#109: “EMPHATICALLY, THE AGE OF PERSONALITY.” Properly speaking, the British Regency period lasted from 1811, when the madness of George III removed him from the throne, to 1820, when he died and the Prince Regent ascended as George IV. But as an era, a time, a style, it really lasted from the first years of the nineteenth century through about the mid eighteen-thirties. Richard Holmes, in his introduction to Romantics & Revolutionaries: Regency Portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, London (2002) pins the end of the period to 1834, with the passing of the Act Against Slavery; but as a period of portrait-making it is bookended in two entirely different manners. It begins just as the habit of powdered wigs comes to an end, so that, as Holmes writes, “we meet an explosion of highly personal and wildly expressive hairstyles”—one more method of individuation for an observant artist. And it ends as the daguerreotype begins to impinge on the portrait market, vastly reducing the cost and expanding the availability, but reducing the market as well for the particular pleasures of portraiture on canvas. All this dovetailed so neatly with what Coleridge called “emphatically, the Age of Personality” that the Regency now seems one of the great periods for portraiture—a time of vivid and outsized souls being caught by a supply of gifted and professional painters. British painting is often sniffed at for its historical and literary anchoring, as opposed to “pure painting” or some such, but that leaning has its rewards: it answers our simple curiosity about what some historic figure (or scene) looked like, with an expressiveness beyond (or different from) that of the camera. These subjects are people who have some claim to our attention, and the catalogue, with its variety of writers, artists, politicians, scientists, reformers, actors, on to fencing masters and bare-knuckle prizefighters, captures that strange mixture of restraint and extravagance, of quiet and riot, the range of activity and achievement that seems special to the time. We have the big names of the day, from George III and George Washington, thinkers like Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft and Burke, and people whose accomplishments define the period, Jenner and Brunel and Wilberforce and Bentham. But there are also the people who got the short end of it: George IV’s unhappy Queen Caroline (who, the notes tell us, was for twenty years a well-deserved thorn in her husband’s side) and his execrably ill-treated Catholic mistress Maria Fitzherbert, for instance; William Henry West Betty, an early example of the child actor gone to ruin after adolescence (“His figure is that of a hippopotamus,” Byron wrote, “his voice the gargling of an Alderman with the quinsey.”); and poor Benjamin Haydon, whose lack of artistic success led him to cut his own throat. And there are people potently redolent of the day: Mrs. Sarah Trimmer, for instance, children’s Sunday School authoress, looking quite the Panzer tank of imbecile and watchful sanctimony. My favorites of course are the writers: John Clare, a beautifully expressive portrait by William Hilton (“What life in the eyes!” T.G. Wainewright said of it); Haydon’s Helvellyn portrait of Wordsworth, which forbids the teasing we often want to indulge in with the poet (missing is the lovely portrait of his sister Dorothy, which is in Dove Cottage up in the Lakes); William Hazlitt’s moving picture of Charles Lamb, and of course William Blake, taking a little time off from conversing with angels. Severn’s portrait of Keats shows him seated on one chair, leaning on another, in the little parlor in Hampstead; when I visited the Keats house for the first time, the chairs were left positioned exactly as Severn had painted them, and it gave the room an almost ghostly shock, as if Keats had just left it. Sometimes we get to put just one little foot out of our own time, and these portraits are like so many momentary passports to the England of their day. The catalogue notes are by David Crane, Stephen Hebron and Robert Woof, and it’s a lovely book.
On the period: there are two recent films that capture the look, the clothing and the feel of the Regency with remarkable and convincing lack of fuss: Bright Star, Jane Campion’s startlingly good movie about the romance of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, and Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s visually splendid and moving film on J.M.W. Turner. Both very much worth watching.
Trivia footnote. The most startling portrait of Jeremy Bentham is not Henry Pickersgill’s canvas, included in the catalogue, but probably Mr. Bentham himself, whose body is preserved at the University of London, where it is referred to as an Auto-Icon. It’s in a very comfy-looking little glassed cabinet in the Student Union; all you have to do is pop the door to the cabinet open and lo, there’s Mr. Bentham. Tradition has it he used to be wheeled into University Board meetings; apparently his last trip to the Boardroom was for the University’s 150th anniversary, where he was recorded as being “present but not voting.” And now you can wheel Mr. Bentham around yourself, as on the University website there is a “Rotatable Virtual Auto-Icon,” allowing you to view Mr. Bentham from any desired angle. Ah, London!