Volume 21, Issue 1 | Spring 2022

Making the Modern Artist: Culture, Class and Art-Educational Opportunities in Romantic Britain by Martin Myrone

Reviewed by Sally Woodcock

Martin Myrone,
Making the Modern Artist: Culture, Class and Art-Educational Opportunities in Romantic Britain.
New Haven and London: Yale University Press distributed for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2020.
288 pp.; 195 color and b&w illus.; 14 charts; notes; index.
£45.00/$60 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978–1–913107–15-4

This is a book about the reality of artistic experience in the era of Romanticism. It examines in meticulous detail the lives of a disparate population of artists and architects, connected primarily by their attendance at the Royal Academy Schools in London between 1769 and 1830. These 1,790 students represent the first three generations of the school’s intake and include artists with careers both celebrated and so obscure that they have defied even Martin Myrone’s forensic process of identification. The book is underpinned not only by Myrone’s considerable scholarship but also by a weighty and meticulous dataset that chronicles these artists’ lives both before and after their period of study at the Royal Academy. This is not, however, an exercise in traditional biography, and those readers who are looking for a narrative account of individual artists’ lives largely have to wait until the final chapter, with its descriptions of tribulations and deaths, and the afterword, which focuses on the history and portrait painter John Wood (1801–70).

That biography is not the author’s principal aim is made clear from the outset, the introduction stating on the opening page “To a degree the book can be read as an attempt to set some of the terms for a new history of this period of British art” (1), and going on to set out its intentions: “The aim here is a kind of ‘populated’ art history, in which there is no art history without artists, as living, social beings, and in which no artwork can be detached from the conditions of its making including the socially conditioned agency of its maker if it is to be interpreted critically. There is no art history which is not also sociology” (2). Myrone’s approach will be welcomed by art, cultural, and technical art historians frustrated by art history’s longstanding preoccupation with what it has identified as canonical works and key figures, which, for the Georgian and Victorian period, has resulted in disproportionate attention being paid to Reynolds, Gainsborough, Blake, Turner, Constable, Morris, and the Pre-Raphaelites, at the expense of a broader field of scrutiny. That there has been little interest shown by art historians in the artistic equivalent of subaltern studies, justifies Myrone’s densely argued rationalization of his approach in the remainder of the introduction. While he recognizes that “readers intolerant of such reflection” may wish to pass on the next chapter (2), he also suggests, should they persevere, that they would find what follows more coherent and satisfying. While it is true that some readers might be put off by the book’s somewhat uncompromising opening line: “This is a book about the representative functions accorded to the figure of the artist within modernity” (1), the theoretical framework Myrone establishes in the introduction is essential if his dataset is to avoid becoming simply a list of largely obscure artists with a limited number of surviving works, forgotten by a field where significance has depended to a considerable extent on passing through the twin filters of fashion and physical survival. Examining a historical population pre-filtered by the Royal Academy’s own admission criteria two centuries ago enables Myrone to avoid the selectivity to which art history is often susceptible. He is provided with a ready-made community “whose membership can be described in some detail at an individual level—even if most of the figures involved have been forgotten by mainstream art history, and many are overlooked by even the most comprehensive biographical dictionaries” (7). Here Myrone is modestly understating both the scale and thoroughness of his achievement resulting from many hours of arduous, unsung industry in the archive. While he recognizes that excavating the minutiae of these artists’ lives is to embark on an uncontainable, open-ended task, “interminable and almost endlessly questionable” (9), the resulting book demonstrates the value of his project, the data enabling him to move beyond conjecture and hypothesis to present a convincing description of the historical processes and social relationships involved.

Once the methodology underpinning the project has been set out in the introduction, the first chapter, looking at the Academy’s schools and the education they provided, begins the process of addressing the documentary record. The chapter opens with a detailed discussion of A Bench of Artists (1776) by Thomas Rowlandson (1757–1827). While, on first sight, this bench of rather uncomfortable-looking art students might not seem the most obvious choice of cover image, Myrone’s engrossing discussion of the artist and his fellow students is an impressive demonstration of how much information can be extracted from a single drawing. It turns out to be an astute choice, revealing several of the themes that Myrone later goes on to develop, through a discussion of each sitter, the image as a whole, and its content and context. There is Thomas Burgess (1730–91), already in his fifties and working as a drawing master, representing the older end of the surprisingly broad range of ages of students discussed in chapter 3. Both Burgess and Charles Grignion (1754–1804), who sits further along the bench, came from families of artists, the importance of artistic family connections being discussed in chapter 2. Myrone also notes the serendipity of living with relatives willing to offer support to their poorer relations, such as the orphaned William Beechey (1753–1839) at the center of the drawing, and Rowlandson himself, the son of a bankrupt. The bench includes foreign artists, the Russian Gavriel Skorodomov (1755–92), and an Italian likely to be Francesco Renaldi (1755–after 1798), two of approximately one hundred non-British students discussed in the following chapter. The image includes a portrait of one of the few students with working class origins, Charles Reuben Ryley (ca. 1752–98), who also is one of a small number of disabled students who attended the schools discussed in chapter 4. Finally, as detailed in the following chapter, despite successfully identifying either family backgrounds or subsequent careers for over eighty percent of the students who went through the Royal Academy Schools, the final artist depicted, Joseph Hayes (b. 1753), remains otherwise unknown.

