstone, a quality which gave the exhibit a certain ‘distinction lacking in some of the larger works’. [22] This picture was sold at Christie’s in 2003 and has since been identified as a study for the sitter’s appearance in NPG 1833. [23] The suggested ‘lack of distinction’ in the more complex composition may have been perceived in terms of the disharmonious or static nature of the grouping. This was an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of the piecemeal fashion in which the picture was constructed. Brooks gives one example of the artificiality of his scene: ‘In order to obtain the right positions I had a photograph taken of Mr E.J. Poynter in my studio shaking hands with my daughter. In the picture I have put Lady Alma-Tadema in her place.’ [24] In the finished work, both figures shake hands yet there is no appearance of emotional interaction, no indication of familiarity. Poynter stares vaguely at a point above and beyond Lady Alma-Tadema’s right shoulder, whilst her expression contains no sign of recognition; her gaze is instead directed towards the floor. Nevertheless, the quality of individual likenesses is strong throughout the work, which remains an invaluable cultural and historical document.

This painting was accepted by the Trustees of the NPG as a gift from the artist, in April 1919. [25] It had been on long-term loan since 1909. In a letter to Lionel Cust (Director, 1895–1909), Brooks’s somewhat hopeful tone suggests that he initially believed this arrangement would lead to the purchase of the portrait for the permanent collection. [26] Due to insufficient funds, this was not to be the case. Instead, Cust suggested that the artist form a small external committee to raise the money for the acquisition on behalf of the Gallery. [27] Brooks launched a personal campaign to secure individuals for this purpose, but he was uncomfortable acting so obviously for his own benefit and found that those he approached tended to decline upon the grounds that ‘it would look like endeavouring to get their own portraits into the gallery’. [28] After unsuccessfully appealing to the National Art Collections Fund in 1910 and again to the NPG’s Trustees in 1914, the artist finally donated the picture towards the end of his life, perhaps deciding that securing a prestigious home for his work outweighed the potential monetary compensation. [29]

Sixty-six figures
From left to right:
Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, Bt (1860–1944)
Henrietta Blanche (née Stanley), Countess of Airlie (1830–1921)
Charles Drury Edward Fortnum (1820–1899)
Unidentified man (hat only)
Sir Frederic William Burton (1816–1900)
Alfred Morrison (1821–1897)
Lady Dorothy Nevill (1826–1913)
Sir John Everett Millais, Bt (1829–1896)
Sir Philip Burne-Jones, 2nd Bt (1861–1926)
Victoria Marjorie Harriet (née Manners), Marchioness of Anglesey (1883–1946)
Sir John Pender (1815–1896)
(Marion Margaret) Violet Manners (née Lindsay), Duchess of Rutland (1856–1937)
Ferdinand James de Rothschild (1839–1898)
Unidentified woman (back of head only)
Humphry Ward (1845–1926)
George Richmond (1809–1896)
Edward Philip Monckton (1840–1912)
Unidentified woman
William Powell Frith (1819–1909)
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912)
John Evan Hodgson (1831–1895)
Unidentified woman
Frank Holl (1845–1888)
Susan, Countess of Wharncliffe (1834–1927)
Charles Butler (1821–1910)
James Ellis Agar, 3rd Earl of Normanton (1818–1896)
Unidentified woman
Charles Henry Mills, 1st Baron Hillingdon (1830–1898)
Edward Montagu Stuart-Wortley-Mackenzie, 1st Earl of Wharncliffe (1827–1899)
Sir Edward Poynter (1836–1919)
Laura, Lady Alma-Tadema (1852–1909)
Robert Loyd-Lindsay, 1st Baron Wantage (1832–1901)
Sir Richard Wallace, Bt (1818–1890)
Henry Edward Doyle (1827–1892)
Sir John Robinson (1824–1913)
Unidentified man (hat only)
Margaret Elizabeth Child-Villiers (née Leigh), Countess of Jersey (1849–1945)
Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1833–1898)
Mary Millais (1860–1944)
Sir William Quiller Orchardson (1835–1910)
Sir Frederic Leighton, Baron Leighton (1830–1896)
Alfred Charles de Rothschild (1842–1918)
Henry Jamyn Brooks (1865–1925)
Mervin Wingfield, 7th Viscount Powerscourt (1836–1904)
Unidentified man (hat only)
Harriet Sarah (née Loyd), Lady Wantage (1837–1920)
John Stuart Bligh, 6th Earl of Darnley (1827–1896)
Sir George Scharf (1820–1895)
Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834–1890)
Victor Child-Villiers, 7th Earl of Jersey (1845–1915)
William Holman Hunt (1827–1910)
Alice Joanna Street (daughter of H.T. Wells)
Henry T. Wells (1828–1903)
John Ruskin (1819–1900)
John Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer (1835–1910)
Sir Charles Tennant, Bt (1823–1906)
Charlotte, Countess Spencer (1835–1906)
Emma (Margot), Countess of Oxford and Asquith (1864–1910)
William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898)
Michael Arthur Bass, 1st Baron Burton (1837–1909)
Marcus Stone (1840–1921)
Sir William Agnew (1825–1910)
John Callcott Horsley (1817–1904)
George Frederic Watts (1817–1904)
Ayscough Fawkes (1831–1899)
Sir Frederick Eaton (1838–1913)

