Friday, December 19, 2008

The Viciousness of Stile: James Ward and his critics

In 1960, the late Paul Mellon purchased Eagle, A Stallion by James Ward. It was obviously attractive for many reasons. First, it was a portrait of a prize-winning thoroughbred racehorse, celebrated for his strength and speed. He was the property of Thomas Hornby Morland, the author of a hugely influential book about bloodstock The Genealogy of the English Race Horse, which was published in 1810, just two years after Eagle was painted, and carried as the frontispiece an engraving after this very portrait. Third, in retirement – he was thought to be getting lazy – Eagle was exported to Virginia, where he influenced the future development of American bloodstock, about which Mr. Mellon knew a great deal. And finally, Basil Taylor, who ushered the picture through the process of obtaining an export license, argued successfully that Eagle, A Stallion would form “a significant addition to an existing and important collection of English painting, and within that collection to a group of English Sporting and animal paintings of outstanding quality.” Taylor noted that in the Mellon collection there were already fine examples by John Wootton, James Seymour, George Stubbs, Sawrey Gilpin, Ben Marshall, and John Ferneley, but so far no important painting by James Ward. Taylor went on:

Ward is an English painter hardly represented in American collections, public or private, and therefore anyone seeking a fine example is bound to have to buy it in Britain. All of the above will be strong recommendations but there is a further one which, if you could fairly make it, would, I believe, be most influential, namely that this picture will form an addition to a collection of paintings, drawings, prints and illustrated books which will be kept together as a collection within a reasonably foreseeable period and which now or in the future will be available to students of English art.

That Taylor’s arguments succeeded in persuading the committee on the export of works of art, which at that time was chaired by Lord Cottesloe, is from the Yale point of view a remarkable demonstration of wisdom, tact, and good fortune.

Mr. Mellon went on to acquire another thirty-one paintings and 250 works on paper by James Ward, of which thirty oils, thirty-one drawings, and eighteen prints are in this exhibition – not to mention a remarkable illustrated book entitled Some Account of Mary Thomas of Tanyralt in Merionethshire, who has existed may years without taking food: and of Ann Moore, commonly called the fasting woman of Tutbury (1813).

The exhibition contains works from every phase of Ward’s remarkably long, productive and varied career – beginning as a highly accomplished mezzotinter, trained for a time in the studio of John Raphael Smith, and by his own brother William Ward; as a painter of rustic subjects in oils, much assisted by his increasingly dissolute brother-in-law George Morland; as a painter of livestock, first for private clients and then, through them, for the newly-instituted Board of Agriculture; as a painter of landscape much in awe of Peter Paul Rubens; as a painter of thoroughbred racehorses, similarly inspired by a close examination of those pieces of the Parthenon frieze that were then visible at Lord Elgin’s house in London; as a history painter; as a portrait painter; as a Romantic painter of sublime landscape; as a lover of trees, villages, and tumble-down farm buildings; as an observer of something as fugitive as a little brass bell dangling from a notched gatepost; as a hankerer after recognition, and more specifically membership of the Royal Academy of Arts; as a businessman playing for high stakes, and losing; as an evangelical Anglican in the tumultuous period between the death of John Wesley and the arrival of the Oxford Movement; as a staunch Tory, for whom Catholic Emancipation in 1828 was a portent of the apocalypse, and the approach of the Reform Act of 1832 something almost as bad; as a broken-hearted widower; as a debtor and reluctant recipient of charity, and as a retiree and invalid.

His greatest achievements were generously lauded; but his various failures were for himself almost impossible to tolerate.

The Pre-Raphaelite and critic F. G. Stephens remembered James Ward visiting the Royal Academy School and described him years later in The Portfolio as “one of the greatest and most masculine artists of the English School, an animal-painter with whom, except in the achievements of his youth, Landseer was not fitter to be compared than Iago with Cassio.” Presumably Stephens chose to forget that, as a cranky Octogenarian, Ward was so offended by the work of the Pre-Raphaelites that he called them simply “blockheads.” The Crystal Palace, meanwhile, that lodestar of the mid-nineteenth century, Ward gladly mocked as a glass slipper.

