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By the mid-eighteenth century France was widely considered the font of all taste and fashion, and it was considered embarrassing that Britain had become a mere follower. The Society of Arts thus embarked on a root-and-branch reform of British art and design. At the very first meeting in 1754 at Rawthmell's coffee house, the founding members decided to offer cash prizes for the best drawings by young boys and girls. For the youngest, the drawings could be of any type - the aim was to first identify talent in general. For the slightly older boys and girls, the Society very early on encouraged the application of such talent to industry.

By the mid-eighteenth century France was widely considered the font of all taste and fashion, and it was considered embarrassing that Britain had become a mere follower. The Society of Arts thus embarked on a root-and-branch reform of British art and design. At the very first meeting in 1754 at Rawthmell's coffee house, the founding members decided to offer cash prizes for the best drawings by young boys and girls. For the youngest, the drawings could be of any type  the aim was to first identify talent in general. For the slightly older boys and girls, the Society very early on encouraged the application of such talent to industry.

Eminent artists were called in to judge the drawing prizes, and quickly became members too, but they had their own ideas about the direction it should take (sounds familiar). The artists feared that by focusing too much on art’s application to industry, Britain would never truly escape its slavish following of French styles. Industry followed what was profitable (and French) rather than risking something new. Achieving a uniquely British style required fresh and original imagery.

The artists believed that an independent style could be developed by by encouraging 'high art', particularly painting. Painting, according to the prevailing theories was not just about copying nature, skillfully reproducing everything in minute detail; at its best it was about improving nature, using the imagination to uncover a hidden essence or ideal of beauty. Achieving the ideal involved stimulating the viewer intellectually, not merely delighting their senses. This implied a strict hierarchy: the more intellect and imagination involved, the higher the branch of painting. At the bottom were still lifes, followed by landscapes and scenes of everyday life. Higher still were portraits, but highest of all was 'history painting'  this category encompassed allegorical, mythological and religious scenes as well as those taken from actual history. The artist needed to be inventive, arranging scenes that never were; and educated enough to choose symbols that could convey hidden meanings. A great history painter was on par with a great poet.

If high art were to be encouraged, the artists had no doubt that the 'inferior' artistic applications would inevitably benefit too. But it was important to start at the summit, with the highest of high art.  In 1759, they persuaded the Society to offer premiums for the best original history painting. The painters’ taste was then supposed to trickle down to the manufacturers. After all, they thought 'no taste can ever be formed in manufactures'. But beyond the commercial considerations, history painting was about improving the nation’s morals. History painting illustrated the exploits of the great and the good  paragons of virtue  to set an example to others of integrity and public-spiritedness. If it was to instill virtue, however, high art had to be aloof from the dictates of the market. It could not risk flattering private vanities, instead needing to address the public. Achieving this separation, however, was easier said than done.

More on this soon ...

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