The chapter continues with a discussion of the Royal Academy Schools’ somewhat slippery and ill-defined teaching aims and methods, with students progressing at vastly different paces, sometimes lingering in the studios for decades or returning in later life, with no formal qualification or defined end to study, a curriculum that was entirely dependent on the interests or application of the Academician whose turn it was to teach, and a student body spread across a considerable age range with access to widely varying external resources. Students of present-day art schools and their like may not be entirely unfamiliar with teachers who appear more interested in their own work than teaching, students who learn more from each other than from staff, the critical impact of social contacts made within the student body, and the validation that mere attendance at a prestigious institution can bestow. So, in these ways, along with the other manifestations of liberal, individualistic modernity described in this opening chapter, the Royal Academy Schools, with all their faults and inadequacies, do indeed, as Myrone claims, appear in many ways to be already modern by around 1800.

Anyone who has ever worked their way through an archive of near-anonymous Smiths, Jones, and Browns, and only slightly more distinguishable Wrights, Taylors, and Clarks, will understand the scale of Myrone’s achievement in chapter 2. Its discussion of “Origins, Destinies, Fatedness” is based on many hours unravelling misidentification and clarifying ambiguity as well as doggedly following his art students through life, often from cradle to grave. This prosopographical chapter, looking at the patterns emerging from this study, assesses how opportunity was distributed amongst the artists he considers, taking into account geography, social background, and parental expectations in order to work out “who was and was not likely to achieve access to the art-educational opportunities represented by the Royal Academy Schools” (58). The chapter is dense with data expressed through graphs, and detailed discussions of students’ family locations and backgrounds, qualified by the inconsistencies and omissions in the historical record. Towards the end of the chapter there are more discursive sections, including an engaging examination of “Fatedness” with its discussion of the role of the aspirational naming of sons after Raphael, Rubens, and Michelangelo, Myrone asserting that “The parents who were most intent on naming children after artists . . . were at the greatest remove from the Metropolitan art world, either geographically or in terms of professional standing” (111).‍[1] The following section on the place of women in the art world feels slightly supplementary in light of the fact that the Royal Academy Schools only admitted women in 1860, thirty years after the last of Myrone’s group of students was enrolled, but acknowledges that exclusion and raises the interesting question of what a comparable study of the first three generations of female students post-1860 might reveal.

On paper, the Royal Academy and its apologists could claim that the schools, with anonymized competition for places, represented a meritocracy, enabling the talented to rise to the top. The third chapter looks at how this interpretation fails to account for the very many barriers poorer artists had to negotiate both to access and sustain a place at the Royal Academy Schools. In examining issues of professionalization, status, and resources Myrone identifies the Academy as participating in the “middle classification” of art from the end of the eighteenth century onwards. His critical point is that over the period covered by his survey the student body became “distinctly more middle class, drawing proportionately more individuals from families engaged in professional activities or holding genteel status, and proportionately fewer from the lower-status trades and commerce” (132–33). Studies of other disciplines and social groups support the argument for the gentrification of many of the creative and intellectual vocations between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so the Academy is not alone. While the poorer classes retreated from these fields as active participants, the genteel classes generally preserved their social standing from generation to generation, enabling them to offer their children enhanced life-chances, including the chance to practice as an artist. In offering an indeterminate, open-ended program of study without a termination point when a student could claim he had finally “qualified” as an artist, the Royal Academy Schools “quietly favoured an increasing middle-class participation” (135), benefiting those with time and deep pockets, able to wait until success or opportunity came their way. In Making the Modern Artist Myrone has answered the question he raised elsewhere, “Who can Afford to be an Art Student?,” with a not wholly unexpected outcome: “It was not only the sons of doctors or lawyers or clergymen, civil servants and bankers who committed themselves to such unending uncertainty. But it was, surely, these sons who were best equipped to endure through its trials, best placed to tolerate its burdens” (177).‍[2]

