The Display of Paintings in Regency Public Galleries

What could there possibly be to say about the hanging of paintings? One simply hangs them on the wall, ensures they are relatively straight and is done with it. Not really. The way paintings were hung in public art galleries during the Regency is not the same as the way paintings are hung in art galleries and museums in modern times. Should someone from the Regency walk into a museum today, they would be shocked at what they would perceive as the poor use of the space. However, most artists from the Regency would much prefer the way paintings are now typically hung in most galleries and museums.

The display of paintings in Regency art galleries and the now antiquated practice of skying …

It is known that in classical times easel paintings were displayed in the public buildings of ancient Athens. The Romans were also known to hang pictures in some public buildings. But with the rise of Christianity, the purpose of art changed drastically. Until the Renaissance, there were few public art galleries or museums, as most art produced up to that time was religious in nature. Therefore, it was typically displayed in churches and other religious venues. By the late sixteenth century, rooms dedicated to the display of non-religious art, occassionally open to the public, were becoming more common in Italy. This practice slowly spread north, so that by the end of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth century, public art galleries were prevalent across the Continent.

Lighting, of course, was of foremost importance in all of these galleries, since the point of visiting them was to view the pictures which hung on the walls. Until the introduction of gas lighting in the nineteenth century, daylight or lamp and candlelight were the only methods of illumination available in any of these galleries. Daylight, that is, natural light, was the way to truly see a painting as the artist intended it to be seen and was introduced into most galleries either by side-lighting or top-lighting. Side-lighting had several drawbacks, not the least of which was that any windows in a room reduced the wall space available on which to hang pictures. Nor did side-lighting provide even light, as the direction changed as the sun progressed across the sky each day, causing both glare and then shadow. Top-lighting was the preferred method of bringing daylight into a gallery and had become de rigueur by 1800. This method had the advantage of an even steady light throughout the day with minimal glare and shadow. In addition, it did not reduce wall space available for display. However, ceilings in these top-lit galleries tended to be very high, to accommodate the skylights in their upper registers.

Candle or lamp light was typically used in galleries only for evening viewing, or on days which were extremely overcast and not enough daylight was available. In most cases, this type of lighting was augmented by the strategic placement of mirrors or reflectors. There is an 1810 drawing by the French artist, Benjamin Zix, depicting one of Napoleon‘s nocturnal visits to the Louvre. He was accompanied by his new wife, Marie-Louise, perhaps intent on showing off the spoils of his military plunder. In the drawing, large square lamps with only one side open, are carried high on long poles before him. It is likely that the interior of the lamps was a reflective material which would increase the "candlepower" of the lamp. The light was directed on the work of art which he and his Empress wished to view, leaving the rest of the gallery in shadow. In 1812, the Prince Regent donated a large oil chandelier of 30 oil lamps to the Royal Academy of the Arts for the evening illumination of one of their picture galleries. This chandelier was converted to gas in 1817.

In northern Europe, including Great Britain, the fashion for hanging pictures in both academy exhibitions and auction houses was to literally carpet the wall, covering all of the available space with paintings, in a method known as "skying." This practice allowed for the display of the greatest number of pictures possible in a given space. By the mid-eighteenth century, particularly in England, paintings were somewhat more sparsely hung, but still in abundance. In some galleries, there was a shelf or simply an invisible line which horizontally divided the wall in half. The prime position in which to have a picture hung on these walls was just at or below this center line. These pictures were thus most easily viewed by the spectators, while those hung above the prime row were "skied" and were thus less visible, as were those in the lower registers, as paintings were hung nearly to the floor. Paintings which were skied were typically hung so that the top edge tipped out from the wall. The intent was to make the picture easier to see, but in top-lit galleries, the picture was often cast slightly into shadow. This angle also distorted the perspective of the painting, again spoiling full appreciation by the viewer on the floor far below.

