Rococo, Classicism and Romanticism in the Walker Art Gallery

'The Annual Girandola at the Castel Sant' Angelo, Rome|', Joseph Wright of Derby

Liverpool’s growth from a minor estuary port to England’s second city, which took place in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, was matched by her development into one of the country’s most significant provincial artistic centres.

Outside the city, local landed patrons such as the Earls of Derby and Henry Blundell of Ince perpetuated an essentially aristocratic taste; but the access of mercantile wealth led to the emergence of both a new collector class and a local school of artists comparable to those which flourished in Norwich and Bristol.

By the 1820s the Liverpool Academy, first mooted only a year after the foundation of the Royal Academy in London, was firmly established, while the depth and vitality of picture collecting in the city at this time can be gauged, for example, by the Royal Institution’s Old Masters exhibition in 1823.

The twenty six eighteenth century British pictures included in this show provide a fascinating anticipation of later civic taste in works of the national school: the Grand Style, a handful of landscapes by Wilson excepted, is conspicuously absent, and the rustic and fanciful predominates, from smugglers and gypsies by Morland and Loutherbourg to the essentially provincial visions of Wright of Derby|, among which was a version of his ‘Girandola at the Castel Sant’ Angelo|’.

The gallery’s own Girandola, presented in 1880, was almost the first significant eighteenth-century British painting to enter the collection. From then until the First World War, acquisitions in that sphere were dominated by the early Liverpool school and artists with strong local or north western connections such as (Wright apart) John Rathbone (‘the Manchester Wilson’) and George Stubbs|.

Acquisitions in the 20th century

Detail from ‘Horse frightened by a lion|’, George Stubbs

The purchase of Stubbs’s ‘Horse frightened by a lion|’ in 1910 was by far the gallery’s outstanding achievement with eighteenth-century British art for the best part of sixty years. The great market boom in later Georgian art, so significant an element in the creation of the Lady Lever Art Gallery| in Port Sunlight, was not very apparent in the development of the Walker Art Gallery where figures such as Reynolds| - and also Constable and Turner| - were represented for years by pastiches or even forgeries.

After the First World War early British art continued to be neglected until a watershed was reached in 1935. The purchase in that year of Richard Wilson’s masterpiece ‘Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle|’ marked the gallery’s recognition that its holdings of ‘classic’ British art were inadequate, and the start of a policy of purchasing representative works by most of the leading eighteenth-century names.

Conversation pieces and portraits

David Garrick as Richard III|’, William Hogarth

In the next twenty years, the Walker Art Gallery sought out first-rate examples of the conversation piece (by Devis, Zoffany and Gawen Hamilton); the society portrait (Ramsay, Cotes, Highmore); a classic horse-portrait by Stubbs (‘Molly Longlegs|’) and finally a magnificent example of that quintessentially British genre, the theatrical portrait, Hogarth’s ‘David Garrick as Richard III|').

Also in the same period were added representative seventeenth and early eighteenth century works (Johnson, Dobson, Lely, Kneller, Dahl) and museum-quality works by Constable and Turner.

This twenty year period in mid-century provided an essential platform for the gallery’s most recent phase of collecting eighteenth and early nineteenth century art, in which specialist bias has replaced the search for the representative. Major works which nevertheless possess a local significance and enhance our understanding of Liverpool culture in the period have dominated acquisitions over the last thirty years.

Notable amongst them are the great Gainsborough full-length of the first Countess of Sefton|, portraits made in Liverpool by Wright of Derby and (remarkably) George Stubbs, and sculpture by the great Liverpool-trained neo-classicist John Gibson ('The Tinted Venus|'), together with works by his followers. The effects of this latest phase have been not only to reinforce quality but also to set in renewed relief some of the tensions to be felt in Liverpool as a provincial cradle of art in a dynamic period of creative endeavour.