The final chapter on “The Social Suffering of the Artist” opens with a catalogue of catastrophes suffered by Myrone’s students and, by association, their families. However, without diminishing the misery of these individuals, Myrone sidesteps the attention traditionally directed at suffering as a function of being an artist to examine the social conditions and interactions that led to his students’ various troubles, usually in their post-Academy careers. When artists fail, they fail twice, both critically and economically, and both types of failure are factors in the demise of the artists in the section on “Early Deaths and Self-Destruction.” However, Myrone emphasizes that, in general, the students of the Royal Academy Schools had longer-than-average lifespans, with only about ten percent of recorded deaths below the age of thirty, and that fewer than thirty of the artists under consideration, in a field of 1,790, can be identified as dying by their own hands. As the incidence of suicide in the population as a whole, the male population or even the population engaged in the arts in this period remains unquantified, it is impossible to judge whether suicide in less than two percent of this particular group might challenge or reinforce the long-claimed correlation between creativity and suicide. What Myrone can surmise is that most of these suicidal former students were relatively mature in age and had, in earlier years, met with some professional success, suggesting that their personal circumstances, often caught up in debt and lack of recognition, had more influence on their decision to kill themselves than any tendency towards self-destruction innate to the artistic temperament. The chapter continues to consider disability and ill-health, poverty, criminality, and scandal among the student population. Analysis of this impoverished sector of the art world, which nonetheless regarded itself as professional, is aided by the survival of the records of a number of charitable organizations devoted to supporting indigent artists, founded in the first decades of the nineteenth century. This was not peculiar to the arts sector and these charities were part of a large field of widely varied occupation-related charities and funds established at this time that, in several cases, continue to support their sectors today.‍[3] In this way, the struggles of the least successful of the Academy’s students continue to have resonance and many of the difficulties they faced would be familiar to today’s artists, similarly dependent on parallel occupations, emigration, grant-aid, and extended credit in order to make a living from making art.

The final section of the book opens with the closest Myrone gets to conventional biography, with a detailed, richly illustrated discussion of the artist John Wood’s unpublished autobiography, life, and place in the history of art. This is followed by a discussion of why such a minor figure should be studied at all, developing into a closely argued critique of current approaches to art historical research in both academic and museum circles. Myrone’s admiration for the work of “unofficial” historians, “motivated by genealogical or geographical connection, or personal passion” (216, 219), derives in part from the information he has found useful for his biographical survey and also from the circumstances in which his own book was compiled, being “developed outside the museum or the university” (219) and “undertaken opportunistically in the threshold periods between the world of work and home” (222). These intermittent opportunities for study explain the absence of a bibliography in that “a neat list would misrepresent the actual reading encounters which have underpinned the bumbling progression (hardly the word) of this study” (220). While acknowledging that the work has a “kind of biographical and anecdotal focus” that some may find anachronistic (216), in fact this focus is worn very lightly: coming to the end of the book, it is easy to have missed the fact that Myrone has subtly introduced over a quarter of his dataset, 450 artists, into the text.

As a physical object, this is a handsome book, publishing many rarely reproduced images by rarely discussed artists. Knowing the unhappy end of an artist such as John Alefounder (1757–95), who died by cutting his throat in desperate circumstances and far from home, makes the inclusion of his portrait in happier times, when his place at the Royal Academy Schools held the promise of a glittering future in an accommodating art world, poignant and welcome (plates 140, 150). Much of the data is presented graphically in fourteen charts, which succinctly convey a wealth of information. While these look rather austere juxtaposed against the richness of the drawn and painted illustrations, they serve to remind the reader that the text is underpinned by the hard-won data that informs and validates the book’s thesis. Bourdieu might characterize this “impossible” project as likely to be less highly prized than a more facile “inspired commentary” that would certainly involve a lot less work (9). However, Myrone’s reward for his endeavors is not only the valuable contribution this book has made to our understanding of the relationship between artists’ social origins, educational opportunities, and professional outcomes, but also, it is to be hoped, the volumes that will follow from other researchers, informed and inspired by his account of the demanding, busy, optimistic, and sometimes unforgiving world in which the figure of the modern artist was forged.


[1] This is borne out in the names chosen by provincial parents at even greater remove from the London art world than those Myrone discusses, the Hull-based portrait painter Phineas Lowther (1780–1856) ambitiously naming his sons Michael Angelo (1807/8–98) and Phineas Rubens (1814–71) whereas his daughters were simply Mary Ann and Elizabeth Emily. Michael Angelo, who followed his father into provincial portrait painting, similarly named his own son Phineas Raphael (1834–89).

[2] This question was a section heading in Anna Cooper and Martin Myrone, “The Social Economics of Artistic Labour: A Technical Case Study of Henry Monro’s Disgrace of Wolsey (1814),” British Art Studies 16 (2020), https://doi.org/10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-16/coopermyrone.

[3] For a contemporary list of charities see Charles Dickens, Dickens’s Dictionary of London, 1879. An Unconventional Handbook (London: Charles Dickens and Evans, 1879), 34–47, excerpted online at The Dictionary of Victorian London, https://www.victorianlondon.org/dickens/dickens-charities.htm.