A. C. Sewter’s geographical location as a scholar in regional museums and universities outside the London art world is not the only reason why his reputation has failed to endure: the subject matter of his studies also contributed to place him at the periphery of art history.
Sewter published in the Burlington some fifty pieces, dated between 1936 and 1952. These works not only allow us to reconstruct his main research interest and methodology, but also suggest reasons for his subsequent neglect, as the foundations that Sewter laid as an art historian in the pages of the Burlington proved inappropriate for the construction of a scholarly reputation. Questions of subject matter played a crucial role in this process. Setwer, in fact, wrote on British painting of the 18th and beginning of 19th century at a time when the interest for this subject was particularly low. British painting, especially portraiture, had a period of great critical, commercial and public success between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century but by the 1920s its reputation was already in deep decline. Of course some artists, such as Gainsborough and Turner were still highly regarded and studied, but British painting as a whole was considered a secondary matter in the history of art.
Roger Fry in his successful essay Reflections on British Painting (1934) had declared bluntly: ‘let us recognize straight away that ours is a minor school.’ Fry believed that the visual arts in Britain were unworthy of ‘the greatness of British civilization as a whole’. But what was wrong with British art? The problem was both social and formal. According to Fry, in British society artists worked exclusively to appease their public while failing to recognise a higher purpose in their art, and thus created works that merely satisfied their immediate contemporaries instead of serving ‘posterity and mankind at large.’ The responsibility did not fall entirely just on the artists: British patrons too were guilty of fostering the arts only when these conformed with their desire for prestige. Fry believed that this servile relationship between artists and patrons resulted in the absence of large compositions, history paintings and classical nudes and caused the preponderance of portraits in British painting since the 16th century. The absence of still-lives in British painting was considered particularly symptomatic of this condition, as this genre embodied a passion for ‘disinterested and contemplative vision’, a quality that Fry felt essential to enduring artistic research. The formal problem was considered an even greater limitation: British painting for Fry tended to the linear and bi-dimensional and showed, in general, absence of the plastic awareness and sculptural qualities of other European art, especially Italian.
These observations were not the isolated musings of a well-known critic but were part of an ongoing debate on the national school that had continued since the middle years of the 19th century. It was a theoretical debate that had very practical implications, and resulted in the foundation of the National Gallery of British Art (Tate Gallery) in 1897. The Tate’s remit as the main repository of historic and modern national painting was the subject of lengthy negotiations with its mother institution, the National Gallery. This division of the national collections between two museums posited difficult choices: not only to establish what constituted the historic British ‘school’ of painting, but also to select which contemporary works were truly representative of its modernity. With a growing critical interest for Italian and Netherlandish Renaissance on one side of the chronological divide and for French Impressionism and modernity on the other – and to those needs to be added the continued disregard for British narrative Victorian painting and earlier portraiture alike – a smaller and smaller portion of British paintings were exhibited in the two museums and the historic national school was soon displayed as a series of isolated dichotomies of great names: Reynolds and Gainsborough, Constable and Turner.
Within this view of art history Sewter’s essays, in which he wrote about artists such as Gilpin, Zoffany, Atwood, Kneller and others, were representative of a research interest that was becoming increasingly peripheral. For instance in 1941 – when the National Gallery had just recently curtailed its public display of works by George Romney from nine to two and was in the process of finally dispatching all works by this artist to the Tate as they were not considered of national importance anymore – Sewter wrote what is perhaps the first serious scholarly investigation on a work by this artist, a study on the six preliminary sketches for the Beaumont Family Group (illustrated here). In this essay Sewter supported the accepted critical view of Romney at that time – a view that came straight from Fry’s Reflections on British Painting – i.e. that the main failure of Romney’s work was its lack of spatial depth. Nevertheless Sewter proposed a first sympathetic view of this characteristic, affirming that this two-dimensional sense possessed the advantage of creating an ‘abstract formal pattern, which more three-dimensional works generally lack’. In Reflections on British Painting Fry had recently dismissed Romney’s work in one sentence, stating that he had ‘so feeble a talent that it is a perpetual wonder that anyone ever listened to it’ (p. 171). Sewter’s positive observation was the beginning of a critical re-consideration of Romney that would come to fruition only at the turn of the 21st century.
Sewter was aware that his work was going in an opposite direction from mainstream art history. He addressed bravely the thorny question of national painting in an essay he wrote for Apollo of May 1941, entitled ‘The Reputation of British Art’. In opposition to Fry, Sewter believed that the low standing of British painting was not due to its intrinsic lesser quality: ‘the reason [of such standing] is certainly not to be found in the quality of the material itself. The English school has riches to show which […] can challenge any comparison.’ For Sewter it was mainly a matter of awareness: apart from a few great names, British art was so little studied by scholars and even less known by the public at large. A crucial reason for this neglect was believed by Sewter to be private ownership: many important works were hidden away in country mansions and researchers were denied access to them. Sewter’s views on how to resolve this matter were radical, he suggested that: ‘ownership of all art objects of national importance were declared, or at least that private control of them were restricted, and effective measures taken to ensure that all national artistic treasures to be registered, indexed, and made available to student and public under satisfactory conditions. Until a radical reform of existing conditions is brought about, it is only with the greatest difficulty, and with extreme slowness, that the history of English art will be brought to the same level of knowledge and understanding, appreciation and repute that is enjoyed by our literature.’ Sewter tried to involve others, such as the artist John Piper, to stage a campaign with the aim to bring these plans to fruition but this operation did not progress beyond the planning stage.
BP, March 2014.
Roger Fry, Reflections on British Art (1934), reprinted in: French, Flemish and British Art, London, London, Chatto & Windus, 1951, pp. 136-212.
A. C. Sewter, ‘The Reputation of British Art’, Apollo, May 1941, pp. 148-149.
A. C. Sewter, ‘Sketch̀es for Romney’s The Beaumont Family’, The Burlington Magazine, July 1941, pp. 12-17.
George Romney, The Beaumont Family, 1777-79
London, Tate Britain (formerly in the National Gallery)
Sketches by George Romney for The Beaumont Family
as illustrated in the July 1941 Burlington Magazine article