Eagle, A Stallion, which hangs at the beginning of this exhibition, is among Ward’s masterpieces, but it was painted not more than eighteen months after he began to produce portraits of thoroughbreds. Sawrey Gilpin had died in 1807, and George Stubbs the year before that. Ward must have been aware that his portraits of horses would inevitably be compared with the equestrian paintings of Stubbs and Gilpin, and with the work of Gilpin’s talented pupil and son-in-law George Garrard, not to mention Ben Marshall. It was a highly competitive field.

According to spiteful gossip, he was led toward thoroughbred portraiture by a throwaway remark by his brother-in-law the artist E. D. Chalon: “Ward can paint rustic horses, but can no more paint blood horses than my boot.” Ward set out to prove him wrong.

Ward’s greatest racehorse paintings differ from Stubbs’ in that the essential ingredient of human control – jockeys, grooms, attendants, owners – which to some extent defined the very purpose of the thoroughbred – are conspicuously absent. Here there is no evidence of the mounting yard, finishing post, or rubbing down house. Instead, the noble creature exists on its own, standing in a landscape laden with potential drama. But beyond their function as accurate portraits of particular and sometimes famous animals, Ward’s horse paintings attempted to do what Stubbs did with his great horse-and-lion paintings: evoke a transcendent Romantic type – suggesting the latent power of a barely tamed creature, full of drive, dash and tension, whose swollen veins and flaring nostrils to some extent conjure up the elemental forces of nature itself.

In this sense, the famous series of prints called Celebrated Horses, 1823–24, which includes celebrity horses such as Napoleon’s stallion Marengo or the Duke of Wellington’s mare Copenhagen, or, most flamboyant of all, Adonis, King George III’s favorite charger, was as much about fame and celebrity in Regency England as it was about bloodstock.

Ward got his first important professional break in about 1800, when through a client, the fifteenth Lord Somerville, he became involved in the so-called Boydell Project for the Board of Agriculture. British agricultural practices underwent a complete overhaul in the second half of the eighteenth century.

As the Enclosure Acts transferred large tracts of land from common use to private ownership, the cities swelled with displaced country people. With this sharp increase in the population of towns and cities, the demand for cheap, better food spiraled. Agriculture and farming methods struggled to keep up with that growing demand, and the animal breeder Robert Bakewell developed revolutionary techniques for breeding new, meatier animals based on the selection of desirable characteristics in one breed of animal, and crossing them with a similarly promising specimen of another. By process of trial and error, new breeds were created, and the supply of beef and mutton improved. These experiments led to the establishment of model and experimental farms, and to the establishment of the Board of Agriculture under the patronage of King George III.

Following the suggestion of Lord Somerville, the Board of Agriculture devised an ambitious project to document various new breeds of sheep, cattle, and pigs, and publish them. Beginning in 1801, Ward was to paint about 200 portraits of British livestock. The enterprise was to be underwritten by Messrs. Boydell the printers, until they ran out of money in about 1803. This ambitious task relating to the rapid development of animal husbandry, agronomy and bloodstock in this period, took Ward all over the English countryside, beginning with a visit to Windsor in 1801, where he painted two of the King’s sheep.

The Boydell project turned Ward into a painter of livestock, but he was artistically and professionally ambitious. Unlike his Boydell period portraits of livestock, with their careful focus on the various attributes of a specific breed, later pictures of sheep and cattle place far greater emphasis on formal compositional values, and the emotions. In this beautiful example, Heath Ewe and Lambs, from 1810, on the left, the deep shadows of the rude barn emphasize the brightness and texture of the sheep’s coat, while the deep blue of the sky and the brilliant red drapery are Old Master flourishes. The ewe, which has occasionally been mistaken for a ram – Portland rams and ewes are both horned – possesses a striking air of melancholy. This sensitivity to the feelings of animals, and the atmospheric effect created by groups of beasts, distinguishes Ward’s more ambitious essays in animal painting.

