…has launched today! – visit the website What Jane Saw and you can follow Jane Austen as she tours the exhibit!
The perfect time-travel adventure – it is May 24, 1813 – what do you see?…
From the website: [
On 24 May 1813, Jane Austen visited an important and much-talked-about art exhibit at the British Institution in Pall Mall, London. The show was a retrospective of the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), England’s celebrated portrait painter.
No visual record of this show is known to have survived, although it attracted hundreds of daily visitors during its much-publicized three-month run. However, many details of the exhibit can be reconstructed from the original 1813 “Catalogue of Pictures,” a one-shilling pamphlet purchased by visitors as a guide through the three large rooms where hung 141 paintings by Reynolds. Armed with surviving copies of this pamphlet, narrative accounts in nineteenth-century newspapers and books, and precise architectural measurements of the British Institution’s exhibit space, this website reconstructs the Reynolds show as Jane Austen (as well as any Jane Doe) saw it.
I. Why reconstruct this museum exhibit from 1813?
In truth, even if Jane Austen had not attended this public exhibit, it would still be well worth reconstructing. The British Institution’s show was a star-studded “first” of great magnitude for the art community and a turning point in the history of modern exhibit practices. The 1813 show amounted to the first commemorative exhibition devoted to a single artist ever staged by an institution. Although Reynolds, who had died a mere twenty-one years earlier, did not yet qualify as an Old Master, he was already hailed as the founder of the British School and celebrated as a model for contemporary artists to emulate. The preface to the exhibit catalogue, written by Richard Payne Knight, treats the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds as a national treasure in order “to call attention generally to British, in preference to Foreign Art” (Knight, 9). Knight allows that some of Reynolds’ paintings are better than others, likening the show to a pedagogical tool for artists and connoisseurs. He also insists upon the show’s modernity, hailing “the genuine excellence of modern” artists over the work of their forbearers (Knight, 9). In light of the coverage it received in the popular press and the London crowds that attended, the British Institution’s Reynolds exhibit presaged the modern museum blockbuster.
In the age before the photograph, portraits of the rich and famous were often reproduced by engravers as inexpensive prints. These black and white reproductions circulated Reynolds’ images of contemporary celebrities widely, providing pinups to the middling consumer. In this manner, Reynolds’ works functioned as the modern photographs of Annie Leibovitz do today, making it hard to say whether he recorded or created celebrity with his art. Wherever possible, the light-boxes in the e-exhibit therefore show an early engraving as well as the original canvas. Reynolds’ portraits of “abnormally interesting people” whom we now term celebrities offer concrete examples of just how someone like Austen, who did not personally circulate among the social elite, was nonetheless immersed in England’s vibrant celebrity culture (Roach, 1).
More questions are answered under the About WJS page:
- Is there a connection between this exhibit and Jane Austen’s fiction?
- Who, other than the Austens, attended this 1813 exhibit?
- How did visitors in 1813 experience the British Institution?
- Did the Catalogue function as a museum guide in 1813?
- How historically accurate is this website?
- Room for interpretation and improvement
- Works Cited / Site Credits
It is a rainy weekend here in Vermont – what better way to spend a few hours but at such an exhibition as this!
- Janine Barchas on her project at the 18th-Century Common website
- New Tork Times: An Exhibit Set in 1813 Takes and Austen’s-Eye View
- What Jane Saw on facebook:
- English Dept at UTexas on the launch:
- several links at JAIV here:
Sir Joshua Reynolds
Janine Barchas is Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity (Johns Hopkins University Press, August 2012). Her first book, Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel (Cambridge UP, 2003), won the SHARP book prize for best work in the field of book history. Her newest project is the website What Jane Saw (www.whatjanesaw.org).
c2013 Jane Austen in Vermont