The paintings selected by any art academy, like the Royal Academy, to be hung along the prime, center line of the gallery, would be those considered the best of the exhibition, by the most talented artists. The works of the next rank of artists would be hung below the center line, and the work of the lowest ranked artists would be skied, hung well above the center line. Any artist who had his work skied in a exhibition would find that it got the least attention of all the works on display. A novice or unknown artist would be delighted to have his, or her, work displayed at all in such an exhibition, but for an experienced artist, having their work skied would be quite humiliating. This placement could also result in financial loss for the artist, as most works in these exhibitions were for sale and those hung in the prime locations commanded the highest prices. There were cases of artists who withdrew their work from exhibitions when they found their work had been skied. There were others who withdrew their work if it was hung anywhere but on the center line.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, another Italian practice held sway. Red became the nearly standard wall color for picture galleries, particularly public galleries. The walls might be simple plaster, painted red, or they might be covered with paper-hangings of red. The papers used might be of a plain or slightly figured pattern, though some galleries had walls covered with red paper-hangings flocked in a damask pattern. There were a few galleries in which the walls were covered with textile hangings of red, often a moire silk or a velvet damask. Perhaps surprising to us today, the hooks upon which the paintings were hung were driven into the walls right though the textile hangings. Though the walls of many galleries were red, often a dark red, the floors were almost universally of a light color so as to reflect some of the light back up onto the paintings, especially those in the lower registers.

The now common practices of arranging paintings by their artistic "school," such as Italian or Dutch, or by type, such as landscapes or portraits, or even by date, were very uncommon during the decade of the Regency. It was not until the later part of the reign of Queen Victoria that museums and public galleries began to hang art in this way. During the Regency, paintings were most often hung by size within each tier of pictures in order to make the best use of the available wall space. It was also not until very late in the nineteenth century that paintings were hung along a single line around the room with much more space between them, so as to allow the viewer to fully concentrate on one painting at a time. During the Regency, patrons at an exhibition had to endure the distraction of other paintings hung cheek by jowl with the one they were currently viewing. There is a watercolor drawing by Rowlandson which depicts such a viewing in a gallery at the Royal Academy.

Below are links to some of the plates from Ackermann’s Microcosm of London at Motco, which illustrate the typical practice of hanging paintings in the years around the Regency:

The Courtauld Institute of Art mounted an exhibition which ran from 18 October 2001 to 20 January 2002, which was entitled Art on the Line:  The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780 – 1836. In this exhibition, they recreated the original art displays of the Royal Academy during the years which included the Regency. The art displayed in this amazing exhibit were all works which had been shown for the first time publicly at the Royal Academy, probably in this very room. Clicking the "exhibition" link above will take you to the online archive of this exhibit, where you can see the Ackermann view of the Great Exhibition Room and a photo of that same room during the Courtauld exhibition. Ignore the modern clothing and hair-styles and you will have a glimpse of how the Great Exhibition room appeared to Royal Academy patrons during the decade of the Regency.

The next time you read a scene in a Regency novel which takes place at a Royal Academy exhibition, in a public gallery or at an auction room, it will be easier for you to visualize how such a room actually looked during the early part of the nineteenth century. However, if the author of such a novel has the characters in the story moving from painting to painting as though they are spaced out along a line, as one might do in a museum today, you will know they have not done their research and are unaware of the true methods for the public display of paintings during the Regency.

It seems to me that the practice of skying has the potential for some interesting in plot points in a Regency novel. Perhaps the heroine is a covert painter whose friend has secretly submitted her work to the Royal Academy. She is stunned to look up at the skied paintings to see her own work among them when she visits the exhibition. Or, perhaps she does not see it due to its location, and is later surprised to learn it has been purchased by the hero. Perhaps the father of the heroine is a well-known painter who has his work skied, when in the past it was always hung on the center line of the Great Exhibition Room. His pride outraged, he demands that the location be changed, or he will withdraw it from the exhibition, even though they desperately need whatever money its sale would bring. Perhaps a painting has been stolen and the hero is surreptitiously seeking it on the walls of an auction room. He has little time and his task is complicated by the fact that the walls of the room are covered floor to ceiling with dozens of paintings of all shapes and sizes.

Next week I will write about the private display of paintings during the Regency.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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2 Responses to The Display of Paintings in Regency Public Galleries

  1. Tsu Dho Nimh says:

    Thank you … I have read a few novels where the artist characters are talking about a painting being sure to be “hung on the line” at an exhibition if it were submitted. I was visualizing some sort of clothesline afair, when what was apparently meant was that it would be hung at the prime viewing level.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad this article was able to clear that up for you. So few art exhibitions are skyed these days that even some artists would not know what being “hung on the line” meant. Apparently, vying for that prime location cause quite a number of squabbles at the Royal Academy and elsewhere in those days.

      Regards,

      Kat

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