Portraits of Two Extraordinary Oxen, from 1814, was painted for the Earl of Powis, who from 1798 to 1803 had been governor of Madras in India, and was the eldest son of Clive of India. These magnificent oxen, with their brindled coats, impressive girth and gracefully curving horns, were a cross between Indian Zebu and English Durham cattle, a happy agricultural consequence of the family’s highly profitable connection with the East India Company. The ruin in which Ward pictures these exceedingly rare animals was presumably conceived more to evoke in a general way the antiquity of the family estate in Wales than to record particular outbuildings at Powis Castle. However, ruins such as these may also allude to the common practice of turning dilapidated religious buildings into barns, pens and other farm buildings – something Ward denounced much later in one of his quirky pamphlets, comparing the practice to the actual decay of God’s church.

Two paintings executed in the same year, 1803, signal a fundamental shift of gears, or perhaps better to say increased voltage, in Ward’s artistic production and aspirations. Ward hoped to be elected to the Royal Academy on the strength of both. The powerful history painting called The Liboya Serpent Seizing His Prey, 1804, for which this remarkable painting on the left is a study, probably from the previous year, measured ten by nearly fourteen feet. The lurid subject, a giant boa constrictor attacking, dismounting and strangling a semi-naked black horseman, amply demonstrated Ward’s desire to escape the label of animal painter, and join a more exclusive club.

Encouragingly Benjamin West had urged Ward to paint “something large and striking to remove the impression of an engraver.” He may have had in mind several different sources for this unusual allegorical composition, the final version of which was life-sized, but the topic of a giant snake struggling with human prey was most immediately recognisable, and most famously enshrined, in the ancient Roman marble sculpture Laocoön and His Sons (Vatican), a subject taken from the end of the Iliad. But there was another plausible model for this kind of subject―though not this rendering of it―in Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape With Snake (National Gallery, London), which Ward could have seen on a recent visit to his client Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn. More generally, the subject obviously alluded to the suffering of African slaves, and consequently to the movement for the abolition of slavery with which Ward was in sympathy.

Despite the approval of West, The Liboya Serpent was rejected by the hanging committee, who thought it was too big, too outlandish, to “staring” – the term is Opie’s.

Ward did not put all his eggs in one basket. He also submitted the painting on the right, Bulls Fighting, St. Donat’s Castle, which is now to be seen in the splendidly refurbished paintings gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Between them the two pictures might have been taken to reflect a kind of flamboyant versatility, the one, The Liboya Serpent, full of invention and ingenuity, the other, Bulls Fighting, an ingenious tribute laid at the feet of Peter Paul Rubens and other Flemish Old Masters, and an ideal vehicle for a different sort of livestock painting – very different. Through the connoisseur and collector Sir George Beaumont, Ward was able to study and examine at length Rubens’ Autumn Landscape with View of Het Steen, 1636 (National Gallery, London). Bulls Fighting is cheerfully, determinedly Rubensian as a result, and also reflects an interest in the style of Frans Snyders, whose Deer Hunt in Brussels you see on the left. The elongated format, the gnarled trees, the effects of atmosphere, as well as the range of textures - from thin, luminous glazes to rich impasto – all of this reflects Ward’s determination not merely to absorb and filter, but to synthesize and emulate the Old Masters. In this case, the critical response shifted in the opposite direction, despite the fact that Sir George Beaumont liked the picture. It was thought to be too much like an Old Master, and not inventive enough – a criticism that would elicit from Thomas Lawrence some years later the unsolicited advice that Ward suffered from “the viciousness of stile” in painting, in other words that they seemed cobbled together from other sources, and that members of the Academy felt it. In a way, the critical language of these years made it impossible to win.

As Edward Nygren has shown in his dissertation on Ward, very similar criticisms had been directed at J. M. W. Turner, who was five years his junior, and both men evidently thought the other’s work was completely different from his own. In any case the Repository of Art defended Ward’s use of Flemish exempla in this grinding remark of 1813, to the extent that they were prepared to say that he could paint like Rubens without needing a magic formula, surely a reference to the Provis Venetian Secret scandal of fifteen years earlier. “There have been of late years some approaches made to rescue the character of English art from the aspersions of certain connoisseurs, who have asserted that the pure and transparent mode of using paints in oil, is unknown to modern artists; and that the Flemish style depended on some menstruum or vehicle with which they compounded their colors. Amongst those who have contributed to do away with this opinion so detrimental to modern painting, must be numbered Mr. Ward.”

