Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 17, 2018
Catherine Roach Pictures-within-Pictures in Nineteenth-Century Britain Studies in Art Historiography. New York: Routledge, 2016. 218 pp.; 40 color ills.; 53 b/w ills. Cloth $145.45 (9781472454690)
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Catherine Roach’s Pictures-within-Pictures in Nineteenth-Century Britain announces its quirky theme in its title: paintings that appear within paintings. Such pictures provide a guilty pleasure for the art historian, providing—in Roach’s words—“the delighted surprise that comes from identifying an image from memory and seeing it made strange” (19). Yet Roach’s book demonstrates that this is not just an art-historical gimmick or a simple riddle. Rather, through such pictures, artists make significant statements about art and nationhood, and propose their own art histories.

The issue of art and nationhood is particularly relevant to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, where there was much discussion over what could or should constitute the British School of painting. In Pictures-within-Pictures in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Roach introduces a new perspective into British art-historical scholarship on this theme. First, she avoids an undue emphasis on the Royal Academy by treating a different British institution in each of her chapters. Second, instead of examining one art movement or artist, she brings multiple artists, artistic styles, and historical moments into conversation with one another. Third, she makes the point that it was not just art institutions and writings about art that entered into this conversation, but that individual artists proposed their own visions of the British School through the device of pictures-within-pictures.

In the introduction, Roach defines the phenomenon of pictures-within-pictures by comparing it to the practice of allusion. With the latter, the artist seamlessly incorporates a motif derived from a previous picture; viewers are required to pick up on the reference and compare it with the absent original in their minds. With the former, the painted frame around the image acts as a “seam,” explicitly calling attention to the previous picture as an object in its own right and inviting viewers to not only identify the source, but to consider it as one element in the painting’s narrative (5). In the context of the eighteenth-century British art world, Joshua Reynolds advocated for the importance of allusion in achieving artistic excellence, while William Hogarth made use of paintings-within-paintings, popularizing the device as an effective means of storytelling. Roach picks up on the continuation of this device in the following century, thus revealing its influence on the subsequent history of British art.

The five chapters of the book each revolve around at least one painting that features multiple paintings within the picture. The archival research Roach undertook to flesh out the stories contained within each picture is impressive, demonstrating the intensive effort that can go into source hunting. But Roach goes beyond identifying sources: she provides context for each artist’s decision to include a given source within a picture, and explains how pictures-within-pictures contribute to the formation of a visual argument. As such, the book makes a valuable addition to Routledge’s series Studies in Art Historiography, which aims to “support and promote the study of the history and practice of art historical writing focusing on its institutional and conceptual foundations” (https://www.routledge.com/Studies-in-Art-Historiography/book-series/ASHSER2250). In her study, Roach proposes that we look at pictures-within-pictures as a kind of art-historical argument, showing how artists used the device to make assertions about the history of art and their place within it. In other words, nineteenth-century British artists created their own art histories using the tools of their trade, brushes and paint rather than text.

In addition to participating in the contest over what constituted the British School, the painted histories examined by Roach also demonstrate how the argument shifted over the course of the century. Chapter 1, for example, addresses John Scarlett Davis’s Interior of the British Institution (1829). Roach argues that the artist “presents a visual history of the British School” (24) giving pride of place to the British Institution, to the genre of portraiture, and to the practice of copying. As she recounts, the status of both portraiture and copies were actively debated in early nineteenth-century Britain, and so Scarlett Davis’s decision to highlight both portraits and copies points to his own polemical interpretation of the British school.

Chapter 2 revolves around the work of J. M. W. Turner, adding to the already rich historiography on the artist, and shows how Turner used both pictures-within-pictures and allusion to prompt comparison of his work to the Old Masters. Contextualized within Turner’s efforts to control his legacy through his bequest to the National Gallery, it becomes clear that pictures-within-pictures were a means for Turner both to declare his artistic lineage and to demonstrate his ability, as the chapter’s title pronounces, to “outshin[e] the Masters” (64). Roach also engages with scholarship on Turner and optical theory, showing that pictures-within-pictures provide further evidence of his interest in how environmental factors could influence the perception of his pictures.

