scanned directly from The London Gazetteer, 9th February, 1749.
British Art History
March 2015 AD
Although the above item, located by Mr Robert Cottrell and passed on to me in February 2015, is new, much of what I'm going to remark on and refer to here has already been noted elsewhere on this site. However, as Carroll's tintinnabulating nautical navigator once memorably announced: "What I tell you three times is true." Before I press the repeat button, I ask you to reflect deeply on the following choice pronouncements, extracted from John Carey's excellent little book What Good are the Arts ? published in 2005, page 15:
"When the structure of the object is such that its force interacts happily (but not too easily) with the energies that issue from the experience itself; when their mutual affinities and antagonisms work together to bring about a substance that develops cumulatively and surely (but not too steadily) towards a fulfilling of impulsions and tensions, then indeed there is a work of art."
This profound observation is by John Dewey, 1859-1952, US philosopher, psychologist, reformer. He wrote about epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, art, logic, social theory, and ethics. Those who may experience some difficulty in following Dewey's precise drift, might usefully consider the following, which says more or less the same thing, only purports to put it marginally more simply: Harold Osborne, 1905-87, proposed that a work of art is
"adapted to sustain aesthetic contemplation in a suitably trained and prepared observer."
This sublime, though tautological, insight is also drawn from John Carey's stimulating assessment of the true value of art, and the mental contortions of its high priests. Carey has, however, slimmed the sentence down a little from its context in Aesthetics and Art Theory, 1968, pp 10-11, which reads "The critical criterion to this attitude of interest (ie interest in a work of art created in its own right rather than as a copy of another section of reality) is therefore the aptness of a work of art for appreciation, the degree in which a work of art is adapted to sustain contemplation in a suitably trained and prepared observer." Competes neck-and-neck with Dewey, in fact. If you want to experience mild mental pain, try reading some Harold Osborne.
How is the glowing eulogy to Monamy which appeared in the London Gazetteer in February, 1749, to be reconciled with the pile of critical dreck addressing his oeuvre which gradually built up from about 1870 to 1970 ? Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, a Prussian aristocrat born in 1884, and shot while confined at Dachau in 1945, was the author of a book titled Diary of a Man in Despair. I am reminded of this attractive title when reflecting on my attempts to shed light on the history of British painting, 1700-1750. Until my ship comes in, the dominant sensation is of despair, lightly leavened with revulsion and disgust, occasioned by a realisation of the near-total indifference to integrity and truth demonstrated by the art-historical fraternity, and especially those art historians, so-called, offering their pronouncements on the C18th English marine painting genre. Not to mention the academic nonentities and ethical mediocrities that infest the art market. Occasional exceptions exist, though. See here for intelligent, well-informed enlightenment. Another very reasonable account, albeit brief, can be found here.
The reasons for the discrepancy between Monamy's standing in 1749, and his standing in 1970, have virtually nothing to do with a genuinely objective and well-researched history of British Art, but are attributable to religion, politics, inverted nationalism, snobbery, capricious fashion and a slew of heavily biased but highly influential commentators, starting with George Vertue, closely followed by Horace Walpole. In the Edinburgh Review, 1833, Lord Macaulay had this to say: " .... as the pâté-de-foie-gras owes its excellence to the diseases of the wretched animal which furnishes it, and would be good for nothing if it were not made of livers preternaturally swollen, so none but an unhealthy and disorganised mind could have produced such literary luxuries as the works of Walpole." See here. In 1824, Lord Liverpool, then occupied as Britain's longest-serving Prime Minister, in a letter to John Wilson Croker, anticipated Macaulay's verdict on Horace Walpole, thus: "I believe Horace Walpole to have been as bad a man as ever lived; I cannot call him a violent party man, he had not virtue enough." Croker, Secretary to the Admiralty, replied "..... there never lived a more calumnious writer", and added he had felt it necessary, in The Quarterly Review, April 1822, "to sift his truth from his malevolence", so that Walpole might not "poison the minds of posterity".
Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer
And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer.
1. Religion. Neither Horace Walpole nor Peter Monamy give evidence of having been excessively religious. Nevertheless, religion, if we dig deep enough, would appear to have been the root cause of such animosity as may well be suspected between Monamy and the Walpoles. There is Walpole's curious mention of "the views of his family" in his sneeringly revised and curtailed version of Vertue's original account of Monamy's life and work --- which is itself defective and deficient in several ways.
Wapole's family background included several Jesuits, as well as an active agent in the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy. See here. The circumstantial evidence points almost conclusively to the origin of the Monamy family in Guernsey as consisting of Marrano refugees from the Spanish, or more probably Portuguese, Inquisition. See here. George Vertue was himself a low-profile Roman Catholic, though of greater integrity and conscience than Walpole.
