- William Etty: Art and Controversy edited by Sarah Burnage, Mark Hallett, and Laura Turner
William Etty had already been working in London as an artist specializing in nude figure studies and historical scenes for a quarter of a century when Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837. A native of York, Etty entered the Royal Academy in 1808 and was elected a full Royal Academician twenty years later. In recognition of the artist’s status, Prince Albert selected him to be a judge of the competition for the decoration of the Houses of Parliament in 1843 and commissioned him to provide a fresco for the newly built Garden Pavilion at Buckingham Palace (destroyed in 1928) that same year. Etty, unfamiliar with fresco techniques, struggled with his contribution to the Garden Pavilion, a scene from John Milton’s Comus (1634). The queen is reported to have politely praised his efforts, but the Prince Consort openly condemned the fresco and replaced it with the work of William Dyce, who was almost a generation younger than Etty. As a result, Etty’s reputation suffered enough that he labored over a painting of the same subject for the 1844 Royal Academy exhibition to demonstrate his undiminished skill in [End Page 537] oil painting. While this story of thwarted royal patronage, changing tastes, and aesthetic condemnation is not included in William Etty: Art and Controversy, it reminds us that Etty’s reputation was built during the Regency, rather than the Victorian, period and touches on many themes addressed in the book, a catalogue published to accompany the eponymous exhibition held at the York Art Gallery: the varied critical reception of Etty’s work during his lifetime; the artist’s navigation through the institutional framework of the art world to advance his reputation; and his careful, enduring dedication to studying the Old Masters and their oil painting techniques.
These are relevant topics one might expect to encounter in a lavishly produced and impeccably researched catalogue such as this one. However, the strong thematic focus of the text and adventurous methods employed by some of the contributing essayists extend the interpretive boundaries of an exhibition catalogue simultaneously aimed at general and scholarly audiences. The “controversy” alluded to in the title refers to Etty’s commitment to representing the nude and the often negative critical reception of this work in the nineteenth-century art press, which Sarah Burnage and Mark Hallett, co-curators of the exhibition, have placed at the center of their presentation of the artist’s work. This approach serves two purposes. First, it immediately titillates and connects contemporary media-immersed audiences with the nineteenth century; for example, the exhibition brochure was designed as a fictive newspaper called “The Etty Express” and interpretive text was replaced with critical commentary from the nineteenth century (a facsimile can be viewed on the exhibition website). For scholarly audiences, the tight focus of the project contributes to efforts to understand the political and aesthetic resonance of the Victorian nude and to situate conditions of modernity signified by burgeoning media culture firmly in nineteenth-century Britain. In addition, the emphasis on criticism presents a wealth of primary source material and allows the curators and writers to create a complex cultural context for Etty’s oeuvre.
To this reader, the analysis of critical reception might have been enhanced with concrete information about the state of arts journalism in the first half of the nineteenth century. Who were the influential critics? For which periodicals were they writing? What audiences and agendas did different periodicals serve? Partial answers to some of these questions can be gleaned from the informative catalogue entries on individual works written by Burnage, but a short essay on the topic would have been welcome.
This is a small quibble with a solid and admirable publication that opens with a chronology of Etty’s career, includes five essays, and concludes with a thematically arranged catalogue of ninety-nine works featured in the exhibition. Burnage, Sarah Victoria Turner, and Jason Edwards contribute...