The theme of artistic rivalry continues in subsequent chapters. In chapter 3, Roach explains how, like Turner, John Everett Millais employed pictures-within-pictures to make claims about the superiority of his work relative to the Old Masters—thus adding a new dimension to an understanding of the Pre-Raphaelites’ reframing of the history of art. A particular strength of this chapter is Roach’s discussion of the changing visual environment within which Millais worked, stressing in particular the increasing availability of reproductive prints. Such prints appear as pictures-within-pictures in the background of Millais’s portrait of Mrs. James Wyatt Jr. and Her Daughter Sarah (ca. 1850), where they pale in comparison to their painted surroundings. Chapter 5 tells a similar story: Roach focuses on the rivalry between William Powell Frith and Victorian aesthetes. She explains that in A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881, Frith paints a gallery scene filled with pictures in order to argue for the supremacy of his own laborious approach to narrative painting, thereby implicitly denigrating the Aesthetes’ emphasis on beauty. In contrast, the paintings featured in chapter 4 and in the conclusion, Emma Brownlow King’s The Foundling Restored to its Mother (1858) and William Orpen’s Homage to Manet (1909), include paintings within their pictures that suggest solidarity between the artist and the artistic precedent within the frame.

Roach’s rich contextual account is matched by her attentive and productive visual analyses of the paintings. By paying close attention to style and form, she follows through on her contention that artists make claims through their paintings in ways that are unique to the visual realm. For example, in Scarlett Davis’s Interior of the British Institution, the artist mimics the original style of each of the pictures within his painting, thus showing off his own skill as a copyist and rewarding the connoisseurial looking promoted at the British Institution. In relation to Brownlow King’s The Foundling Restored to Its Mother, Roach points to the loose brushwork employed to render a Hogarth painting within the otherwise meticulously painted picture. That distinction, she explains, allowed the artist to reinterpret the earlier picture, obscuring sections that would have seemed vulgar to Victorian audiences and thus transforming Hogarth’s work into an appropriate prequel to her own, not to mention a more appropriate subject for a polite female artist. This stylistic transformation also demonstrates her skill as an original artist rather than a copyist, a distinction that would have been particularly important for a female artist.

As Roach points out, her varied examples are each instances of special cases (192), and each made meaning for their specific audiences in different ways. But together, her case studies illuminate some of the ways that nineteenth-century artists considered and debated the history of British art, and even Britishness itself. This larger point emerges forcefully toward the end of the book where Roach states that pictures-within-pictures played a vital role in bringing the British canon into being “by allowing visual lineages to be created, negotiated, and recognized” (184). Rather than documenting a single visual lineage, then, she points toward multiple and competing lineages and histories that were produced over the course of the nineteenth century in Britain. Considered in light of this overarching argument, it becomes clear that what unites the works treated by Roach is not just the device of pictures-within-pictures announced in the title and readily observed in the pictures, but also the way in which this device encouraged disparate artists to enter into a continuing dialogue about the history and future of British painting.

Though Roach concludes her study in the early twentieth century, it is tempting to suggest ways that paintings-within-paintings have been adapted in the twenty-first century, especially given the prevalence of historical British paintings and Old Masters in recent popular television shows such as Downton Abbey and The Crown. But perhaps the most convincing evidence that the device is alive and well in contemporary British culture is the work of the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, MBE. Shonibare’s photographic series Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1998) contains pictures-within-pictures that provide a point of comparison between the British past and its present, though now a postcolonial present represented by the black Victorian dandy within each scene, played by Shonibare himself. Significantly, the pictures-within-pictures and allusions within Shonibare’s photographs remain consistent with those enlisted by the artists discussed by Roach—landscapes by Claude Lorrain, antique busts, Old Master portraits and, of course, Hogarth’s series of modern moral subjects—showing that the device of pictures-within-pictures continues to enliven debates about the British canon, and about Britishness more generally.

Andrea Korda
Assistant Professor, Department of Fine Arts and Humanities, Augustana Faculty, University of Alberta

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