2. Politics. Between the C17th and C18th, in England, religion shaded easily into politics. Nobody important during the C18th truly cared any longer what a man's religion was, provided his politics were sound: ie agreed with what was generally considered the national interest. This would be the expansion of trade, at the expense of Spain, France and Holland. Premier Minister Walpole, however, exhibited "extreme reluctance to engage in war.....to resist the aggressions of Spain and France". Why was that, one wonders ? Could it possibly be because of the memory of his sainted forebear, Henry Walpole, and all the other Jesuitical Walpoles ? Could Monamy's evident, though muted, anti-Walpolism, and concomitant anti-George the secondism, be because of his Catholic-persecuted forebears ?
3. Anti-nationalism. It has been observed that in the history of the world there is only one revolution. The question is: Who are the good guys ? Nationalism has become an unfashionable ism since 1940, and no longer the ideology of the good guys. In 1740, however, the word was that Britons never, never should be slaves. Rule Britannia did not appeal, though, to those who believed that Papa knew best, and those who thought that tended to be dictators of taste, who frowned on the marine genre. Unless a lot of buildings were introduced, and the water was not turbulent. Canaletto ? But no Bonnie Prince was going to enslave a true-born Briton --- not if Sampson Gideon had anything to do with it.
4. Snobbery. The snobbery of Horace Wapole is excruciating. Woodcock "of a gentleman's family" gets a biography double the length of Monamy's. See here for excruciating Walpole. Moreover, the more distant the grass, the greener it gets. Dead Christs from Italy are infinitely more desirable than anything home-grown. I'm reminded that "authentic Rembrandt paintings now stand at barely 300" . By 1860, "perhaps as many as 15,000 collectors and institutions believed they owned an original and authentic Rembrandt painting" Aspiring snobbery defeats good judgement, every time. Why actually trouble to look at the blasted daub ? "Foreign ornamentation" is, or was, the aesthete's ticket.
5. Fashion. It's generally acknowledged that there's no point in discussing, or disputing, taste. There's even less point in explaining fashion. Marine paintings, in certain circles, are not fashionable, although sometimes unaccountably popular.
Francis Holman, d .1790. From Ellis Waterhouse: The Dictionary of British 18th Century Painters. 1981.
Waterhouse has to be accounted a bird of the same feather as Sir Roy Strong.
6. Connoisseurship. Paintings disappear into collections, and may be lost sight of for decades, if not centuries. Consequently, very often, those with pretensions to connoisseurship are, more often than not, distinguished for their ignorance. They gather their judgements from what has been written in the past. It tells them what to say.
|At left is an excerpt from a review of the Monamy and Brooking exhibition in 2009. This is by an acclaimed reviewer and art connoisseur. We know he is acclaimed. He tells us so himself, several times. But, knowing nothing about marine painters, he seeks guidance from Bénézit.|
You can't go far wrong if you say Monamy is an interesting artist. Even if you're promoting Brooking.
Excerpt from Bénézit, Dictionnaire, 1966 edition. Errors in Red.
The truth, as Roger de Piles memorably remarked, is that: "There are some curious men who form an idea of a master, by the sight of three or four of his pictures; and who, after this, believe they have a sufficient authority to decide what his manner is; without considering what care the painter took about them, and what age he was of when he drew them. ..... There is none also that had not his beginning, his progress, and his end; that is to say, three manners." This comes from the English translation of his Art of Painting, first published in 1706.
"History is something to be created rather than learned". So said George Orwell. Art history, like the art market and art itself, is a morass of illusion, confusion and pretension mired in ignorance, indifference, stupidity, greed, deception and mendacity, and has little in common with truth, as thinkers from Plato onwards have suspected. Try Iris Murdoch: The Fire & The Sun, why Plato banished the artists. The focus here is on Peter Monamy, and therefore the problems are even greater than otherwise. One correspondent has put it as follows. He wrote: "I read that many historians believe that many of the paintings attributed to Monamy may have, in fact, been created by others during a period where this type of art was becoming very popular, and presumably profitable, and I gather it is virtually impossible to make any certain determination with regard to work that is attributed to Monamy." Difficult no doubt, but not necessarily impossible. It is very possible to accumulate a record of those paintings which can be confidently attributed to Monamy, for historical and other reasons, to develop thereby an appreciation of his true manner, and the manner characteristic of his studio, and then to judge other works accordingly.
This logical and rational approach, striven for on this website, is rarely adopted by anyone else --- so far as I can tell. Consider, for instance, the existence of a site which appeared not long ago, entitled Art Finder. This now, March 2015, seems to have disappeared, but it claimed to present 31 works by Peter Monamy. Seventeen of these could reasonably be endorsed as genuine products of the Monamy enterprise, although one of them was presented back to front, and at least three of them were wildly mis-titled. The dates assigned to several of them were arbitrary, and almost certainly quite wrong. At least seven of them were definitely not by him, or his studio, and were very probably not even painted during his lifetime. The site seems to have been replaced by other "findings", which, in the case of Monamy, appear to be only slightly less inaccurate..
for more fascinating items from the portfolio of curiosities
another art-historical page: a bone to pick with sir roy
"The greatest historical heresy that a writer can commit in the eyes of many English readers
is to tell them the truth."
Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee, 1747 - 1813, author, translator and lawyer.