Gordale Scar, 1812–14 (Tate Britain) is Ward’s masterpiece, and follows on these developments. In a sense, Ward found something of a resolution to the problem to which Lawrence referred, “the viciousness of stile”. A popular West Yorkshire destination for Romantic travelers in search of the sublime, the wild rocky place called Gordale Scar was long admired by artists, but ultimately condemned by Sir George Beaumont as “unpaintable.” Ward was determined to prove him wrong. More than any other painting, the enormous final version of this composition, Gordale Scar, which measures nearly eleven by fourteen feet – and I am happy to report is about to come out of storage at Tate Britain – established Ward’s enduring reputation as a master of Romantic gigantism. The final version of this painting (if he is lucky) is the reproduction that is most likely to accompany the sentences about Ward that make it into any history of Romanticism. And so it should. This tiny preliminary sketch, in which you can just make out the forms of the escarpment and the general arrangement of the great bull and other animals down below, may have been one of the two sketches that Ward submitted to secure the patronage of the first Lord Ribblesdale, whose Gisburne Park estate was not far from the Scar.

In the period between the Boydell project and Gordale Scar, Ward painted numerous portraits of dogs. This period coincided with an acceleration of specialist dog breeding – a by-product of the enormous effort expended on developing new and better breeds of sheep, cattle and thoroughbred racehorses – and, incidentally, the refinement of human pedigrees in printed form as well.

This fine collie, on the right, is similar to Ward’s most famous dog painting,“Buff,” A Black Poodle (1812, Private Collection, Monte Carlo), the portrait of a celebrated military pet, and veteran of the Peninsular Wars. Both pictures employ a profile view, ‘horse-portrait’ format, and a daring rocky coastal landscape background.

On the left, you see a very different, high-class domestic pet called Dash, a Favorite Spaniel, the property of Lady Frances Vane-Tempest.

And in the years at either side of Gordale Scar cluster some of the finest portraits by Ward, including these great Mellon pictures, the Portrait of the Reverend Thomas Levett and Favorite Dogs, Cock Shooting, 1811, on the left, and Theophilus Levett Hunting at Wychnor, Staffordshire, 1817, on the right. Ward chose to portray Theophilus Levett at the climax of a fox-hunt – making this single portrait a perfect vehicle for horse portraiture, a sporting subject, and extensive landscape as well. There are spots of mud on Mr. Levett’s red coattails, and many other finely-observed details of costume and riding equipment. From his elevated vantage point in the foreground, Theophilus Levett gestures with his riding crop toward the terrified fox on the far right. In the distance, at the bottom of the hill, some of the other hunters and the pack of hounds are shown in hot pursuit, about to ascend the steep hill. Ward intensifies the drama of the moment by contrasting the helter-skelter of the hunting party with the commanding presence of the stationary sitter, who has beaten them all up the hill – all except the fox. The converging paths of the hunting party are echoed, mocked even, by the distant V-shaped formation of birds flying in the opposite direction.

The portrait of Thomas Levett, a well-connected clergyman at leisure and on foot in the open air was painted in the same year when Ward was finally elected to full membership of the Royal Academy. The elegant pose is borrowed with a degree of self-consciousness from that of the ancient Roman statue called the Apollo Belvedere, which was widely known through the circulation of prints, as well as many works of art in which the pose was repeatedly quoted. Both men were important clients of Ward.

Ward’s effort to master the genre of history painting received a far more crushing blow than the mixed reception of his remarkable paintings of 1803, with the spectacular professional and financial failure of his colossal Waterloo Allegory, 1815–20, a hugely overambitious painting that he commenced as a kind of monument to the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napolean. Perhaps, on an evening that has been organized to celebrate James Ward, the less said about this unfortunate composition and business venture, from which it took Ward years to recover, the better – though it is important to note that the main objection to it was as “a tissue of plagiarism from Rubens, Otho Venus, Jacob Behmen, and Baron Munchhausen.”

Ward had seen it coming, and recalled weeping with vexation in the studio on the many bad days that came one by one as he stared and stared at this impossible conundrum of a composition. He even got down on his knees and prayed. Yet, even after this, chastened by the public failure of what ought to have been his crowning achievement in history painting, and even when he was still in full possession of his reputation as the best animal painter in Britain, Ward was determined “not to be beat out of allegory.”