Elizabeth Heath

Footnotesback to top

1) The artist also included a small portrait of himself at the very back of the composition, as a head only, profile to left, wearing a top hat, between Alfred de Rothschild and Viscount Powerscourt. A key to the picture is in the collection at the National Portrait Gallery: see NPG D42236.
2) Letter from H.J. Brooks to C. Holmes, 30 Jan. 1914, to accompany the artist’s account of painting NPG 1833; NPG RP 1833.
3) H. J. Brooks, MS headed ‘The Dilettante or The Private View at the Winter Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts Burlington House generally called The Old Masters Exhibition’, 1914, NPG RP 1833, p.1 (see Selected archive documents, NPG). According to Brooks, this conversation with Brock took place two years before he began NPG 1833 (letter from H.J. Brooks to C. Holmes, 30 Jan. 1914).
4) Davidoff 1974, pp.20–36.
5) Hutchinson 1986, p.114; Haskell 2000, pp.73–5.
6) ‘The Dilettante’, NPG RP 1833, p.5.
7) Letter from P.H. Calderon to G. Scharf, 18 Oct. 1888, NPG RP 1833. Scharf himself visited the Royal Academy on the 23rd Oct. to observe Brooks's progress (see Sir George Scharf Papers (Personal diary 1888, NPG7/3/1/45, NPG Archive).
8) ‘The Dilettante’, NPG RP 1833. In this part of his account, Brooks mentions that he ‘made a design in oils and took it to Mr Horsley’. This compositional sketch is now untraced.
9) In all previous publications, Brooks’s birth date has been listed as 1865. This has now been revised as a result of compelling evidence collected by Sidney Gold (2008), confirming that the artist was actually born in 1839 and was about fifty when executing this portrait.
10) Letter from P.H. Calderon to G. Scharf, 18 Oct. 1888, NPG, RP 1833.
11) See NPG Ax13957, NPG x22540, NPG x22541, NPG x22542.
12) This work is in the collection of the Hurlingham Club, Fulham, London.
13) This work is in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London.
14) ‘The Dilettante’, NPG RP 1833, p.2.
15) 'The Dilettante', NPG RP 1833, p.4.
16) Thompson 2001, pp.45–74.
17) Macleod 1996, pp.217–21, 459–60.
18) One the status of the professional artist during the period see Gillett 1990, pp.18-68.
19) ‘The Dilettante’, NPG RP 1833, p.6.
20) Royal Academy of Arts: Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters (1888), Sir George Scharf's copy, with manuscript annotations and sketches in his hand, NPG Archive, p.36 [153]. It is possible that Scharf actually made this sketch whilst attending the 1888 private view. In Brooks’s picture he is indeed in the act of taking notes; certainly the sketch was executed at the RA.
21) Royal Academy of Arts: Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters (1888), pp.34–7 [141–56].
22) Studio, vol.31, 1904, p.151.
23) Christie’s, South Kensington, 6 Mar. 2003 (378). See also NPG RP 1833.
24) ‘The Dilettante’, NPG RP 1833, p.7.
25) Letter from H.J. Brooks to James Milner (NPG Director, 1917–27), 14 Apr. 1919, NPG RP 1833; see also NPG Annual Report 1918–19, p.5, NPG Archive.
26) Letter from H.J. Brooks to L. Cust, 2 Aug. 1909; see also letter dated 4 July 1909, both NPG RP 1833.
27) Letter from L. Cust to C. Holmes, 24 Mar. 1910, NPG RP 1833.
28) Letter from H.J. Brooks to L. Cust, May 1910, NPG RP 1833.
29) Letters from H.J. Brooks to C. Holmes, 2 Dec. 1910, 14 Feb. 1914, 7 Apr. 1914, NPG RP 1833. The artist died in 1925.

