This unexpectedly ambitious oil was painted by Maria Spilsbury and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1803. Spilsbury was a prolific and successful professional artist, who maintained a fashionable studio in St George’s Row, Hyde Park, exhibited prolifically and was patronised by a distinguished group of collectors, including the Prince Regent. Spilsbury produced hugely popular semi-religious and morally improving images which were widely consumed in early nineteenth-century Britain; this may account for the critical neglect she has suffered over the last two centuries. This previously unpublished painting, prepared for the competitive arena of the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition, shows what an ambitious and prescient technician Spilsbury in fact was. The multi-figural composition depicts a beautiful young woman teaching a class of young children in Sunday School, taking place within a cottage. The painting, in its moral message and setting, presaged the popularity of David Wilkie’s cottage interiors later in the decade. Purchased from the Academy by Shute Barrington, Bishop of Durham, the painting has remained with his descendants and largely unpublished until now.
Maria Spilsbury was the daughter of Jonathan Spilsbury a successful engraver and drawing master who taught at Harrow. Spilsbury trained initially with her father, she later took lessons with the successful portraitist and Royal Academician William Beechey. From 1792 Spilsbury exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, some forty-seven works in total before her move to Ireland in 1814 and from 1806 she submitted thirty-two paintings to the British Institution. The titles of her exhibited works demonstrate a remarkable range of subjects including portraits, often of children; genre scenes as well as illustrations to texts as diverse as Dr Johnson, William Cowper, James Thomson and the Bible. Spilsbury was most celebrated for her contemporary moralising subjects several of which appeared as popular prints.
As Charlotte Yeldham has demonstrated, the theme of education and specifically the role of women in Christian education was at the heart of Spilsbury’s work. Jonathan Spilsbury had been drawn to nonconformity and in 1781 he joined the Moravian church, Maria in turn, was brought up in a spirit of evangelicalism. In 1797 William Wilberforce’s A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christianity in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity was published. It was a hugely influential and popular text, considered a manifesto of the evangelical revival, it went through nine editions before 1811. Central to the text was Wilberforce’s belief in the importance of instructing and improving the young. Wilberforce considered the role of women vital in religious education, women were ‘the medium of our intercourse with the heavenly world, the faithful repositories of the religious principle, for the benefit both of the present and the rising generation.’ Wilberforce’s text coincided with the expansion of the Sunday School movement. Maria Spilsbury would have been aware of Hannah More’s success with her Mendip Schools for the poor. Both Wilberforce and More specifically targeted the wealthy, Wilberforce’s text freely criticising the values of the fashionable world. Against the background of the French Revolution, reinforcing Christian values in the ‘Higher and Middle Classes’ took on a political imperative.
It is within this context that Spilsbury’s work should be viewed. The present painting was one of eight she submitted to the Royal Academy in 1803 where it was entitled A Sunday-School. The painting shows an elegantly dressed young woman seated giving instruction to an assembled group of children in a cottage interior. Through the open windows Spilsbury gives a glimpse of an orderly English landscape with the tower of a parish church visible on the right, whilst a liveried groom waits with a carriage and pair outside the cottage. The implied narrative is clear, the elegant lady, apparently accompanied by her sister and mother is shown giving religious instruction to the village children, who are all shown in their Sunday best. The careful delineation of costume underscores the social stratification.
The painting is filled with carefully wrought details which amplify the central message of the narrative. A young boy is shown reading a book in the foreground, the text identifiable as John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Hanging on the back wall of the cottage beneath a tablet listing the Ten Commandments is a framed print made after one of Spilsbury’s own paintings, Blessed are the Meek, for they shall inherit the earth, engraved by her father and published in 1795, showing a poor young woman in a cottage interior. The cottage window is partly covered by a trellis covered in vines and bunches of grapes, a detail she includes in other paintings directly addressing the education of children. Yeldham has read this as an allusion to the analogy from the Book of John ‘I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.’
The scale and exceptional quality of A Sunday-School raises some important questions about Spilsbury and the place her work occupies in our accounts of British art at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Spilsbury’s sophisticated narrative of class cohesion set within a complex cottage interior immediately recall the work of David Wilkie. In 1806 Wilkie showed The Village Politicians at the Royal Academy, where it caused a sensation. The droll contemporary commentary, heavily reliant on the model of Teniers, spawned a whole school of painting, one that has been extensively discussed and chronicled. Yet Spilsbury remains conspicuously absent from these accounts. This is striking given that contemporaries were aware that her work was similar in character to that of Wilkie. Joseph Farington, for example, recorded in his diary the thoughts of the painter James Northcote on seeing Wilkie’s Village Politicians at the Royal Academy in May 1806. Northcote condemns Wilkie as a mere ‘imitation of Teniers’ before adding: ‘I prefer pictures painted by Miss Spilsberry; her thoughts are her own, and are often very natural and beautiful.’
Her works were certainly popular amongst contemporaries. A Sunday-School was acquired from Spilsbury by Dr Shute Barrington, Bishop of Durham. Barrington was a patron of some distinction, responsible for commissioning James Wyatt to remodel Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland. The subject of Spilsbury painting evidently appealed to Barrington, who had actively engaged in the promotion of religious education amongst the children of the rural poor. In 1785 Barrington, then Bishop of Salisbury, appointed Thomas Burgess as his domestic chaplain and commissioned him to write The Salisbury Spelling Book, an introductory manual for teaching reading and writing, which became a highly popular text in Sunday School classes. Spilsbury was therefore producing highly charged political works which found ready purchasers amongst the Anglican elite.
A second, reduced version of A Sunday-School is now at Tate Britain. Yeldham has associated this painting with one Spilsbury exhibited at the Royal Academy under the title Sunday Evening; a Young Lady Teaching Village Children to Sing in 1804. But it is unlikely Spilsbury would have shown the same composition at consecutive Royal Academy exhibitions under different titles, it is more likely that the success of A Sunday-School prompted Spilsbury to paint a reduced repetition, perhaps with possible publication in mind; the Tate painting remained with Spilsbury’s descendants until its donation to the gallery in 1937.
Preserved in excellent condition, housed within its original frame, A Sunday-School descended in the Barrington family until 2023. Previously unknown to historians, its reappearance forces us to reconsider the ambitions of professional female painters operating in London at the opening of the nineteenth century. 1803 saw Britain at war once more with France, Spilsbury’s canvas presents a sophisticated social-political essay at a time of domestic uncertainty. The implications of such a large painted statement on the walls of the Royal Academy poses valuable questions, not least about the ambitions of female painters in the opening years of the nineteenth century.
- Paris Spies-Gans, A Revolution on Canvas: The Rise of Women Artists in Britain and France, 1760-1830, New Haven and London, 2022, pp.142-143.
- Charlotte Yeldham, Maria Spilsbury (1776–1820), Artist and Evangelical, Farnham, 2010, pp.62-72.
- Spilsbury is not mentioned, for example, in important texts such as David Solkin, Painting out of the Ordinary: Modernity and the Art of Everyday Life in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain, New Haven and London, 2008.
- Ed. Kathryn Cave, The Diary of Joseph Farington, New Haven and London, 1982, vol.VII, p.2750.
- Charlotte Yeldham, Maria Spilsbury (1776–1820), Artist and Evangelical, Farnham, 2010, pp.70-71.