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date: 25 September 2022

St Martin's Lane Academyfree

(act. 1735–1767)

St Martin's Lane Academyfree

(act. 1735–1767)
  • Martin Myrone

St Martin's Lane Academy (act. 1735–1767), was at the heart of London's rapidly changing art scene during the middle decades of the eighteenth century. Providing life-drawing classes that were open to both younger students and more established artists, and acting as an important social forum where painters, sculptors, architects, and designers could meet, the academy played a singularly important role in connecting the different sectors of London's rapidly growing and diversifying art community. It was the immediate forebear of the Royal Academy (founded 1768), although the successful establishment of this latter institution effectively signalled the end of the St Martin's Lane Academy and the informal and democratic approach to art training it had promoted.

The academy was founded in winter 1735 in a building on the narrow alley of Peter Court off St Martin's Lane in central London. Its home was probably Russell's Meeting House, a former Presbyterian chapel. The location meant that it was at the geographical centre of London's community of painters, sculptors, and furniture makers. The new academy was a successor to the school founded in 1711 by Sir James Thornhill in Great Queen Street, and the drawing classes previously organized in Peter Court by Louis Chéron and John Vanderbank from October 1720. This latter academy had attracted many of the leading figures in British art and design, including Joseph Highmore, William Kent, Athur Pond, and William Hogarth, but it did not endure. Hogarth recalled that 'this lasted a few years but the treasurer sinking the subscription money the lamp stove etc were seized for rent and the whole affair put a stop to' (Kitson, 93). The academy appears to have become inactive when Vanderbank fled to France to escape his creditors in 1724.

Following the decline of the original St Martin's Lane drawing school an academy was held by William Hogarth and the portrait painter John Ellys in Thornhill's house for a short time beginning in 1724, and George Michael Moser ran drawing schools in Salisbury Court, Fleet Street, and Greyhound Court, Arundel Street. The new and larger drawing school at St Martin's Lane was set up by Hogarth and Ellys utilizing equipment that Hogarth had inherited from his father-in-law, Thornhill, who had died in May 1734. The contemporary art chronicler George Vertue, whose notes provide one of the most important sources of information on the academy, recorded: 'this Winter 1735 an Accademy for Life sett up in St Martins lane where several Artists go to Draw from the life. Mr Hogarth principally promotes or undertakes it' (Vertue, Note books, 3.76).

The records of the academy have been lost, although William T. Whitley noted that its papers were still in existence in 1813 (Whitley, 1.157). There are only a few, rather slight indications of its general organizational structure. In 1775 the engraver Robert Strange noted that it had been 'governed by a committee' (Strange, 61). James Northcote similarly remarked that it was 'governed by a committee of the whole body', adding, 'yet the whole body consisted of but a very small number' (Northcote, 97). Membership appears to have been by annual subscription, apparently at a standard rate of two guineas for the first season, and one and a half guineas thereafter. The subscription list for Joshua Kirby's Dr Brooke Taylor's Method of Perspective Made Easy (1754), which derived from lectures he had presented at the academy, identifies twenty-nine individuals who were also subscribers to the drawing school. The artist William Henry Pyne listed fifty-six members in his memoir of 1823. From these sources, and George Vertue's invaluable contemporary notes, Ilaria Bignamini was able to propose that there were at least eighty-three subscribing members over the life of the academy (Bignamini, 114–17). Along with Hogarth, other prominent individuals involved in managing the academy included Francis Hayman, Hubert Gravelot, Isaac Ware, George Michael Moser, Louis François Roubiliac, and James Wills (fl. 1740–1777). In 1745 Vertue noted that the subscription for the new season was being opened in the Half Moon tavern in the Strand, under the direction of Hayman, Gravelot, Roubiliac, Richard Yeo, a 'Landskip painter' (presumably George Lambert), and Wills, who is described as the 'Treasurer' (Vertue, Note books, 3.127). An oil painting in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, sometimes attributed to Johan Zoffany and believed to date from about 1760–62, has been established as the only authentic representation of the academy itself and provides important clues as to the character of its membership at that time. A drawn key in the British Museum (reproduced in Postle, 36) indicates that it includes portraits of, most prominently, Moser, the draughtsman John Taylor, John Hamilton Mortimer, John Alexander Gresse, Guiseppe Marchi, ‘Pars’ (probably William Pars), two figures identified as ‘Parker’ (either John Parker (d. 1765) or John Parker (1762–1776)), Biagio Rebecca, David Martin, Edward Burch, and John Malin (d. 1769), the porter and life model at the academy and subsequently the porter at the new Royal Academy. The majority of the eleven men studying at the academy according to this record were then in their twenties, although several already had established reputations in their fields. Nine are also documented as subscribers to the academy. The overall impression given by this image is of a body of artists in the early stages of their careers, rather than students or pupils, in the company of and at ease with a few slightly older professionals.

