The August challenge
For the Silly Season I've set myself the challenge of visiting a different art exh bition on every day of the month and posting a blog about it. The shows will be chosen in a reasonably ad hoc way from public and commercial galleries, as well as particular museums and even the auction houses. Most will be in London; some may involve a day-trip out of town.
Exhibition: Jonathan Richardson by Himself
Place: The Courtauld Gallery, London
You might expect me to start with a blockbuster, but this is a modest offering at the Courtauld – an exhibition of twenty-odd drawings in graphite or chalk by the English artist and writer Jonathan Richardson the Elder, who was active across the end of the 17th century and the start of the 18th. Richardson is little known today, and in the broad sweep of art history would be a minor practitioner by any definition. Yet anyone specialising in 18th century aesthetics knows him as an important tastemaker and – with Joseph Addison – one of the first art theorists to publish his views in English.
Richardson (1667-1745) was a Londoner, the son of a silk weaver. The DNB tells me he was unhappily apprenticed six years to a scrivener before switching to art, training under the master John Riley and becoming successful enough eventually to be classed with Kneller, Jervas and Dahl as one of England’s elite portrait painters. Admittedly, this was when British portraiture was at one of the more leaden stages of its evolution, but Richardson was certainly a highly competent technician. He was also a great networker among artists and writers (he was a close friend of Alexander Pope) and a huge collector of Old Master drawings – 5000 of his were knocked down after his death in a sale that lasted 6 days.
This exhibition shows one of the more interesting sides to Richardson, his devotion over a seven or eight year period (c. 1728-35) to examining his own changing face through weekly self-portrait drawings. Fifty-five of these survive, in the pencil-like medium of graphite or in black and white chalks, all annotated with their exact dates. He started this process at the age of 61 and it may well be – as the curator Susan Owens argues – “one of the most remarkable projects of self-examination ever undertaken by an artist”.
No one is going to celebrate Richardson as a great original and you can easily see from this show where he got the idea of a programme of self-portraits from. Edging along one of the walls of the Courtauld’s new Gilbert and Ildika Butler Drawings Gallery I spot one graphite sketch and thought immediately “That looks like a Rembrandt!”. Richardson owned quite a few Rembrandt drawings and, unfashionably at the time, was a great advocate of the artist. He was also an excellent stylistic imitator of other artists (to do this was not then regarded as at all disreputable), and here at the Courtauld there are deliberate and skilful exercises in the styles of Holbein, Rubens, Bernini etc. etc.
As he got older Richardson became more meditative, and more literary, writing poetry reflecting on his life and his practice with brush and pen. In one poem he asks himself severely:
“Hast though apply’d with diligence and care,
Examin’d what thy prejudices are?”
Forthwith with steady heart this answer brought
“I, in my love of truth, the truth have sought.”
This is the mantra of art-speak throughout the 18th century (“Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” wrote Keats 80-odd years later) and Richardson arrogates the idea to himself with little regard for modesty. In fact many London intellectuals in his time thought Richardson a boastful windbag and tremendous coffee house bore. He was also contradictory, espousing idealised classicism at one moment, and rational scientific realism the next. That makes him a bit like my own favourite 18th century subject, George Stubbs.
Nevertheless he is rather endearing. He feuded with his other offspring but was very devoted to his son Jonathan the Younger: four of the portraits in the Courtauld are of him, and in these he looks very like his dad. Indeed Jonathan Senior called the younger edition “my other self” and also (for the purpose of researching their best-selling Grand Tour guide book An Account of some of the Statues, Bas-reliefs, Drawings and Pictures in Italy) “my eyes”. This was rather ironic as his son was famous for his myopia, and probably unable to see such works as the Sistine Chapel ceiling even though he reported back to his father in London with estimations of their excellence.
Richardson’s literary instincts were also rather sound. He was a passionate advocate of Milton at a time when the author of Paradise Lost was regarded as completely old hat. He also translated passages from The Divine Comedy, an extremely original thing to do.