The Georgian era in England was a time of extremes where the division between rich and poor has perhaps never been so stark or so visible, when the fine silk of wealth would quite literally rub shoulders with the germ infested rags of poverty.
The laws imposed to secure these divisions were draconian and brutal but it was also a time of unprecedented refinement, elegance, and well-mannered gentility that continues to attract and enchant to this day.
Whereas the harsh reality of life was reflected in the work of artists such as William Hogarth and the hypocrisy that underpinned it in the satire of writers such as Jonathan Swift its landscape, its grace, its splendour, its preoccupations, and the images that today form our collective memory of life in Georgian England were captured in the work of the five great artists who are the subject of this article:
He was born in the village of East Bergholt on the River Stour in Suffolk on 11 June 1776.
His father was a wealthy merchant who owned Flatford Mill and it was intended that the young John would one day take over the running of the family business but he had other ideas preferring to draw the Mill rather than try to understand its mechanics, and so when the opportunity came to do so he declined it instead deciding to move to London to pursue his love of art.
He is most famous now for his paintings of the countryside around the family home in the Dedham Vale, many taken from sketches he had made as a child, that is now often referred to as “Constable Country”.
Although he remains one of the most popular artists in the world he was not always so well-considered at the time selling more paintings abroad than he ever sold in England.
He was felt to be one-dimensional and an artist who could not turn his hand to other things though he did try but found portraiture, and indeed landscape painting without human interaction to be dull and essentially empty.
Despite his fame today and the iconic status of his landscape The Haywain he sold fewer than 20 paintings in England during his lifetime and was not admitted to the Royal Academy until he was already aged 52.
Constable died on 31 March 1837, aged 60, of heart failure.
He had suffered from depression in the last years of his life it being said that he had never truly recovered from the loss of his wife and childhood sweetheart Maria, a decade earlier.
Like Constable he was a Suffolk man born in the town of Sudbury though to more modest means, his father was a weaver who also bought and sold woolen goods. He had enough money however to send his talented son to study art as an apprentice in London.
It was during his apprenticeship that he met and later married the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort.
Even though this did not exactly gain him access to the higher echelons of society it was a good marriage and provided him with an annuity of £200 that allowed him to focus entirely on his art though it was not enough to keep him in London and he returned to Suffolk.
Gainsborough’s great love was landscape painting but he realised early that if he was to make his fortune it would be in portraiture. It was the correct decision and as his reputation grew the commissions increased so much so that he was able to move his family back to London, and in 1769 he became a founding member of the Royal Academy.
The following year he painted The Blue Boy, believed to be Jonathan Buttall, the son of a wealthy merchant it is considered a classic of portrait painting and is the work for which he is best remembered today.
In 1780 his status was assured when he was commissioned to paint the portrait of King George III and Queen Charlotte who were so impressed that he was to remain the Royal Family’s favoured artist, though not in any official capacity.
Thomas Gainsborough died on 2 August 1788, aged 61, a very wealthy man:
Sir Joshua Reynolds
He was born on 16 July 1723 in Plympton, Devon, the son of a wealthy Church Minister and Schoolmaster and was to become the pre-eminent portrait artist of his day, though he was sometimes mocked for the often grand poses he permitted his subjects to take.
He had been an earnest young boy given to intellectual pursuits rather than play and his talent for both art and academia were early recognised and he was apprenticed aged sixteen to the portrait painter Thomas Hudson in London.
His talent for portraiture was apparent and it wasn’t long before he was earning commissions of his own and at the height of his fame he could charge as much as £100 a painting, or the equivalent of £5000 today. He was also a prodigious worker and would often have as many as six private sittings, three in the morning and three in the afternoon.
He became very rich very quickly which allowed him to indulge his intellectual pursuits and he became friends with such eminent Georgians such as Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Sheridan, and David Garrick.
He was appointed the first President of the Royal Academy in 1769 and fifteen years later became the official Royal Artist, known as the Principal Painter in Ordinary.
He received a knighthood in 1786.
Sir Joshua Reynolds died on 23 February 1792, aged 68, his passing much lamented by the intellectual elite who missed it could be said his sometimes flattering brushstrokes.
Was a man who spent much of his life in obscurity being the son of a leather worker from Liverpool who initially at least followed in his father’s footsteps. He was determined however to indulge his abiding interest which lay not so much in art but in anatomy which he studied in his spare time at York County Hospital.
In 1766 he published a book that was the result of his studies – the Anatomy of the Horse.
Such was the intricacy and accuracy of his drawings that they soon came to the attention of a wealthy landowning elite for whom horse racing was the Sport of Kings.
They were eager to preserve the image of their much cherished stallions for posterity and were willing to pay a great deal of money to do so.
His most famous painting is that of Whistlejacket commissioned by the Marquess of Rockingham which was a sensation portraying a horse as it had never been seen before.
George Stubbs was to die on 10 July 1806 not only extremely wealthy but also perhaps as the most admired artist of his day.
Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in Covent Garden, London, on 23 April 1775.
He was the son of a barber and is the only one of our artists whose work straddles and reflects both the Georgian and Victorian eras. He is also the most controversial and if Constable can be said to be the most loved today then Turner likewise is the most admired.
The young Turner would spend the days of his youth walking the streets of London sketching what he saw and his father rather than berate him for idleness instead boasted of how his son would one day be a great artist.
He was to be proved right and Turner’s style of art with its intensity of shade of light and vigorous almost violent brushstrokes brought him both admiration and scorn in equal measure.
He also did not shy away from controversy and though he did not participate in politics preferring instead to let his paintings do his talking they did often serve as a social critique which if he decided to remain silent upon, those who saw them did not.
This was never more so than in his 1840 painting Slave Ship which depicts slaves being thrown overboard to drown in the stormy seas.
Turner, who never married, was essentially a loner and an eccentric and the only true loves of his life were his paintings and his father, though some cynics might suggest that he could have included himself in a triumvirate of adoration.
He died on 19 December 1851, aged 76, to an outpouring of respect if not exactly grief.