- Maria Spilsbury (1776-1820): Artist and Evangelical
When the Prince Regent commissioned a painting from her, Maria Spilsbury Taylor was already a well-known artist who had been exhibiting her work at the Royal Academy in London from the age of fifteen. She was known for her portraits and genre scenes, and with her painting "Patron's Day at the Seven Churches, Glendalough," which she created for the Prince Regent, she demonstrated her expertise by painting a large crowd composition that masterfully conveyed the realities of life in Ireland. Although many of her works have been preserved and may be found in museums as well as private collections, Spilsbury is not very well known today. Charlotte Yeldham, an independent scholar who studied at Oxford University and the Courtauld Institute of Art, seeks to remedy that problem. With her study, Yeldham not only introduces her readers to this popular eighteenth-century artist but also helps them move beyond appreciating just the skill with which Spilsbury executed her paintings to understanding how she infused them with key elements of evangelical thought. By situating Spilsbury in the context of her Moravian childhood and her later connections with various evangelical congregations, Yeldham encourages her readers to see the subtle evangelical references throughout Spilsbury's works. In addition, by looking at the various themes that Spilsbury explores, Yeldham places her within the context of Enlightenment thought as well as early Romantic conceptions of nature and childhood and argues that Spilsbury [End Page 425] provides an important perspective that has been neglected in scholarly discussions of artists from this time period.
Yeldham's focus on the effects that Spilsbury's evangelical beliefs may have had on her art provides an interesting framework for the study. Beginning with Spilsbury's Moravian childhood, Yeldham traces her interactions with several evangelical congregations and discusses doctrines and beliefs to which this artist would have been exposed. In particular, she discusses the tendency within Moravian thought to see the work of God in the realities of day-to-day life. Yeldham suggests that this idea is an important foundation for Spilsbury's work, and she argues that Spilsbury infuses her portraits of daily life with religious symbols that she hopes her viewers will recognize. Yeldham then proceeds chronologically through Spilsbury's career and explores various works, demonstrating how they reveal the artist's evangelical convictions. She focuses primarily on her attention to children as symbols of innocence, to nature as a positive spiritual influence, to holy living (often represented by simplicity, modesty, and contentment), and to proper education as an important component of evangelical Christianity. Using specific examples from the paintings, Yeldham traces repeated images that Spilsbury uses to symbolize these key tenets of evangelicalism. After setting up Spilsbury's use of these images, Yeldham concludes by demonstrating how attention to the symbolism in Spilsbury's work allows viewers to understand "Patron's Day at the Seven Churches, Glendalough" as more than just a realistic representation of an Irish festival but rather as a strong statement of the painter's belief in the power of the Protestant church in contrast to a dying Catholic faith.
Overall, Yeldham's argument is persuasive. The evidence provided does suggest that Spilsbury used her art to emphasize particular evangelical beliefs. By providing illustrations from various works throughout Spilsbury's career, Yeldham not only familiarizes her readers with Spilsbury's art but also allows them to trace the symbols for themselves in viewing the development of Spilsbury's work. By the time Yeldham analyzes "Patron's Day at the Seven Churches, Glendalough," readers are able to see more readily the symbolic resonances within this painting. The analyses of individual paintings, however, could have been more effective. At times, the author strives too hard to have every aspect of a painting connect to evangelicalism. In her discussion of an early painting of the Hervey children, for instance, she remarks that the young boy's uplifted arm is "suggestive of prayer" and connects this gesture to a similar one in an earlier painting (38...