The current exhibition closes with The Day’s Sport, from 1826, a complex painting that partly belongs to the tradition of Dutch and Flemish game pieces, in which the “bag,” the spoils of a day’s shooting, stood for the bounty of nature, as well as a kind of memento mori. Much in the painting, particularly the handling of trees, reflects Ward’s love of Snyders and Rubens.

But the wintry subject also appears to have offered James Ward other possibilities and themes arising from his evangelical Anglicanism. He was much more inclined to deplore the indiscriminate shooting of birds and animals in the English countryside than to relish it. The Day’s Sport, with a mountainous array of dead game, including the inert, bloodied swan, forms a kind of Noah’s Ark in reverse: a critique of the insensitivity, cruelty, and indifference of man the hunter, versus the sympathetic feelings of innocent children. The seasonal associations with Christmas, the snow, the time of year, the prospect of roast swan, also strengthen the moralizing flavor of the work.

In 1829, in a letter to King George IV’s doctor Sir William Knighton, James Ward wrote: “It is my intention to retire into the country for repose through the closing evening of a day of exertion devoted perhaps with too uninterrupted intensity in favour of my various professional pursuits; and which I find my health and eyes now unequal to keep up with the same degree of incessant application as formerly.”

Ward was not yet 60. He and his second wife Charlotte moved to Roundcroft Cottage, Cheshunt, in Hertfordshire, and he lived there for nearly another 30 years. This self-portrait was painted at around the time they first took up residence.

Despite his gloomy outlook, Ward continued to paint for another twenty-six of those 30 years of retirement, at first traveling the countryside taking animal portrait commissions where he could. He needed the money. Ravager, One of the Lambton Hounds, from 1835, came from the celebrated pack that was bred for hunting by the renowned country gentleman, host, and huntsman Ralph Lambton, who was for many years Member of the House of Commons for Durham. Throughout the first three decades of the nineteenth-century, Lambton and his hounds led legendary hunting parties across rough unenclosed countryside that spanned more than fifty miles.

Ward was commissioned to paint a portrait of master and pack at the height of their prowess in 1820, titled Fox-hunting: Calling the hounds out of cover. Portraits of Ralph Lambton, Esq., his horse, Undertaker, and hounds, which you see in an engraving on the left. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1821. Our portrait was finished by Ward some years later, perhaps for a devotee in commemoration of Master Lambton’s much-lamented retirement. Ravager is nearly identical to the central hound in Ward’s original canvas, and emphasizes the superlative traits of this exceptionally effective hunting dog.

Finally, Ward painted Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, 1840. Between Ward’s first visits to Kenilworth and 1840, when he painted this picture using drawings from the earlier visits, Sir Walter Scott wrote Kenilworth (published in 1821). There, the castle emerges as a haunting ruin, a monument to the glory of England’s past. It also serves to remind the musing visitor of “the transitory value of human possessions, and the happiness of those who enjoy a humble lot in virtuous contentment.”

In retirement at Roundcroft, which you see in a painting dated 1838 (private collection) James Ward observed with dismay the rapid transformation of the English countryside, and, in particular, the gradual disappearance of rustic life and old-fashioned agrarian labor – human elements that are carefully invoked as foreground details in this view of Kenilworth. Ward’s painting gives nostalgic but clear and unclouded visual expression to Scott’s sense of foreboding about the future prospects of English country life.

I am sorry to say that the story has a sad ending: These gloomy words, which James Ward wrote in a letter to his daughter Matilda in 1852, convey nothing but disappointment: “I am not ashamed to say that I hate art!—as well my own as all other arts—To me now, an Exhibition of pictures is disgusting—and to read any thing about pictures in the newspapers or anywhere else makes me sick.” He told Matilda that he continued to paint because he thought it was his duty.

Despite this, Ward is, in the scope of his production and the variety of his interests and aptitudes, an artist who is supremely lovable. It is impossible not to love an artist who, (almost) clean-shaven, is prepared to publish a tract in which he expresses the view that all artists should wear beards. “Nature,” he wrote, “gave the beard; it is, therefore, unnatural to cut it off.”

This is the text of a public lecture I delivered at the opening of my exhibition, The Art of James Ward, at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Conn., Wednesday, May 20, 2004.

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