Referenceback to top

Bourke 2011
Bourke, M. The Story of Irish Museums 1790-2000: Culture, Identity and Education, Cork, Ireland, 2011.

Davidoff 1974
Davidoff, L., The Best Circles: Society, Etiquette and the Season, London, 1974.

Dearden 1999
Dearden, J.S., John Ruskin: A Life in Pictures, Sheffield, 1999.

Gillett 1990
Gillett, P., The Victorian Painter’s World, Stroud, Glos., 1990.

Haskell 2000
Haskell, F., The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition, London, 2000.

Hutchinson 1986
Hutchinson, S.C., The History of the Royal Academy, 1768–1968, London, 1986.

Jones et al. 1996
Jones, S., and others, Frederic Leighton 1830–1896, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London, 1996.

Macleod 1996
Macleod, D.S., Art and the Victorian Middle Class: Money and the Making of Cultural Identity, Cambridge, 1996.

Noakes 1978
Noakes, A., William Frith: Extraordinary Victorian Painter, London, 1978.

Ormond & Ormond 1975
Ormond, L., and R. Ormond, Lord Leighton, London, 1975.

Swanson 1977
Swanson, V.G., Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema: Painter of the Victorian Vision of the Ancient World, London, 1977.

Thomas 1999
Thomas, B., 'The Fortnum Archive at the Ashmolean Museum', Journal of the History of Collections, 11 (2), 1999, pp.253-68.

Thompson 2001
Thompson, F.M.L., Gentrification and the Enterprise Culture: Britain, 1780–1980, Oxford, 2001.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1979; 1980; 1991; 1994; 1996; 2005.

Provenanceback to top

Henry Jamyn Brooks, by whom presented to the gallery, 1919.

Exhibitionsback to top

Messrs. Dickinson & Fosters, 114 New Bond Street, London, 1889 (as ‘Dilettanti: a Private View of the Old Masters Exhibition’); ref. 'Review of Minor Exhibitions', The Times, 28 May 1889. p.4.

Reproductionsback to top

A platinotype print was proposed by Messrs. Dickinson & Fosters, the commercial Gallery handling the picture, in 1890, but it is not known whether this project was realised (ref. George Scharf Secretary's Journal, 16 & 18 Apr. 1890, NPG7/1/1/1/7, NPG Archive).

Manchester Guardian, 31 July 1945 (detail, Agnew, Horsley, Hunt, Wells, Ruskin and Watts only).

Ormond & Ormond 1975, pl.146 (detail, Laura Alma-Tadema, Boehm, Calderon, Hodgson, Holl, Hunt, Leighton, Orchardson, Poynter, Scharf only).

Swanson 1977, p.28.

Noakes 1978, p.150 (with key).

Jones et al. 1996, p.16, fig.2 (detail, Laura Alma-Tadema, Boehm, Calderon, Hodgson, Holl, Hunt, Leighton, Poynter, Orchardson and Scharf only).

Dearden 1999, p.161 (details, Hunt, Wells, Ruskin only).

Thomas 1999, p.253, fig.1.

Bourke 2011, p.101 (and detail p.124, Alma-Tadema, Frith, Hodgson and Millais only).

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