See below for a review of the new exhibition and catalogue 'Catching Sight: The World of the British Sporting Print', which is open at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from August 31 2013 - July 13 2014.
Take a look at our Exhibitions page to see newly-confirmed exhibitions for 2014!
Sporting Art of the Dukes of Grafton
November 2013: In November, the British Sporting Art Trust held its annual Paul Mellon Lecture. We were thrilled to welcome as our guest lecturer the wildlife sculpture, Hamish Mackie. Hamish spoke about his life and work and gave an interesting insight into the processes involved in creating his sculpture.
Contractor appointed to build The National Heitage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art.
The £15 million 'Home of Horseracing' project is now one step closer with the appointment of GRAHAM Construction. The National Heritage Centre for Horse racing and Sporting Art will see the National Horseracing Museum and British Sporting Art Trust move from their present location next ot the Jockey Club on Newmarket High Street to Palace House, the surviving portion of Charles II's racing palace in the town centre. The five acre site will also create space for the retraining of Racehores charity to give live demonstrations of its work for the first time.
Peter Jensen Chairman of Home of Horseracing Trust and BSAT said "After eight years of fundraising we are delighted that we are now on our way. It is most enouraging that we are planning the opening towards the end of 2015 so I am pleased to say that bringing the project to reality will take far less time than evolving the dream."
If you would like to get involved and donate towards the project, we would love to hear from you. Simply click on 'full contact details' to the right.
Mitchell Merling, Malcolm Cormack, and Corey PiperCatching Sight: The World of the British Sporting PrintExh. cat. Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2013.124 pp.; 165 color ills. Paper $35.95 (9781934351031)
Sarah Cantor - Fellow, Garden and Landscape Studies, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), home to a sizeable part of the Paul Mellon Collection of Sporting Art and the largest permanent display of British sporting art in the world, provides an ideal venue for a show dedicated to the presentation of sporting prints. While there have been recent exhibitions on sporting painting and sculpture, including Country Pursuits at VMFA in 2007, this is the first large-scale exhibition on prints outside of galleries and auction houses. Accompanied by a beautifully illustrated catalogue, the exhibition endeavors to locate this genre within the context of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British artistic production, and also encourages visitors to consider sporting prints as worthy of “critical art-historical interpretation” (vii). The exhibition is successful in this regard, presenting not only grand mezzotints after romantic paintings by George Stubbs, but also remarkable works in aquatint by artists who specialized in racing scenes, demonstrating the range of subject matter, style, and innovation of a genre that has often been dismissed as derivative and decorative popular art. Images of hunting have appeared in art since the medieval period, and prints after paintings of animal hunts became popular in the seventeenth century. The first English artist to produce sporting prints was Francis Barlow, who published a series of hunting scenes in book form in 1671, and other artists soon followed suit, producing both reproductive prints after their paintings and independent prints. The market for these prints proved to be expansive, spanning the continent and into the United States, and, unlike paintings, which only the nobility could afford, sporting prints hung on walls in homes, taverns, stables, and inns, reaching a far wider audience.
The large exhibition space, next to the main Mellon Galleries, is divided into three rooms arranged chronologically—moving from the eighteenth century, to the early nineteenth century, and finally the second quarter of the nineteenth century—across the galleries. Selected entirely from the Mellon Collection, which comprises over seven hundred prints, the eighty-one works in the exhibition were purchased by Mellon primarily in 1965 from the collection of the Duke of Gloucester, son of George V, and from major dealers in London. The catalogue features three thematic essays by Malcolm Cormack, Paul Mellon Curator Emeritus; Mitchell Merling, current Paul Mellon Curator and Head of the Department of European Art at VMFA; and Corey Piper, former curatorial associate for the Mellon Collections. Additionally, it includes a checklist of works in the exhibition (but not separate and detailed catalogue entries) with full inscriptions arranged alphabetically by artist, and an appendix of “wrappers,” or outer covers, designed by publishers as bindings for the prints (usually released in series), which contain additional information about each set.