This painting is among the surviving evidence concerning the academy's drawing classes. Hogarth's own account of the foundation of the academy, written about 1760–61, indicates that it was based in 'a room big enough for a naked figure to be drawn after by thirty or forty people' and that he had been able to provide 'a proper table for the figure to stand on a large lamp iron stove and benches in a circular form' (Kitson, 94). One male and one female model would be made available through the season, which ran from October through to the spring. According to the Dutch draughtsman Peter Camper, who attended classes in 1749–50, the male model would be posed for three days, the female for two (Bignamini, 99–100). From the regulations of the drawing school run by the Society of Artists after 1769, which were explicitly based on those in place at St Martin's Lane, it appears that the pupils or apprentices of subscribing members of the academy would be given free entry to the life classes, contingent on their being able to display basic competence as a draughtsman. Vertue estimates that there were about thirty artists studying at the academy in 1730, and thirty-six in 1744–5 (Vertue, Note books, 6.170, 3.123). As one critic noted in 1771, it was where 'most of the present artists received the rudiments of their education in the art of design' (Conduct of the Royal Academicians, 6). Students at the academy who became prominent later in life included the sculptor Thomas Banks, the painters Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Jones, and Joshua Reynolds, and the engraver William Woollett.

The academy and the drawing classes themselves were run on emphatically egalitarian lines. Robert Campbell, in a vocational guide for parents published in 1747, offered a rather sceptical but informative account of these arrangements:

The present State of this Art in Britain does not afford a sufficient Education to a Painter: We have but one Academy, meanly supported by the private Subscription of the Students, in all this great Metropolis: There they have but two Figures, one Man and a Woman; and consequently there can be but little Experience gathered, where there are neither Professors nor Figures. The Subscribers to this lame Academy pay two Guineas per Season, which goes to the Expence of the Rooms and Lights. The Subscribers, in their Turn, set the Figure; that is, place the Man or Woman in such Attitude, in the Middle of the Room, as suits their Fancy: He who sets the Figure, chuses what Seat he likes; and all the rest take their Places according as they stand in the List, and then proceed to drawing, every Man according to his Prospect of the Figure.

Campbell, 99

Campbell compared the educational facilities at St Martin's Lane unfavourably with the more formal and closely regulated academies of continental Europe. However, this lack of hierarchy also embodied a distinct ethos. The role of Hogarth, who later formulated a theory of naturalistic representation in his Analysis of Beauty (1753), and of Gravelot and Hayman at the academy has led to the suggestion that the St Martin's Lane Academy fostered a distinctive aesthetic, based on close observation and an informality of approach, which could be contrasted with the more formulaic teachings of continental academies. The use of both male and female models, not just male figures as was the case with continental academies, can be seen as reflecting a concern with the naturalistic and individualizing approach to the human form, which came to be seen as a characteristic element in British art. The prominence of craftsmen and designers among the membership also suggests a closer integration of the fine arts and crafts than would be found in traditional academies. More generally the informal management style that appears to have characterized the academy reflects what was emerging as an increasingly strident nationalist cultural politics. Arising in the same period as the foundation of the patriotic Sublime Society of Beefsteaks (1735), which counted Hogarth as a member, and the passing of the Engravers' Copyright Act (1735), spearheaded by the painter–engraver, the academy combined 'frank anti-gallicanism with a determined democracy of organisation' (Pears, 124).

Importantly the membership of the academy crossed over with that of the cosmopolitan social network centred on the nearby Slaughter's Coffee House, notably in the figures of Hogarth, Roubiliac, and Hayman. Artists from this social set played a pioneering role in establishing a more visible role for contemporary art in Britain. At least six artists also associated with the academy were involved in the creation of decorations at Jonathan Tyer's Vauxhall Gardens from 1737 to 1760, supervised by Francis Hayman. Vauxhall developed as an important site for the display of contemporary art that was orientated in its style and subject matter towards the tastes of a newly socially diverse class of metropolitan cultural consumers. Artists associated with St Martin's Lane were also, under the leadership of Hogarth, prominently active in providing the decorations for the charitable Foundling Hospital set up by Sir Thomas Coram. The opening of this scheme in 1746 constituted what was in effect the first public exhibition of contemporary British art, helping to establish the political and cultural relevance of artists as a professional group.

