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At the Expense of the Public":
The Sign Painters' Exhibition of 1762 and the Public Sphere
In his Letter Concerning Enthusiasm (1711), Lord Shaftesbury highlighted the value of ridicule as a means of establishing whether a particular belief's only defense lay in an assumed importance and gravity. If a subject was proof against ridicule, the jest would rebound onto the individual attempting this sally. Shaftesbury refuted those "cowards in reasoning" who said that "grave" subjects should be beyond the pale of satire: "Perhaps so, but let us see first whether they are really grave or no, for, in the manner we may conceive them they may peradventure be very grave and weighty in our imagination, but very ridiculous and impertinent in their own nature. Gravity is of the very essence of imposture . . . The main point is to know always true gravity from the false . . . And how can this be done unless by applying the ridicule to see whether it will bear?" 1
In 1762 the phenomenon of the public art exhibition underwent this test. The journalist and wit Bonnell Thornton (1724-1768) gathered a collection of some 110 inn and shop signs from all over London and exhibited them in his rooms in Bow Street. This "Grand Exhibition" of a fictional "Society of Sign-Painters" was open to the public for the price of one shilling between April 22 and June 8, overlapping with the annual exhibitions of "real art" at the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce and at the Society of the Artists of Great Britain. Such public exhibitions had only begun to take place in London in 1760. They were introduced as a means of encouraging native artists to try their hand at higher genres than the portraits by which they largely made their living. At the same time it was believed that they would create a new [End Page 1] public for art, improving the taste of those who might never be able to commission works themselves but who might purchase a print after a historical painting. Consumers and manufacturers would learn to buy and sell better-designed goods that would help shift the balance of trade with the continent. The Sign Painters' "ridicule on exhibition" was accused of satirizing this national project, a charge, however, which its organizers contested. 2
Thornton explained in the exhibition's catalogue, "They are not in the least prompted by any mean jealousy, to deprecate the merits of their brother-artists. Animated by the same public spirit, their sole view is to convince foreigners, as well as their own blinded countrymen, that however inferior this nation may be unjustly deemed in other branches of the polite arts, the palm for sign-painting must be universally ceded to us, the Dutch themselves not excepted." 3 Far from ridiculing their brother artists, Thornton argued, the exhibition sought to point out how the British school of sign painting offered an inspiring success story. Here was one exceptional genre that disproved the claims made by the connoisseurial elite that all British art was inferior to its foreign Old Master equivalents.
Bonnell Thornton had been born to an apothecary, attending Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford. His future secured by a fifteen-thousand-pound inheritance, Thornton could afford to devote his life to journalism. He became a partner in the St James's Chronicle and contributed to many other periodicals. Thornton's fortune and seniority made him a natural choice as leader of the Nonsense Club, which developed out of a group of fellow Old Westminsters that included the dramatist George Colman and the poets Robert Lloyd and William Cowper. In the late 1750s this group met every Thursday evening, and it continued to meet until the mid-1760s. In championing native "low" genres in poetry and other art forms, this highly self-conscious group of outsiders sought to rescue the Muses from the straightjacket of principles and rule that they believed was being...