The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue fill a considerable gap in scholarship by exploring the context of sporting prints in terms of technical and stylistic history, the artists and publishers involved in the production of the works, and the rise of British sporting culture. The few previous surveys on sporting prints have been mostly basic catalogues rather than studies of the social history and role of the prints. The authors of Catching Sight build upon the groundbreaking work on the history of sporting art by Stephen Deuchar, one of the earliest scholars to explore how paintings of hunting and racing contributed to the formation of British views on sport. Most previous scholars dismissed these paintings as documentary, unproblematic images of places and events (particularly racing scenes) or of sporting culture, rather than as complex representations that engage in cultural commentary. Deuchar, in Sporting Art in Eighteenth-Century England: A Social and Political History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), however, argued that such paintings exemplified an idealized view of the proper nobleman and his role in society and, late in the century, embodied notions of patriotism and traditional British values in reaction to the French Revolution. Cormack, Merling, and Piper also draw on the greater awareness of social issues and meaning in British art presented by scholars like John Barrell (The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting, 1730–1840, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980) and recent forays by Diana Donald into the cultural history of animals in Britain (Picturing Animals in Britain, 1750–1850, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) and by Emma Griffin on hunting (Blood Sport: Hunting in Britain since 1066, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007). Dudley Snelgrove’s catalogue, British Sporting and Animal Prints, 1658–1874 (London: Tate Gallery for the Yale Center for British Art, 1981), of the Mellon Collection of Sporting Prints serves as a foundation for all three essays, but in Catching Sight, the authors move beyond a basic timeline and classification system for the prints to locate the works within their cultural framework and establish sporting prints as more than merely records of life in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain.
Cormack’s essay, “The Making and Marketing of the British Sporting Print,” presents a broad economic and technical history of the genre, providing a detailed account of dealers and publishers of sporting prints and a well-written overview of the various printing methods employed by artists. Cormack’s text places the Mellon prints within the history of European printmaking and explores how the producers of sporting prints exploited innovative techniques, like the tonal variations made possible through aquatint, which was introduced into England in 1771. This analysis, however, is lacking from the actual exhibition. The only discussion of technique is found in a single text describing the importance of mezzotint as an expressive medium. The opportunity to illustrate the importance of color printing and the originality of sporting prints in comparison to the paintings hanging in the adjacent galleries is thus overlooked.
In “The Aesthetics of the British Sporting Print,” Merling effectively argues for the modernity and inventiveness of the artists producing sporting prints, who, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, developed their own particular styles to define the genre, independent of the definition of “high art” as dictated by the Royal Academy. By examining the artists included in the exhibition, from those who specialized in sporting art, such as James Seymour and Henry Alken, to Joseph Wright of Derby and George Morland, who produced rustic scenes but were not specialists, Merling’s essay offers a comprehensive overview of the various types of prints that today are grouped under the heading of sporting art. Through a careful reading of the originality of artists like Stubbs, whose insistence on naturalism and observation inspired other artists, and Seymour, whose simplified compositions focused attention on animals, Merling refutes the trend of categorizing sporting prints into a single style and assuming a single level of meaning. Additionally, Merling addresses the various modes of social commentary expressed in the idealized vision of the country in the work of Morland and the sympathetic treatment of horses in Sawrey Gilpin and Alken compared to the overt moralizing or satirical tones of Thomas Rowlandson or Isaac Cruikshank.
The final essay, Piper’s “The Social World of the British Sporting Print,” describes the changes in British society that led to the rise of sporting culture as well as the various figures depicted in hunting scenes. In the eighteenth century, after the institution of laws that ended common grazing land and introduced a new standard defining which property owners could hunt, many sports became privileges limited to elite classes. Piper uses the work of Deuchar, as well as recent publications by historians such as Griffin, whose work provides a greater understanding of the effect of sport on national identity, which was tied to conventional ideas of social order and traditional values. As Piper writes, these representations of the world of sport, once dismissed by scholars as decorative images for an elite stratum of British society, are instead “significant as works of art that not only reflect the intense social change of the period but participated in the larger ideological and cultural currents surrounding the countryside, sport, and class interaction” (53).
The exhibition could have benefitted from a shift to a primarily thematic layout rather than a chronological one as the juxtapositions that illustrate the themes in the essays are often lost. Additional texts addressing the arrangement of each wall would have also aided in expressing the ideas covered in the catalogue. While the essays thoroughly present the different levels of meaning in the selected works in terms of messages on morality, the proper conduct of sportsmen, and the cultural history of the genre, these overarching and linked themes are somewhat lost in the individual labels. On its own, the exhibition effectively demonstrates that these striking images are indeed worthy of consideration by art historians, but it does not fully convey the complex and critical reading of society that is fleshed out in the three catalogue essays. Taken together, however, the exhibition and catalogue provide the best scholarly consideration of British sporting prints available, moving beyond the simple identification of artist and subject in earlier texts on such works and presenting readers and viewers with an in-depth cultural context and history of an often overlooked genre. The exhibition and catalogue successfully argue that sporting prints are not simple records of daily life, but complex images that deserve scholarly attention.
'Catching Sight: The World of the British Sporting Print' is open at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from 31 August 2013 - 13 July 2014.
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