... Beauty's living image, like the Morn
That wakes in Zephyr's arms the blushing May,
Moves onward; or as Venus, when she stood
Effulgent on the pearly car, and smild
Fresh from the deep, and conscious of her form,
To see the tritons tune their vocal shells,
And each cerulean sister of the flood
With loud acclaim attend her oer the waves
To see the Idalian bower...
What was happening in British history painting in around 1800? In recent discussions of the emergence of a British School of history painting following the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768, this is a question which is rarely posed and one which is not easily answered. Examination of surviving Royal Academy exhibition catalogues reveals a profusion of artists’ names and titles, few of which remain immediately recognizable, whilst endeavours to explain the impact of exhibition culture on painting - such as the 2001 Courtauld show Art on the Line - have tended to focus on the first and second generation of Royal Academician, rather than young or aspiring artists in the early nineteenth century. This makes the recent discovery and identification of the work under discussion of exceptional importance in making sense of currents in English painting around 1800. Executed by Edward Dayes and exhibited in the Great Room at Somerset House in the summer of 1800, it is a remarkable essay in the aspirations of historical painting and the Reynoldsian ‘grand manner’ from a painter more generally known for his topographical watercolours. It stands simultaneously as a compelling document of Dayes’s attempts to use the apparatus of history painting to advance his career and perfect example of the Academy aesthetic in the decade after the death of Reynolds.
Edward Dayes was one of the most highly regarded topographical draughtsman of the second half of the eighteenth century but it was known that towards the end of his career – which was cut tragically short by his suicide in 1804 – he exhibited a number of historical works at the Royal Academy. The appearance of a sketchbook containing over 100 studies for historical compositions raised the possibility that a number of previously unattributed subject-pictures may in fact be by Dayes. Amongst the designs is a small wash study for the Origins of Beauty.
Born in 1763, he was apprenticed to the mezzotinter and miniaturist William Pether and entered the Royal Academy Schools on 6 October 1780. He made his début at the academy in 1786, showing in the next few years a mixture of portraits, miniatures, topographical watercolours, and figure subjects; in all Dayes showed sixty-four works at the Royal Academy. Dayes rapidly established himself as a successful draughtsman for the print trade, undertaking commissions at every level. Eleven plates after his works were engraved for the Copper Plate Magazine between 1794 and 1797, and he contributed more than forty scenes for John Aiken's Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles Round Manchester published in 1795. In 1789 Thomas Girtin was apprenticed to Dayes and whilst he is always seen as representing the antithesis of Girtin and Turner’s Romantic approach to watercolour, their earliest works are in fact indistinguishable from Dayes’s. What is more, Dayes's Instructions for Drawing and Colouring Landscapes (1805) suggests he was an innovative thinker on professional practice and on the teaching of watercolour techniques, including sketching in colours from nature.
From 1798 Dayes spent an increasing amount of his time painting scenes from the Bible and from the works of Dryden and Milton. His diary for 1798 gives a detailed account of his work on four watercolours, including the striking image of The Fall of the Angels (exh. RA, 1798; Tate collection). The following year he began the present canvas in oils, a move that was a logical progression for Dayes, ambitious for a career as a serious history painter. For the subject matter Dayes turned to the work of the mid-eighteenth century poet, Mark Akenside. In the 1800 exhibition catalogue published by the Academy, Dayes included seven lines from Akenside’s 1744 didactic poem, The Pleasures of the Imagination to inform the subject of the Origins of Beauty. Dayes’s composition was both a literal transcription of Akenside’s account of a standing ‘Venus’ in her ‘pearly car’, surrounded by ‘Tritons’ and ‘cerulean sister[s] of the flood’, and a distillation of the poet’s Platonic concept of beauty itself.
The extent of Dayes's ambition was underlined in his theoretical ‘Essays on painting’, published in the Philosophical Magazine for 1801–2, which outlined the ideal method for preparing an historical composition. Dayes commended the young painter to begin with a rough sketch, which he was to ‘prune or add till the whole comes into perfect ordonnance,’ adding finally ‘complete the whole by slightly tinting it.’ A ‘tinted’ drawing of the composition survives in the British Museum sketchbook revealing Dayes’s debt to the Medici Venus in the conception of the figure. But Dayes’s composition had more immediate precedents than the antique. In 1772 James Barry had shown his Venus Rising from the Sea (Dublin City Art Gallery) at the Academy. The study in the British Museum sketchbook, gives an idea of the original composition, which included Cupid seated in the clouds, bow in hand, to the right of Venus. This detail recalled Barry’s composition, where Cupid is seen standing behind Venus on a bank of cloud. Recent analysis has shown that it was an element which Dayes included in his initial execution of the design, along with putti seated in the clouds to the left of Venus, but decided to paint them out before completing the picture.
The choice of subject was remarkably in tune with other pictures in the 1800 exhibition. Benjamin West showed Venus at her Birth Attired by the Graces (private collection). West’s Venus is posed very similarly to Dayes’s, with one hand raised to her head and the face shown in profile, although the palette and execution are completely different. Dayes follows his own suggestions as articulated in his essays, that handling and colour should reflect the subject matter of the painting. Thus the figure of Venus is finely modelled, ‘clean and fair’ in a blond palette, whilst the tritons are ‘dusky or muddy’ by contrast painted in a reddish-brown tone.
The painting was well placed in the Great Room, but in the end it received relatively little critical notice, its proximity to a canvas by the Academy’s President of a similar subject and format cannot have helped. It was not a propitious moment for Dayes to embark upon a career as a history painter. The apparent opportunities offered by entrepreneurial publishers, such as John Boydell and Charles Macklin, had ended in financial disaster by 1800; a situation compounded by the end of the European market for luxury goods brought about by the Napoleonic wars. Another consequence of which, was that London was flooded with fine old master paintings dislodged from the Continent - the exhibition of the Italian paintings from the Orléans collection in Pall Mall had opened in December 1798 - serving to depress the market for contemporary works. Dayes’s composition exemplified the type of paintings which were being produced for the Royal Academy in around 1800.
- M. Akenside (1721-1770) The Pleasures of Imagination, 1744 (1772 edition, rev. 1805), Book 1, p.27 ll. 329-335.
- London, British Museum, Edward Dayes Sketchbook: 201 * a.20, no. 1993 5. 8.1-130; no. 91.
- E. Dayes, 1805, p.237.
- H. Von Erffa and A. Stalley, The Paintings of Benjamin West, New Haven and London, 1986, cat. no. 157.