The democratic and 'club-like ethos' of the Saint Martin's Lane Academy itself exemplified the self-image of an emerging urban middle class 'as a self-regulating community of equals' (Solkin, 244). But by the 1740s there were attempts to promote the professional standing and economic opportunities of artists in a more formal and divisive way. In his memoir of the academy (1760–61) Hogarth recalled that 'he became an equal subscriber with the rest signifying at the same time that superior and inferior among artists should be avoided especially in this country' and that 'the having directors with and imitation of the foolish parade of the french academy' had been the downfall of former efforts at instituting a more hierarchical academy (Kitson, 94). Writing in 1754 Hogarth's friend André Rouquet described the academy in terms that associated it with an ideal of native English libertarianism: 'This institution is admirably adapted to the genius of the English: each man pays alike; each is his own master; there is no dependence' (Rouquet, 23). Both Hogarth and Rouquet were writing in the wake of concerted efforts to establish a new and more formally organized academy. In 1753 Francis Milner Newton circulated on behalf of the academy a printed letter reporting that 'There is a scheme on foot for erecting a public academy for the improvement of painting, sculpture and architecture.' This was a proposal for a more formally hierarchical teaching institution originating among some of the academy's membership, although notably not including Hogarth. Newton's letter indicated that 'it is thought necessary to have a certain number of professors, with proper authority, in order to the making regulations, taking in subscriptions, erecting a building, instructing the students, and concerting all such measures as shall be afterwards thought necessary' (Pye, 75). More detailed plans were drawn up and in 1755 these were put to the Society of Dilettanti. At that time the plans had the support of several artists closely associated with St Martin's Lane, including Hayman and John Ellys. The opposition this proposal faced, notably from Hogarth, indicates the depth of division within the community of artists associated with the academy by this time, and in the event the plans fell apart when it emerged that the Dilettanti required a greater level of practical involvement in the running of such an institution than the artists involved would allow. Rouquet was thus able to note, with some relish, that it had failed 'either because it was ill-planned, or because its inutility must have naturally produced its ruin'. In this context, the 'inutility' in question was the hierarchy and pomp associated with the continental academic system: the proponents of a new academy 'forgot to observe that this sort of establishment can never subsist without some subordination, either voluntary or forced; and that every true born Englishman is a sworn enemy of all such subordination, except he finds it strongly his interest' (Rouquet, 24).

The foundation of the Society of Artists in 1759, and the inauguration of annual art exhibitions the following year, heralded a new era in London's art scene, and gave momentum to the proponents of a hierarchical new academy of art. Following a period of turbulent factionalism within London's art community, in 1767 George Michael Moser moved the academy's equipment, 'the anatomical figures, statues, lamps, and other effects' (Conduct of the Royal Academicians, 43), to rooms in Pall Mall, effectively bringing the St Martin's Lane Academy to an abrupt end. Moser's actions were interpreted as high-handed and barely legitimate by the opponents of what was now emerging, with his practical help, as a new royal academy. This royal institution was officially established at the end of 1768, and the drawing schools opened in 1769, under the direction of Moser, the first keeper of art, and utilizing the equipment he had transferred from St Martin's Lane. In contrast to the drawing classes at St Martin's Lane, the new schools were subject to a strict set of rules regarding entry and behaviour. Acceptance into the separate classes for drawing from plaster models and from life was rigorously controlled; although classes were free, places were limited and potential students needed to be recommended by academicians and were subject to stringent tests. These classes were run by the keeper and selected academicians, and the academy itself was characterized by bureaucracy and a clear sense of professional hierarchy. An alternative drawing school run by the Society of Artists from 1769 self-consciously followed the 'Rules and Regulations of … those of the Academy lately held in St Martin's Lane' (Hargraves, 102), and thus continued the more egalitarian ethos of the older institution. This school provided both male and female models, as the St Martin's Lane Academy had done, and organized classes on a non-hierarchical basis, with the models being set by members of the society's committee on rotation, and seats in the class being allocated by lottery. The drawing school did not, however, survive the society itself, which had stopped being active by the 1790s.

What Hogarth called 'as perfect an academy as any in Europe' (Kitson, 93) had been central to the formation of a modern London art world. Providing essential facilities for practical training and opportunities for social cohesion within the nascent art community, the St Martin's Lane Academy had helped form the generation of artists who effected a radical overhaul of British art from the 1760s. In this the academy had contributed in significant ways to the consolidation of what was increasingly to be spoken of as a coherent ‘British school’, given institutional form in the Royal Academy of Arts. But it also represented the transient possibility of a kind of cultural enterprise characterized by egalitarian informality and democratic values, and the close integration of arts and crafts, which was effectively ruined by these later developments.

Other members of St Martin's Lane Academy included: Thomas Beach; Thomas Burgess; Richard Cosway; Nathaniel Dance; Richard Earlom [see under Boydell, John, engravers]; Edward Edwards; Tilly Kettle; James Macardell; William Marlow; Jeremiah Meyer; Joseph Nollekens; Christopher Norton; Allan Ramsay; John Russell; John Thomas Seton; William Sherlock; John Taylor; Benjamin Vandergucht; Samuel Wale; Anthony Walker; and Richard Wilson.


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[G. Vertue], , ed. K. Esdaile, earl of Ilchester, & H. M. Hake, 6 vols., Walpole Society, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 30 (1930–55); facs. repr. (1968)